A solo visit to the North West Highlands in August is now pretty much a nailed on annual tradition for me. It means that I still have something to look forward to after the annual week long fishing holiday in June and another excuse to get the maps out on the lounge floor and crawl all over them with Bruce’s bible in one hand and an iPad in the other. 2015 was Gairloch, 2016 was Achiltibui so what would this year be? An extraordinary amount of time went into the decision making process before I settled on a sojourn into the Applecross area to fish some very remote lochs. I would however start off with a couple of nights in Gairloch at a by now familiar campsite where I could sit outside my tent of an evening sipping a glass of wine whilst watching the waves lap gently against the shore, and perhaps wet a line in some of the local lochs.
The 9.5 hour, 430+ mile drive up with a cumulative total of about 30 mins break almost felt like going through the motions and didn’t quite hold the same level of excitement as it normally does but it still felt good to pull into Big Sand campsite and cruise around to find my preferred pitch. As luck would have it my preferred pitch was directly exposed to the full force of a Westerly storm coming in off the sea but it had a nice view! A friendly American couple ventured out of their campervan to help me put the tent up in 30+ mph winds which to be fair would have been hellish without their assistance. I managed to stay outside just long enough to cook and eat my Supernoodles and neck a coffee before heading over to the campervan to share some beers with my neighbours as a thank you.
It was a pretty rough night but my old F10 Assault did great. It’s still siling* down out there though, and continues to do so for much of the day. I venture out on short scale excursions (café, book shop, a light house..) and become vaguely excited at some sandstone formations but basically the day is a write-off and even treating myself to a decent meal becomes an almost impossible task until I hit the chippy. Gairloch is busy!
*I’ve just realised this must be a northern word so Googled it and discovered it has Norse origins. Most interesting
I awake to clearing skies and occasional sunshine – excellent, the game is afoot! Xcweather also shows a good forecast but alas the morning is still peppered with rain showers before I finally get a dry patch where I can air the tent and pack up although naturally when the weather improves the ‘fukn’ majas’ come out in force. I drive along the side of Loch Maree then turn right and go all the way along Glen Torridon to get to Shieldaig to do a recce of the campsite there which I plan to stay at Sunday night. I also wander down the hill to the village where some kind of fete is taking place and of course now the sun is shining as I stroll past various food stalls, BBQs and an outside bar which prompt me to have a mad minute in my head fighting with an urge to sack off my plans and just sit in the sun eating and drinking instead. Reluctantly I wrench myself away and get back in the car (which had been coned in, almost as if I was meant to stay!) and drive to the start point of my walk in to Loch XXXX. During my planning I’d identified 2 routes which would get me to the Coire I wanted to walk into. One was a fair bit shorter and covered much easier terrain so I chose the other which entailed an 8 mile walk in with plenty of ascent and terrain that, as Billy once said, you would not wish on a broke-dick dog. Why have silk when you can have hessian? After a solid 30 minutes of packing my rucksack with anything and everything I may need for my mission I finally got going and immediately felt the strain of my ridiculously heavy load.
The route initially follows an ancient track. It started off okay with a gentle stroll along a pretty decent path through bracken which reminded me a bit of the walk up to Fionn but soon became a tough slog over a vague collection of rocks embedded in bogs and tussocky grass.
By the time I’d reached the highest point of the walk in (after about 3.5 miles) I was in dire need of a break so sat on a good ol’ rock and threw down a Lucozade which didn’t even touch the sides, followed by a well-earned sandwich. From this vantage point I at least had a good view of where I was heading.
I could see the cliffs and hills that enclosed the lochs I wanted to fish but they seemed a bloody long way away and I knew the last 2 miles was over really rough terrain with no path at all. “Why do I do this?” rattled around in my head for a moment as it always does on these missions but was quickly dismissed with a glance at my magnificent surroundings and, perhaps strangely, already starting to look forward to looking back at this trip.
I made my way down until I reached the river and the left turn to follow it upstream into the coire I would be camping in tonight.
The route is pretty tough going with a full overnighter load on your back causing you to stumble on tussocks, slip off eroded banks and wallow around in bogs whilst sweating profusely. Also, whereas normally it takes a minute or 2 for midges to find you when you have a little stop these bastards were on it within seconds. Worrying! Oh but the views. I deliberately try and choose destinations that are both remote and magnificent to look at and it seemed in this respect I had chosen wisely!
I’d estimated about 4 hours from car to ‘campsite’ and I was not far off – by the time I reached the first loch I’d had quite enough of walking for one day. Not much time to relax though as rain clouds looked to be heading my way despite there being no rain forcast for the rest of the day so I was straight into putting my new Lightwave G20 Trek tent up which is inner first and so ideally needs to go up in the dry.
Just as I’d finished the rain came, and came in pretty hard to the extent I couldn’t face going back out to fish but to be honest I was too knackered to fish anyway. When it did finally stop raining the wind dropped and the midges rose up from the depths of hell to set to work on me. I had a midge net on and was lathered in Smidge but it was still unbearable to be out of the tent for long so I scaled back my hot meal followed by a brew to cold meal + brew to reduce cooking time.
I mused over my situation. Not everyone would ‘get’ this and sometimes I’m not entirely sure I do. I’m miles and miles from any human (other than my good friend the balaclava-clad escaped killer with his cut throat razor watching me from the heather), holed up in my tent eating cold meat pie with (thank the Lord I brought it) some HP sauce and drinking a mug of tea with one and a half spoonful of midges stirred in for good measure. Am I enjoying this? I think I am but fuck I’m tired and it dawns upon me I can’t actually face wetting a line tonight despite all the effort it’s taken to get here. I doze for maybe an hour, listening to the familiar sounds of Highland wilderness and vaguely registering the light fading outside and truly start to ‘bed in’ with my surroundings. Then I start planning the rest of my evening which doesn’t take long. The agenda is:- Miniature bottle of Casillero el Diablo first, then the hip flask, whilst browsing through any locally stored video content I can find on my iPhone which is probably not as exotic as you are thinking – mainly U2 videos. If the pyscho killer is nearby, he too is probably struck by the juxtaposition of U2 live at Twickenham blasting out of a little tent in quite literally the middle of nowhere.
Morning. I must have been tired and badly dehydrated as I slept right through without needing to get up for a piss or fret over terrifying noises outside the tent although speaking of noises there’s a stag bellowing somewhere out there, is he angry at the whole U2 thing from last night? I’ve seen The Revenant, I know what animals are capable of. I slowly venture out, oh hello again midges, and knock up a brew which I proceed to drink whilst walking in circles at just over 5.5 miles per hour then tackle up with my usual 6 weight Wychwood travel rod but with a new Snowbee Spectre reel. Niiice. The loch I am camped near to looks pretty shallow and besides, I’m here to explore so push onto the next one in the chain which is substantially larger.
On goes the same sedgehog I used back in Gairloch but this time it isn’t sucking fish out of the depths and into the sky! I work my way along the shore fishing the spots where the loch shelves off to deeper water but nothing really happens apart from one brief hook up off an obvious point. The wind is blowing from my left and rattling down the loch which leads me to wonder if the fish are all holed up in a bay at right angles to the wind which was much calmer and stuffed with weedbeds.
I carefully make my way down to this spot and within 2 casts have landed a beautifully marked wild brown trout. Success!
The blanker’s yoke has been removed from my shoulders. It’s all boiled down to this moment, like a Saturn 5 moonshot which ultimately culminates in a piddling tin box floating around in space – all this money, time and effort has led to this moment of me and a diminutive Scottish fish gently resting in my hands. A few pictures and the fish goes back. More follow, sometimes it’s a fish every cast, my theory about where the fish would be is right and I have a whale of a time.
When the action dries up a little I move back to the smaller loch for a chuck and discover it’s full of micro brownies so finish off on a stretch of the outflow burn which also has a healthy number of fish.
After a couple of hours of fishing heaven I cannot help but fixate on the impending return leg and the significant admin required before I can even begin that journey. Besides, it’s good to leave a place wanting more, or some bollocks like that, so I trudge back to my tent and begin the process of packing up. This reaches an admin zenith when everything is out of the tent and strewn across the ground, it looks like a bomb has gone off in Cotswold Outdoors but is necessary to facilitate intelligent packing i.e. Putting stuff away last that might be needed first! There is a great feeling to be had though when you do that last check for anything left behind and set off, still marveling that all that stuff is now hanging off your back. I had originally planned to exit the Coire straight up the back wall and come back along one of the high ridges because it would (if conditions allowed) reward me with some truly amazing views but repeated assessment of that back wall left me inconclusive. It would be real bad times if I got half way up and realised the top was too steep to scramble with all that stuff on my back.
The long walk back out of the Coire is still hard work but at least it’s downhill for now and I stop a couple of times to drink some ultra-refreshing water out of the stream through my mini-filter. These things cost about £25 and can filter up to 100,000 gallons of water despite weighing bugger all. Am I missing something? Shouldn’t we be diverting a big chunk of our foreign aid budget to distributing these things where they are needed around the world? Maybe we already are!
The real work begins when I hang a right and begin the climb back up to the ‘saddle’ I descended off yesterday. I stop half way up, it’s very hot, I’m knackered, hungry and thirsty. I deploy my rationed can of Coke, my last sandwich, a chocolate bar and feel a bit better but when I reach the saddle I have another chocolate bar, an energy gel and a slug of single malt for good measure. Damn this is hard going! I also found a very handsome looking caterpillar, does anyone know what it is? Google images not turned owt up!
By the time I get back to the car I am bushed but know I have another night in a tent ahead of me and could do with getting it up before the rain comes. I drive back to Shieldaig but decide to have a pint of Bealach na Ba in the village pub before the admin begins. Whilst downing this I inquire about food then find myself asking if they have any rooms for the night. Oh dear, hello, is that the SAS? Yes, sorry, I’ve changed my mind I’m not sure I’m quite what you were looking for after all. They have a room available, I have a credit card and I need a bath so the deed is done. Bliss, utter bliss. I have a bath then head back down to the bar for a slap up meal washed down with more hand pulled ale before retiring to my comfy bed.
Coming home, and coming down from these weekends is not easy. The 9 and a half hour drive back to Leeds is never quite as exciting and it’s basically get in, get a some tea then bed, straight to work next day and sit at my desk pushing ones and zeros around again. Within a day it’s like you were never away but at least banging together a blog post helps me relive the experience a bit and hopefully give you some ideas. On the subject of blog posts, I now have to dedicate some time to putting together something about the 2017 annual fishing holiday.