The Scottish Sea Kayak Trail – Part 3: Arisaig to Ullapool 222km

I knew I’d be passing Mallaig and had already started dreaming about Fish and Chips, and having been thwarted in both Oban and Tobermory, I was determined today was the day. A leisurely start and a promise to explore more, took me into the Arisaig Skerries, where I spotted my first fellow kayakers of the trip. One group being expertly led through the shallow coral channels and another pair who were experiencing the same difficulties navigating as I was – note to self: don’t venture into the Arisaig Skerries on an ebbing Spring tide UNLESS you have all day to negotiate the maze that it presents! Eventually I navigated my way out and by this time the wind had picked up significantly.

Luckily, with the wind following, the jaunt as far as Mallaig went swiftly and I paddled carefully amongst the ferries and fishing vessels to land at the old town slip way. As a friend describes it, “like a rat up a drainpipe and straight into the Co-op” for a quick resupply. Chatting with another friend reminded me of all the things I wanted to eat and drink, so I came away with fresh fruit, juice, everything for a lovely fresh sandwich and BEER! No fish and chips though. Venturing onwards, I encountered two shy porpoises whilst crossing Loch Nevis and reached an inviting patch of sand at Airor.

I usually avoid camping in view of dwellings, however the map revealed few overnight spots to inspire my continuation, and I’d already reached my 6:30pm deadline. There were just a few houses and the line of seaweed along the beach suggested I had arrived at the highest tide. I pitched as far up the beach as I could, yet I was still the nearest to the water line I have ever been, so crossed my fingers I wouldn’t be getting an unexpected bath. It was as I began depositing my kit into the tent, that I noticed the spiders. They were very small, the biggest only maybe half a centimetre across, black, with very shiny bodies. Almost beautiful. However, there were rather a lot of them and I’d clearly pitched my tent on their spider super highway, and they opted to climb over as opposed to going around. I decided that tiny spiders were infinitely more desirable than ticks, so I kept the zippers closed as much as possible, scooped out the few whom had infiltrated my ripstop defences, then laid back to enjoy a well-earned pick n mix dinner and a nice cold beer. My Alpkit tent is fantastic, however the inner tent material is quite thin and the silhouettes of hundreds of spiders marching all over your tent is mildly alarming. However, I was in for the night and it was a problem I could deal with tomorrow.

An early start to avoid overstaying my welcome on the village beach and a surprisingly spider free tent, allowed me to pack up and get going without issue. I had plenty of time to reach Kyle Rhea before slack water and enjoyed the smooth going until the narrowing sound meant I was starting to feel the effects of the oncoming tidal stream. Kyle Rhea is a gap between Skye and the mainland only 500 metres across, through which the ocean squeezes at up to 8 knots. The South going stream apparently produces some playable overfalls, however I wanted to catch the northerly stream as it began, allowing me to hitch a lift whilst avoiding turbulent waters in my overly cautious solo mode. Despite arriving at slack water, the flow picked up fast and I was whisked through and almost into the path of an enormous tanker making its way out through Loch Alsh. The Skye bridge was visible to my left and an unexpected wind roared up through the Loch. The good time I’d made on the tide, was now being lost to battling the headwind and I seriously considered an early egress at Kyleakin with a hotel bed and a car shuttle, as the guidebook suggests.

Still with much of the day ahead of me though, and with no inkling of where I might camp, I decided to forge ahead, under the bridge and out into the choppy waters of the Inner Sound and north from there. Immediately ahead was the Applecross peninsula. At 6km it’s a fair crossing into the wind, so with no promising camp spots in mind, I decided to cut inland and investigate a couple of beaches apparent on the map within the next 10km or so. The first couple were densely surrounded by houses or appeared to be rather muddy, but as I crossed the bay, I caught a glimpse of shining white sand and immediately made my way there. Getting nearing I saw my route was obscured by a shallow rocky channel, and there seemed to be a lot of people around, sunbathing and swimming. I followed the coastline and to my joy realised I could get through via another deeper channel and I landed upon a glorious beach consisting of minute pieces of coral.

This was clearly a local beauty spot, with lots of people around and even a picnic table on the lush, short grass. I was in two minds whether I might get away with camping here, however time was getting on and I was hungry. I laid out my things to dry in the warm sun and set up my little gas stove on the picnic table. I noticed the people were beginning to head home and decided that I could probably pitch the tent late and leave early without offending anyone. Plus it was nice having the table space to lay out my maps properly and calculate the distances I had yet to cover.

A small group of local paddlers arrived into the bay, out for a gentle evening float and we chatted for ages about all our paddling adventures – it was the first proper conversation of any length I’d had for days. Afterwards, a French lady had overheard our conversation and came to ask me about my trip, translating all the while for her husband. It was lovely to talk but by the time we’d finished, my pasta dinner was reduced to a kind of swampy mush stuck to the bottom of the pan. I still ate it though, complete with crumbled in crackers to boost up the calories, then pitched my tent quick to avoid the inevitable midge-fest.

The following morning brought clear skies and an easy crossing. Passing by the Crowlin Islands and hopping rocks along the coastline, I paddled close by an enormous raptor perched on a tiny rocky island. As it flew away it seemed almost as big as the many White-Tailed Eagles I’ve been lucky enough to see; its warm brown plumage faded to sun bleached brunette around its head and shoulders, and had me convinced it was a Golden Eagle. Whatever it was, it was a goosebumps sort of moment.

The scenery along this stretch is incredible, with views of Raasay and Rona, and Skye beyond that, and cruising into Applecross village, I was extremely happy to discover the Inn-Side Out. An airstream trailer parked up outside the village pub, serving tea, coffee, cake, ice cream and FISH & CHIPS! With it being 11:20am, I enquired as to what time they cranked up the fryers, and was delighted to hear that they could rustle me something up right away. And I will highly recommend a visit just for the homemade tartar sauce!

Continuing out of Applecross Bay, the water was calm and I enjoyed more stunning views out across the inner sound and the gorgeous red beach at Sand, and I made good progress towards the day’s destination on Loch Torridon. With not much further to go, I noticed a waterfall marked on the map and decided it would be nice to get a fresh water wash, however on arrival the fall was set way back at the top of the bouldery storm beach, so instead I hauled my kayak a little way up and made the most of some fresh water pools for a quick once over and a good wash of my hair. The people parked at the viewpoint on top of the cliff must’ve thought I was crazy, but it was worth it!

I’ve always wanted to pitch my tent on an exposed rocky outcrop and Rubha na Feàrna might’ve been the place, but I’d heard several mentions of camping at Red Point and apparently it was not to be missed. So I set out for another 6km crossing of Loch Torridon and was absolutely blown away by the view there. I won’t post photographs, as they just don’t do it justice, so I hope it’s enough to encourage you to just add it to your list of must-see places! As far as wilderness camp spots go, Red Point was pretty busy with several other parties already at home there, but I managed to find a spot away from everyone and pitched my tent on the sand, before enjoying another beautiful sunset.

The morning was calm and now clear of Raasay And Rona, I could make out some distant land masses on the hazy horizon beyond Skye. The guide book suggests that a clear day can afford views of the Shiant Islands, however what I was seeing looked huge and did not appear to be a few small dots of land. I checked the map and it could only be the headlands of Lewis, making me realise I’d now reached the most exposed northern section of my journey. The swell was noticeably larger and I now had a headwind which strengthened as I made my way into Loch Gairloch. A tough crossing had me tucking into the lee of Longa Island for a floating lunch break. Out of the wind, the sun was idyllic, yet I was surprised that I could hear the excited shouts of children playing amongst the dunes at Sands Campsite, almost 1.5km away.

Glad to have been experiencing the quiet solitude of wild camping, I packed my things and realised I was stuck solid amongst the rocks and seaweed. I’d been sitting there so long, the tide had gone out beneath me leaving my kayak and I high and dry! More gelcoat sacrificed to the tide gods! In the lee of the island I’d not noticed how strong the wind was getting and let the time I needed to reach Rubha Rèidh for slack water, slip away. I rounded Longa and suddenly found myself in some lively chop and a very stiff headwind. Paddling on for another kilometre or so, my going was so slow, I worried I’d not make the point in time. The guidebook states this as another place requiring particular respect, and to pass through in lively wind over tide seas might be foolish, especially with few places nearby to land. Plus after a tiring upwind struggle I’d potentially had a fair distance to reach my next campsite beyond Rubha Rèidh, if the surf at Camas Mòr was too intense. Instead I turned back and had to endure a long low tide carry and a night at the overcrowded, over noisy, but otherwise lovely, Sands Campsite.

Despite having had tent neighbours. I’m very glad I had waited. The morning yielded still waters and now I had several hours to reach the Point and a wonderful high tide. Not only did that mean a shorter portage through the dunes to the water, but access to the most amazing sea caves I think I’ve ever seen. So many caves and archways all along this stretch and plenty of time to explore, although paddling into the pitch dark and having the odd Shag dive bomb the water from hidden ledges, is enough to give anyone a good fright!

Rubha Rèidh proved uneventful, even well before slack water, but it is stunningly beautiful. Lush and green with towering jagged stacks looming out of the water, like King Kong’s Skull Island. The residual swell from yesterday did indeed make landing at Camas Mòr a little bit interesting and unfortunately the midges were out in force, meaning lunch was a hurried affair.

The voyage around the aptly named Greenstone Point was spectacular and thoroughly exposed to the open ocean, and the biggest grey seal I have ever seen duly escorted me as far as Gruinard Bay. I had intended Mellon Udrigle to be my destination for the evening, but having arrived ahead of my 6:30pm deadline I wondered if I should continue. A chat with a man on the beach spurred me onwards as he suggested the forecast for the following day looked dismal. Despite lacking in snacks and feeling very tired, I fuelled up on dried banana and peanut butter, before heading into the wind northwards of Gruinard Island.

Once better known as Anthrax Island, Gruinard Island is apparently out of quarantine and was declared fully decontaminated in 1990, however I was still happy to give it a wide berth and made my way on to Cailleach Head. Here the wind was ferocious and the wind over tide made the seas big with spray that stung my face. I wondered if continuing into Annat Bay would offer any respite and concluded not. The bay beyond Cailleach Head was steep and stony, but in the furthest corner I found a spot to haul out my kayak and set up camp. Thank goodness for a decent sleep mat!

In the morning the wind had vanished, it was replaced with the thickest cloud of the hungriest midges I have ever encountered. With skin fully covered, I ventured out and within seconds they had formed an unbroken layer, several midges deep, over my clothing. The paddling kit went straight on and the tent came down, probably in the quickest time ever. There would be no leisurely breakfast or brushing of teeth here this morning! Luckily the seas beyond the headland were perfect and I mostly just floated along on the tide up into Loch Broom. The sea was glass calm and I could hear the blow of what I suspected were porpoises long before I caught a glimpse, eventually they came close and gave me another incredible memory to keep.

I stopped on some rocks for breakfast in the sunshine and with only a total of 5km to go before reaching my final destination at Ullapool, realised this would be the last wild meal of the trip and suddenly felt quite sad. If the forecast hadn’t been due to change the next day, I’d have spent time exploring the Summer Isles and maybe even continuing further North, just to see how far I could get. But just as the weather was beginning to close in, I dodged the Stornoway ferry and made my way in to Ullapool in time for lunch and to contemplate how I was going to retrieve the car from Oban! What a incredible trip!

2 thoughts on “The Scottish Sea Kayak Trail – Part 3: Arisaig to Ullapool 222km

  1. Fabulous post. Really enjoying learning from your adventures.

    Have you considered bundling your posts and photos into a book?

    It could prove very inspiring to all paddlers but girls and women in particular.

    Well done you. 🌊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Kate, what an engaging story and a brilliant adventure! I’ve enjoyed reading your posts and, while never having experienced the wonders found in your part of the world, think how lucky we are as paddlers.. to escape to the sea when it’s needed and there, wash away stress and cares with salt water, refresh the soul with beautiful visions that are 100% real, be in contact with wild and beautiful creatures, make self-determining decisions and face challenges that will consume; physically, mentally and emotionally.

    Like

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