Friday, 6 April 2012

Knoydart 2012


Last year I visited Knoydart for the first time on a trip organised by our friends Steve and Elaina. We stayed in the fantastic Knoydart House luxury accommodation that looks over Loch Nevis with its own hot tub. It was a fantastic experience, so when Steve and Elaina organised the same trip again this year we immediately agreed we would love to join them again. Although I did specify that this time no one was allowed to spank me on the backside with a big wooden paddle, as happened last year in The Old Forge! Last year we could only manage a weekend as we had used all our annual leave on our three week honeymoon to Australia. This year we managed to get an entire week, though this was cut short a little as Nicky had a university lecture she had to attend on the Saturday so we couldn't head north until Sunday. The other thing I hadn't realised was the booking week for self catering in Knoydart tends to be Friday to Friday instead of Saturday to Saturday like most places. This is due to the old ferry times from the days when the ferry only ran on certain days. These days there is a ferry and water taxi opportunities almost every day to and from Knoydart. So in all we actually only had four proper days after having a day to travel there and another to travel back. As you will see below though, other than one rained off day we certainly made the most of our four days.

Molly, Me and Kate relaxing in the Knoydart House hot tub

The weather on the journey there was very promising with sun shining all the way. For once we actually set off early too, despite having a half hour wrestling match with the over complicated Halfords cycle rack. When we reached the Howgills and the Lake District you could see the tops of everything and we both had a smile on our face at the prospect of finally getting some time away. It was only six weeks since Nicky broke her leg and the cast had only come off a fortnight ago so she was understandably apprehensive about a walking holiday. Knoydart is an easy place to relax though, especially as we are staying in such luxurious accommodation, so even if Nicky couldn't walk up mountains she was still looking forward to relaxing in a wonderful place. The rest of the guys travelled up on Friday and had already been walking. I was very jealous to find out they had already climbed Ladhar Bheinn on the Saturday which was one of my targets for the week. We planned to drop into Morrisons supermarket in Fort William on our way up and offered the other guys a chance to let us know if they needed anything. So for the days leading up to our journey we were receiving requests, some expected like bread and milk, others not so expected like mini marshmallows for Maria's hot chocolates! Around Glencoe just before Fort William it started to cloud over though it still stayed dry. We drove along the ever enchanting Road to the Isles towards Mallaig and arrived almost an hour early at Mallaig Harbour.

Eigg & Rum from the ferry to Inverie, Knoydart

Luckily the other people that had booked on to the 6pm ferry were also half an hour early so we all agreed with the ferry man to sail earlier than planned. The ferry men were a massive help as always and carried pretty much all of our gear from the car down the slippery steps and on to the ferry. I disappeared to park the car in the long stay car park then returned to the ferry to see a giddy Nicky who told me one of the Seals in the harbour had just appeared behind the boat with a fish in its mouth. I thought she was having me on like she often does but one of the other chaps on the boat had photographic evidence. We set sail on calm waters and headed across the sea to Inverie. I had my eyes peeled and camera ready as I always do when I take a journey across the sea. The camera took no wildlife shots but was constantly focused on the stunning scene behind us as the sun set behind Eigg and Rum silhouetted on the horizon. The profile of Eigg and Rum on the horizon is probably my favourite view on earth. I have seen it many times in the last decade and fall in love with it again every time I see it. As we approached Inverie we passed the tall white statue of Our Lady the Blessed Virgin Mary on Rubha Raonuill known locally as "Plastic Mary", though as Steve would discover later in the week she is actually "Fibre Glass Mary" and has a large hole in her rear end! As the ferry approached the harbour at Inverie we could see that behind Inverie there was just huge dark cumulus clouds.

Our luxurious bedroom in Knoydart House

When the ferry stopped the ferry men were stars again and helped us get everything off the boat. We had called ahead to our friends to come down to the ferry and help us carry our gear up to the house, especially as Nicky couldn't carry heavy stuff properly. A few of them came down and helped us up the short track to Knoydart House. I forgot that as we had said yes so early we got to bagsie the second best room in the house so I was rather pleased about that. We settled in and then sat down for a yummy tea made by Elaina. The weather forecasts were not looking good. The forecast for Monday, which was our first full day, was as the Scots put it.. "Pish". Buffeting winds and heavy rain, no recipe for a good day out in the wild mountains of Knoydart. So Monday was rained off, though this didn't stop us getting out into the hot tub. Though after half an hour of cold rain hitting my head the novelty soon wore off. I went indoors and found a book to read. One book I remembered seeing on the book shelf last time I was in the house was Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water. I've wanted to read it since I was young so this was the perfect opportunity in the perfect place. I read the first four chapters that afternoon and it gave me a real urge to get out along the coast. The only time we got out on the Monday was a brief trip to the Cafe by the harbour. It is a lovely wee establishment, only open a few days a week and does tasty sandwiches and cakes. Despite the driving rain I walked along the beach with Kate afterwards where we came across a Sea Urchin stranded on a dry rock. The rain soon drove us back to the house though and we were so wet we had to put most of our clothes in the tumble drier. Another lovely home made tea was had by all courtesy of Kirstin and Iain.

Desolate road to Airor from Inverie, Knoydart

The weather forecast looked to be improving that night so I planned my trip for the next day. Looking on the map one walk that looked ideal was the 22km loop of the western end of the peninsula taking in Sandaig, Doune, Airor and Inverguseran. Nicky wasn't up for such a long walk and had to study. Everyone else seemed to have plans of their own so I set off on Tuesday morning by myself. Maria, Milly and Ben had booked a fishing boat to take them out to Sourlies Bothy. Their plan was to stay there for one night then Milly would come back over the Mam Meadail pass the next day, whilst Maria and Ben planned to climb Ben Aden the next day then wild camp at Lochan Nam Breac. The day after that they walked over Luinne Bheinn and Meall Buidhe back to Inverie. A great adventure as their photos showed. Maria lost one of her blue Crocs though so wasn't best pleased and even went back in search of it on Thursday! I set off for my somewhat easier adventure on Tuesday morning into a head wind and driving rain. The weather forecast promised it would be dry except for a bit of drizzle and would be clear by the afternoon. The first two hours were pretty hard going as the rain was constant. I didn't know what to expect from the track out to Airor and was surprised to find it was basically a tarmac road all the way. I had visions of a rough track going through wild land so I was slightly disappointed. After a mile along the coast the road rises from the sea and heads over wild open land. Here I was being constantly stalked by Red Deer. They were in every direction I looked. I felt like a cowboy passing through a canyon being stalked by Indians. The majestic beasts were doing their best to scare me, stalking me from every horizon, horizons that were closing in all the time due to the weather. It was quite an eerie atmosphere.

House by the beach at Airor, Knoydart

As I approached Lagan Bridge I saw three cars in a lay-by. From far away it looked like parked cars, but as I got nearer I realised they were actually abandoned vehicles. I had planned to nip down to the abandoned settlements and beach at Reidh an Daraich if the weather had been good. I expected a track down to it but there was just a faint path from the abandoned vehicles. It was quite spooky so I didn't bother. My head was playing mind games with me and suggesting things like, maybe the cars are those of visitors who never came back, and other such ridiculous scenarios. I continued along the tarmac road in the rain, stopping every so often to watch the Red Deer running away from me. At Sandaig there was a prominent track down to the beach and what looked like several regenerated buildings. Again I had planned to visit Sandaig too, but given the weather it just wasn't worth trudging down there and back in the rain. I continued along the road and followed it north around the headland until it reached Airor. I could only imagine what stunning views there must be from here on a clear day. Views to Eigg, Rum and Skye. Doune had passed me by completely, I expected it to be a fairly obvious place as I had seen many of their adverts in magazines, but I didn't even see it. Airor which I was now descending towards was a lovely place. There is a beautiful small curved beach that benefits from the natural defence of a long small island just thirty metres or so out in the sea. It is no surprise that people settled here and built a harbour wall. The first thing I reached was the harbour wall so I walked along to the end. It looks over the beach and west to the sea. Harboured up there at Airor was a huge navy landing craft that I took a few photos of. The next things I noticed were several big dog like heads bobbing in the water looking my way. There were several Grey Seals in the calm waters between the beach and the small islands.

HMS Fearless LCU KM9 landing craft at Airor, Knoydart

I suddenly heard dogs barking and turned to the beach to see a tractor and two border collies making their way towards me. The tractor driver said hello immediately and we were soon in conversation about how beautiful the place was and he was more than happy to tell me all about the giant landing craft we both stood beside. The landing craft is one of four LCU MK9 landing craft that was built for HMS Fearless and was used in conflicts around the world. It was last used in the Iraq war but now sits dormant in Airor. One of the dogs was constantly running around in circles. The chap told me the dog had always done this and I was also amused when he told me that the dog also likes Countryfile! Apparently every Sunday night when the Countryfile music starts on the telly the dog jumps on the couch to watch. I left the local to dig up sand from the beach and crossed the beach to sit on some rocks at its far side. The weather was brightening up and I could even see blue skies above me. As I sat on the rocks on the beach with a crazy border collie still circling me and now begging for my sandwiches, I had thoughts of Ring of Bright Water on my mind. Looking around at all the flotsam and jetsam that Gavin Maxwell had spoken off and the stunning scenery which he felt such a part of. I really couldn't have been in a better place after reading half of his book the day before. The Grey Seals in the bay watched me as I ate my sandwiches and eventually the dog got bored of me not sharing so returned to his master. I set off along the track which was no longer a tarmac road. The track soon turned into a faint path that was disappearing all the time. Around the buildings at Samadalan the tracks disappeared completely and I had to walk along the beaches. The skies were huge there and the weather improving all the time though not enough to give me the views to Skye I knew were there. The path finally reached the wide beach at Inverguseran where ideally I needed to cross the Abhainn Inbhir Ghuiserein river to reach a track that would take me south down the Gleann na Guiserein.

The Abhainn Inbhir Ghuiserien ford at Inverguseran, Knoydart

I told the others of my planned route before I set off and Elaina mentioned that the river here may be impassable after the twenty four hours of rain we'd had. She was right. The river was very fast moving a and the wide shallow ford although passable if required was not something I wanted to tackle. So at Inverguseran I made a decision to follow the western bank of the Abhainn Inbhir Ghuiserein river in the hope of there being a footpath. I kept thinking to myself, surely other people have walked this route and decided not to cross the river. There was a fairly decent path between the river and the farmers fences at first but then the river took a very sharp bend with steep banks. I found that the farmer had installed a gate into and out of his field so that I could walk up and over the obstacle. The path on the other side of here was now very faint, muddy and at a sloped angle. It continued like that for a mile and a half and wasn't pleasant. To be honest though I was just happy knowing that the path would eventually lead me to the footbridge at the southern end of the glen where I could joint the track I had originally planned to use and which had been teasing me from the other side of the glen all the way. Half way along the glen a mewing Buzzard circled above me, probably hoping I wasn't going to make it to the footbridge and provide him a tasty meal. There was then just a few miles along the track back to Inverie to contend with. This would normally be a fairly easy affair but I had someone collected a few sore points on my feet that were threatening to blister. I think the several miles along tarmac at the start of the walk, miles on rocky beach then walking on a constant side slope had been punishing on my soft feet. I got back to Inverie to find that Kirsten and Iain had set of just after me to do the exact same route and returned an hour later with tales of a crazy dog running in circles. After another dip in the hot tub that night, we all enjoyed a tasty Thai Chicken Curry courtesy of Elaina. After the meal me and Kate discussed our plans for the next day. We decided on one of the three Munro's Meall Buidhe as the weather looked calm and dry.

Footpath by the Abhainn Inbhir Ghuiserein, Knoydart

So Wednesday was Meall Buidhe for Kate and I. Kate suggested we use Milly and Maria's mountain bikes to get to the foot of the mountain and leave them behind Druim Bothy. It was a great idea. I still had a few sore spots on my feet from the day before so it suited me to be doing less of the flat walk in along the tarmac and rocky tracks. We had a lot of fun especially on the tracks and paths on the way to Druim Bothy. The only obstacles were highland cows. I chose to pass them using Kate's ingenious technique of putting the bike between herself and the cow.  I'm fairly sure a few of them thought I was trying to attack them, as Milly's bike which I was using had bull bar ends that probably looked like an oncoming bull to some of the them! We crossed the Inverie River and cycled the muddy path to Druim Bothy. We left the bikes behind the bothy and had a peek through the windows. This bothy isn't an open bothy and when you look inside you can tell immediately, it looks like a great place to stay. We set off along the track on our own two feet for the first time that day. We reached the footbridge over the Allt Gleann Meadail and entered the huge Gleann Meadail. At this point we had to decide whether to head north east directly up on to the western ridge of Meall Buidhe or to switch back on ourselves and head for the far end of the ridge. We decided to just go for it and started the steep ascent in a north easterly direction directly up to the ridge. It was hard going at times and we had to zig zag most of the way up to try and make the steep gradient a little easier. The glen behind us was awesome and gave us a great excuse to keep stopping and taking a break. We eventually found ourselves on top of the ridge and ascending towards the first summit of An t-Uiriollach. We were watching the cloud base level rising constantly throughout the day and by the time we reached An t-Uiriollach most of the summits were clear of cloud except the very highest.

Kate heading towards the footbridge to Gleann Meadail, Knoydart

Standing on top of An t-Uiriollach looking towards Meall Buidhe we could see the Bealach an Torc-choire which we now had to drop down to before ascending the final slopes to Meall Buidhe's summit. It looked like a long way down to come back up again but once across the drop it didn't seem too bad after all. As we made our way up Meall Buidhe the cloud kept clearing above us and teasing us with a cloud free summit. It wasn't to be though and we reached the small stone cairn on the summit in cold cloud. We didn't stick around long as there were no views to be had. We took a self timer shot then started to retrace our footsteps back down to the Beaclach an Torc-choire. We went back down and up again but this time skirted round An t-Uiriollach. On our way across the bealach we spotted a huge erratic boulder that had split in two below in Coire na Cloiche. We headed down the obvious ridge with stunning views ahead over Loch Nevis. The jagged profile of Rum now visible on the horizon. We reached the point where we had ascended to earlier in the day and had to decide whether to descend the same way or descend via the end of the ridge that we dismissed earlier. We decided to try the end of ridge as we hadn't come up that way it would be good to see what it was like. It was okay until we reached the far end. Here I had to let Kate go ahead of me as I was slipping all over the place and she had the advantage of her Pacer Poles.

Kate descending Meall Buidhe, Knoydart

It was steep, muddy and craggy. At one point just before the steep section there was a huge peat bog that we had to round. The only fun part of the ridge was the views, the Red Deer and an odd looking erratic. The erratic was stood up on its longest side. With a small gap beneath, it was the perfect opportunity for a silly photograph. Kate stuck her arm under the rock, pulled a scary face and we re-enacted the 127 Hours story. The final part of the ridge was even worse, we found ourselves in sticky situations on several occasions. After the relief of reaching flat ground we switched back on ourselves to reach the Allt Gleann Meadail footbridge. We got back to the Druimn Bothy to find that Milly had passed through as planned on her trip back from Sourlies. She kindly left her bike for me to ride back and left a lovely message on a piece of slate for us with some chocolate goodies in a bag. Kate and I smiled at each other at Milly's warm gesture and got on the bikes for our fun return leg to Inverie. Again the local Highlanders of the coo variety tried their best to keep us at bay but Kate bravely went ahead and negotiated a way through.

Kate tackles the local Highland Cows

I did have visions of me doing Ladhar Bheinn on the Thursday as it was our last day and the weather forecast was for blue skies and sunshine. However I hadn't spent much time with Nicky all week as she had been studying and I was off walking most days. I have to admit I was also pretty tired from the last two days adventures. The plan for Thursday was to explore the forest behind Inverie. I had noticed a few new signs around the area showing two new mountain biking routes inter connected by a few walking routes. They were fairly easy going which would be ideal for Nicky on her first proper walk out since breaking her leg. The weather on Thursday was as forecast with blue skies and sunshine. We set off along the track behind the house and ascended it to one of the signs where we could suss out a route. The route we had planned was to walk through the various paths up to a view point then back down again. The mountain bike track was quite something, the bends were all steep and banked to help people cycling fast down the route to stay firmly in place. Nicky spent a lot of time playing with frog spawn in the path side pools. There was a constant mew of Buzzards above the forest, they were clearly loving the weather and circling around on thermals. When we reached the wooden shelter at the viewpoint we stopped for lunch looking over Loch Nevis. Nicky was feeling very fit and was very happy with her leg and ankle. She asked if we could carry on up through the woods on the paths behind the viewpoint so we did. We turned a bend and headed up a mossy path. As we were heading up hill I thought I saw something move on the path ahead. It was a small young deer that hadn't seen us so we both crouched down on the path and watched it. It was a lovely moment and we certainly made the right decision continuing up into the forest. It saw us eventually and scarpered into the forest. We continued to ascend the forest paths until eventually we topped out above it. Here there was a white wooden stile onto the open moorland behind the forest. I knew this stile existed from reading walk descriptions of Sgurr Coire Choinnichean online.

Viewpoint above Loch Nevis, Inverie, Knoydart

Nicky wanted to carry on ascending as she felt fit so we crossed the stile and ascended the open moorland. On the ascent we saw two Common Lizards and we struggled to photograph them as they wriggled at speed through the grass. The Buzzards were suddenly at around the same height as us above the forest below and they swooped towards the hill side where we were standing. Three of them mewing and circling right above our heads getting higher with each completed circle of their thermal spiral. It was an awesome sight. In total Nicky counted around forty Buzzards through the car window on the journey a few days before and since I had been in Knoydart I had seen dozens more, but despite how common they are are these days they are still awesome birds of prey. The day before whilst cycling on the road out to Sandaig Nicky had seen and taken photos of three Sea Eagles. Today though we got to see something even better. As we were standing in awe of the Buzzards and even larger bird swooped over the forest and turned towards the glen behind the slope. Luckily I still had the binoculars around my neck. It was a bird larger than the Buzzards and with more square shaped wings, though not large or dark enough to be a Sea Eagle. It was our very first Golden Eagle. I've never seen one before so I was rather giddy. Unfortunately it soon swooped round the slope and into the glen out of our sight. I do love the quality of photographs I get from my fixed lens camera but at times like that I really miss the zoom capabilities of my old point and shoot.

Slochd a' Mhogha above Inverie, Knoydart

I knew that if we kept ascending we would reach the area above Slochd a' Mhogha below Sgurr Coire Choinnichean. Despite Nicky feeling surprisingly fit I didn't want to risk attempting the Corbett of Sgurr Coire Choinnichean that we climbed on our last visit. So instead we decided to head down into the Slochd a' Mhogha gorge itself to see what it looked like from below. We sat in a sheltered spot by the stream at the bottom of the valley with grassy slopes on one side and huge crumbling cliffs on the other. The screes were well worth exploring, they were a fascinating mix of geology. I decided that to get back down to Inverie it would be fun to make a circle out of the walk instead of returning the same way, so we set off round the shoulder of the lower slopes of Sgurr Coire Choinnichean. There was no path here and the terrain was steep though also fairly easy. We soon made our way down to the track from Inverie by the white deer gate. Instead of descending the track to Inverie we went through a gate that was signposted as a trail called "Knoydart in a Knutshell". This took us through some stunning woodland along the side of a small river. We passed a pretty saw mill before reaching the tarmac road that took us back along the coast to Inverie. On our last night we went down to the Old Forge for a tasty seafood meal. On our way home from the Old Forge the stars were incredible. We all stood with our heads back staring in amazement as the millions of stars above us. Even from our bedrooms Velux windows we could look up and see millions of stars. The next day we all reluctantly dragged ourselves down to the harbour on Loch Nevis and made our way back home. Sometimes when I've been on holiday I am quite happy to go home but not on this occasion. It was incredibly warm and sunny for the time of the year and everywhere looked absolutely stunning from the ferry. A visit to the Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum on our way home and a short detour via Kendal to drop off Kate and several hours later we were back in the rush of everyday city life. I look forward to revisiting Knoydart and hopefully next time I will get up Ladhar Bheinn. The photos from Maria and Ben's adventure out to Sourlies certainly gave me a thirst for exploring the further out edges of Knoydart. A great week away with great friends.

Photos from the Airor from Inverie walk are here.

Route map of Airor from Inverie walk...

Photos from the Meall Buidhe from Inverie walk are here.

Route map of Meall Buidhe from Inverie walk...


Photos from the Slochd a' Mhogha from Inverie walk are here.

Route map of Slochd a' Mhogha from Inverie walk...