The next day was brighter, although the rain was sulking in the corners of the mountains, threatening to make trouble at a moment’s notice. At least today was to be a simpler one, I thought as I left the bothy in weak sunshine. An hour later I was cursing as I shoved and heaved the heavy bike over Mam Barrisdale, the pass separating Barrisdale from Inverie.
Manhandling aside, the day was a pleasant one, and the exploratory beams of sunlight had broken out into full-blown summer by the time I was bouncing my way down the other side of the 400m pass towards the white houses of the village. Inverie itself might appear remote to us, but standing on the green outside the only pub it felt as though I was standing in the centre of the world. What used to be the Knoydart Estate was bought out by the community in 1999, to be run by local people in the interest of preserving the landscape and keeping it a viable place to live and work. It seems to have worked, and in contrast to the dwindling populations of other remote highland communities there was a real sense of bustle and business in the village, as boat trips from the fishing port of Mallaig landed at the quay. Remoteness is only a matter of perspective.
As nice as the village looked, I kept moving to find what I had come all this way for – Britain’s most remote trail centre! The brainchild of a local man who didn’t want to miss out on the trail centres popping up everywhere else in the country, I’d heard rumours of a mysterious trail network hiding in the forest above the village. Following a breadcrumb trail of little wooden signs, I found an absolute gem of a descent that rattled its way back down to the village. Taking a very homegrown approach to trail design, including some interesting breezeblock ‘speed bumps’, the trail was a mish-mash of huge berms, rock slabs and stone staircases weaving in and out of the scrubby forest. Some kerbstone skinnies over bogs towards the bottom were made more interesting by the cumbersome weight of the bike, which I hadn’t thought to unload. Perhaps it was the effort it had taken to get there, or the sheer unexpectedness of man-made trails in the back of beyond, but the grin split my face from ear to ear and I had to go up again, and again, before I was done for the day.
Happy to have found the treasure at the end of the trail, I pitched up for the night at the beachfront campsite run by the Knoydart Foundation, and watched the sun set while dark clouds still guarded the Mam Barrisdale pass behind me.
The third day of the adventure looked promising from my seaside sleeping point, and I was happy retracing my steps over the hills to Barrisdale. Knowing the hard work that awaited to get the bike over the top, I took an easy pace and enjoyed the hills around me, stopping sit and soak up the long-awaited sunshine. The descent was a brake-cooking rollercoaster that seemed to take as long as the climb had, but a lazy lunch in the sun made the day seem a bit more civilised – the previous two days of hauling and grinding had been long, and my arms were hurting as much as my legs. The estate owners at Barrisdale seemed surprised to see me return intact, which I took as a back-handed compliment of sorts, before pressing on to find a camp spot beside Loch Hourn, which would be the final leg of my journey the next day.
The arms of water that encircle Knoydart don’t give up their prize lightly, and the tide rushing through them twice a day boils and surges around submarine rocks until they look more like great rivers than seawater. I had to wait until the time was right and I could enlist the help of the tide rather than make an enemy of it. That wouldn’t happen until the next morning, but luckily the violent water makes an excellent spot to fish for mackerel and Pollack where the water runs fastest. I inflated the boat and paddled out with the rod, using eddies behind rocks to shelter from the tide race. In the space of a few minutes I was rewarded with two fat Pollack to put on the flat rock in the middle of my little driftwood camp fire, and I went to sleep full of fish rather than with a growling hunger like previous nights. There is no better feeling of travelling in a landscape than when it can provide.
The rain began in the night, and seemed to have been falling forever when I woke. There was nothing to do but wait for the inching movements of the sea to start returning up the shore, and a succession of mugs of tea set the rhythm of the morning. By midday, the seaweed was beginning to stream out in the direction of home with the force of the tide, and with bike and kit lashed securely (I hoped) to the deck of the boat, I pushed off and left the dry land of Knoydart for the last time that trip. It was the first time that I had taken the loaded boat out onto deep, moving water, and nervous thoughts began to tap insistently at the back of my head. What would I do if I capsized? Would I be able to save the bag with the camera? What if the boat punctured? I might float, but all of the heavy kit would be going straight down to the seabed. Not that I had a choice, now, but to trust the sea to take me with it, and the boat began to glide smoothly forwards as it was pushed on by the tide. Kilometres slid by, and for a while I was joined by a pair of seals that bobbed inquiringly nearby. I could make out the whiskers of the snouts and the black coals of their eyes until they dipped with a ‘pop’ out of sight.
The rain fell harder and water pooled around my knees, but the packraft took me on and on around more false corners than I could count. Every now and then the tide would take me on a new path as the water coursed around some other hidden obstruction, but we made good time, me and the improbable little boat, until at last Kinloch Hourn came into sight. I landed at the foot of some ancient, worn stone steps beside a jetty, and gratefully stretched out stiff knees as I waded ashore. For the final kilometre as I rode back to the van the boat went on my head: a strange red UFO floating along the track. There was no ceremony, and no recognition from the same sheep munching on the same wet grass beside the van, just as I left the scene four days earlier. Those four days had been a lot tougher than I had imagined, but both boat and bike had coped amazingly, and as I nursed the van up the impossible road back to the real world, a whole heap of other land-and-water adventures began to take shape in my head.