a 3 day journey on foot from Mangerstadh to Miabhag
The rain pitter pattered on my tent, massaging my tired brain and easing the jumble of thoughts. Gradually the random variations in rain drop patterns became my main focus. I caught myself on the edge of consciousness. I mustn't go to sleep yet! It was only about 5pm, and Daryll had recently dropped me here with my big pack. My plan was to walk home.
If you look at an OS map of Lewis and Harris, the striking thing is the emptiness. Lots of contours and a huge array of fresh water lochs and lochans, but very few roads, paths or man made features at all. The fjord-like Loch Reasort slashes into the island from west to east, indicating the boundary between Lewis and Harris; at its head, the deserted settlement of Ceann Loch Resort brings a path in from the north which ends abruptly 2 km to the east, leaving its follower to handrail a small river down to the village. It is seldom used these days. Some who have tried to follow it in recent years tell me they gave up as it is now so wet, boggy and indistinct. Most of the traffic in and out of Loch Reasort over the centuries has been by boat; a far quicker and easier way of reaching the village than picking one's way through the alternate bog and rock that comprises the difficult terrain of its shores.
I have carved out three days from my busy Wild Harris season. These days are for me and the wilderness. I have my phone with me, but it is going to have to remain switched off, as it is my only means of communication should I injure myself. With the phone off, I am also doing away with a time-piece. I have promised myself that I can get up when I wake up, and walk until I drop each day. I don't intend to get to a certain place by a certain time, and I do intend to spend as much time looking around me as I need to. I intend to soak up this adventure and bestow on myself a sense of freedom I have rarely felt in my life before.
But it wasn't time to go to sleep yet! So I pulled on my waterproofs and boots and crawled out of my tent. I had pitched it in a small stone enclosure on the machair overlooking the beach from the south. The tide was going out, and a small wave had formed while I was snoozing. Mangerstadh can be a very gnarly surf spot, but today it was sheltered from the NE swell direction, and 4 sea kayaks glided in, hugging the cliff line on the other side of the beach. I couldn't help a pang of envy! Even though I sea kayak several times a week for a living, these guys had the perfect conditions to explore this astonishing piece of coastline, and for me, that is an adventure that still lies ahead.
Instead, I took a walk out to the headland on my side of the beach. The close cropped vegetation on the rounded tops of the cliffs was as perfect as any golf course putting green. When I reached it, I found that it wasn't grass at all, but a dense carpet of thrift. And my first gift of the walk: dozens of field mushrooms, varying from buttons to large side plates. I gathered a few of the smaller ones, munching a couple there and then. Whilst enjoying their juicy rain water taste, I peered over the edges of my thrifty outcrop to watch the jewel like green water below, as it gently sucked in and out through an archway of rock, to fill a deep clear gully 10 meters below my feet.
Back at my little camp, I cooked up the fresh mushrooms with some wild thyme and half a pepperami, washed it down with some herb tea and filled myself up on a scone, before finally allowing myself to drift off in my comfy sleeping bag, into my deepest sleep for weeks.
My sleep was long due to the early night, and I woke gradually, becoming aware that the rain had stopped drumming on the tent and daylight was filtering through to me. I crawled out for a wee and found myself in an early morning grey world of quiet mists, suspended and gently swirling above the dune and beach. The hills into which I was planning on venturing, were completely obscured in thick low cloud.
Looking across the beach to the kayak camp, I spotted a woman doing the same as me. A squat to pee. A quick shake of the hips before pulling up knickers and leggings. A wild wee leaving no trace other than a tiny pool seeping away into the sandy soil. She walked back to their tarp shelter where their seemed to be a breakfast underway.
I went to collect water from the burn running through a narrow gully close by. The machair banks of the stream were covered in the minute daisy blooms of eye bright, and the yellows and oranges of birds-foot trefoil. I collected water in my small saucepan and returned to my camp. I placed my little camping stove on a level rock within my stone enclosure, and put the pan of water on to boil. The water was for both porridge and coffee. While the water boiled I packed up camp, giving the tent a brisk shake scattering raindrops everywhere, before unpegging and rolling it ready to be attached to my rucksack. Twenty minutes later I was on my way. The phone was switched on briefly to check time and weather. It was 7.30am and the low cloud was due to clear throughout the morning. I could expect the cloud-base to be rising as I started to climb into the mountains.
As my plan was to pay little attention to paths or roads, I crossed the road immediately and headed along a bearing to find the first small lochan on my route. It wasn't visible from the road, so it was lovely to come over a little rise in the tufty moorland to see the loch as predicted by my map. The only thing I wasn't expecting was the fence that disappeared into it one side, and then continued out of the other side. I was going to have to climb that. The first hurdle! I located the thick sturdy strainer post, which is always driven in deeply, and propped up by supports. Whilst we have the right to roam in Scotland, it is a good idea not to abuse this right by damaging fences in your efforts to climb them! I took my rucksack off and threw it over the fence, before following it with care, scaling the strainer successfully, and happily heaved the pack back onto my back to follow the shore of the loch to the end, before taking my next bearing.
The second loch was fed by a little burn and as I strode through the thick green grass to cross the burn I surprised two families of grouse. They sprang from their cover, croaking and quacking loudly, the parents holding their wings open to hide or protect the chicks. They made me jump out of my skin, so at least that was mutual!
Before long, I hit the Tamnabhaigh Track, joining it at the point where it crosses a river as it tumbles through a small gorge. I wanted water for my camel back so I climbed down next to the bridge to fill it. I looked up just in time to see my first eagle of the day glide above me heading upstream into the gorge and curve away from me to the west. I smiled to myself and stowed the bladder into its pocket in my ruck-sack before manouvering its considerable weight back into position on my back and continuing along the track. I didn't intend to be on the track long, but already I could hear a vehicle. A four by four pick up truck was crunching along the loose gravel road towards me. It stopped beside me and the window was lowered. "You're keen!" the driver remarked to me. I grinned at him and agreed. I explained my plan to him, and he warned me about the high state of the rivers. I told him that all being well he wouldn't see me again as I wasn't planning on passing by Tamnabhaigh House, the remote estate house at the very end of this 12 km rough road. He wished me well and disappeared round the next bend. He would have been a ghillie or gamekeeper with a very unique commute.
After a couple of hundred metres I was looking for my way off the track to the west. His warning was ringing in my ears, as there was a considerable river between me and the base of the mountains i wanted to explore. I was excited! From the track I had a bit of height, and could see a good place to cross. There was a little islet in the river and I planned to use it to help me. When I got there, I stared at it for a while, calming my breathing and planning my strategy. Perfectly spaced rocks worked as stepping stones to transport me across the exhuberant flow, but once on the island, it was much more difficult to find a way off it again! Being right in the centre of the torrent was exhilerating, but I was acutely aware that nothing must go wrong at this early stage in my journey. I could do without a soaking for example! There was nothing for it. Boots had to come off, along with socks, and trousers had to be rolled above the knee. With the walking poles providing balance I was soon safely across, and the boots stayed off for a while, as I delighted in the refreshing pure water squeezing up through the mossy ground of the river bank. Barefoot I headed straight for the base of the cliffs to find some good rocks on which to put my pack while I dried my feet and sensibly but rather reluctantly laced up my boots again. (I was careful to lay my pack on rock whenever I put it down, to minimise the liklihood of picking up ticks)
A graceful pair of black throated divers called to each other as they glided on the narrow lochan to my left as I skirted the cliffs towards the river chasm that I planned to use as my corridor into the hills. It was quite a scramble up the river, and I had to cross it a couple of times to avoid very steep slippery sections of bank. I found following deer paths helpful, although I did have to remind myself that deer are much more agile than a short woman with a heavy back pack. The skill was in deciding which deer path to follow, but they all converge at good places to cross the river, so the boots stayed on, and the feet dry.
Emerging out of the ravine onto the 'first floor' of this little mountain range was gratifying, but the peaks ahead of me were still cloaked in mist, so the full extent of my climb was yet to be revealed. I studied the map and the ground to decide on which side of the loch to walk, and picking the right side for the most direct route towards the tops, I strode on, finding a good rhythm, my walking poles allowing me to walk with confidence through thick deer grass and making bog and rock hopping possible, even with a big pack.
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