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I did another round of bird surveys recently. I’d be much more efficient at them if I didn’t stop to take photos all the time! Still, then I wouldn’t get to share these lovely pictures with you.
Anyway, I didn’t see as much as last time, or even hear as much. I did see meadow pipits (of course!), dippers (a new one), sandpipers (lots) and stonechats, and also heard a ring ouzel and a couple of snipe. Here are two days worth of pictures……
As a hiking, and general wellbeing, note, on the first day I did 25km (almost entirely cross country) and 1,500m vertical ascent. I fell in one hole (up to my knee on one foot), and also dropped my heel into another hole (hyperextending my knee). I was physically fine the next day, but mentally shattered and thereby fairly useless in the Tearooms after 1pm. The second day I did 18km and thoroughly enjoyed it. My fitness is obviously coming along well as it felt easy, even with 900m vertical ascent, much of it up significant slopes (rather than slowly edging up the side of hills). I managed to drop the same heel in another hole, hyperextending the knee again, but it was still fine the next day. The back of that knee has been hurting a bit anyway, so I figure it serves it right. Maybe now it’ll behave again.
It has definitely been too long since I’ve written anything. Most of you will know that the main reason for this is that I have a new job – owning and running (in partnership with my mum) a small cafe in a tiny village in the north west Highlands of Scotland. As well as being an engineer (or “modelling consultant”), I’m now a professional cake baker, barista, cafe worker and administrator. I’m also hoping to get out hiking enough to get my Mountain Leader qualification so I can be a professional mountain/hiking guide.
But this post is not about any of those jobs. This is about my latest professional detour. I’m now a professional ornithologist! I’ve just spent 2 days conducting a moorland bird survey. This is actually the second time I’ve done it this year, but the last time someone else did half (or more) of the work. This time I had to do the whole thing on my own. So,….. 2 days, 43km walked, 350 miles driven and a blissful 22 hours of not having anybody else near me! (much needed now that I share a house and work in a cafe every day)
I saw (or heard) a wonderful range of birds including meadow pipit, skylark, stonechat, ring ouzel, wren, redpoll, sandpiper, greenshank, golden plover, buzzard, cuckoo, snipe and possibly a golden eagle (it was too high for me to identify properly) and less possibly a merlin (too far away). The big red dog Merlin was not able to come due to ground-nesting birds. I think I would’ve seen some grouse and more snipe if he’d been with me.
I also saw some lovely flowers (I haven’t been out much this year so have been missing the procession of things flowering), butterflies, moths, a caterpillar, spiders, trees and rocks. I also saw loads of red deer, including one young calf, one Cheviot sheep and lamb and a few (luckily friendly) cows. I don’t know my cattle breeds very well, sorry!
Here are some pictures for you, to hopefully appreciate (and maybe be jealous of) my “office” for two days.
I know I have had some of you worried a few times on some of my crazier solo hikes, so I’m happy to announce that I now have a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) for emergency situations. I have been considering getting something like this for a while, but have just not got organised and not felt too much urgency. Some of my hikes recently have been a little more risky and it seems that the older I get, the more conscious I am of every tiny little thing that could go wrong. My primary goal of every walk is to not have to call a helicopter so I’m usually very careful not to go beyond my limits, where I might end up stuck, lost or cold. However, there is always a chance that I can slip and do a fairly minor injury such as a broken ankle or leg (yes, I’m counting that as minor). While I’m happy to try to drag myself off a mountain or across several kilometres of bog in that state, if the weather is poor (ie cold), crawling/dragging myself may not be enough to maintain my body temperature. Obviously there’s also a smaller chance of a more serious injury which I can’t even crawl through, so the helicopter option is a good backup to have!
I have purchased a Ocean Signal “rescueME PLB1”, recommended to me by a hiking friend from Australia. The device is designed for marine use, but works effectively on land too. The box tells me quite emphatically that this is not an EPIRB, but the best description is that it is very similar to one (there is quite a good explanation about these things here). The rescueME works with a worldwide dedicated search and rescue satellite network (apparently the only officially recognised one, operated by Cospas Sarsat). When activated, it alerts the nearest Rescue Coordination Centre of my coordinates (hopefully to within 100m). This accuracy is pretty good, but then there is also a homing beacon so that once the search party is within 100m they can find me straight away.
The device is waterproof to 15m, has a 7 year battery life and, I’m delighted to read, is the smallest PLB available. It is only 75mm x 51mm x 31.5mm, and weighs 116g. The PLB itself does not float. However, it is supplied with a pouch that will float with the PLB inside. This makes it slightly bigger and heavier, but does make it float, and allows you to attach it to a belt or strap. If you don’t want to do this, it does have an alternative belt/strap attachment piece. I think I’ll just leave it in the floating case, just in case!
The device has a retractable metal antenna and a flap which covers the activation button so you can’t accidentally turn it on. This makes me a lot more happier!
The homing beacon will operate for over 24 hours once activated, so they have a full day to find me once I’ve activated it before they have to resort to mindless brute-force searching.
I have now registered the device with the UK Coastguard (a form was supplied in the box, but this was very easy to do online at https://forms.dft.gov.uk/mca-sar-epirb/). I assume other countries have a similarly easy registration method. It is compulsory to register EPIRBs/PLBs with your local rescue organisation, but just because I have registered my device with the UK Coastguard, doesn’t mean I can’t use it abroad. At least that is my understanding!
I have also tested my device, both the emergency beacon and the GPS. The instructions for these are quite specific. The beacon has to be tested in the first 5 minutes of an hour because it sends a short burst on the aircraft distress frequency, . . . and obviously they are told to expect short bursts for testing equipment in the first five minutes of each hour??? Other than that, testing the beacon is quite simple. Simply hold the test button for 1 second and note the colour of the LED flash. The colour and number of flashes indicate how long the battery has been used for and/or the type of failure. Thankfully, mine passed with “0-1 hours of battery use”. They recommend testing the beacon once a month. I will try to stick to this. After all, there’s no point going to all the trouble of getting one and taking it walking if I don’t even know it’s working properly! If I’m not out walking for over a month though I won’t bother testing it until just before the next time I take it out.
Testing the GPS takes slightly longer, but still virtually no time at all. You have to press and hold the test button for 10 seconds. After that, the LEDs will flash a certain sequence until it has a GPS fix. It will then flash to tell you the number of remaining times you can test the GPS. This test takes a fair bit of battery power, so you can only test the GPS a certain number of times before it will start to impact on the guaranteed 24 hours of emergency beacon operation. They specify a maximum of 10 GPS tests over the life of the device and recommend testing this function once per year. Again, happy to report that my device passed with flying colours.
(You have to have the antenna extended for both tests)
You have to replace the battery any time you activate the device, even for a short time. Note, this means “activated”, not “tested”. The battery is replaceable, but you have to send it back to an authorised dealer to have this done. Honestly, if I’ve activated it and it’s saved my life, I’ll be more than happy to send it back to the dealer to replace the battery!! You can also replace the battery after the expiry date. I feel like technology will have changed so much in the next 7 years, that this is unlikely to be necessary – a new, smaller, cheaper, faster alert device will certainly be available!
My rescueME PLB1 cost me £199 (RRP £282), delivered to my house from a shop in Inverness. This is quite expensive, but there are no ongoing subscription fees and it should last for 7 years. Plus, I had enough people telling me they’d buy one for me if I didn’t get one for myself!! It is a lot to pay for a device you hope to never use, but a small price to pay for peace of mind and potentially your life.
The locator device which seems most well known is the SPOT tracker (technically “SPOT Gen3 Satellite GPS Tracker/Messenger”). This device is a similar size and weight to the rescueME PLB1 but has replaceable AAA batteries (they last between 3.5 and 52 days if turned on and tracking, dependent on tracking frequency and sky visibility, or for at least 6 days in SOS mode) and the emergency location works through a different system (I think it works through the SPOT satellites whose system then contacts the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center?). The SPOT has a load of extra features, including being able to send pre-programmed messages to friends or family (eg saying “All OK” or “All OK but running late” or “Help please. Come pick me up”) and having an online live tracking system so family and friends can follow your adventures. The initial cost of the SPOT is less (~£120 – £160), but there is a mandatory annual subscription fee of £130/year.
Based on this, my rescueMe PLB is a fair bit cheaper already! I also only want an emergency device. I’m not interested in the hassle of checking that my SPOT batteries are charged, programming in messages to friends, and setting up my online tracking all the time. I also don’t have any specific adventures that I want all my friends/family/general public to be able to live track me on and, frankly, am not interested in paying £165/year just so you can see where I am. Sorry about that guys!
Because I’m an engineer, here is a table with some comparison stats:
|Device||rescueMe PLB1||Spot Gen3|
|Size (mm)||71 x 51 x 31||87 x 65 x 25|
|Battery Life (days)||2,555||52*|
|Purchase Price (£)||200||130|
|Annual Subscription (£/yr)||0||130|
|Price over 7 years (£)||200||1,040|
*This is SPOT battery life while tracking at a certain frequency, in 50% clear skies. Sorry, I can’t re-find the very detailed SPOT FAQs on battery life that I used to calculate this. SPOT Gen3 battery life is 2 years on standby, and 156 days tracking every 60 minutes (probably in 100% sky exposure?).
That’s the end of this review. All good so far and hopefully I never have the opportunity to report on the efficiency of the rescueMe PRB1 in operation!
On a slightly different scale of cost and importance, I’ve also just received my new watch for hiking (since the band broke on the old one). It’s a Casio W-59-1VQES and cost me a whole £7.95 including postage! Pretty exciting! So far it is small, lightweight and easy to use. Now let’s hope it lasts!
Actually, I’ve just found another really interesting link, and review site, here.
After a very annoying week of work I was desperate to get out on a hill. I’ve been admiring Glas Bheinn (the hill next to Quinag) for a few weeks now and was heading down that way, so decided to go up it. Due to my frustration and anger with work there was very little regard for the weather – I was going no matter what. I had checked the forecast, and solid rain may’ve put me off. As it was, it was just for snow and wind so we went. I think, in hindsight, I hadn’t really thought this through and it was not surprising that I didn’t see a single other person out on the hills or in the carparks that day.
There is a track along the western side of Glas Bheinn. You may remember it. I tried to walk along it two years ago from the southern end and it quickly became a typical Scottish track (ie. NOT a track!). However, other people have mentioned walking along it (at which I gaped in surprise), and the northern end does stand out significantly against the hillside. I wanted to give it a try, so I parked where the northern end of the track meets the road and set off along it.
It is actually a very distinctive (if still quite boggy) track at the northern end. I walked along it for quite a while and it was still very much a track, so there must only be a small section in the middle that is terrible . . . or I lost it at some point and was wallowing around a few metres from a perfectly good track! The snow started falling at some point along the track and gradually intensified, soon lulling me into that beautiful, soothing solitude that comes with walking along in soft falling snow. The wind was at my back so it was peaceful in the cone of silence that was my rain jacket hood.
I startled a herd of deer and they, sensibly, ran off down to lower ground. I turned the other way and headed up the hill. The plan was to skirt the southern edge of the hill, pick up a track that runs along the eastern side, drops off a hanging valley and meets up with the track to the Eas a’ Chual Aluinn waterfall. (Sorry, I thought I’d told you about my walk last June to the waterfall, but can’t find it in a blog post, so I guess I haven’t!) I was then going to follow the waterfall track back west and cut back up onto the hill from that edge, following around the top of the main corrie that faces north.
The snow was becoming somewhat blizzardy at this point. Luckily I was on the lee side of the hill, so it wasn’t too bad and the wind was still mainly at my back. Visibility was a hundred metres or so, and certainly nothing off the hill to get my bearings from. Still, I knew I was just skirting the hill so as long as I stayed at about that elevation I’d be alright.
A bit further on and there was a very steep downwards slope in front of me, and some evidence of cliffs. This wasn’t part of the plan. I had the compass out and had been walking roughly the right direction. Still, not being able to tell exactly where I was, it didn’t seem advisable to attempt a slope when I had no idea how steep it was going to get, nor how far it would be to find the track at the bottom. Did I mention that I didn’t start this walk until 3:30pm so I didn’t have unlimited time to wander around? And it was 2 degrees at the carpark, so was probably about -2, plus windchill up here?
I made a very sensible navigational decision . . . which probably sounds a bit stupid! Rather than heading downhill for the lowland track, I decided to go uphill (in the snow and 40mph winds). At least this way I would know where I was when I got to the top of the hill and could navigate home from there. I also knew this would be a much shorter route than the original plan which could’ve ended up being hours longer if there were any (more) navigational problems.
I headed upwards and the weather got worse. I was now walking into the wind and my face was starting to hurt from the cold – no, I hadn’t thought to bring a buff or scarf. I also hadn’t thought to bring walking poles, which I was regretting. The snow was thick enough to hide all of the rocks, but not thick enough to stop me from falling down the gaps between the rocks. Glas Bheinn, being a blocky quartzite hill, had LOTS of rocks, with lots of gaps perfect for trapping ankles in. With the weather deteriorating, very little visibility and difficult walking conditions I was starting to get worried. Was I in over my head? Had I misjudged the conditions and underestimated the hill? Was I putting myself into a dangerous situation? I was also losing confidence in my navigation, with my compass continuing to defy all of my estimates on direction (based on landscape shape, not on pure sense of direction as I already know that is useless!).
I stuck it out for a bit longer, with a bit of positive self-talk and a bit of stubborn determination and recklessness.
Then the wind stopped and the sun came out. The change was incredible. Not only could I see directly in front of me without squinting, but I could see all of the surrounding hills so I could tell exactly which direction I was going. I could take my hood off and warm my frozen cheeks in the sun. I could walk in a straight line without being blown sideways. I could see the sun sparkling off the pristine snow. I could watch the tiny snowballs rolling hundreds of metres down the hill, slowly gathering speed and size, from where Merlin dislodged them somewhere up ahead. It was glorious. The snow was untouched (except for the giant dog prints). Every now and then a flurry of snow would dance across the top of the ridge. There was not a single other person for miles. The view stretched before me . . rows of snow covered hills in one direction, and sparkling lochs stretching to the sea in the other.
We walked along the ridge like this for a while before the weather closed in again. Luckily I soon spotted the summit cairn, standing out dimly against the grey shrouded sky. It is a lovely cairn, with a sizeable shelter next to it too. A lot of the rocks used to build it are red, so Merlin looked quite at home there. He posed beautifully between the two for me, then joined me for a romantic selfie.
With visibility down to almost nothing again, it was back to navigating with a compass. I took a bearing from the map that would lead me along the north-western rim of the corrie, from where I could drop down the gentlest part of the slope to where I had started. Within a short time I came to a very steep slope. I should not have encountered that. On checking my map and compass again, there was no way that what I was seeing in front of me could possibly be in that direction. Was my navigation really that bad?? I had a decision to make . . . go left or right. I eventually chose right, based on some logic and landscape clues, and in complete defiance of what my compass was telling me.
It was the correct decision and I was soon back where I needed to be, and overlooking the main northern corrie. The cloud cleared enough to give me a view of the loch at the bottom although the wind was pretty savage at this point so I almost; dropped the camera; got blown over; and got hyperthermia trying to take this photo for you (so no complaints about the snow drops all over the screen!).
After taking that photo I snuck down below the ridgeline again and started a slow, angled descent along the spur. It was a very slow descent, with much more sideways progress than downwards progress. Eventually the way ahead looked like it was getting steeper so I turned and headed straight down the side. It was very steep. Some parts were all scree. High up, the footing was difficult because of the snow obscuring the rocks. Lower down, the scree simply slid underfoot like a mini landslide. Luckily there were large strips of moss and heather which provided much more secure footing . . . although still very steep and difficult!
My knees were not liking me at this point. I was also acutely aware of the risk of slipping or toppling and rolling all the way down to the bottom of the hill. The chance of serious injury from not paying attention was significant. This is one of those times I’m glad I walk by myself, as I continuously muttered to myself: “just keeping going down, nice and slowly, down, down, down, slowly down”.
Once down, it was a very easy walk back along the track to the car. This is always a nice way to finish a walk and get some of the stiffness from descending out of my legs.
The total walk was about 9km long, with about 550m vertical height. It took just under 4 hours, although it didn’t feel like a long time. There were enough changes in weather, landscape, footing, emotions and planning to completely distract me from how long I’d been walking.
I took the opportunity to check my compass on the way back. The track I was on should’ve been due south of a sharp corner in the road ahead. I pointed my compass at the corner. The needle pointed off to the left somewhere. I was furious. It wasn’t my navigating that was terrible – it was my compass! It is pretty scary being in a situation with very little visibility AND a faulty compass. Almost, but not quite, enough for me to consider getting a GPS!
This was a fantastic walk, and I’m glad I got out and did a “proper” walk again. I haven’t pushed my limits much recently and I feel like this did. It’s nice to know I can still do it.
PS Every photo here has Merlin in it, except for two. Don’t worry if you can’t see him – now that I’ve reduced the resolution he’s not much more than a small black speck in some of them!
“What??? Another blog post so soon?” I hear you gasp. Yes, but don’t get used to it! Yesterday was an absolutely glorious day here and I took advantage of it, and have some stunning photographic evidence to prove it.
Glorious, to me, is sunshine, bright blue skies, snow on the hills, 2 degrees, a slight breeze and enough ice to be crunchy underfoot but not too slippery. Proper snow underfoot would’ve been even better, but I would’ve had to go a lot further afield to get that.
I didn’t feel like a hard walk, nor like going a long way to get one, so I decided to explore a little way up the Rhiconich River. The Cape Wrath trail recommends coming north along the north-eastern side of this river, despite warning that there is quite a deep wade, impossible in spate, across the Garbh Allt (rough river). I’ve always been curious about what this “deep wade” was like, and why they don’t suggest walking along the other side of the river, so I thought I’d have a look.
My walks quite often go like this:
1. First 20 minutes: enthusiasm, enjoyment and optimism
2. Next 30 – 40 minutes: really just wanting to go home
3. From here it either becomes a fairly determined drive to get where I’m going, or settles into a relaxed but steady rhythm.
Quite often it becomes a determined drive because I’ve been over-ambitious with my planning (or simply a little careless with my distance and terrain estimates, like one memorable occasion recently that I’ve told some of you about already!). It’s not that I want to walk really far and fast and work really hard. It’s just that quite often the places I want to go to are a long way away!! And I’m stubborn. And lazy in a crazy kind of way that means if I’m half way to somewhere, I’d rather push on and get there this time, than come back again another day over all the same ground.
Luckily today had no grand goals other than the Garbh Allt and the longest plan (walk to the end of the second loch, Loch a’ Garbh-bhaid Mor, and back up the other side) was easily achievable in the amount of time I wanted to be out walking. Well, it turns out I only just achieved it, . . . but that was with lots of stopping to look at things and generally taking it easy.
I even drove to the start of the walk! This is a big step for me, especially as this is only 2.5km from my house! Normally I would’ve just walked all the way from home. That would’ve turned this into another of those “fun in a really painful, exhausting way” walks.
Thanks to all of that, and a conscious effort to rein myself in and just enjoy the walk rather than having to go further or faster, this was a really enjoyable outing. After 2 hours I was thoroughly relaxed, at peace and incredibly happy. One of the nicest walks I’ve had in a long time.
Oh, and just so you know, the Garbh Allt was a knee high wade for me at normal water levels. I actually had to go upstream a bit so I could cross without getting water in my wellington boots. There is also no reason why you can’t walk up the south western side of the river and lochs so I have no idea why they recommend wading the Garbh Allt instead. The only difficult bit was right at the end near the Rhiconich Hotel where there is a section of forest on the south-west side. This was terrible to walk through. We need more deer to eat the trees down!! (in-joke: there is a big push from some organisations up here to cull more deer to allow more forests to grow back)
And now, on to the photos!
The photos are in chronological order so you can feel like you’re on the walk with me. (This started in slideshow format but I decided I didn’t like it so switched to tiled mosaic display. However, there was resounding positive feedback about the slideshow so I’m putting it back in. Just shows that my viewing habits and requirements are different to yours. Feel free to let me know what you think of slideshow format if you haven’t already. The first photo should be the moss, so wait for that one to come around if you want to watch them in order.)
(Firstly, I’d like to apologise in advance for the number of photos. I think I need to set myself a photo limit, eg 15 per post, and stick to it rigidly. However, this is an area that I love, it was a stunning two days, and I’m being self indulgent as it is a birthday post. Please hover the mouse over photos to see the captions – I’ve taken the effort to put them in – you may as well read them and get more of the story)
Last year, the day before my birthday, I walked from Blairemore up to Cape Wrath, then spent the night in the bothy at Kearvaig bay. I woke, on the morning of my birthday, on a beautiful, remote beach, with deer at the window and a delightful day of walking ahead of me. I wanted to repeat that trip, exactly one year later.
It turns out I couldn’t, because they were bombing on the Cape the day I should’ve walked out!! Shortly after finding out about that I got called into work that day anyway, so it was kind of lucky. My friend who works at the range assured me that there would be no bombing for the next two days so I left on my birthday instead, technically an exact leap year after my first trip!
I left from home, at Oldshoremore, at about 9am. It helps having tried to leave the day before so I was already packed! It was a stunning day – bright blue skies, warm and a gentle breeze. A far cry from the grey drizzle that I had the previous trip.
We walked up the road to Blairemore, then followed the track to Sandwood Bay. From here we crossed the river (shoes off and shallow wade, then stop for a snack afterwards to dry my feet) …
…then headed inland to Strathchailleach bothy. This bothy is somewhat famous as one man actually made it his home (with no electricity, phone and the nearest road being almost 7km away cross-country) for many years. It is said, therefore, to feel a lot more homely than most other bothies. It even has a cat flap!!?! Strathchailleach means “valley of the old woman/hag”.
From here, it was across the Allt a Ghobhair (river of goats?) and up to the Cape. I’d seen a lot of people at Sandwood Bay, and a couple more on the way to the bothy, including one guy who was also walking up to the Cape. We walked together a little way, but went off at our own speeds after entering the military range. From here I meandered across the top of a few hills (Cnoc an Daimh and Cnoc a’ Ghiubhais) then up towards the Lighthouse before heading east to the trig point on top of Dunan Mor (big fort).
Then a meander east through peat hags and bogs to Kearvaig. I didn’t walk along the cliff edge since I had Merlin with me and, while he has been reasonably sensible with cliff edges so far, I don’t really like risking it on unneccessary and particularly “deadly” cliffs like these.
As you can see in the pictures, it was a very sunny day. It was also quite warm. We had also walked quite a long way, up and down hills, over quite difficult terrain. Merlin was carrying his own dinner, plus coal for a fire that night. I was quite tired, with sore feet from constantly sliding into the front of my shoes on the hills. Merlin was hot and, it turned out, quite tired also. We were very happy when we finally spied Kearvaig at about 5pm. A bit of a wash in the Kearvaig River would’ve been delightful. Sadly the midges descended on us as we got into the sheltered valley near sunset!! So, a dash to the bothy, a dash back to the river to fill waterbottles, then we locked ourselves in the bothy for the evening (other than some sunset photos later on).
Merlin crashed out on the bench instantly, I lit the fire, heated water for my fancy birthday dinner and had a cider to celebrate. Some reading (a book I’d bought with me – what a luxury trip!) and some chocolate finished off a delightful evening before gratefully succumbing to sleep.
The next morning dawned just as brightly and beautifully. We set off early (6:30am) as we had a long way to go. We headed east to Sgribhis-bheinn – an entrancingly shaped hill with a gentle slope to the north and steep cliffs on the south west. Also, another trig point on top! Trig points are cool! They are always on high points (so you can see for miles), they are for surveying (and surveying is definitely cool), they were generally built here AGES ago (ages in Australian terms, not ages in UK terms) and they should be set up so you can always see 2 other trig points from one of them. So if you go to them all, you’ve sort of seen a network across the entire country. This was a proper, old-fashioned, trig point made out of stone rather than a solid concrete block. The view was also stunning, as to be expected.
We were then heading south west to Maovally, one of the larger hills on the Cape, and one I hadn’t visited yet. This whole area, between Kearvaig, Sgribhis-beinn and Maovally, is heavily used for bombing and military exercises. There a lots of signs warning of danger, explosive objects and potential death. We mucked around with an old sandbag fort, walked around a large bomb crater and even found a huge old shell!
Maovally has a lovely cairn, and some interesting sandstone pavement topography on top. Also stunning views, although it was getting a bit hazy so the photos aren’t great. It was still early, but with already 5km of walking and 500m of climbing today, plus yesterday, I was getting tired. Walking on the Cape is not easy. Not only are there no paths, but it is constantly up and down or, just as bad, walking sideways across a slope. The heather is thick, and where there is no heather it is usually thick, tussocky grass hiding soft marsh underneath. At this point I was torn between taking the shortest way out, or what looked like the lowest, easiest way out. I went for the easiest!!
We hit the fence around the military area in the perfect spot where it crossed the Kearvaig River so Merlin could get under the fence (this was planned). We then meandered up the river between Cnoc na Glaic Tarsuinn and Beinn Dearg (red hill). I would like to go up all of these hills one day, but was very much into survival and “just get home” mode! I had been planning on going up Creag Riabhach (the stripy rocks) to see another trig point but one look at the size of the hill scrapped that idea! It also would’ve meant a lot of extra distance as the northern edge is mainly cliffs so I’ve have to walk around to the south side, then walk up it.
Instead, I picked the shortest, lowest possible route home, via Strathan bothy. I skirted Loch a’ Phuill Buidhe (loch of the yellow pool or mud?) and crossed the saddle bewteen An Grianan and Meall Dearg (red hill). Again, two hills I’d like to go the top of one day . . but not today! As I got over the top of the saddle I realised that in my haste to get home quickly I hadn’t paid much attention to my map. The southern slope, at Sron a’ Ghobair (nose of the goats?) is VERY steep! 150m vertical in 100m horizontal . . . . I was actually not sure if I’d be able to get down for a while. At this steepness, you can’t see if the ground suddenly drops off a cliff below so at any point could end up having to backtrack and find another way. Luckily I did make it down, skirting to the east slightly and following the river (Allt na Rainich) down.
I was incredibly happy to finally see Strathan bothy. I have seen this one before, but only from the other side of the river so this is the first time I’ve visited it. It is a very nice bothy and I happily sat down for a while to read an MBA newsletter had been left there.
As I left I passed a young foreign couple. They really didn’t look equipped for proper walking so I’ve no idea what they were doing this far out. It looked like they must’ve walked up river from Sandwood Bay but it is still quite a long walk home with not a great track.
I left them to their own devices (they didn’t seem interested in talking), waded the river in front of the bothy (Abhainn an t-Srathain) and headed south west to intersect the vague path that goes from the main road to Strathan. I could’ve followed it directly from the bothy but it heads east before curling back and I didn’t want to walk the extra distance. Big mistake! As poor as the paths are out here, they are much easier (usually) than walking cross country. I probably walked for 1.5km before I found the path again across fairly flat, featureless bogs. Not that it wasn’t pretty . . . just that I was tired and really wanted to get home!
Once I found the path it was fairly straightforward, and I staggered home by about 4:30 (in time to get to the shop to buy food to cook dinner for a friend that night!).
Some side notes:
Yes, I had a black toe, probably incurred the first day. It is still, resolutely, black almost 5 months later!
I was exhausted when I got home. My tracker says that I did 50km over the two days, over hills and some very rough, boggy terrain, so that is not really surprising.
Red flags on the military range means “Danger. Active Exercises. No Entry”. As you can see in some of the photos, there are still some red flags out. However, I had been assured by staff that I was allowed in, and I did actually see the tourist bus when I was on my way up Maovally. Still, I felt naughty and nervous the whole time, and carefully avoided seeing anyone! That is why I didn’t go up to the lighthouse, left so early from Kearvaig and was generally keen to get out of the range on my way home!
Just wanted to share some photos from our walk down Gleann Laoigh today. Phew . . lucky I’m not trying to post in order anymore so I don’t have to finish my draft about trekking poles or my un-started post about a two day trip to the Cape . . . . (Laoigh is pronounced something like “luurrrrrrr” or maybe “luurrrrrre”. Gleann is glen.)
We are staying at a friend’s place at the moment and had the whole day free so I asked for a recommendation on where to walk. Gleann Laoigh, between Cul Mor and Cul Beag, was suggested, with a decent track to start with, soon petering into a typical Scottish track. Actually, despite not being on a map, it was actually better than a lot of the tracks that are marked.
The glen is incredible. The diversity of flora and habitat type is amazing, ranging from grassland, bog and even woodlands, with the plants to match. The fauna was also different to what I usually see. Then, of course, you have the scenery. Towering mountains, full of interesting shapes and multiple peaks, on both sides, with outcrops of blocky sandstone cliffs, divided by a river that varies from smooth and languid to a frantic torrent squeezing between steep sided gullies. Oh, and the lochs. Beautiful, long, winding, sandy beached lochs.
I was stunned that such a beautiful, diverse place existed within an hour’s walk of the main road, and yet is virtually unknown and certainly unexploited. I wanted to share it with the world, put a sign up, maybe even improve the path slightly . . . . and then I realised I kind of like it this way!
Some of the things I saw . . .
And I decided that I didn’t have enough photos of Merlin, so took some more:
For those who’ve reached this far . . . I actually had to leave my county of Sutherland for this walk, something I’ve done less than 10 times since getting here (Sutherland is that big). The walk was in Wester Ross so you almost got a post starting with . . . “I went for a walk in Wester Ross today. I took The Hound with me – he likes running around The Mountain. I guess you could say the landscape was a little Stark, but there wasn’t any Snow. Winter is coming though.” Then I realised I’d struggle to fill an entire post with Game of Thrones references and I’d rather just write about how wonderful the landscape was instead!
This is a bit of an information post, rather than my usual story telling.
There are lots of different tools out there for tick removal, and even more pieces of advice about how to do it. It was pretty hard for me to tell what actually worked when I first encountered ticks, so hopefully this will help someone else. Initially I was prepared to use tweezers for tick removal. Luckily I didn’t actually have to try this. One day in a mountain/hiking supply store I bought a small tick removal card (like a credit card, with a little notch to remove the tick). It seemed professional, well made and fairly official, so surely it would work?
No. I completely botched my first tick removal job. Whether this was because the card was useless, or that I used it incorrectly, I don’t know. Either way, if something can be botched that badly by a novice, it is probably not a good recommendation for tick removal anyway.
I had seen the O’Tom Tick Twister advertised online but was suspicious that it might just be another gimmicky tool that was hyped up but actually useless in practice. It looked too good to be true. One day a friend’s dog got a tick and she had one of these tools, so she showed me it in use. It was exceptionally easy and almost fool proof. Having seen it in action, I bought one.
When the time came to use it, it really was that easy. You simply slide it under the tick from the side, and then twist it around in a circle, or two or three. The tick detaches very easily and comes out.
I’m not going to explain any more, or rave about it. You can see everything about it on their website, including quite a neat explanation about why it works so well, whereas pulling at ticks (ie the way every other method works) doesn’t. I just want to tell everybody that this tool actually does work, and as easily and effectively as they say it does.
There are probably other non-brand-name (copy-cat) products out there, and they may work just as effectively, . . but seriously, the original Tick Twister is not expensive anyway!
Sharing that information was the main reason for me writing this article. However once I was on the topic, I thought I should share some other information about tick preventation as well. After all, if you can stop them biting in the first place, removal is not necessary. My main concern with ticks is transmition of diseases and while proper and prompt removal can minimise the risk of this, it can still happen from any bite.
When I first came over here (Scotland) to go hiking I was very concerned about ticks, not because I’m squeamish about creepy-crawlies, but because I thought that if you got bitten you had a pretty high chance of getting Lymes disease, and that it was untreatable. It turns out that actually quite a lot of people are bitten by ticks and don’t get Lymes disease, and also that if you do get it, and are treated with antibiotics reasonably quickly, it is almost always completely curable. Still, I’m very glad that I took the care I did and didn’t get any tick bites on my hiking trip last year. The precautions that I took were:
- Always wear long sleeves, long pants and use gaitors or trouser twists (which basically tuck your trousers in so the ticks can’t climb up your legs)
- Treat clothes and tent with permethrin (the treatment lasts for several washes or several weeks, whichever comes first)
- Avoid unnessary contact with vegetation
- Thoroughly check for ticks every night, and spot check hands/wrists after pushing through bushes.
As I said, I was paranoid. However I only saw two ticks, and didn’t have any bites, and believe this is at least partially due to my precautions.
Please note, if you are going to treat clothing and equipment with permethrin, do your research and follow the instructions. Make sure you use the correct concentration of chemical for your own safety. For the safety of other things be aware:
- Permethrin is poisonous to cats.
- Permethrin is poisonous to most aquatic creatures. Do not put freshly treated equipment in streams, especially do not tip excess into waterways. I was even careful to wash my treated clothing in a bucket and not directly in natural waterways. I think once the chemical has bonded to the fabric it is safe, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful.
This year, I brought my dog with me. I was much more concerned about ticks on him, partly because I can’t use any of my human precautions on him so he would probably get bitten (dogs can get Lymes disease, and other diseases, too), but also because I was worried he would bring ticks back and then they’d bite me.
I investigated tick collars, but since the chemicals are usually toxic to aquatic creatures and Merlin spends half his life sitting in streams, this wasn’t really a responsible option. There are also a lot of warnings associated with tick collars (although possibly only because not as much research has been done on them) so I wasn’t that comfortable with them.
I chose a spot-on treatment. There are several different chemicals used in spot-on treatments – some of these prevent development of the critters (these things usually affect fleas as well, amongst other things), some attack the nervous system, killing the critter. Most treatments use a combination of chemicals. A very common treatment, Frontline, uses fipronal. However, research indicates that fipronal is only 60% effective at killing ticks (when used as instructed), whereas permethrin is 99% effective. This difference is startling, and I was not willing to use a product that is only 60% effective. Interestingly, Frontline is much more common, and comes with fewer warning signs, to the point where the permethrin products (eg Advantix) are actually dispensed as “prescription only” in the UK. This is possibly because, as already mentioned, permethrin will kill cats so you need to be extremely careful if you have a cat as well.
Having just done a little more research (you can see some additional papers in the links on the right hand side of the page of the research above), there are actually quite conflicting results. I just happened upon the one that massively favoured permethrin . . . but it is also the research specifically done using the main transmittor of Lymes disease in Europe. Feel free to do your own research.
I chose Advantix and my experience with it has been extremely good. Firstly, no side affects. Secondly, Merlin has had hardly any ticks. Actually, there have only been two instances where he has had tick bites and they were both just before he was due to be retreated, during a cycle in which I washed him with shampoo a couple of times. Advantix is water-resistant, after 24 or 48 hours, so Merlin can swim as much as he wants and I can wash him down with water as often as I need to. This is essential for me. However, the instructions clearly state that washing with shampoo will reduce the efficacy of the product. I’ve found I can usually wash him once with shampoo in a treatment cycle (1 month) and it is still OK, but washing him twice does seem to reduce the longevity of the product.
I’m also happy with this product because not only does it kill ticks, it either does it quickly enough that they don’t bite him, or else it also repels them ie I’m not finding dead ticks stuck to him all the time. Many of the products warn that death is not instantaneous so ticks may still be able to bite the animal, but will then die. Not what I wanted as this means they could still be transmitting diseases.
Based on this, I would recommend Advantix. If you chose to use it, you should obviously read all the safety instructions and be aware of the following:
- Don’t let the dog into natural waterways 24 or 48 hrs (I can’t remember which) after treatment – as mentioned, permethrin is toxic to aquatic organisms. Once it’s soaked in to the dog it’s safe, but not immediately after treatment.
- Likewise with cats – if you have cats don’t let them near your dog immediately after treatment.
- Wash with shampoo as little as possible, and re-treat earlier if you have to wash them
We have tested this product thoroughly, although not scientifically. Merlin spends many hours running through thick heather, bracken, tall grass and occasionally woodlands. He is quite often around sheep and wild deer (amongst other animals). We have frequently been out with other people and dogs where they have found ticks, and we have had none. He is also submerged in water at least every second day, if not several times a day, so we can vouch for the water-resistance of it.
Please be aware that ticks do vary from country to country. Paralysis ticks in Eastern Australia are a particularly different case I believe, so if these are your concern, please do your own research specifically about them.
If you have any questions about any of this, feel free to comment and I’ll do my best to answer. There is also loads of other information out there about ticks, tick diseases, treatments, prevention etc etc. I’m pretty sure you can find it yourself, rather than me providing a huge list of links. (If you would like some links to further information, just let me know)
Apparently at this point I’m supposed to write some disclaimer about how I bought all these products with my own money and nobody’s paying me to say this stuff. I did, and they’re not. I wish they would!
I still haven’t managed to go proper camping (in my tent) in the Highlands since coming up here. Partly because I’ve been busy with other things, partly because I’m being a bit wussy when it comes to hiking and camping out and a LOT because of the weather up here. It hasn’t been a very good summer. I think we’ve had about 8 days in total without rain and very few consecutive “decent” days. It seems that whenever I have time off work the forecast is either for all terrible weather or one day nice, next day windy/wet (and repeat). This means that I’ve had some nice day walks, but very few opportunities for overnight trips. OK, lots of opportunities for overnight trips, but very few for pleasant, dry-ish, “not being blown away” overnight trips (hence the “I’m being a bit wussy” comment).
Finally, last week, the forecast was for two consecutive days of mostly fine, relatively calm weather. Rain on the morning of the first day and the evening of the second day, but fine in the middle. I HAD to get out for an overnight walk. I had also not been walking in a while so I was just itching to get out for a “proper” walk.
I came up with a few ideas. There is some lovely wild ground, a beach popular for camping and several bothies north of me, plus a lot of little hills I haven’t been to the top of. There is also the one reasonable sized hill up here that I haven’t climbed to the north east (Cranstackie). Plus, my favourite pub (Smoo) even further to the north east. I had this vague idea that I could walk from home up to Durness, via a bothy and a few hills, grab dinner at the pub, camp out the back (because I know the owners), walk out to Strabeg bothy (see this post) and stay the night, then walk up to Cranstackie via the long back ridge, then wander home. Obviously this was a 3 day trip . . . but possibly I could do the first day, then just meander home, or walk down the line of hills from Ceannabeinne to Cranstackie then maybe get a lift from Rhiconich to near home).
Unfortunately when I got the map out, I discovered it was over 30km to Durness, and that was heading almost direct, across country. Clearly that was probably too far to go there and back in two days, especially with the hills I wanted to go up, and the fact that I’d been dealing with work stuff all morning and wasn’t ready to leave yet.
Still, I came up with a few alternatives, sent a “safety message” to a friend (“I’m going walking. Will be back tonight, or tomorrow evening, or this afternoon if I’m very lazy. Heading towards Durness but doubt I’ll get there”), packed all my gear and left the house by about 11am. So basically halfway through the day already – no way 30km was going to happen!
On a side note, I’ve been thinking recently that I should get one of those SPOT trackers. They are GPS beacons that live update their location to the internet (so you could follow my hikes in real time!) but also have a few message sending functions: some preprogrammed ones that can be sent to specific phone numbers (eg “all going well, see you as per plan” or “running late, but all OK”) plus an emergency button that alerts the nearest emergency services that you’re in trouble and need help (and they can get the location from the SPOT tracker). I’ve realised part way through quite a few walks recently (usually when I’m in a precarious position on the side of a hill or falling down between some boulders) that I haven’t told anybody where I am or when I should be back and that I haven’t even brought my mobile phone with me! I’ll do some more research on them . . . when I have time!
I set off down the road, absolutely loving having my full hiking pack on, my map in my hand and nothing in front of me but hills and bogs. I won’t give you a blow by blow account, but will put some photos below to give you an idea of the walk.
The first blow to plan A, C and D came when I got near the bothy and found that the quite impressive looking bridge wasn’t actually there anymore. It was quite a sizeable river, . . . or at least enough to stop me getting across with my “dry feet” policy. This meant I couldn’t get to the bothy and cut out plan D (visit the bothy, head to the coast then walk back along the Sandwood Bay track to be back in time for dinner). It also stopped me getting easy access to the hill behind the bothy which ruled out plan A simply due to time constraints (walk across all the hills on the way to Durness) or plan C (walk across the hills, camp somewhere and wander home the next day). I must admit, plan C was also hindered by the fact that I’d kind of got my heart set on a pub dinner that night!
This left me with Plan B. Skip most of the rest of the hills and walk straight to Durness, trying to arrive before the pub kitchen closed at 9pm. Given that I hadn’t left until 11am, and I was walking 30km across boggy countryside and over some hills, this was maybe a bit of a stupid idea. Still, I’d been keeping an eye on my progress – how far I’d come vs how long it’d taken – and I had a sniff of success. And from the title of this post, . . . I was obviously feeling better because I decided to do something stupid! (I’ve still been feeling a bit tired from time to time)
Not being able to get across to the bothy, I committed to walking to Durness. From here, it was a bit of a focussed mission, but I made sure to keep enjoying myself, not think about how far it was to go (I did a couple of times and that was a mistake!!) and enjoy the walking where I was. And to laugh about how silly I was sometimes.
Another side note, this time on my walk . . . it was far from the most graceful walk I’ve ever done! I’m pretty glad no one else was there to see it. Whether I was unused to the weight and balance of my pack, or out of practice walking cross country, or just distracted (or maybe I’m actually just not that coordinated and graceful), it was not pretty! I fell over the first time in the first hour. Slipped down a hill. Tripped over several times. Stepped in an old drain (up to my knee). Overbalanced on a river crossing. Sunk in some bogs. Splashed mud all over myself several times. No major injuries (although one of my knees packed in the next day and is still sore) and I never ended up on my bum in either mud or water, but it was still pretty uncoordinated.
I had planned to cross the Dionard River at the footbridge near the end of the Kyle of Durness. I didn’t realise though that it was right in front of somebody’s house. I feel quite uncomfortable walking close to people’s houses. At this point I had wet feet already (from the grace and elegance described above) and mud all over my pants. I decided that wading the Dionard River would probably be beneficial to my appearance and not especially detrimental to my feet. So, my dry feet policy went out the window – it turns out that I’d rather respect people’s privacy than keep dry feet . . . . at least today when I was already wet and muddy! It was quite liberating just wading across the river where I wanted to rather than having to search for the perfect dry crossing point. Maybe I’ll do this more often in the future.
Luckily the tide was at least half way out so I could walk along the Kyle shore, instead of having to walk along the road the whole way into town. I had been considering going cross country all the way to the pub but I think there are a lot of fences in the area immediately south of Durness and I was already pretty tired (actually, I’d been tired since about 15km in!) so elected to road walk instead. Besides, then I got to see some people I knew on the way through town.
I actually arrived at the pub at about 7:45pm. Heaps of time to spare! Some of my friends were in, which was great, and I made a few new friends through the evening. I ended up with house guests for the next two days (two guys travelling around who were really interested in the geology of the area), and a warm, dry place to stay for the night (at the end of the evening I was lamenting not having set my tent up earlier when two of the Navy Bomb Disposal divers insisted I stay in their van for the evening instead).
So, I still haven’t used my tent for a camping trip up here, but have met some new people and had some more quite unique experiences that I would never have thought of (as per Swedish Viking armoured transport!). I also ended up working in the restaurant the following evening because they were short of staff. I love being able to just let life take its random course up here – it keeps things interesting!
I was tired, with quite sore feet however, so had come up with the brilliant idea of catching the bus most of the way home the next day so I’d only have to walk about 3km. Perfect!
I’m pretty glad I did. 30km was clearly too far to try to do in half a day (although it sounds much more achievable if you say it in miles – 18 miles), and to think about doing that again the following day, without any recent training or conditioning, is ridiculous. It’s nice to be doing some stupid things again, although 3 days later I’m still feeling a bit tired and sore. Still, I refuse to utter those damning words “I’m too old for this stuff”.
It took about 8.5 hours, and the GPS tracker only says 26km, . . . but I didn’t remember to turn it on straight away. Still, maybe not quite 30km. Awwww . . . doesn’t sound nearly as impressive now!
Alisdair, who told me about the Foinaven traverse last year, and dropped me off for that walk, was keen to try it himself, but not keen on doing it alone. As soon as we both had the same day off and the weather looked half decent, we decided to give it a go.
His wife dropped us off a bit to the north of where I’d started last time, so we were coming at the northern peak from the northern side, rather than across the lochs slightly south of it. It was quite a boggy walk in but had such a gentle elevation rise that before we noticed we were already about 250m up.
From here, it was quite steep with spongy grass slowly turning into slabby rocks. We also hit cloud very soon, probably at about 400m. This meant the last 500m was done essentially blind in using the “just keeping walking on the highest bit you can find” method. Admittedly, I did pull out the compass occasionally because there are some cliffs and crags on the northern side of the peak that I didn’t want to get caught up in. I was also a bit worried because last time I was up here I overshot to the north and ended up on a little false peak instead of the main one.
Eventually, after meandering upward through the cloud for a quite a while, I looked up and saw a cairn! It looked too big for any waymarker or subsidiary peak cairn, and once we got to it, it certainly did seem to be the highest point around for a while. We jested about my amazing navigation for a while, to walk straight up to the summit cairn on a broad peak in almost complete white-out, but sadly I think it was just a fluke!
This was not the highest summit of Foinaven, just the most northern peak, Ceann Garbh (ken garve) . . . translates to “grey head” or “grey end” I think, so “the grey peak at the end of the ridge”.
We walked south along the ridge line (again, using the “walk on the highest bit you can find” method) until quite soon there was a clear path all the way to the actual highpoint, Ganu Mor (I don’t know what Ganu is, but “mor” is big).
Getting off this peak was slightly harder as the peak is quite broad with 3 separate ridges connecting into it. I pulled the compass out, Alisdair used some common sense and pretty soon we found the track. The quartzite up here breaks down and changes colour where people walk all the time so you end up with quite a clear path most of the time.
Once we were back on the ridge, navigation was pretty easy – just don’t fall off the edge! There was still quite a bit of snow in the corries, but I was definitely NOT going to play in this stuff! Sheer cliff and probably overhangs below what looked like a solid surface.
The cloud did clear occasionally to give us some views, but not enough to be worth taking the camera out (no more photos for you, sorry, but you can check out my previous Foinaven walk if you want to see what it looks like)
The walk was longer than I remember, with a lot more ups and downs. There is a section with no clear path that you need to scramble off the side of the ridge a little . . . last time I tried going too high and had to backtrack. This time I overcompensated and took us too low and made life harder than it should’ve been. Maybe one day I’ll get it right! It was also a very difficult walk for me. The rocks were very slippery (quartzite, covered in cloud . . . what did I expect??) and my shoes did not seem to be gripping at all. I ended up crouched down and using both hands for many sections because my feet were sliding so much. Still, no injuries.
When we got onto the broad summit at the southern end, I pulled the compass out again. We were still completely in cloud and there are some steep corries around this section. I wasn’t worried about falling in (we could see well enough to not do that) but I didn’t want to go the wrong way and have to backtrack to get out. We got off here OK, then kept heading south-east to get back to the path. Last time I went due south, over the quartzite slabs, but with the trouble I was having with my footing I thought I’d be better off fighting through bogs that slipping on sharp rock. As it was, the bogs were not as bad as they looked.
Once we got to the track it was a pleasant, but long, amble back to the carpark north of Achfary on the A838.And perfect timing to meet our lift back home! It was an enjoyable day out. I enjoyed chatting to Alisdair during the day. The lack of view was disappointing in some ways, but it was also quite interesting and impressive to walk the ridge while hidden in cloud. I’d never choose to walk it in that weather, so it’s nice to have seen it like that. Funnily enough the cloud had cleared and we had a stunning view of the entire ridge on our drive home!