Wednesday 24 January 2018

Isle of Jura Day 3 - The Final Leg

The next morning the stiff breeze had gone and we were gifted with a beautiful sunny day, maybe the last.  
There was no immediate rush to get on the water.  The flood tide that will take us north doesn't turn for a few hours yet.
I sat on the makeshift bench outside the bothy under damp bits of kits, eating my pre-packed porridge rations, the staple diet of any kayaker.
A green shipping bouy mid channel leaned heavily, straining on it's moorings with the force of the tide ebbing out of the Sound of Islay.  Boats cruised past with ease and rafts of sea birds drifted by carried on the tide.  The only sounds were that of the lapping waves on the shore and the short sharp screeches of oystercatchers picking their way through the shallows. Life was good.
The added time gave me chance to organise and pack my boat.  For some strage reason there was far more space in my hatches than there was previously.  I had eaten some of the contents but still.
The two walkers we met last night slipped away on their boggy trek to the ferry terminal at Port Askaig.  The time came for us to leave also, floors swept and beds made ready for the next adventurers to discover this magical place.
The plan (D,E? I've lost count) was to continue on our clockwise journey, stopping off at Port Askaig to find out the latest weather forecast.
Carraig Mhor lighthouse commissioned in 1928
We skirted along the eastern shores of Islay as the opposite shores of Jura narrowed closer, closing to less than a killometer apart at Port Askaig.
At Port Askaig moors the only lifeboat that serves the Islay group of islands, including Islay, Jura and Colonsay.  I imagine the crew have had their fair share of fun in the Corryvreken.
We draw up on the muddy banks of the harbour while the Jura ferry continually ferries passengers and vehicles across the short passage.  In earlier times the ferry was apparently signalled by shouting across the Sound.
I enjoy a bit of local cuisine, Scots pie and a bottle of Iron Bru, while the others visit the RNLI station for the latest forecast.  As predicted the advice given was to head for the mainland tonight or risk being stormbound for the unseeable future.

From here on the plan is to circumnavigate the southern half of Jura, making our escape via a 1.9km portage from Loch Tarbert on the west to Tarbert Bay on the east, where we landed breify yesterday.  We would then cross back over the Sound of Jura to the mainland.  It meant another long day, over 50km, but at least we would achieve something of our circumnavigation and explore some of the rugged west coast.
So we continue to drift onwards passing two of Islay's eight distilleries before making for the Jura coastline once more.
Natural basalt walls formed some 56 million years ago, line the western shores.  Formed durring a period of intense volcanic activity, when upwelling magma filled cracks in the earths crust. The less resistant rock has erroded away leaving these dykes.
Leaving the clutches of the tides of the Sound of Islay the rugged remoteness of Jura's North Western extremities stretches off into the far horizon.  From here on there are no roads or even anything that resembles a path for miles around.
We stumble upon a pristine white beach and take the chance to explore a little....

The northern tip of Islay across the water.
The Isle of Colonsay on the horizon.
Martin above and me below exploring a dyke.

Soon back on the water we continue on our journey west.  To our right steep open grassland cascades down to a vertical cliff before dropping into the grey sea below.  Almost identical to parts of Skye's east coast around Portree, Sea Eagle country.  I kept a keen eye above the cliffs, within moments an eagle appeared.  I shouted to the rest of the group in front of me but they were oblivious to the flying ironing boad size bird to our right.

We enter the mouth of Loch Tarbert, this marks the half way point of the full circumnavigation and what would have been tonight's camp spot.
Raised beaches
Jura's Northern extremities
At Glen Batrick (Norse 'Pasture Harbour') we were truly at the remote heart of the Isle, the last place we'd expect to see a grand Victorian hunting lodge. A summer residence of the Astor family,  owners of the Tarbert estate,  is only accessible by sea or a 6 mile treck through tick and bog infested hills.
Time as always is ebbing away but we take an opportunity to briefly explore one of the raised beaches, after all its only been 15,000 years since the last tide was in.  Here I spotted my first Osprey.
The pebble beaches some 40m high are the result of the last ice age. In brief, the crust of the land sunk under the weight of the ice, whilst the sea levels also dropped as ice locked up the water. As the ice melted the sea levels rose. The land rebounded more slowly but as it continues to do so it has left the beaches well beyond the reach for the tides. Remarkably the pebbles look as though the tide went out this morning.

On our way again we pass Cruib Lodge, another potential bothy night, one for next time I'm sure.
At the end of Loch Tarbert the waters narrow into a winding channel where the waters flow up to 8 knots.  After a long day on the water I was nice to kick back and let the tide do most of the work.
Standing in the way of our crossing to the mainland was a 1.9km portage along a rough track with 40m of ascent.  A relatively straight forward portage with a kayak trolley.  Unfortunately space was limited and only myself and Jules had packed one...then mine broke. Jules pushed on with his wheels while the rest of us attempted to haul fully laden kayaks over land. Just as we were about to give in help was at hand...
There was no respite when we finally made it to the far side however. There was still at least a 3 hour crossing ahead of us and it would be dark before then.
Here followed a little confusion. The tide was running against us, pushing us south where our destination was north.  In our rush to escape the midges we hadn't formulated a plan.  We dithered between ideas not making much ground before finally deciding to simply get to the other side before dark and work it out from there.
The approaching storm front gaining on us like a scene out of Independence Day.
The sun set over Jura as groups of Porpoise with flocks of sea birds in tow crossed our path making their journey up and down the sound.
We couldn't tell for certain but we seemed to make landfall roughly where we paddled to on our first day where I found the antlers.

The sun had set and the still waters turned to glass.
A perfect way to end an epic day.  By the time we hauled the boats ashore it was dark. We erected the tents while Simon nipped to the pub to convince the bar lady to re-open the till to for a bottle of beer each, a bottle of wine and 10 packs of scampi fries.
The rain drummed on the tent durring the night and the edges shook and cracked in the wind.  Any doubt that we had been to hasty to abort our expedition was wiped away, we had made the right decision.  We donned our wet gear one final time to pack away the gear and headed off Inveraray for breakfast.

The northern half of Jura still remains unexplored.  Thanks to Simon, Chris, Jules and Martin. We would have to return again, there's always a next time....

Monday 24 July 2017

Isle of Jura Day 2 cont... Craighouse to An Cladach (part 3)

Tired though we were, we reluctantly packed our belongings back into the full hatches and set off once more into the emerald green shallow waters.  Our desire to circumnavigate Jura was still strong, but it would mean arriving at what would have been tomorrow's destination tonight, doubling our current millage...This was plan B.
Bows pushed on parting glassy waters mirroring clouds in the sky.  I stripped off my dry cag and allowed the splashes of salt water flicking off my paddle blades to cool my arms.  I set back into my rhythm,  the full laden boat sat low in the water tracking well.  My lower back ached but that wasn't what was bothering me.
I wanted to circumnavigate the Isle of Jura, that was the ultimate plan, but not like this. I wanted to take my time and experience the magic of the island, not rush around it for the sake of it. Since leaving Craighouse the feel of the trip had changed.  It was now a challenge.  The feel of achievement would be wonderful I'm sure but it wouldn't be won easily. Nevertheless I pushed on from the toes into the shoulders.
A caravan of goats grazing on the steep rocky shore momentarily distracted me from my aching bones.  Legend has it the goats made it ashore when ships from the Spanish Armada were wrecked nearby.  However, they are likely to be descended from domestic animals kept by crofters and abandoned during the social changes of the mid-19th century.
Swinging a full 90 degrees from south to west we rounded the most southerly extremities of Jura to enter the Sound of Islay. The tide that runs up to 5 knots through the narrow parting between the Isles of Jura and Islay, was in our favor.  However, the wind was not.
Our long bows drove on into the oncoming sea, drenching us in plumes of spray, I now wished I had kept my dry cag on.  The wind was funneling down the sound, every paddle stroke gained was hard fought. Any ground gained by the tide was lost by the wind.
Am Fraoch Eilean, once an important stronghold for the MacDonalds, commanding the sea lanes between the Mull of Kintyre and the southern Hebrides, now a haven for five weathered kayakers.  We welcomed the shelter beneath the 20 meter vertical defences and a chance to revise our plans.
We wade through the shallows of red kelp as an RAF Hurcules sours overhead, probably just taken off from from Islay airport.  Thankfull of the rest we secure our boats with our tow lines and explore the small island and the 15th century Claig Castle.
With no obvious track leading up the flat topped summit we go in search of an easier way up. The island is divided into two unequal portions by a narrow gully. The building rises directly from the lip of the gully. I dubiously follow Martins lead up the precarious looking crag to top out underneath the castle walls.

The remaining building comprises of just the group floor with 2.4m thick walls made of local rubble and originally dressed in fine sandstone from Arran.  The fortress seemed as if intended to guard the mouth of the sound, and was also the prison where MacDonalds kept their captives.
I can't imagine there are many visitors to the island, there were however plenty of evidence the deer dare to cross the fast flowing streams to feed on the dense vegetation.
We decided, to continue on to Loch Tarbert on the western coast was no longer viable with the increasing headwind. Progress would be painfully slow and I think a few of us shared the opinion that a two day circumnavigation was not what we wanted to get out of this trip.

Instead to plan C...A 3km crossing of the sound of Islay to An Cladach bothy to spend the night there.  My mood had lifted and suddenly my back was no longer playing up, although that might have something to do with the two painkillers I just necked.
We hauled up on the unspoilt pebble beach eager to explore our home for the night on the Isle of Islay.
The bothy is situated in an idyllic location, nestled between the hills in the remote south east corner of Islay. The bothy, like most bothies is in the Scottish Highlands, is a restored building that dates back beyond the Highland clearances.  The An Cladach settlement consists of three small rectangular buildings. At the waters edge are the remains of a slipway that suggests access to this area was by boat.
The name An Cladach meaning harbour suggests it may have been used as seasonal accommodation for fishermen.  It's nice to think two centuries later it's still being used for simular purposes, but instead of fishermen it now manly accommodates kayakers and walkers.
The only group shot of us all, chilling in the evening sun outside the bothy. From left to right we have Chris, Martin, myself Jules and Simon.

We were later joined by two walkers who by the sound of it had had a long day. Jules and Martin kindly gave up their bunks to camp on the beach and we shared a few storeys with them over a bit of whiskey later that evening.
Inside there are two bunks sleeping five and plenty of floor space if you needed to sleep a few more. There's a kitchen area and even a small library of books. We settle in hanging our damp kit outside in the sun and start to get dinner on the go. On tonight menu is tined curry with cous cous, bombay potatoes and naan bread.
Simon (left) and Chris fashioning their new headgear, in all honesty the midges weren't all that bad.

We head out in search of fire wood on an already well combed beach. Bothy rule number one, replace fire wood for the next guests.  Failing to find anything substantial we happen upon the instruction to find blocks of dried peat. I love the smell of peat burning on a fire.
"At 220 degrees from the rear of the building you will see an orange marker on the hill" this is where the peat was cut, dried and stored. A few hundred yards from the bothy and knee deep in bog we give in and head back. The orange dot above right of Jules in the picture above is the marker.
We did manage to salvage some dry sea weed and a few pieces of driftwood to burn to warm our feet against and a few wee drams of Jura whiskey to warm the soul.

It had been a long day since leaving the mainland shores at Carsaig bay early this morning.  What an adventure it has been so far. If the forecast remains true it would be a short one, tomorrow would be our last day.  Who knows what the forecast holds for now, for tomorrow at least the adventure continues...