An early start meant grabbing a simple breakfast, my priority was coffee. I had not slept well the previous night, the combination of a long journey and nerves for what the week had in store for me. We gathered around the breakfast table getting to know each other a little better. My fellow adventurers were from across Europe; Sebastian from Dortmund, Thomas from Brussels, Alex from the Isle of Skye, Al from Gravesend, Lukasz the photographer from Stockport.
After breakfast we had 10 minutes to ready ourselves for the taxi. It was to take us to Talisker Distillery. From there we were to take to the water in sea kayaks then jump on the bikes for a steady 45 mile ride to our first camping spot. It all seems simple when written down but reality dictated a different nature to the course of events.
Talisker Distillery is nestled on the shores of Loch Harport it has been producing whisky on the site since it was founded in 1830 by Hugh and Kenneth MacAskill. A number of members of the Talisker team were there along with Rebacca Hill from National Geographic to send us on our way. It was a little early to start sampling the single malt and I am not sure that health and safety regulations would allow us to take to the water with a thumb full of Sykes finest in us. So instead we changed into our kayaking kit, kindly provided by Alison who was to be our guide and instructor for the day.
Alison runs a sea kayaking company out of Plockton, just across the water on the mainland. Our kayaks were laid out across the pebbly beach like giant bright crayons tipped from a childs pencil case, mine was orange. Before taking to the water we had the obligatory safety instruction and some basic tips on how to keep afloat. We then had a call from the photographer to get some shots from in front of the distillery. As well as having a challenging adventure we were after all also there to promote the Whisky, Talisker Storm.
Photos done we grabbed our kayaks, led them to the water and climbed in. I have not done much kayaking before but I took to it quite quickly, like a duc…. ( no, too obvious) Anyway, suffice to say I was soon able to relax and take in my surroundings. We were paddling gently at first, staying as a tight group. We hugged the shoreline whilst everyone become used to the motion of the skinny vessels. The inlet of water was surrounded on two sides by rolling hills. There was lots of wildlife activity, we were convinced we had seen a sea eagle, then a cormorant and other diving and wading birds. We made rapid progress as we developed a rhythm with the paddles. Using long strokes and a steady tempo you can cover the miles more quickly than you would think. Our skills improved with every interjection and titbit of advice Alison threw our way.
Approaching the end of the inlet we could see our first port of call, a squat lighthouse on an outcop of rock. Below the lighthouse we paused and came to gether in a raft. A technique that would prove useful in the next hour! With our energy levels restored after some of Alison’s famous flapjack we set off again. Emerging from the sheltered rocks we quickly realised that both the wind and the waves had picked up. It took a great deal more concentration whilst at the same time relaxation of the body to ride these watery slopes. The front of the kayak would lift 4-5 feet in the air over each creast then slap back down into the trough of the next one. I looked round, Al and Alex grinning like schoolboys, digging their paddles in and ploughing forwards. The others looking slightly less assured. Our challenge was to cross the bay, around a mile and a half and to land on a small beach. So it was head down , keep focused and enjoy. Then within a second everything changed, Thomas was in the water. He had capsized. we had splash skirts on and fortunately his had come off without too much trouble. The water was cold and Thomas felt it. Alison went into auto-pilot, remaining calm and reassuring she managed to single handedly retrieve both Thomas and his Kayak, she tipped the water out of both and helped him back into his boat. She then made the correct but frustrating decision to abandon our intended plan and to head for the nearest safe portage. Turning the kayaks round proved a challenge as it meant putting them broadside to the waves, making them more vulnerable to over turning. We all managed it though.
We tried to stay as a group but with the winds and water so strong It was tricky. With Thomas alongside me I could see he was struggling. I think following his initial plunge the cold had set in and he was struggling to relax. Being a prop-forward he is quite a big guy and a little top heavy for a kayak. It was little surprise that he went under again. This time Alison instructed us to get together in a raft and head for the shore. She was going to get Thomas back into his kayak and along with LUkasz the photographer was gojng to tow him to shore. So the four remaining kayaks rafted up and the two outside kayakers paddled toward the landing point. Unfortunately the wind and tide wanted to push us onto the rocks and it would oly be through my paddling efforts that we could avoid doing so.
All the other members of the raft could do was hold us together and shout encouragement at me. This was morale boosting but no help what so ever when your arms are burning and you feel like your shoulder is coming out of its socket. Much effort later we made it into the calm of a beautiful picture postcard bay. Finally we could look round and see Alison and her tow party not far behind us. There was little time to pause as it was out with the kayaks, off with the wetsuits and on to the road bikes.
Being a regular cyclist I was not concerned about the ride. It wasn’t a day for full lycra, cleat pedals and full carbon. It was a sit up and drink in your surroundings day. We were riding a mix of cyclo-cross bikes and regular road bikes, all with flat pedals.
The clouds scudded past as if late for an appointment, leaving behind them small vacuums of blue sky. When the sun appeared though these gaps it was hot and so the breeze was welcome. We set off at an adrenelin fuelled pace, still buoyed from our kayaking exploits. It soon became apparent though that the pace was not going to be maintained by all the group.
Sebastian was used to cycling around the level flat roads of Dortmund and had litte experience on a drop handle racing bike. Add to this the complication that his brakes were the opposite way round to his bike in Germany and you can see why his head began to drop and the pace slackened. We were determined to ride together so we took turns at the front of the pack and more importantly at the back, encouraging and cajoling Sebastian up every hill. 25 miles in and he started to suffer from cramp. Un-used to using his cycling muscles for such a long period of time his legs rejected his will power and determination and stopped working. A quick rest, stretch and drink of water and he was able to continue. This was the pattern for the remaining tough miles. I have rarely seen someone dig as deep into their reserves both mentally and physically as I did that day. From start to finish Sebastian did not complain once and he maintained a constant smile, or was it a grimace! “Just one more hill!” we would call to him, knowing full well we had many more to go. This sense of humour and camaraderie really brought us together as a team and we finally made it to Uig on the North East tip of the Isle. Watching the ferry bound for the isles of Lewis and Harris pull out of the idyllic bay we were filled with a renewed strength and were able to provide Sebastian with some comfort as we cried “just one more hill!” and know that this time it really was.
We arrived at our remote camp spot in the early evening. All exhausted but knowing that we still had to pitch tents (only to be used if really inclement) light a fire (leave no trace behind) and cook a meal. This was all done with a slightly sluggish enthusiasm, only numbed by the lubricating, spirit reviving effects of a can of beer! Fed, watered with beds pitched it just remained to discuss the plans for the morning. It was to be another early start setting off from the camp and walking the length of the Trotternish ridge, some 26-30 miles. It was estimated this would take us between 8 and 10 hours. Given the tired legs from the cycling it would be another tough day and one where we would have to pull together again as a team. My intentions had been to sleep all night under the stars in the bivvy bag we were provided with. I have to admit that within 15 minutes of me shutting my eyes it started to rain and so I piled into a tent with Al and spent the night under canvas!