Monday, 30 September 2013

Bridge of Orchy - Mists of time

Way back in the mists of time, somewhere in my late teens, I bought one of those “rail rover” tickets to travel around Scotland and see the place for the first time by myself. I remember being very inappropriately equipped for a week round Scotland, dressed as I was in jeans and denim jacket with my belongings in one of those Army & Navy haversacks. No doubt, I thought I looked very cool at the time. 

On my way home on that trip, I took the train down the West Highland line from Fort William. As horizontal rain and wind battered the carriages, the train pulled into Bridge of Orchy station, right at the foot of mountains that swept majestically and impossibly steeply up into the mist and rain. I squashed my face against the window and peered through the partially steamed up glass. On the platform there was group of walkers with big packs, talking excitedly amongst themselves. They were drenched and mud-splattered but looked rosy-cheeked and deliriously happy. I remember wondering who they were and where they had been and wherever it was, wishing I had been there too. It’s taken 25 years but finally last weekend I climbed Beinn Dorain, the mountain above Bridge of Orchy that delighted those walkers on that wild, wet day many years ago.

The weather was more kind to me as I set out from Bridge of Orchy station on a warm, still autumn day. Soft sunshine bathed the slopes which were just beginning to acquire their fiery orange October glow. Strands of mist drifted through the valleys and stubbornly settled on the top of Beinn Dorain. A sweaty climb took me up to the bealach and on into the mist until I was picking my way along the featureless summit ridge to the top. I sat up here a long time, crouching behind a boulder, munching lunch and waiting patiently for the mist to clear. The only sound was the distant gargle of ptarmigan and the loud whaup-whaup-fa-dumph as a huge raven dropped in a few feet away.

An hour later, despite the sun teasing with a few faint rays that penetrated the gloom, the mist still hadn’t cleared and I was getting stiff and chilled. I dropped down a few hundred feet, back into hazy sunshine.  Above the bealach  was a flat, grassy shelf, perfectly complemented by a small lochan and extensive, airy views over Loch Tulla and the Blackmount. It was an idyllic camp spot so I threw the tent up and nursed an evening cuppa as the sun sank beyond Glen Orchy.

I woke next morning to a beautiful sunrise as peachy golden light crept under the flysheet and the sun climbed above the Glen Lyon hills to the east. The surrounding tops were clear of mist today thanks to a bitterly cold, easterly gale that howled through the bealach and shook the tent. I was grateful I’d packed the duvet jacket as I plodded up Beinn Dorain’s neighbour, Beinn an Dothaidh. It misleads you into thinking it’s a boring, big bulk of mountain until you crest the summit ridge where cliffs plunge to the moorland below and the view opens up across the wild lands of Rannoch, studded with sapphire lochans.

The stream that drains the back corrie, Allt Coire a’Ghabhalach, forms a meandering sliver of water that tempted me eastwards down the secret side of the mountains. It descended in small cascades where the rowans were already turning scarlet, before bending south into the beautiful, u-shaped valley of the Auch Gleann. I picked up the track that criss-crosses the river and in warm sunshine ambled down through the glen. Slopes swept upwards into a blue sky above, the river gargled gently by and the trees whispered in the wind. I was in a state of deep happiness. The glen track eventually junctioned with the West Highland Way at the pretty, stone arched bridge over the Allt Kinglass and the Way took me the final few miles to the station to catch the evening train home.

As the train pulled in and I threw my pack on my back to climb aboard, I wondered if there was a face squashed against a window further along the carriage looking out at the mud-splattered, deliriously happy woman with a big pack and wondering who she was and where she had been.

For all the photos click here.

Fact File

Start: Bridge of Orchy served by Glasgow/Fort William trains or Citylink buses.

Finish: Tyndrum or Bridge of Orchy served by Glasgow/Fort William/Oban trains or Citylink buses.

Map: OS Landranger 50

Route: On exiting Bridge of Orchy Station turn right at the foot of the stairs in the underpass and go through a gate. The path straight ahead onto the hillside ascends to the bealach between Beinn Dorain and Beinn an Dothaidh. From the bealach there are obvious paths to each mountain. After bagging the tops, I descended the east side of the bealach and followed the Allt a Coire Ghabhalach to the valley floor. There is no path but it’s not too rough. At the bottom pick up the landrover track that travels southeast through Auch Gleann. You’ll see on the map that it switches back and forth across the river. I didn’t have any trouble crossing the river as there wasn’t much water in it on this visit. When you reach the West Highland Path you can either turn right to go back to Bridge of Orchy or left to go down into Tyndrum.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Perthshire - Postcards from the edge

When I’m travelling north to my beloved Scottish Highlands, there are two places on that journey that I feel mark a transition in both topography and atmosphere. It’s here that low-lying farmlands give way to wilder mountains and my anticipation starts to build ahead of the next outdoor adventure. Those two places are Callander and Dunkeld, and they stand on the very edge of the Highlands.  Last weekend, I decided to join them up by bicycle and take a ride along the edge. 

I was cycling not just along the edge of the Highlands but also along the edge of summer as it begins to give way to autumn, signalled by the clusters of red berries on the rowans. It must have been a good summer for berries as the trees and hedgerows are absolutely festooned with them.

On a back road above Callander the high mountains were tantalisingly close.

Loch Lubnaig is a real mountain loch, extending a long finger north of Callander into bigger hills.

The trail alongside the loch forms a beautiful green tunnel of trees. Note to self – must get back here in autumn to enjoy some “peak foliage”.

Much of my route followed the national cycle network and all over the network you come upon these marker posts of varying designs. I liked this one which, much like me, looked ruffled by the wind and rain.

North of Loch Lubnaig and beyond Balquidder, my route followed the old railway line that passes high above Lochearnhead and climbs up through Glen Ogle. For me, Glen Ogle has always had a slightly mystical atmosphere. Perhaps it’s the lingering aura of the old steam trains that once chugged through here.

I have a favourite secret spot for camping at the head of Glen Ogle. Each time I go, it becomes more secret as the trees grow and close in. 

I’ve never been especially impressed by the Falls of Dochart at Killin but presumably many other people are as they are forever appearing in those Scottish calendars that hang in chip shops and takeaways. 

The elements above Loch Tay have worn away the walls of this old ruin. It’s certainly opened up the view.

The single track road along the south side of Loch Tay is cycle heaven. Mind you, it’s not flat.

I was really charmed by the old cemetery at Ardtalnaig on the shores of Loch Tay with its lichened stones resting at jaunty angles.

Kenmore was sure looking pretty on a sunny Sunday morning.

There are beautiful trails to cycle in this part of Perthshire like this route alongside the River Tay that took me the final couple of miles into Dunkeld.

I’ve always liked Dunkeld for its pretty cottages and little alleys but I’m growing to love it now that the chip shop does gluten-free fish suppers.

Too many fish suppers can certainly lay on the pounds. If I ever get as round as my camp spot visitor, somebody please have a word with me!

Fact file
Start: Bridge of Allan train station on the Stirling/Dunblane line. 
Finish: Perth train station
Maps: OS Landranger 57, 51, 52
Route: From the rail station in Bridge of Allan turn west on the main road then take the first left onto a farm road signed for Carse of Lecropt. Follow this delightful single track road which has some lovely views to the B824 and then into Doune. From there take the deserted B8032 to Callander. In Callander pick up National Cycle Route 7 beside the river. It travels north on a beautiful, mostly off-road route alongside Loch Lubnaig, through Glen Ogle and into Killin. Keep on route 7 as it travels along the south shore of Loch Tay and then on quiet roads beside the River Tay. There's so much to see along here - the river, castles, old bridges and pleasant villages. Route 7 junctions with Route 77 at Balnamuir beside Logierait – follow route 77 south to Dunkeld and onto Perth where it enters the city on a lovely riverside cycle path.
Tip: I’m mostly a wild camper but I’ve come to really like the campground at Inver beside Dunkeld. It’s on a wee farm with real charm and is right beside the River Braan, surrounded by trees. From the campground it’s a nice walk or cycle into Dunkeld for coffee and comestibles.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Oh no, not a gear review ... the Gumotex Twist inflatable canoe

I gave up buying outdoor magazines many years ago. What I wanted from a mag was a bundle of exciting outdoor adventure stories to read around the Primus in the evening. But what I got was pages and pages of wearisome gear reviews. I mean, how interesting are the breathability qualities of twenty different cagoules. Not very! And yet, I now find myself on this blog doing a gear review but hopefully you’ll like this one …

For several years I have been drooling over packrafts which are super-lightweight crafts weighing around 2 kilos. They are so tiny you can go backpacking or bike touring with them and cleverly integrate your outdoor adventures. The disadvantage of them is the price tag – realistically about £1000 all-in. I was looking for something that bridged the gap between my current heavy inflatable canoe and the packraft, both in weight and price. I think I found it in the Gumotex Twist inflatable canoe ... kayak ... whatever!

The Twist comes as a solo or double inflatable kayak. My solo version weighs 6kg and packs down to the size of a large tent. That’s about half the size and weight of my old inflatable. I can now cycle with it packed onto the bike and, something that has pleased me no end, I can fit it into the front pannier of the Brompton. It’s light enough that I can comfortably go for a long walk with it in a backpack and easily get to and from the bus or train station with it. Though I doubt I’ll be able to walk far with it if I add overnight camping kit. It arrived in the post in a tiny little stuffsack but needless to say I have subsequently been unable to squeeze it back in there. 

The Twist has three main inflation chambers – two side chambers and the floor – which inflate through easy-to-use, well-designed military style valves. The canoe comes with an enormous hand pump for this purpose which you’ll probably want to replace with a smaller, lighter foot pump. The integrated back rest and the foot rest inflate quickly and surprisingly easily through mouthpiece valves that you blow into. There is luggage space with cargo netting behind the backrest, haul handles front and rear, and two side carry handles. The canoe comes with a tracking fin to keep it straight on open water that fits easily underneath. The canoe outer material is a cordura-style fabric that does “wet out” and this may be one disadvantage as the canoe will need dried out after use. But it’s a small point as the boat is so tiny and light you can just throw it over your whirlygig. The whole canoe goes up in about 10 minutes.

Before I talk about performance, I should tell you that I know absolutely nothing technical about canoeing as I don’t have patience for proper courses and training. However, my thoughts are that it felt fantastically light and fast on the water. I felt I could really power along on it, skimming across the top of the waves. Compared to my old canoe, it felt a bit more “tippy”– I’m sure that IS a technical term - and I have read that is because it has "rocker" which I believe makes it handle more like a proper kayak. Because the canoe and I are very light, the wind effect was significant and I’m thinking I might have to add some sort of ballast in windy conditions. It turns on a penny and is wonderfully controllable – WITH the tracking fin. Without the tracking fin, it spins like a Waltzer and is as erratic as a dodgem! It’s described as being suitable for calm water or slow-moving rivers but it felt good in the small waves I encountered on the first trip.

I ordered mine online from Bluewater Sports for £250 when they had a special offer (looks like it's currently £299) and it arrived a couple of days later. Based on the couple of outings I've had, I’m absolutely delighted with it and for anybody wanting a light craft who finds packrafts too pricey, it seems like a great alternative.

Now ... did I tell you about my new breathable cagoule …