Head for the hills with a llama by your side; UK OUTDOORS

They may come from the Andes but they are the ideal beast of burden when you're hiking in the isolated hills of Caithness.

Caithness is as far north as you can go on mainland Britain. The landscape is made up of, in turns, flat, boggy moor (these days increasingly planted with conifers) or mountains wilder than those traversed by most hillwakers. The hiking trails are little used, and you are unlikely to run into other people in the hills. However, you may meet the odd llama. Yes, you can hire llamas to explore the coasts and mountains of Caithness. The idea might seem silly or even troublesome (evoking pictures of stubborn llamas refusing to budge on a mountain trail in the rain), but the animals can make your life easier. More tractable than mules or donkeys, lower maintenance than horses or ponies, less mean than camels, their bad temper tends to manifest itself in spitting, sometimes into the face of the person pulling them along. But this is rare. Sure-footed and willing, a llama will carry your pack for days over the toughest terrain without tiring.

Like many eccentric outdoor sports, hiking with llamas is an import from California, where llamas are a fairly common sight on farms in the Sierra Nevada mountains west of San Francisco. Hiking with llamas is well established there and raises not the hint of an eyebrow if you say: "I'm off with my llama for a few days." Here, the sport still has enough dinner-table novelty value to be worth doing for that alone. But it also has definite advantages. Not only does a beast carry your gear for you, but its presence is calming to wildlife, which tends to scent or see it first and therefore let you approach closer. Even better, you do not have to look after the llama yourself.

Kingspark Llama Farm, Berriedale, on the rugged Caithness coast, offers both llamas and combined guides and people to take care of the beasts. The guides know the surrounding country well, the wildflowers, wildlife and historic sites (the landscape abounds in Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age sites, suggesting that a much more clement climate must once have prevailed here). If you take a walk along the coast, you will often stumble across one of several coastal birdwatching hides built by the RSPB. Forays into the hills generally lead to encounters with red deer, grouse and sometimes peregrines.

You can either be a softie, staying at the farm and going on different walks each day, or arrange for longer treks of several days, camping out with the llamas in the barren, empty, but beautiful hills. You will have to supply all your own gear and food for these longer trails, and should arrange them in advance. If you just want a weekend break, however, a flight up to Inverness followed by a drive in a hired car will get you to Kingspark farm in a matter of hours, and you will find yourself walking a cliffside trail overlooking a rough northern sea, leading an animal from the Andes while spotting guillemots, puffins, auks and other seabirds through your guide's binoculars. If you are tired of city life, do it.

FACT FILE

Llama Walks, Kingspark Llama Farm, Berriedale

Caithness, KW7 6HA, Scotland (tel: 01593 751202)

Season:

Day-trails open all year. Long trails from Easter to October only.

Food

Breakfast; evening meals can be arranged.

Children

All ages welcome.

Disabled guests

Some wheelchair access on short trails.

Insurance

Guests should provide their own.

Safety

No special safety provisions.

Tariffs

pounds 12 per llama per day (can be shared) plus pounds 14 per day B&B. Guiding rates negotiable.

Booking

Deposits required only for large groups, non-refundable.

Access

Berriedale is on the A9 north of Helmsdale. Trains to Helmsdale station, buses to Llama Farm available. Centre picks up from train station (pounds 10 return).

Accommodation

2 single, 2 double, and 1 family room available at farm (pounds 14 per night). Camping is possible.

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