It’s 7:30 in the evening, I’m holed up in a 1 man tent half way up a mountain and I’m defecating into an Asda tie handle freezer bag to the incessant sound of rain drumming against the fly sheet. Only, it’s not actually raining…..
Assynt fishing holidays began in 2007. 3 young men and a mountain of gear piled into a 99 plate Mondeo cruising up to Scotland feeling like we were on an epic mission. Turns out we were….Assynt blew our tiny fucking minds. None of us were ever the same because for the rest of our lives we occasionally lapse into daydreaming about the Inverpolly Jurassic park. Some of us even carve Torridonian inselbergs out of their mashed potato whilst their families look on in resignation. Through the years 3 sometimes became 4 as various friends came along with us but as we entered our 40s the chances of 4, 3 or even 2 of us being able to get a full lads only week away diminished to practically nothing. Of late, I have taken to shooting up to Assynt or thereabouts on my own at short notice when all the planets are aligned and a green card can be obtained but this year even that was looking unlikely due to my son starting school.
The compromise came in the form of a hybrid mission. A family week in Glencoe and Stirling with my girlfriend and son followed by a parting of ways at Stirling train station and a solo 5 hour drive up to Achiltibui. We’d had an amazing time despite a storm hitting our campsite, and got to visit some bucket list Scotland tourist attractions including Stirling Castle and the Wallace monument.
I had mixed feelings leaving them behind (my family, not the tourist attractions) as I drove up but there was no escaping the excitement of returning to Assynt once more and getting some solo time in the wilderness.
My destination was Port a Bhaigh campsite on the Achiltibui peninsular which I would make my basecamp for this mission. I’d stayed here before, about 7 years ago on a very similar mission and was looking forward to checking out the campsite again. On arrival I pitched my Trisar 2D and had a quick look around, it’s a great little campsite with a very useful shop and was able to loan a firepit for my pitch. I then got some scran in the Am Fuaran bar opposite, scampi and chips if you must know, expensive but tasty. Getting back to the tent I tried to do a bit of admin for the next day because jings crivens there’s a ridiculous amount of tosh required for even just 1 night’s wild camping/fishing. Let’s recap some of the things required for such a mission…
Rucksack (Fjallraven Kajka 75)
Tent (Nordisk Svalbard S1) & footprint
Emergency bivvy bag
Sleeping mat (Exped down mat)
First Aid kit (progressed somewhat from the days when my first aid kit consisted of a plaster, enough Dihydrocodeine to put me on a one way ticket to the astral plane, some amber leaf, Rizlas and a lighter)
Fishing rod, reel and waistcoat
Water bladder (2 litres…..not enough)
Hip flask (just enough)
Wine (Rioja 18.75cl – not enough :-D)
Sleeping bag (Cumulus down bag, custom made with extra panels to fit me!)
Midge net & Smidge
Tea bags/Instant coffees
Food (an array of pasties, chocolate bars and noodles)
Waterproof jacket (Berghaus) and trousers (Marmot Precip)
Insulating jacket (Montane Prism)
GPS (Etrex 32)
I then kicked back with a couple of beers and started to wind down with a nice little stoker in the fire pit. It’s sad isn’t it but fuck me the world’s a better place after a few beers. I reckon the optimal level is 4. The progression through to four beers will elevate your enjoyment of music, shave the edges off any problems or worries you may have to the point where they are perfectly manageable, and fill you with youthful optimism yet still leave you functioning the next day. 5 and beyond…well…that music might get better, the worries even more manageable or they may get worse and make you turn on yourself and get maudlin’. Then the next day is a skull splitting headache, a belly full of bile and the start of a 48 hour existential crisis.
The next day I got a porridge and a brew down me and proceeded to finalise admin which still took a good hour of serious faff despite last night’s efforts. I then drove back out along Achiltibui and parked up at the nearest proper layby to the crossing point over the Allt na Coise Gille. I nearly parked in a huge passing place that was much nearer but some immediate glowering from a passing driver set me right on that. Don’t be one of those c**** who park in passing places.
I set off with my heavy pack unsure how my feet and fitness would hold up as both have not been on top form of late, plantar fasciitis in particularly pissing me off. Once you’ve crossed the inflow to the loch you follow the Allt Claonaidhe all the way up to Lochan Tuath which is a steady ascent of about 3 and a half miles with some nice views over to Stac Pollaidh behind you.
Along the way I begin to slot into nature and managed to spot a lizard and then some newts in a glorified puddle.
The comforting aroma of heather and bog myrtle, the sound of a tumbling burn and buzzing bees all around help you complete the temporary transition from stressed out middle aged dad into man-in- hills with cartoon bluebirds circling around his head, whistling a tune with a spring in his step. I don’t think there’s a God in the traditional sense that sits up on high making trillions of decisions every millisecond who dictates the destiny of each and every thing on the planet. I believe the simple fact is God is nature (and no less powerful for it) and the closer you can get to it, be part of it, and understand how it’s all connected and in balance the better things will be for you and those around you. If I’m wrong, I still reckon I can argue my way out of this at the pearly gates!
Arriving lochside I dumped the pack and seeing as there was a nice breeze and no rain decided to get the tent up before the rain or midges came along and fucked everything sideways. It’s not easy finding a decent pitch when wild camping up in these places and I ended up over heather which is harsh on your tent floor (good job I brought the footprint) , on a slope with my head lower than my feet.
With the tent up I weighed up my priorities, getting up hills or catching fish? Hills it is, especially as I had unfinished business with Ben More Coigach. Driving out from Ullapool you can’t miss this big wall of rock pointing out to sea and it feels like here begins the true Northern Highlands. I’ve always had a soft spot for this ridge ever since that first drive up in 2007 and at times have been fortunate enough to catch it with its flank lit up by the dying sunbeams of golden hour. I’d run out of time on my last visit and could only do the Fiddler so this time I made it a priority to hit the ridge. I left only essentials in my rucksack and trudged my way up the very steep gully running up the side of the Fiddler and then turned left at the plateau to pick a route up the side of BMC. It’s slow steady going but nothing difficult and as you get near the top you start getting the kind of views that have you talking to yourself in amazement with Beinn an Eoin, the Fiddler, Stac Polly and Suilven all there lined up for you.
And then, as you get to the crest of the slope you see what lies ahead of you, a long, steep sided ridge that rises up into a dinosaur back of rock topped with sporadic narrow walls and turrets of Torridonian sandstone.
As is often the case, I spied bypass paths heading under the scrambly bits which looked far worse than the narrow rock along the top – they’re often the ones that’ll get you killed. I picked my way along the crest, only pausing at one tall turret when the clouds descended to create an ominous atmosphere and I momentarily doubted myself before dropping my pack and carrying on.
I went out to the sensible limit of the ridge, dropping about 50m from the ridge summit and soaked in the views and the vibes before turning back as there was no point descending any further.
I retraced my steps along the ridge, back down to the plateau and then made my way back down the side of the Fiddler which was probably harder than getting up it!
Back at my tent there was bad news, the bastard midges were out in force. It was bad, real bad. Almost certainly the worst midges I’ve ever encountered. I administered the Smidge and then deployed my midge net. Yes, they quickly stopped biting my hands and couldn’t get to my face but they were still forming a choking smog around me and making pretty much anything unbearable. I fired up the stove to cook my Supernoodles with loch water and watched as the bubbling pasta and water began to collect a thick, peppery layer of midges. When it came to eating I cocked my headnet back and ate the food walking in circles hoping walking speed + gentle breeze added up to the required 7mph but it wasn’t really working. I then boiled the kettle and threw down an instant coffee to get some fluids in me. Once tea was out of the way there was no question of staying out, sod fishing, the midges were out of control!!
Even entry into the tent had to be meticulously planned – coat off, boots unlaced GO GO GO as I threw myself in, kicked off my boots into the porch and zipped myself in. Outside, the midges were furious at losing out on their meal ticket and were hurling themselves against the flysheet making it sound like rain. I breathed a sigh of relief and lay back with my mini wine and put on some music on my phone. I began to relax as the wine took hold and then the hip flask was opened which led to even more relaxing but a heavy toll was being paid on my inner workings along with the coffee, and soon a teddy bear’s arm was knocking on heaven’s door. Oh man this is not good, not good at all – there’s no way on earth I can sit out there for 5 minutes with my tea towel holder getting eaten alive, what do I do? In full MacGyver mode I settled on a plan involving a freezer bag, a Norden bomb site and some deft crouching. Once the job was complete I made use of the tie handles and hoyed the bag outside for the midges to ponder over whilst I sanitised and got back to drinking. If you’ve ever read an Andy McNabb book the SAS always seem to be lying up in ditches and hedgerows eating Mars bars and shitting into carrier bags so in many respects I’ve been operating at a special forces level.
The astonishing thing was I had enough data signal to stream content from Youtube so I had a fantastic time holed up in my tent knocking back whisky and listening to pretty much any music I could think of whilst paradoxically revelling in my utter solitude. I’ve been solo wild camping for years now and don’t really get the fear I got on my 1st couple of wild camps where every noise was a bad man loitering outside my tent ready to do terrible things to me. The irony is, the only time something bad like that has happened was earlier this year on a packed campsite when some crank went round trying to break into people’s tents and camper vans, and came to visit us! These days I’m probably more scared that I’ll have a stroke/heart attack out in the hills and die alone which is why I’m contemplating getting an iPhone 15 or higher which allows emergency satellite messaging. Still, better to die peacefully out in the hills on my own than alone in a hotel room having a desperate stranglewank with an orange in my mouth. It could go either way, to be fair.
In the morning there was just enough breeze coming off the loch to go down to a little beach and boil a kettle for porridge and tea. Once breakfast was out of the way I had to get some fishing in because there was no way I was blanking up here after all this effort.
It didn’t come easy, only a handful of fish were moving and most seemed like proper tiddlers but as I moved around the loch to deeper water I finally connected with a trout that could pull back…only just though. As soon as I caught that fish the monkey was off my back and I wasn’t much bothered about catching anymore. Funny how priorities change, in my 20s and even 30s you’d’ve had to drag me away kicking and screaming if there was any chance of catching more fish! I did consider completing a side mission I’d set myself which was to visit a nearby lochan which a regular reader (the regular reader?) of my blog had emailed me about. He’d had a similar experience there to my sinister encounter in Assynt and I was really keen to see if I picked up similar vibes but not today,
The bastard midges were really out in force again and I was craving a slap up meal so I began the task of packing down the tent and loading up the rucksack, including my freezer bag of shame. What to do with such a thing? In the end I had to squeeze the bag of shame into my empty pee bottle (all the time petrified it would burst) and then put the lid on. The walk down was a steady plod and some difficulties keeping the path which got really vague at times. I very nearly went for a swim at a beautiful pool formed in the outflow burn which had a perfect sandy bottom but lack of swimming trunks and/or towel eventually dissuaded me. I still regret this now!
As always there’s the nervous walk back to the car where you are desperately hoping it’s not been nicked but it was still there – to be fair I’d be surprised if there’s much car crime up here! Back at the campsite a post wild camp relaxation session was needed with a pint of bitter shandy (!) in the pub whilst poring over the Strava logs and OS map. I have a weird passion for looking where I’ve been on the map/GPS afterwards, I find it deeply satisfying to to rerun the adventure on the map and compare the map contours to the real experience. Sometimes at home I draw the curtains and do a fly through of my route in 3D in Memory Map *rubs knees*. My last night back at the campsite involved some takeaway grub from the pub and a couple of beers to wash it down whilst looking out on to the sea. The following day as always brought the trade off for such wilderness adventures in the remote Highlands…a 10 hour drive back to Leeds to reflect on what might not have been the biggest of missions but an amazing reconnect with nature with unfailingly inspirational views. I really have to question my ability to continue doing these missions in August though, the midges are an abomination. I truly don’t know what would happen if you staked someone out in the heather and let those midges swarm them for 12 hours. There’s a good chance they’d either be dead or mentally broken for life when you came to get them!