A serious treat here for blog readers already following my partner Sarah’s sea kayaking adventures. Her story of three weeks in May and June, out in the Western Isles looking for what she found:
‘Here I have calm and deep peace. Time for me. Time to consider life. I have craved, needed, wanted this – so much. To give myself some perspective, to reflect that life is short. Too short to not do what gives you joy. Too short to get side-tracked by the diversions that don’t matter.
I have a craving for quiet. I find it here.’
Here then is Sarah’s beautiful story of ‘The Long Light and the Deep Quiet’
I have just returned from the land of the long light – having travelled the length of the Outer Hebrides (also known as the Western Isles) and up to the Summer Isles. From the islands sprinkled far out into the Atlantic Ocean to an archipelago in the North West Highlands.
My trip begins in Oban, where I am camping for the first time alone, and with my new tent. I send a photo to Ronnie who says it looks like a ‘tent brochure’! Little do I know that I am about to camp in a number of locations that could be the setting for tent brochures in some of the most stunning scenery, with few or no nearby tents.
It’s that sort of adventure.
Barra: The ferry trip to Barra is long – five hours. But I am soon set up camping at Borve on the Atlantic Coast, the most westerly campsite in Britain.
I fall sleep with the sound of the Atlantic a few feet from my tent. Awakened in the night by a strange repetitive noise, and I bravely (well I think I am brave) make my way to the machair at the edge of the beach trying to find out the source. But I realise that it’s 1am and I don’t even need a torch, it’s practically light. I don’t find what’s making the noise and then need ear plugs to get back to sleep. (I later discover that this is the call of a corncrake, the male’s mating call is a shrill ‘crek crek’ which is repeated for hours).
I explore ‘my’ bit of coastline here by foot. Within 24 hours here I can tell the time already by the tide, the high tide line marked by Pelvetia canaliculata, the channel wrack seaweed.
On Gob Bhuirgh there is a burial ground, the first of many I will find which are close to the sea. Sea, sky and land are very close here, it feels like there is little separation.
The next day I visit Vatersay, linked to Barra by a causeway. I think I have arrived in heaven. With ice cream.
And then I am sea kayaking with Clearwater Paddling, and based in Castlebay. Once I am out on the water the separation of land and sea and sky becomes negligible – I am in 360 degrees of blues, greens and turquoise. The water is Hockney blue. It is magical.
I have opted for the lodge based ‘Magic of Barra’ as a place to stay here, so we will make a series of day trips, returning each night to the lodge in Castlebay, which is very homely and well run, with excellent food prepared for us.
Another group staying here leave for a wild camping experience, and I am mildly envious, as the weather has settled now and is sunny and warm. But our smaller group is led by Chris, a very enthusiastic guide, and we happily spend the week exploring Barra with him.
We go up to Fuday in the north and south to Vatersay and Sandray. Landing and having lunch on the sorts of beach that wouldn’t look out of place in a brochure. White sand and turquoise water. Along with plenty of seaweed for seaweed fans like me, part of my attraction to kayaking being to be so close to all this marine life.
Monika, one of my fellow kayakers who has travelled here from Germany, says that when we have good weather they say ‘angels are travelling’. We are certainly blessed here.
We slip quietly through the water in our kayaks and see porpoises and dolphins. And lots of inquisitive seals.
We explore the lagoon at Helisay, see golden eagles.
And paddle the east coast of Barra.
There is much here to observe, and I am completely in my element. Seaweed and sea urchins.
When the other group return from their wild camping trip I find they are quiet and reflective – we had joked before they left about the practicalities of (no) hair washing on their trip, and laughed about the (lack of) toilet facilities… but this place is magical and has a wild yet calming effect on us all, even those of us who haven’t wild camped.
Our last day paddling we find some surf on the north coast at Cleat.
And then it’s time to leave. It’s a foggy morning in Barra, and the ferries are all delayed. But time has slowed down anyway so it doesn’t matter.
I drive on alone through South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist, stopping at Lochmaddy for my lunch. I see plenty of signs warning of otters, but have yet to see any.
Berneray: I arrive at the camping place where I have planned to stay next, on the machair by the hostel at Baile on Berneray. I have a single neighbouring tent here, but only for my first night. The facilities at the hostel are basic but more than adequate.
I remember carefully scrutinising the map of here, wondering where I might spend my time on this trip. Back in the dark days of February it had looked special and I find, now that I’m here, the word ‘magical’ keeps repeating itself to me. An excited boy from the next tent runs past me on his way to the beach, and stops to tell me that the Hebrides were created when God sprinkled a handful of jewels in the ocean on the eighth day….
Here I have calm and deep peace. Time for me. Time to consider life. I have craved, needed, wanted this – so much. To give myself some perspective, to reflect that life is short. Too short to not do what gives you joy. Too short to get side-tracked by the diversions that don’t matter.
I have a craving for quiet. I find it here.
I spend time on ‘my’ beach. And also go over to the West Beach. As I cross the machair the arctic terns follow me, squawking, They are nesting there, and very welcome.
I ponder – is it the place that’s special, or is it the time and the space, that you give yourself?
The second night on Berneray is cold. I get into my sleeping bag in all my clothes, and my hat. It’s very freeing, this camping, the things that are OK (like sleeping in your clothes without cleaning your teeth). I reflect that the amounts of time spent finding a campsite, getting food, washing up, setting up the tent (and taking it down) are time consuming but also fulfilling. The questions: Am I warm enough? Do I have enough food? These are basic questions – but I am so removed from them in a city life. It is so joyous to reconnect to these basic needs.
My last day at Baile and two otters visit the rocks below my tent, and I’m happy to spend half an hour observing them. I spend the morning watching the tide going out on my beach. I was sad to leave here, it is such a special place.
Harris and Lewis: Another ferry. Arriving in Harris feels ‘busy’ compared to Berneray. So much yellow sand and big mountains, the size and scale so much bigger than Uist.
I camp at Horgabost. The view from my tent is amazing. Good morning!
I only have one more night before I have to catch a ferry to my next sea kayaking adventure. So I visit Callanish on Lewis, a ‘must’ for fans of stone circles.
I drive up to Valtos, looking for the next campsite. I am amazed to find this burial ground, right on the clifftop.
The beach at Kneep is beautiful, but sadly the campsite is a deserted town of uninhabited caravans, and feels unwelcoming. So I drive on and stay further up the coast.
Finding somewhere to camp I settle down for the night. There is a corncrake again, singing in the night, and I sleep happily with the sound of it. I have been so happy camping on my own, and am grateful for the experience – the sounds, the feel, the reliance on the basics. I wonder what camping before zips was like. Zips are one of the integral sounds of camping – zip on the tent, zip on the sleeping bag.
And then it is time to leave these islands, another ferry, and off to the Summer Isles.
The Summer Isles: It is so light here. Grey and silver. Magical in a different way to Barra and my all too short few days in the rest of the Outer Hebrides.
I am here for days on the water and also coaching.
Our first full day and we have lunch here, this special place, a strip of beach with sea on two sides (a ‘double-sided beach’ I thought). More arctic terns nesting on the beach here on these skerries. We are careful to land at the other end of the beach from the terns, but they fly around aware of our presence.
Our coach here is Jules Macleod, she is so at home in this place, it’s her place (she grew up here). Even this is special, to be guided round by someone so of her own place.
I write up my notes each day, carefully processing the things we’ve learnt from Jules, she is a patient and intuitive coach. I keep writing, ‘It was special’, as it’s hard to find better words to describe this lovely place.
The hot drinks from the Kelly kettle made on the beach. Gaelic hot chocolate with marshmallows and cream (really). The nap on Eilean Dubh. The summer rain and laughter.
It was special.
And then it is time to leave. And make my way south.
I camp for a night near Pitlochry. Even here – just before 11pm I need a head torch to read. I am leaving behind the long light. And I am sad to do so, even though I am happy to be returning home. But leaving irrelevant things behind has been very important for me, finding quiet. Camping has been great, the focus on shelter, food, water and sleep. Getting this as simple as I can. All that other ‘stuff’ just disappears.
Well – I’ll be back on the water next weekend with coach Steve Miles in Anglesey, ready to talk about my adventures in the long light, reflect on where I am with my kayaking, and to plan more kayaking trips and adventures this year.
After all, isn’t this what life is about – doing what you love?
See more of Sarah’s sea kayaking here at ‘Letters From Sarah’