And this is where Rob thought he’d broken his leg”, said Andy, pointing to a mass of tightly packed contour lines on the map as he talked about the last time he had been to Knoydart. “Good thing he hadn’t too, because if something happens out there, well… It’s not going to go well. Are you sure about going on your own?” I looked again at the place that Andy had pointed to, way out in the empty glens of Knoydart’s Rough Bounds, and saw that the nearest settlements from which help might come if it was needed were long distances away by water or over rough mountain passes. I wasn’t sure any more, but nodded anyway. Water isn’t my natural element. I realised a long time ago that I have the staying power of a midge in a hurricane when it comes to getting cold and wet, so dry land has always appealed to me over Scotland’s chilly lochs and seas. The peninsula of Knoydart, way out to the west of the tourist bustle of Fort William however, is a place apart. Look it up on the map: bounded on three sides by sea lochs and the Sound of Sleat, and on the other by ranks of munro summits, its sole village of Inverie is accessible only by boat, unless you fancy a two day hike through the hills. It’s title of ‘Britain’s Last Wilderness’ is slightly disingenuous though; people did once populate the area, but now the only traces of them are the odd overgrown ruin and a maze of old trackways that are slowly melting back into the land. I had wanted to go there, drawn by the sheer inaccessibility, for a long time, but now I had a plan. I’m not sure how Andy and Rob would feel about the term ‘rubber boat enthusiasts’ (I don’t think Andy would disagree, come to think of it), but as the UK distributors of Alpacka packrafts they had the means to take this adventure waterborne. The lochs and tide races that cut Knoydart off from the rest of the Highlands would become my highways through the hills, and Andy was busy strapping up the bright red packraft that would, hopefully, be my sea chariot. At least, that was what I had imagined when I spread the map out on the floor one evening; the reality would prove to be a little more daunting. Equipped with my shiny red boat, I made a late-night drive across country to the tiny settlement at Kinloch Hourn, on the northern margin of the Rough Bounds. I say settlement, because it barely qualifies as a village – just a handful of farmhouses and an old stone jetty. Once I left the Road to the Isles, just after Invergarry, it was singletrack road for the 22 miles to the road end: a crazy rollercoaster of hummocks and sharp bends, punctuated by the occasional gleam of animal eyes staring out of the darkness. Past the inky waters of Loch Quoich, after which the tiny old road spat me out of the mountains with relish, down an improbably steep, tight and twisting course to the sea, dropping two hundred metres in the last few kilometres. The only hint of my location was the salt tang of seaweed, and the outlines of the hills above me casting darker silhouettes against the night sky. scottish packraftingI awarded myself a little lie-in the next morning, having just finished an 8-day guiding stint, and this proved to be unwise. In my ignorance I enjoyed a coffee, and listened to the thrum of rain on the roof of the van. When it cleared, it revealed precipitous green slopes that fell sharply into the loch, their tops still shrouded in fog. Making extra space on the bike for the raft, paddles and obligatory fishing rod took a little while, and four days worth of food needs its fair share of space as well. The upshot of all this meant that it was getting on for midday by the time I put cleat to pedal and began to grind my way up the impossible road that I had arrived by the night before. It began to rain immediately (setting something of a theme) and by the time I had climbed back up to Loch Quoich I was thoroughly wet. Getting to the water meant traversing a herd of highland cows, not that they seemed to care one way or the other, and then the soft ground stopped, and the silent, black water of the loch lay between me and forward progress. It had been very easy to get excited about the idea from the comfort of home – to imagine graceful amphibious travel over land and water, quickly piling everything in to the boat when needed and having a jolly old time afloat – but those presumptions were quickly being washed away by the relentless rain. Try as I might, the various pieces of bike always seemed to work their way loose, and when I did finally get everything lashed down I found that the boat would capsize without my weight in it to balance everything out. I was wet, a little cold and more than a little nervous when I zipped up my buoyancy aid and stepped in, pushing off from the rocky shoreline towards a very uncertain future. The bottom of the loch fell away sharply in the first few metres, giving way to unwelcoming, peat-stained depth; I felt the echoing of a great deal of space underneath me and my tiny, overloaded boat, and decided to stick close to the shore. Things picked up a little when the sun came out to light up the greens and purples of the hillsides around me; I even paused from paddling to drift on the wind and take a few photos. The return of the rain reminded me that I still had a long way to go once I reached dry land, and I got back to the steady rhythm of paddling once more. Progress was steady enough though, and by late afternoon I landed at the mouth of the Abhainn Cósaidh where it met the loch, and began to unload and repack the gear on to the bike. I had been warned that the ‘rough’ in Rough Bounds was there for a reason – I knew that this part of the world was not plain sailing, having spent enough time in the adjoining hills looking for that promising looking trail among bog and heather. From the moment I set foot back on dry land though, the previous records were scrapped in favour of the relentless slog lying between me and the tempting prospect of the bothy in Barrisdale Bay. scottish packraftingIt was a kilometre from the loch shore to where I could hope to pick up the trail, and for part of that kilometre the easiest route open to me was to push the bike up the knee-deep river, so rough and steep was the ground to either side. The trail, when I found it, was mostly rideable in sections, but the encroaching bog that had flowed over its surface meant that progress was often a slow grind at less than walking pace. My lie-in had long ago stopped seeming like a good idea, and I knew that I faced a long, hard evening if I wanted to rest my head in the warmth of the bothy, so through gritted teeth I marched on. The convoluted folds of the rock led me on a merry dance over false summits and round unexpected corners, until at last my faint green line of long-forgotten labour relented, and it began to fall between the hills into Glen Barrisdale. My tired mind saw nothing but the homely welcome of the imagined bothy, but there was plenty of work left to be done to get there. At one point, navigating a tortuous course between inviting holes and ruts, I placed the front wheel onto ground that suggested firmness and safety. I realised my mistake too late, and was prevented from sliding off the back of the bike by the seat bag behind the saddle. I was going down with my ship in a long, soaring arc, and in the split-second of perfect clarity that we seem to be gifted in the slow motion of a crash, I remembered to roll my shoulder into the ground rather than meet it with outstretched arms. The impact was heavy, on to mud littered with sharp rocks, and the air left my lungs with an involuntary grunt. It began to rain again. I lay there in the water for a few seconds while my mind played catch up, before rolling over on autopilot to check the damage. It was only once I realised that nothing was seriously damaged or injured that the reality of my situation hit me: I was hours from help on a rough and barely-used trail, in the middle of Scotland’s most inaccessible peninsula; I was alone and darkness was falling. It was a silly crash, born from a tired mind and body, but it could easily have meant a broken wrist or collarbone, or worse, if I hadn’t tucked when I had. There and then, I was reminded that I was very much alone in the gathering dark with the consequences of my actions, and I felt so small and inconsequential that I could have wept. With no-one to listen to my frightened voice the choice was easy to get up and move again, feeling very thankful that I had left a very thorough route plan behind at home.scottish packraftingThe last hour and a half to Barrisdale was cautious, timid and slow: it was 9pm when the glow of lights through the windows greeted me and I splashed through the last remaining puddles eagerly. There were three German hikers already there, and we chatted briefly about the loveliness of the bay, and the hard work needed to get there. The feeling of relief to strip off the layers of grit and mud, unwrapping food and warm clothes from their protective dry-bags, was wonderful, and in only half an hour the trials of the day’s journey were lost in a drowsy, hot chocolate fug. I should say, too, that the bothy was an unexpected delight. Most Scottish bothies are maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association, a charity that uses what funds and volunteers it can muster to maintain a scattering of remote huts and old cottages throughout Scotland, England and Wales. They are very rudimentary, offering only basic shelter and warmth, but they are lovely in their own way, and very welcome to the weary eyes of someone who has been long hours out on the hill. Barrisdale is a private bothy though, attached to the estate that owns the land. They ask for a small payment, only three pounds per night, but with that price comes the luxury of running water and even electric lights. Part of me felt that such luxuries somehow constituted ‘cheating’, but a much larger part of me told the other part to shut up and threatened it with bodily harm if it complained about the running water again. It was a peaceful night’s sleep.

Check out part 2 here


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