Tuesday, 4 August 2009

North Uist

It was 2005 when we last had a kayaking trip to North Uist. Once again we made the long car journey north towards the islands with so much promise, not only in terms of wonderful sea kayaking, but wildlife, scenery, culture and a relatively pristine environment. The journey passed quickly and soon Crianlarich, Glen Coe, Fort William, Kyle of Lochalsh and the Skye Bridge were distant memories. We had lunch on the east coast of Skye accompanied by an otter, foraging not far from us in and along the seaweed, like flakes of snow falling, gannets dived for fish and in the background the Island of Scalpay. Our journey continued towards Uig to board the 6pm Calmac ferry to Lochmaddy (Loch nam Madadh) on North Uist (Uibhist a Tuath). The sail over the Minch was slightly lumpy at times. Again, time passed quickly as we observed terns, puffins, guillemots, gannets, shearwaters, fulmars, black back gulls and a few skuas fishing the tidal races on this stretch of sea.Hopefully, without sounding too philosophical, a ferry journey no matter how short, always generates the feeling that you are not only leaving behind the mainland, but breaking the umbilical cord to the responsibilities of family, pressures and stress of everyday work and financial commitments.

Leaving Uig Skye behind, heading for Loch Maddy


As we neared Lochmaddy the worries, pressure and stress had rolled away, like sea spray rolling off a puffins back. Yes, it does sound a bit ‘too philosophical’, but I am leaving it in.The weather was always going to be problematic on this trip.

Loch Maddy under the clouds
The forecast suggested that there would with strong winds and squalls from the S,SW,SE, which meant that the direction of the rain would be vertical, horizontal and diagonal!! At moments we got rain in all directions at the one time!! Lochmaddy welcomed us (27/07/09) with dark clouds and rain. After leaving the ferry we travelled north of Lochmaddy found a dirt track off the single track road and set up camp on the moor away from civilisation, had a brew up and watched a short eared owl hunting across the moor. Plan ‘A’ would be decided in the morning after listening to the Stornoway Coastguard forecast.At 10.10am the silence of the VHF was broken as a soothing, warm and attractive female voice with a Gaelic accent directed us to the appropriate channel. We listened to her ‘WEATHUR’ forecast which was ‘POOUR’. Boys being boys, we estimated that from her voice she was island girl, belonging to Harris/Lewis, between the ages of 23-30, dark hair, blue eyes, slim, very attractive and single. We christened her ‘Maria’, and from then on we checked out every Coastguard broadcast to hear her warm voice. After our first encounter with Maria we fought over the VHF, blood on both sides was drawn. However, the younger man won. After maria had signed off, plan ‘A’ (28/07/09) was to book into the Uist Outdoor Centre as the ‘WEATHUR’ was to be very POOUR and the already blustery winds were to increase. Uist Outdoor Centre is a haven during bad ‘WEATHUR’ or a good base for kayaking, and we have always received 5star hospitality from the owner: Niall Johnson and his staff. Checkout link: http://www.uistoutdoorcentre.co.uk/index.php?option=com_frontpage&Itemid=1. That evening the winds and squalls increased and for a short time the rain turned to hail followed by thunder and lightning, which seemed to be hanging over Harris or Lewis direction. The conversation the next morning was of the mini tornado that hit Stornoway damaging home and cars (Gods revenge on Stornoway for Calmac running the Sunday ferry). The great thing about places like Niall’s outdoor centre is the people and characters you meet. We met many people from foreign lands: English, also our EU brothers and sisters from France and Germany. All seemed to mix well and enjoyed the banter and relaxed in the warm and friendly atmosphere of the centre. It was only a matter of time before I would finally meet someone from this forum: Helen M, who was up in Uist with her husband Dave (new nickname also given to him, Whisky George) and London Tony. Unfortunately we missed meeting Mike B by one day, who, we understand had a run of bad luck: lost or broke a crown and also broke a tent pole. I think we will also give Mike B a nickname: Lucky B. 29/07/09, we packed the kayaks and headed into the Lochmaddy fjard. According to Niall Johnson Lochmaddy is the finest example of such a geological formation. A link: http://www.jncc.gov.uk/pdf/gcrdb/GCRsiteaccount2030.pdf. The loch is a large shallow inter-tidal basin of inlets, sand and mud flats and is littered with numerous skerries and islands: a haven for wildlife. Wildlife observed: red deer stag on one of the small islands, I presume it swam across from the mainland; countless seals and one white pelted seal pup at the north end of the loch; large flocks of curlews and lapwings, geese, countless herons, flying male eider ducks with their beautiful white and black patches a very elegant bird when in flight; many waders, some which I could not recognise and for me perhaps the highlight of our trip was the sea eagle which passed fairly low over our camp site a few times being harried by numerous gulls which only highlighted the size of these magnificent birds. Latter in the evening we spotted a parcel of hinds on the mainland. Even with the fierce squalls I was left in no doubt that Lochmaddy is a very special place, which I will explored further in the future. At the top end of the loch there is a portage, we succeeded in doing this quickly and set up camp for the night.

The portage at the head of Loch Maddy
A great campsite after the portage
Jim Breen

The kind offer by a Lochmaddy family stacking peat to help ourselves to their peat was never acted upon due to the fact that we went trout fishing and latter had an early night.30 and 31/07/09, we had a leisurely breakfast and waited for the early afternoon neap tide to flood across the mud flats and around Rubha Dubh. We prayed the neap tide would reach where we had prepared to launch, the only other alternative would be to plough out through the mud flats or return by the portage and south through Lochmaddy. Due to meticulous calculations and planning (coded for sheer luck) we made the launch from the planned area minus a few yards. We were afloat, we had sunshine, and we had a few hours before the SW winds increased. However, as always the squalls harassed us as we paddled passed Rubha Dubh, Hestam, through Bagh Teileam, around Aird Thormaid towards our final destination: Loch nam Ban and possibly (probably due to Maria’s worsening forecast of POOUR WEATHUR) the escape route by road back to Lochmaddy. At least we had the opportunity to be on the water that day; even if it was only a short paddle. We erected the tents with the bell ends facing into the increasing SW wind. Some scraps of wood were found later in the evening and we sat by a fire till 11.30pm. The wind did increase during the night accompanied by rain. By morning the wind had swung round to the SE as predicted. We changed the directions of the tents to face into the predicted gale force 8 winds and changed into waterproofs before walking over the Otternish causeway that joins North Uist and the Island of Berneray. As we made our way over the causeway the wind and sea increased in strength and height the rocks buffeting the wind over the causeway and landing creating rose like squall patterns on the lee ward side of the road before racing away towards Berneray.

Berneray Caueway
As we continued the walk we checked out the passage under the causeway for otters and kayakers! The ferry waiting area at the north end of the causeway gave us shelter from the elements. For future reference there is a fresh water tap near this building. Also after 5 more minutes walking we treated ourselves to a meal in a small but friendly tearoom/restaurant/shop, for a reward and in preparation for the incoming gale and our voluntary solitary confinement in the tents. By the time we retraced our steps the wind was blowing even stronger, rain fell in the swirling wind, We were pleasantly surprised that the tents were still standing and not shredded. Preparations were made for tent life: water, food, book, chocolate goodies, stove and tea making provisions. Both of us entered our tents about 1-30/2-00pm and we did not emerge till the next morning. I don’t think that the full blown force8 gale materialised for the period perceived. However, I would suggest that it did hit the force 8 mark on occasional gusts.
Storm bound

The rain sometimes was very heavy, accompanied the winds throughout the afternoon, evening and night. Anyway, I was warm, cosy and dry throughout the time confined in the tent, drank lashings of tea, read and experienced the worst ‘WEATHUR’ ever when camping. Isn’t sea kayaking just fantastic. 01/08/09, again after listening to the POOUR WEATHUR forecast we again decided that ‘plan A’ would be to walk, hitch or attempt to catch the bus back to lochmaddy and get the car, if any vacancies- book back into Uist Outdoor Centre, book the ferry for the 02/08/09, drive back and pick up the kayaks and kit, back to our haven, shower, cook, eat, relax and enjoy our last evening on North Uist ,reflecting on the trip. Luckily for us ‘plan A’ was carried out with military precision. It was with regret that we had to leave the island the next day. I am already looking forward to next year, when I am sure that we will return and that the weather gods will be looking favourably down upon us! Thanks to everyone who helped to make this trip memorable. A special thanks from Jim and myself to Niall and the Stornoway Coastguard/ Maria. The biggest thanks must go to Uibhist a Tuath herself.If you have not falling asleep yet, then there are some pics below. The pics are more about the colour, mood and character of North Uist rather than just paddling pics. Hope you enjoy.

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