Knoydart Peninsula: New kid on the lock
High in the remote reaches of Scotland's Knoydart peninsula, Rob Cowan experiences the ultimate in wild camping - fortified by local mussels and the odd dram of whisky
Saturday 26 July 2008
As a result of sleeping on a bed the size of a Mars bar - and some tight bends on the tracks between London and northern Scotland - I awoke to find myself on the floor of the sleeper train cabin. Above me, a uniformed guard with a breakfast tray looked perturbed. "You have 10 minutes till Kingussie, sir. You'd better put some clothes on."
I was still disengaging the chewy bacon roll from my teeth when the train clunked away. Standing in a remote station surrounded by snow-capped mountains, I consoled myself that, on some level at least, I had spent the night roughing it. This was, after all, a wild camping trip; a chance to strip away the layers of civilisation and reconnect with nature at its most raw and beautiful. I only hoped the heathery mountains of Knoydart would be slightly more comfortable than a train floor.
Sandwiched between the majestic sea lochs Nevis (heaven) and Hourn (hell), the Knoydart peninsula is an adventurer's dream: the last great wilderness in the UK and the geographical equivalent of purgatory. As you would expect with this reputation, getting there is not easy. Devoid of roads across its 80 square miles, there are only two options: boat or boot.
Most people plump for the ferry, which runs from Mallaig to Knoydart's tiny village, Inverie, every weekday throughout the summer. It being a Saturday, however, I had pre-arranged a rendezvous in Kingussie with my old school friend, James, who drove us the two hours to Kinlochourn, where the road turns into a footpath.
Booted up and fuelled with flapjack, we hauled our rucksacks into the peninsula and the yellowy-brown wilderness. We'd set our sights on Inverie, over 16 miles away, mainly because it is home to The Old Forge pub; the remotest in mainland Britain. With the promise of a pint uppermost in our minds, we set up a decent pace over the rugged hills and the waterfall-filled valleys, dropping down into Barisdale Bay and recovering our breath in front of a snow-topped Ladhar Bheinn, poised majestically over the twinkling blue sea; at over 3,000 feet, it qualifies as a Munro.
More long, grinding ascents followed in unexpected Scottish sunshine, meaning our water supplies were soon completely drained. We filled our canteens straight from snowmelt rivers, eventually making Inverie as the sun set and limping into The Old Forge like creaky old men. This caused amusement among the friendly locals, a surprising number of whom joked with us in distinctly un-Scottish tones.
London-born Sam explained that the area was emptied in the 19th-century Clearances, so the peninsula's residents are relatively new arrivals, enticed by the scenery and solitude. After years of absentee landlords, the collectively run Knoydart Foundation took ownership in 1999, restoring the community spirit and giving it self-governance, self-confidence and a promising future as a unique destination for outdoorsy types. As if to emphasise this, Sam offered her services as a guide, vowing to show us "the nicest beach in the world" the following day. Naturally, we gratefully accepted the offer and sealed the arrangement over fresh drams and pints.
Four convivial hours later, James nudged me from my hazy state and pointed out that it was pitch black outside. Knowing that neither of us had the energy or the night-vision to set up camp, I mentally prepared myself for a second night on a floor, when Sam mentioned the bunkhouse.
Inverie has a surprisingly large array of places to stay, considering its size and isolation, including self-catering cottages, a new B&B, as well as the foundation-run bunkhouse, with beds, showers and toilets for £14 a night. As we rolled out sleeping bags on comfy mattresses, I felt a pang of guilt that it wasn't an icy crevasse on Sgurr Coire Choinnichean, the 2,500-foot mountain towering behind the village - but I put it down to too much whisky.
Morning broke spectacularly across Inverie bay and we rose to a breakfast of scampi fries from the pub. True, it wasn't very Ray Mears, but this being Sunday, the only shop was shut and the local scallop diver was sleeping off a hangover. Firewood needed to be collected before Sam led us a few miles west round the headland to Cable Bay.
It was everything she had promised: white sands and clear blue water that looked more like the Mediterranean than Scotland. This was wild camping in paradise. Barefoot and sun-baked, we sat on an old fish box while the waves rolled in. I started a fire while James and Sam went off to harvest mussels from the rocks. Steamed with some wild garlic, they tasted out of this world.
While replenishing our water stocks, it struck me how liberating it is to carry all you need on your back - possibilities and new experiences lie in all directions. Strolling back, I saw a new face by the fire; a deerstalker had seen the smoke and walked down from the hills with a whole saddle of venison for us. The day unfolded like a boy's own adventure as we cooked venison kebabs on tent pegs, shared stories and fed the roaring fire with driftwood. It was so warm that, when night fell, we barely needed our sleeping bags in the heathery grass.
The next morning we had an appointment to see some of Knoydart's wilder residents, so we wound our way back through red deer tracks to Inverie. Bobby Wright, proud skipper of The Knoydart runs tripsall round the nearby coast and we joined him on a tour round the peninsula. This gave us a leisurely look at the dramatic islands of Syke, Eigg and Rhum as the Sound of Sleat's porpoises and seals bobbed about the sea. Drifting past ancient crofts was an unforgettably haunting experience, knowing as we did that the last tenants were forcibly abandoned when sheep farming became more important than human life. Above, a golden eagle circled in the clouds like a memory.
We hiked up to a river valley in Glen Barisdale for our final night. I suspended my hammock from the mossy trees before we split duties between us. There's nothing like being dwarfed by snowy peaks in the wilderness to remind you of the importance of teamwork, or the fact that wild camping is not a holiday for everyone. Aching limbs, splinters and dirty nails are all part of the experience - and nature has developed a very effective method of making sure you are kept constantly busy. Put simply, if no one gathers the wood, the fire goes out and you get cold.
When there are no hotel staff to plump your pillows or drop off room service menus, you tend to see people as they really are. Thankfully, having been friends for 25 years, this just meant James and I had to factor constant laughing and story-telling into tending the fire and washing pots in the river. Even though musselgathering necessitated a three-mile round trip back to where Bobby's boat had dropped us off, we were happy to bounce rucksack-free down to the Bay, catching up on old times and a bit of evening sun. All around us, red deer stopped and watched as we hauled our fresh seafood back to where Sam already had tins of meaty chilli on the go. Another feast ensued before our attempts to pick out the constellations above made all our eyelids grow heavy.
Striking camp after a cold-water wash and porridge breakfast, we bade goodbye to Sam and strode the eight miles back to the car with heavy hearts. After leading a simpler and slower pace of life amongst nature, it was a wrench to leave Knoydart for far too many reasons to list here. Suffice it to say, the predictably floor-based trip home in my sleeper train cabin was only the tip of the iceberg.
The Old Forge, Inverie, Knoydart. For more information, call 01687 462 267 or see www.theoldforge.co.uk
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