St Kilda revisited

It has been several weeks since we came back from our eight weeks trip to the outer islands. Most of the time we don’t even remember being there or the paddling. Fortunately we made this clip to remind ourselves.

The first song is sung by Rosie Sullivan, who won the Young Song writer of the Year competition with it. We met Rosie when she came with her dad, who drove to pick us up in Port Ness and took us down to Stornoway in order for us to be able to get to our gateway to St Kilda on time. We listened to her songs and were impressed.

Watching the video not only reminds us about the wonderful places we visited, but also brings smiles to our faces. Especially the scene with our attempt to cross  to Flannans. It was the first calm day in three or four weeks. Obviously it wasn’t calm enough.

Fortunately the next calm day, two weeks later, we managed the second planned crossing despite starting to paddle for four hours against solid headwind.

Here we go.

Summary of Northern Four Project

Logo NORTHERN FOUR

“There are rumours, that you’ve won a lottery”

This sentence we heard shortly after we’ve came back from Scotland. Well, the true was, we didn’t. However we understand why somebody could come up with such an idea. Yes, going away paddling for almost two months would be much easier with winning lottery ticket. Without one, there were many smaller and bigger things to do and difficult decisions to be made.

From past experiences we knew that to organise it all, to take unpaid leave, to save money, to get a flatmate to be able to pay rent while away, the project needs to be inspiring. Once there was an inspiring idea, which proved to be hard to resist, everything became much easier.

It has been for some time, that we had an urge to go paddling again. First, we played with ideas of circumnavigating one bigger island or other. Yet, a distant memory of glimpsing an outline of far away islands while standing on the edge of the world was coming back constantly. It soon proved to be so tempting, that in a very short space of time we found ourselves strong enough to leave the illusion of the safety of everyday routine and  temporarily leaving the comfort of our jobs and home, we headed for Scotland.

Our plan was very simple. We needed to find somebody, who would get our kayaks somewhere to the coast of west Scotland (thanks Paul), then paddle further west and north attempting to visit four remote islands, before coming back to the mainland. After which we were again hopeful to find somebody, who could move our kayaks closer to London. To get the best chance to succeed we went for almost whole of May and June. The time, when the weather supposed to be settled, and were it was most likely to get few weather windows.

But let’s start at the beginning, when everything went according to our plan. Paul kindly took our kayaks to Glenuig, which was the perfect starting place. It allowed us to nicely build up distances during our open crossings to Eigg, Canna, and South Uist. After a storm we continued around Benbecula with a stop at Monach Isles to Hougharry on North Uist. Place from which we wanted to go west to St Kilda.

At that point it really started to be all about weather and sadly the weather wasn’t cooperating well with our ambitious plan. After few days of waiting it became apparent that if we want to have any chance to paddle to Kilda, or any other island from our list, we have to keep paddling. It didn’t matter much where, we just had to spend time on the water to stay focused and to get better in big conditions. As they never became smaller due to the constant gales. We started to move north towards Harris and Lewis knowing that if weather improves we could keep it just within a day paddle to starting point for either St Kilda or Flannan Isles. When that fell through, we continued with the same idea along Lewis’s west coast making it all the way to the Butt. We were constantly looking for widows to go to one or another island.

Slowly we realised that our plan would not materialise and came to terms that we are just having a different experience of Outer Hebrides to what we ever imagined. To tease us more a weather window to go to Kilda started to form just when we reached Port Ness. The weather window was shaping in four or five days, however we needed at least five in nice weather to paddle back to Hougharry.

This was the point when Natalie decided it was time for some creativity. If we couldn’t get south fast enough by sea, we were going by land, cars and with nice people from Stornaway Canoes.

Yes, we made it and crossed to Kilda, where we spent amazing week in an incredible environment. It is only now, while being back to London, that we realise the uniqueness of it all. The worst spring in thirty years put spot to our plan, yet it allowed to explore places and meet people that we never would otherwise.

Red dots – paddling before Stornaway taxi

Blue dots – paddling after Stornaway Taxi and before Elizabeth G lift

Green dots – paddling after Elizabeth G

Yellow dots – random lunch stops

IF YOU DON’T HAVE WHEELS, YOU MUST HAVE WHEELS

There are some pieces of equipment that a kayaker has to have with him or her all the time when going on a paddle. It’s the personal paddling kit and the safety kit, and then some other kit, especially if one is going on a multi day adventure. There are so many things to take and pack, that the boat just naturally becomes heavy. Something what may not be a problem on the water, but becomes a challenge on the land. For us definitely, as Natalie isn’t as strong as me, when lifting heavy boats, and with the fact that her back is already injured, getting boats in and out of water has been an important part of our planning.    
Normally we use a plastic pipe to drag boats over out of water on rocks, small foldaway trolley, and IKEA bags to move stuff around. So this is what we packed this time. However when we were getting ready in Glenuig we were convinced by Steve to swap our two trusted pairs of Eckla trolleys for one Kayak Carrier System trolley. At the beginning we were very hesitant as the wheels were huge off road monsters and the trolley disassembled into more pieces than what we were used to. Compare to our previous arrangements, when we just had wheels in a bag behind Natalie’s foot pegs and frame on deck, we had a bag with wheels, a bar on deck and three flat pieces in the hatch.  

 However soon we became to love the trolley. The size of the wheels allowed for the heavy loaded boat to be wheeled across all different surfaces. If on previous trips stoney beaches were a no go, this time we could just run over small boulders like in a off roader. And we were well impressed when the trolley coped with deep seaweed. If on previous trips we would get punctures on the small wheels, these huge ones were just fine.  

   
Half way through the trip we were in love with our new trolley. In Balranald campsite we were so high, that we wheeled the loaded boats from the beach via the sandy slip way all the way to the tent, about a kilometre away. Because like everyone there in the caravan park we wanted to have our wheels next to our temporary home, too. 
What we learnt was that despite this trolley looking huge at the first sight, it was only the size of the wheels which made difference when packing. Everything else was more or less the same to before. And as the hatches became emptier, we needn’t to disassemble the pieces that much. So now, that the trip is over and our borrowed pair would be going back to its owner, we will be getting it for ourselves.

Paddling in luxury 

Today, as we were sorting all of the stuff we brought with us for our trip, yet again I was amazed of what has been in my boat. I was amazed to such level, that I had to take two pictures.  

   First one is of all the electric gadgets we had in our kayaks and the other is of the repair kit. I know it is a lot, this is actually first time I have seen it all lined up together. I always knew the Pace Tour was probably the best kayak to carry all of our stuff on a longer trip. And this time I really became to appreciated it. We were constantly carrying all paddling and camping gear together with food for three weeks, yet I could still fit in all the stuff from those pictures in my kayak, and yes, I haven’t mentioned the books yet. 

Of course, there’s the question of why to carry so much. Well, the only answer I can give is, why not. It fits, and doesn’t compromise the kayak handling either. Pace can easily handle the load and more importantly still be fun to paddle. And you know what, I simply don’t believe that by making the time spent on and off the water harder or even miserable by leaving some of it behind, would make me paddle better, longer, further or harder. Not to mention the misery if something actually did break, but fortunately nothing ever had. 

All good things need to end

Monday we have bid our farewell to Kilda convinced that we would be back quite soon. We had great time circumnavigating the island and revisiting Boreray and the stacks on board of the Elisabeth G.  

   Then it was the infamous long crossing back to the mainland Harris. There, we met Mike from the Graphix again. And later the rest of the crew in the Anchorage for some much need steaks.

  
Next morning we dedicated to catching up with the world. To do that, we had to walk to the Levenbourg Post Office, where for £1 we got a sofa and wifi. This meant slow start to the day which resulted in sightseeing trip to Rodel.  

Rodel’s a natural harbour with restaurant right on the shore. It is also famous for its church, one of the largest sixteenth century church in Britain.  

 I think, that the slow start due to the search for decent connection to be able to upload our blog, together with the forecast of southerly winds for the rest of the week, determinated our sudden end to the great paddle we had. 
We crossed towards Loch Pooltiel on Skye convinced that we will finish in Glenuig where we started. Next day we even got up very early to get a good start and to try and make a distance towards south before the wind was to pick up. It was waiting for us and happily blown into our faces as soon as we made the first paddle stroke on Thursday. We battled on towards Neist Point.  

  However there it became clear that we weren’t to make great progress that day and that we have to really think of what to do next. Could we paddle another 25 kilometres against the wind without landing? Was it worth the struggle? And that’s when we realised that our heart wasn’t in it any more. Besides Michal has been getting calls from his boss, who was keen to see him sooner rather than later. We climbed on top of the hill overseeing the lighthouse to get better signal to catch the forecast on the VHF radio to make a decision.

We found it quite hard to give in once accepting a challenge, in the same time from past experiences, climbing or kayaking, we learnt that sometimes one just has to accept the inevitable and go with the flow, or wind. And so, what took us almost two hours to paddle against the wind, took us twenty five minutes back with it.  

 
We passed the Pooltiel Bay again, this time aiming to Dunvegan. We’ve been there before, on our first kayaking trip few years ago, and with our dislike to enter deep bays, we tried to avoid it the day before on our crossing. Yet, here we were, making fast progress to the tip of the Dunvegan Head and then succumbed to the headwind paddle to reach the end of the bay. 

Dunvegan, we decided, would be the end of our trip. 

We entered Dunvegan on Thursday afternoon knowing we didn’t want to paddle any more, but not really knowing, what would happen next. After all we don’t own a car, just the boats. True, we placed posts on FB and UKRG forum hoping that somehow we would be able to sort things out. What we didn’t expect, was for things to move on so quickly. The same evening we were very kindly picked up by Gordon Brown and brought down to Skayak Adventures. A plan was made, our boats would stay on Skye for a while until being picked up by our friend from London in few weeks.  

 On Friday we took train to Inverness to pick up a hire car, after all we didn’t think it appropriate to take over a whole train carriage with our bags. But not just that, taking train to Inverness to pick up a hire car, return to Skye to get our stuff, drive to London, and to return it here, turned out to be as expensive as buying two train tickets from Kyle Lochalsh to London, maybe even few pounds cheeper. 

  
And so within two and half days we swapped from being expedition kayakers having just crossed the Little Minch to sitting at home in our armchairs with first load of washing done. And we know, that as much as being it about the sea, this trip was a lot about the people we met.  

 

KILDA SOCIAL

Having spent a week on St Kilda allowed us to get to know the people, who worked there, came there to visit for a day or few. We decided to write this post to share all the great memories we have of people we’ve met. 

The first person we met in the afternoon after our arrival was Derek from Go To Kilda company, who organises day trips from Skye. He was very excited by our news that we kayaked there, something we took as a fact, but he appreciated greatly, and invited us to share coffee and cake with his clients at the end of their day visit. 
Next group of people we met were the four bird watchers doing a survey for National Trust, who stayed in Feather Store. Not only they invited us to use their kettle whenever we wanted to make a tea, which saved us lots of effort lighting our stove, but they also invited us over for dinner. 

 
  After that we were invited by Martin from the first NT work party to take part in the Chimney Run. Normally I wouldn’t be seen running or moving fast up the hill, but since it involved the certificate, we couldn’t resist. He also gave us a priceless advise how to survive our walk into the skua territory.  

     

Later in the week we had a hot chocolate offered by the crew of the cruise ship Hebridean Princess.   

Four men on a yacht called the Graphix, who were delighted to make it to Kilda also invited us for dinner. We shared great stories. We met them again once we landed in Levenbourg on Monday.   

Towards the end of the week the campsite filled with few other people and we all celebrated the longest day of the year in the museum.   
We have to say special thanks to Janice from the forbidden base, who always asked if we were fine, had enough food, and gave us some great cake. 

During this trip we got to appreciate the time we were forced to spent in one place for a prolonged period of time. It gave us opportunities to get to know places we normally would not visit or make effort to explore. It also allowed us chance to get to know people, who were there either living or visiting, and their reasons why, and what mattered to them. This became a big part of the memories created during this journey. 

       

Leaving Kilda

After a week of unstable weather it was slowly time to move on. Fortunately we could check the weather forecast occasionally on the NTS computer. It looked like a weather window was appearing for Sunday for us to consider a crossing. On Saturday we were getting ready for the next day, we have packed most of our stuff to have swift morning start, and went for walk. After a traditional rainy morning, the mist unusually lifted, and it turned out to be a really beautiful day. We were enjoying the sun, almost for the first time here, together with the views around the island. One would say we had a perfect afternoon to get excited about the next day paddling. But we weren’t.   
For some reason we were getting more and more anxious, and feeling of something being wrong was growing stronger. After six o’clock we have asked for one more chance to look at the forecast. The window was still there, it looked quite similar to the one we had on a crossing here. But again, as we were looking at it, that feeling of something being wrong was getting stronger and stronger. And as we tried to visualise our crossing, project the conditions, the time spent paddling and how we will cope, we could not visualise the landing. The feeling we were getting from this was so strong and unpleasant, that we could almost touch it. In the end it was quite simple, we decided to postpone our crossing till the next window available.
Next morning we had a chat about the weather with skipper from a charter boat Elisabeth G while he was unloading his passengers on the quay. Straightaway he offered us a lift back to Levenbourg the following morning. And as we felt that it was time for us to leave Kilda, we accepted. In the end, we have not yet been on such boat. 
We were deprived of another great crossing to put to our names, however we gained much more. We were given a chance of another beautiful day on Kilda and were able to paddle to Boreray and stacks while everything was visible. This trip had more pros than cons, not only we saw the islands and their magnificent cliffs in their whole beauty, we could also allow the thousands of flying creatures to shit on our heads, shoulders, not knees or toes, but boats and everything else. 

   

 (Michal and Natalie)

  

While we were making the crossing on the Elisabeth G I felt like the gannet being chased by the skuas. Only instead of throwing up fish I was disposing of morning coffee. No, I ain’t no sailor.  

(Natalie)

Island of Not Allowed

When we arrived and landed on St Kilda it was quite dark and we couldn’t see much. More so, we could already sense that something wasn’t quite right. Not wanting to pitch tent at 3am, we took shelter in St Kilda International Sea and Air Lunge. Then as soon as we woke up, few hours later, we were eager to start to admire what’s supposed to be the dual World Heritage Site. We were quite impressed, indeed.This was first thing we could see from the island. 

 

Never mind we told ourselves. Lets go to see somebody from National Trust for Scotland to find out where we can pitch our tent. On our way there, we were welcomed by this sight.

  
At that point we were not sure if we actually landed on the island we intended to land on. Fortunately the ranger confirmed that we have. 
Slowly we started to get familiar with St Kilda, and what streaked us most, was the language used here. Slowly we stopped calling it the Village Island and renamed it the Island of Not Allowed.  

It also seems that the class system is still much alive here. According to where people are staying, they are or aren’t allowed to do things. So the MoD that was once based here has a bar. People working at the base can do a lot and have access to the bar whenever they want. 
The NTS people can also do quite a lot, they can access the wifi and go to the bar. Members of their work party have some things they can’t do, yet, they are invited and can go to the bar. 

The Campers can’t do much, certainly not access the wifi or even look towards the bar. 

The Day Visitors, no one really speaks to, and at some point, thanks to the second work party members, they couldn’t even access the toilets. 
We, because we slept in the tent (no one offered us a bed) were in the Campers category. At some point I thought to my self “Some one calls me camper one more time! And ….”.

I have to admit, we divided people in completely different categories based on what transport they have available to leave the island with. So we only had two categories – independent and dependent. And I am sure I don’t need to say, which one we thought the superior one to be. 

Fortunately we soon found new friends and also what we really came here for.        

 

Crossing to The Village

In retrospect I have to say that starting long crossings later in the day is much pleasant than early in the morning. The reasons are – good night sleep, time to prepare snack, time to pack, time to have proper lunch and time to leave on planned time. This time we haven’t much choice on when we wanted to leave, the wind just dictated it, as it had done with all our paddling over the past 5 weeks. We left at one in the afternoon.

The weather was a bit different to expected, the wind was blowing into our faces rather than from the side. We made our way towards the Heiskeir Rocks in solid F4. The sea wasn’t calm, but was one of the calmest we’ve had so far. We wouldn’t be crossing if it wasn’t.DSCF9735

Quickly we settled into the pace and paddled with little talking as it was quite noisy and we couldn’t hear each other.

At the beginning there was much to look at, the outline of Harris and Lewis hills to our right, the Heiskeir ahead of us. The Monach’s lighthouse was well visible to our left, but as we made progress forward, it was slowly becoming a stick until it disappeared completely.

The islands of Hirta and Boreray were hazy in the distance. There and now the big swell washed underneath us and hid them from our view. We settled into the time, this now would be happening for the next many hours. Occasionally we were disturbed by gannets or puffins flying nearby.

As the afternoon progressed into the evening, the sky was changing. The sun became hidden behind the clouds which were drawing interesting patterns in the sky. The wind stayed in our face, but calmed a little bit.

At some point we could take our sunglasses off. The sun retreated beyond the horizon leaving red, orange and gray marks just right of Boreray. The shapes of the islands ahead changed. Boreray with its stacks looked like a crown, while Hirta looked like a fish.DSCF9763

And was it, for the next several hours we were paddling towards a huge fish. In the fading light I was just waiting for it to lazily move its tail. Funnily it never had.

It wasn’t completely dark that night, yet as the sun settled down, so did the wind and sea. It was still moving, making us paddle up and down over rolling hills, but the surface was almost smooth. At some point we felt our boats gliding through and forward.

Having enough of waiting for the fish to move, I started to look at the patterns reflecting on the water. It reminded me of an African patterned fabric, which one could see on Sundays in East and South London. Some moments it was in shades of black and gray, and other times in dark blue, gray and orange.

Finally we came almost close to our destination. The fish was gone transformed into some hills and cliffs. However Boreray now concealed itself into the shape of baby mammoth rolling a ball in front of him.DSCF9791

It took another two hours for the navigation lights on the shore to align on top of each other and we could enter the bay. Finally we could breathe out a relief, yes, we’ve made it. We should make it to land now.

It was surprisingly dark in the bay and we couldn’t find any suitable landing around the pier. We had to paddle to what looked like a slipway in the middle of the beach. Doing surf landing after almost 14 hours of paddling at 3am was something I haven’t experienced yet. Fortunately what looked like concrete was covered in sand, so it was soft.

We made it to St Kilda, or rather “The Village” as we were addressing it until now, in case the ocean heard.DSCF9795

With the wave of magic wand

We pitched the tent in Ness on the most convenient place, out of the way, yet close to the road and boats. The views were stunning. We knew we would be here for at least a day, and would have to make an important decision of what next. Where to go from here? 

  

At one little moment our excitement roused as a tiny little window appeared indicating that if we were mad enough, we could try to make an attempt to continue north. The window was gone as quickly as it came and we were left with choice of going east or south. We looked east and could make out the outline of the mainland with Cape Wrath at the end, yeah, we could cross there, but then would have to paddle east or south along the coast we knew already. I am not saying that we know it well or that we wouldn’t have fun exploring places we skipped and revisiting places we’ve been to before, but as it wasn’t something for what we came here, it sounded least appealing. 

Then there was the option of going south, and doing some longer and shorter crossings on our way to Oban. Why not, but still even this didn’t rouse an excitement in us. 
The third option sounded least likely to happen, and needed a bit of creativity, to return back to the west of North Uist. A mere five days paddle if you push it, seven to eight, if one wants to enjoy it. Great, only a tiny little window of opportunity opened there, in four days! Now, that roused our excitement, with the only tiny little logistical problem, how do we get ourselves from A to B in such a short time? 

We live in modern times reigned more and more by modern technology and social media we told ourselves. Firstly we made two random phone calls, second of which brought and important contact number, in the same time we posted a message on Stornoway Canoes face book. And an incredible network got to work. We started this on Tuesday evening, by Wednesday the guys had it all sorted, and on Thursday we were picked up in Port Ness by Mike Sullivan and dropped off to Stornoway. Not only we got to meet his daughter, who is a song writer going to record in London, but we also were offered sandwiches and great coffee to make our journey most comfortable. 

   
  

In Stornoway it was planned for us to have a little time to have more coffee and some wifi, how did they know, before the next part of the journey to Northon Beach with Mark. As I said, we can’t thank the Stornoway kayakers enough, hopefully we could see some of them in London paddling on our home waters and repay them with hospitality. 

 
Even before we knew we would be gone by Thursday morning, we decided not to paddle till that day (wind) and settled in Ness for the next few days. This is what I like about being able to let to be wind bound in random places. At the first glance the area of the Ness did not look interesting at all. Really, there was just nothing. No shop, both cafes shut, landscape flat, and everywhere houses of mismatching architecture strewn randomly around. Whats more, the locals seemed to totally misunderstand the concept of hitchhiking, and we had to walk a lot between our camp and the shop. 

Fortunately, spending three evenings here changed our perspective. Firstly, we could do the laundry having used public launderette for the first time. It felt just like on the telly. People in the museum cafe were so friendly that they cooked us breakfast one hour before their opening times. In Ness they have great sports hall with showers, electricity, wifi, make your own coffee facilities. They also have bowling, which we played one evening. And on Wednesday they had a dance company doing a piece on, conveniently, using social media, #LoL#. 

  
Although we spoke to few local people on the first day already, only the second day they revealed the social club open till very late. After all, the area of Ness didn’t seem that bad and we almost felt sorry to be leaving it.