In the olden days the rivers and lochs formed the main communication routes through the wild landscape. As idyllic as this sound, I now celebrate the modern age!
A drive up toward Glencoe seen us disembark at Rannoch Moore, where the river Ba flows into Loch Ba. At this point Graham armed us all with saws and instructed us (me) in it’s use…….after being left to pack my boat, I cut myself on the saw!
Having filled the canoes full of all the kit we’d need for the next 5 days we launched the heavy boats into the loch. Sandy paddled up the River Ba for his first of many photo opportunities and then with little appreciation of what we were going to face, we were off.
With naive enthusiasm we paddled the across Loch Ba with a head wind. When the wind changed to a cross-wind we took the opportunity to raft up in pairs and fire up the sail. It took us a little while to get the sail in the right position and avoid being blown back into the bank. It didn’t take long before we were in a tandem race – needless to say although Richard and Graham took an early led, Sandy and I sailed into the lead once we got the wind in our sail (and changed who had control of the sail rope!).
We then rafted up – two sails being better than one – and collectively soaked up the scenery. Being at the helm Graham took the opportunity to introduce me to the “Jam”. Now I love the Jam – it capitalises on the wind and counteracts the push of the cross-wind enabling the boat to pretty much continue on a straight line, with minimal effort on my part. It wasn’t long before we were pitched up on an island beach having a brew before entering the River Ba and navigating it into Loch Laidon.
An uneventful paddle across Loch Laidon saw us reach the river GarbhGhaoir with too many rocks and low water to paddle without incident, so we lined the boats. Now at no point had I been warned about the midges attack…..and let me tell you, it was a relentless and co-ordinated attack! The boys whipped out their midges nets and I was left to suffocate midges style – I was breathing them in through my nose and mouth whilst they feasted on my face and hands. The boat and lining was abandoned as I ran up and down the hill to evade my aerial assault. Fortunately Graham grabbed the ropes and it wasn’t long before I was leaping back in the boat and out in the middle of the river to lose my attackers. I was rewarded with a number of rocks to quickly navigate and a little rapid action, result.
With Sandy horsing ahead, we paddled across Loch Eigheach fighting another head wind and stopped for the night – I adopted my zig-zag wind strategy (with a goon power stroke) but I was informed the next morning this was poor boat control (a straight boat and j-stroke is more efficient). Tents and bivys quickly pitched (in the absence of trees) after another midges attack (although nothing like the black swarm we faced earlier). Sandy cooked korma for the team and after a wee nightcap we were all tucked up for the night. However, I pitched on a slope and ended up sliding down the tent half the night – rookie mistake!
Up at the crack of dawn everything was packed, breakfast eaten, and back in the boats for another loch paddle. As we had a short-fall fom the first day we were hoping to make up the distance today. That was before we were introduced to the demon portage!
A beautiful morning and Loch Eigheach was flat calm.Graham took the opportunity to provide some coaching and my task for the morning was to paddle in a straight line using the J-stroke. Which I might add, I nailed and left them all eating my waves. After a few hours we reached Loch Eigheach dam at the mouth of the River Gaur. The boats were hauled up and wheels at the ready, we repared ourselves for the first portage to navigate the dam (oh little did we know……)
Graham didn’t have wheels and I had no sooner mounted my boat and started hauling it, did the wheels buckle and break! Fortunately the other two held up well and although at the time if felt like a fair hauling distance, this portage was a walk in the park! We had the luxury of a road and small uphill push and downhill run. Roasted and exhausted we took a break before launching the boats. I got settled in to navigate the River Gaur, quiet happy to be back on the water……..however that was short lived, say hello to the portage from hell (although little did I know worse was still to come).
The next rapids were pretty serious and too difficult to line despite my best words of encouragement. And so began a lesson in endurance Bear Grylls style! The boats had to be hauled (with heavy kit) over rocks onto a grassy back, lifted over more rocks, slide through a little pool, and then up mounds and over more (large) rocks, lined around trees, and then hauled over……..wait for it……more rocks. There was a lot of puffing, panting, and for some eating grass! It was not one of my finer moments. It took us hours and we were knackered.
Back on the water we were paddle happy for a little while and made a start on our navigation of Loch Rannoch, stopping for lunch about a 3rd of the way in. Lunch again was courtesy of Sandy and at this point we felt the need to crack into the tins and open the authentic sangria. Spirits renewed we decided to raft up and make the most of the wind. After 30 minutes of sipping sangria and not much movement we realised the headwind was actually impeding our progress. Sails down it was man-power and I got put in charge of stern navigation.
We headed towards the Crannog Tower on Loch Rannoch
and with some skilful steering we beached perfectly. Landing party at the ready we had a full inspection of the little tower, complete with fire place. Curiosity satisfied we were back in the boat and paddling across the loch to one of the banks for a little shelter. Leg stretch at the bank and the navigator was swiftly ousted – although Richard quickly realised it was no picnic at the back! The remark that my paddle stroke was causing the raft to veer to the right didn’t land too well with Sandy who had a few choice words. Providing me with some amusement I didn’t have the urge to confess it was probably because I was edging my boat. After a long day’s paddling we pitched up at our next campsite, with perfect hammock trees and wild blueberries for anyone brave enough to eat them! We also managed to build a fire circle and collect enough wood for a modest fire whilst Graham cooked pasta surprise. Knackered it wasn’t long before we were all tucked up for the night……although not before I managed to take a few shots of the sun sinking behind the hills.
Tonight there wasn’t as much of a slope but pitched on mini cliff. One sleep step for mankind and I’d take a drop onto the beach. Fortunately there was no night manoeuvers – way too tired.
A slightly later start to the day, breakfast was had and the boats were re-packed. A little tip – don’t park your boat under a tree – it would surprise you how much “morning” dew can drip into your boat from leaves!
After a little bit of a bailing session we were ready and paddling across to Kinloch Rannoch. At the end wewere greeted with another dam (Dunalastair Water?). My apprehension around the nextpending portage, appeared to be unfounded. We got the boats out with relative ease – a wee carry and slide down and we were at some railing where the boats could be lowered into the water after the dam. Perhaps with too much enthusiasm Graham and I tried to slide my boat under the railing and it got stuck! We navigated the other boats round the railings which took a little more effort but relative to the other portages, this was a piece of cake. With my boat supported from water level we slide it through and we were all back on the water.
Another paddle and we were soon saying hello to demon portage, the return. There was lifting of boats up cliffs, hauling over large rocks, there may have been wheeling up hill (at this point I was traumatised). There was carrying down banks and navigating trees, lifting back over more rocks and then down into the water, via even more rocks. There was tears and I was broken.
The rest of the day is a bit vague but where we put in was pretty and there was a lovely little gorge area we paddled through. After that I know we paddled ……..and we may have had another portage, who knows. What I do know is we pulled into a caravan/butlins style camp for a refreshing pit stop – strawberry and lime cider never tasted sooooo good! We stocked up on more supplies (food and booze) and Graham treated us all to fish and chips. We carried on until 8.30pm to try and make up some lost distance from the previous days – 12 hrs of paddling and portage!
We pulled up at a flat grassy campsite by the road which had “evidence” of previous dwellers and Sandy warned of possible vermin– great! A few ciders and a warm sleeping bag and I slept like a log.
Today I died!
In another head wind! We paddled down Loch Tummel with Schiehallion in our sights. At the next dam the boats were out and the wheels back on. We pulled them along a fence and small dirt track (next to trees). Sandy and Graham lowered the boats down a drop and then we were wheeling them through another very muddy trail. A slide down a bank, avoiding trees, and the boats were back in the water – although not for long! A 5min paddle and we were out on a sunny rock having lunch.
Now on the River Tummel, I think. At this point everything really becomes a blur. I was in shock after yesterday’s portage and Sandy’s declaration of there being 3 today! 1 down but I was in fear of what was still to come. Now I don’t know which dam signaled the daddy of all portages.
We paddled a little way back down the loch and had to pull the boats up via ropes and then get them over a fence. Not as bad as it looked…….however we were on the verge of saying hello to a 5k portage up a friggin mountain (with more ups then downs, and not in the pint half full sense!).
After loading 2 boats with all the kit Richard was away like a whippet with his boat and industrial wheels. While we struggled with 3 boats – 1 on wheels with all the kit. After a little bit of uphill action one of Sandy’s wheels gave up the ghost. To say we were gutted was an understatement. However thanks to Graham’s salvage, he declared we had spare wheels and there was a moment of elation. Sandy had a formula one moment and we were back on the go. 10 minutes later the second wheel screamed for mercy and gave in. Unfortunately this time we needed an allan-key to release the second spare wheel. Not to be defeated Graham was determined to get the second spare wheel. Another formula one moment and we were back in the game again! It wasn’t long before my legs had enough and refused to take another uphill step. Next thing I know Grahams clipped onto the front of my boat hauling it up hill, with his on his head. During this Sandy enlightened me in how to signal a car to slow down, rather than frantically signaling for help (which wasn’t actually too far from the truth).
Exhaustion wasn’t the word and I had no pride left. The guys weren’t going to do it, so it was up to me. I flagged down a Tesco van and shamelessly begged him to take our kit up the hill – I could have cuddled that man. We carried on our arduous climb, digging really deep. At one point I may also have begged an old couple to take me home. Everyone thought I was joking – I was serious!
Finally we get to the top and started sliding the boats down a steep and wynding bank. A nice man took pity on me and offered to take a boat down for me. Sandy gallantly declined the offer (talk about a virtual blow!). Boats down we put them back into the River Tummel, just down from Linn Tummel. We followed the river down to where it joins with the River Garry before it flowed into Loch Faskally.
After paddling across Loch Faskally we reached the hydropower station and had to elevate the boats overhead height, and then haul them up another hill and across a field. Then slide them down a grassy verge, lift them over a wall, back down another bank, and along a wall. To put them back into the start of another section of the River Tummel. Half way through the portage Richard managed to release a wheel into the water and had to spend the next 15mins fishing it back out as we continued to haul kit and boats up the hill – never a dull moment.
We paddled down the River Tummel heading towards our campsite for the night. Fortunately we weren’t far from camp when I experienced the magnetic pull of the strainer. I did see it and gave it a wide berth but it wasn’t going to let me go. I tried in vain to paddle back out but it was a lost cause, and we both knew it. The strainer was having me. Next thing I know I’m being told to step out the boat. Hanging onto the tree I’m then being told to let go – let go? After checking I heard right I plunged into the water and got sucked under…….only to be spat back out. Boat ahead of me, and in hand, at my first opportunity I tried to climb back in but it wasn’t happening. I let go of the boat and Graham went after it, claiming pirate rights. Sandy came along side and told me to jump aboard and we paddled down river to re-unite a wet me with my boat.
Final campsite was a little island at the start of River Tay. Tents and hammocks up for the night and boats safely tied up, Richard cooked up Cowboy surprise. We camped close together which gave Sandy the benefit of being able to get us all up at the crack of dawn.
Hallelujah! No more portage – just 40k of river paddling to get to our get-out point, the city of Perth. A little bit of solo paddling and an introduction to the Canadian stroke, a bit of practice and I was a silent assassin. We passed a quaint old cathedral at Dunkeld, apparently one of the earliest Celtic seats in Scotland. Then the wind picked up offering another little challenge. After a bit of wind battling Graham suggested a little bit of tandem action – genius! With tandem power we left the other two for dust and clocked up 14k per hr in flow (and against wind). We even had time to land and brew up for the others arriving. Also discovered the Tay is the UK’s highest volume river.
Reverting back to solo we paddled onto to the first rapid section at Grandtully (grade 3, I think). I took in a little bit of water but nothing major, then it was onto Stanley with it’s famous boat breaker rocks and undercurrent boils. Again all expertly navigated with a few tips from Graham around reverse paddling through rapids to slow the boat.
A few wave trains to play with and a little bit of excitement when Sandy’s paddle snapped half way through a wave train. This gave Graham some entertainment and I was gutted to have missed the action. I was just coming out the wave train to see Sandy calmly whip out his spare paddle and carry on regardless.
We paddled on down the River Tay relatively event free until a random motor boat cut right across my line, just as I was navigating a rapid, mid point! After the motor boat manoeuver we popped out at Stanley Mill for a wee coffee and then it was back on the water. It was a fairly calm paddle thereafter although we did have to play dodgems with the fishermen. The odd rogue one also tried to whip me with their casting line! Exhausted and ready for home we carried on down the tidal section of the Tay into Perth itself.
All packed up and settled into the car we thought we could breathe a tired sigh of relief. However the dramas just kept coming. After being fed and watered we jumped back in the car, only to hear a funny noise. A pit-stop in the nearest service station, we discovered the trailer wheels were almost flat. Pressure back up we carried wearily on our way. However back in Glasgow I made the horrific discovery that I no longer had my car keys! Thanks to Graham’s quick thinking and quality investigation skills he located my keys in the restaurant. Like a knight in shining armour he was in his car and driving back to Perth to retrieve them – what a man!……………….Leigh Murray