talbot express, travel

North for Easter

We had planned to visit the Torridon area of the North West Highlands this Easter, to take in some scenery and do a bit of family hiking and explore the sheltered lochs in the area in our new Gumotex Palava inflatable canoe. The weather had other ideas.

Instead we head up to my folks for a short stop over, dropping off pet gerbils and picking up the boys who had spent the week there, and then chugged up to the M6 to Ullswater to enjoy the last of the mild sunshine we had been spoilt with in London for the previous 10 days or so..

This was the first time we’d got the Palava wet. Bought specifically to go in the van, it sort of behaves like a rigid canoe on the water, is not too heavy, is reasonably compact when packed and is hopefully robust enough to take at least two of us, some baggage and a general panning over the next few years. We’ll see.

Next morning we were up at a reasonable hour, and after checking forecasts, fluid levels and the ever so slightly blowing exhaust, decided to take the boys to see some Roman stuff. After an un-stressful drive, we arrived at Housesteads to find that our National Trust membership yet again doesn’t cover the parking… never mind, its for a good cause.

Late afternoon we hit the road again and head across the border, target the Cairngorms, which according to forecasts was the least wet and windy bit of scenic Scotland for the next few days. Eventually we pulled up at a sheltered layby off Loch Insh in the dark, where we spent the night along with two other vans.

Next morning, we head into Aviemore and had a late breakfast in a cafe before picking up some maps and a guide book and heading out again to the ski centre on Cairn Gorm. Here the boys had a run around the stream and I took them for a short walk whilst Cara relaxed in the van. It was cloudy and very windy with frequent squalls between the odd bit of sunshine.

From our guidebook, it looked like Braemar would offer some decent low level walking as the high level stuff was a bit hairy in the conditions. So we made our steady way around the edge of the Cairngorms, entertained by the beautiful but bleak vistas, steep and winding roads and the increasingly long travel in the brake pedal..

After a quick pit stop in Braemar itself, we drove around to the Linn O’Dee taking in the impressive falls before pulling up nearby for the night and next morning.

Planning to hike up to Derry Lodge in the afternoon, we moved around to the National Trust car park (free parking as members finally!) and head out following the river, Lui Water up the valley, arriving at Bob Scott’s after battling an impressive headwind. A quick snack in the bothy, signing the book and having a chat with a Dutch group who had hiked down from the surrounding hills, we turned around and head back to the van, this time with the wind behind us.

Our youngest wanted to play in the snow, as did we, so we decided to head back to Aviemore to stay nearby and head up the hills the following day. After another scenic drive of gentle braking, we arrived at Aviemore at dusk, grabbed fish and chips and then searched for a spot to eat them. We parked up at the car park over looking Loch Morlich, scoffed our fish and chips and a less than agreeable steak pie (I only eat fish by the sea) and then drove about trying to find somewhere to over-night in a less-than-welcoming-for-camper-vans area.

We may have parked up in a Forestry Commission car park for the night (along with about 10 other vans) after possibly making a guerrilla dash into a local camping facility to top up water and empty our loo (had someone been around in reception, I would have asked first and even offered money to borrow the facilities briefly).. Anyway, an early start the next day had us breakfasting heartily at Mambo’s at the Ski and Snowboard School before wrapping up well with water proofs, extra layers, map and compass and a bothy bag and setting out in the blustery conditions to do the short walk to Coire an t-Sneachda.

On the way up we passed some bird watchers who told us about the ptarmigans at the coire and as we got to it, we literally stumbled into them in with their odd croaking call and transitional plumage.

After a quick snack stop, we head back down,  via a number of no longer pristine snow patches (ahem) and were quickly back at the carpark, bumping into a pair of grumpy grouse by the ski station.

The forecast in the West appeared to be picking up, and much as we’d enjoyed barely scratching the surface of the Cairngorms, it was difficult to get their full flavour without longer hikes in and the variable weather made that unattractive to both kids and parents. So we decided to head for Glencoe and the Red Squirrel camp site to regroup and get our glacial valley fix.

Although I’ve traveled extensively around Scotland, I’ve never driven down the A86 in daylight and was surprised by both the beauty of the route and the narrowness of the road given the speed and volume of road freight traversing, the big trucks tearing up the verges where they left the road to pass each other. We stopped at the end of Loch Laggan to stretch legs and to check the dodgy connection to the split charge system.

Earlier than expected, we arrived at Fort William and after a quick foray into Morrisons to restock, took the familiar road up to Glencoe and the campsite and importantly the Clachaig Inn. An enjoyable pint, a couple of rounds of Sushi Go was followed by a decent meal. I had game pie, Cara haggis, neaps and tatties.

Next morning, we hung around the site in the drizzle, refilling water and identifying the varied small birds flitting around the van. Our plan was to drop down to the top of Loch Etive and scope out opportunities for a stop over there. The drive down past the waterfalls on the river Etive was stunning and also notable for the number of kayakers parked in passing places which made for a couple of less than entertaining stand offs between vehicles where both decided that they were not going backwards, not least due to the ever increasing chain of cars and vans accumulating behind..

Actually arriving at the end of the road was a bit of an anti climax as despite the jaw dropping surroundings, the scruffy car park was depressingly litter strewn, popular and unwelcoming. The Cairngorms were largely pristine, so much so that I’d been picking up the odd bit of litter I’d encountered as we’d been out and about and taking it back with us. Here there was way too much to even contemplate this, it saddens me that many of our beautiful places are abused like this, even more so as it is by the very people who journey out there to experience the unique qualities of the place. Not to mention people who try to hack down bits of live tree (which won’t burn), and who think that paper tissues biodegrade in a few days. Then there are the people who thoughtfully bag up their dog poo for the fairies to collect. Anyway enough moaning, at the request of the youngest, we went fishing, and caught nought but seaweed and the wind.

Plan B was to drive down towards Oban to pick up fish and chips and then find a secluded spot with a view to see out the night. The first part went reasonably to plan, excellent fish and chips were picked up and then consumed in a layby by Loch Feochan. Actually finding somewhere without miserable signs for “no overnight stays”, however dubious the legality of their status, proved to be more difficult. Looking at the road atlas suggested there must be something on offer around Ellenabeich, off the beaten track and with lots of frilly coastline, the prospect of a splendid (albeit overcast) sunset beckoned.

It was not to be, there was nowhere we could find that was not in sight of private property, already occupied by a vehicle or without explicit signs stating over-nighting was not to take place. It was going dark. Eventually we just gave up looking for something special and picked the first secluded parking spot we could find, which as it happened was near Loch Melfort. Getting up moderately early the next day, we spotted a more pleasant layby with a view a few hundred meters down the road and parked up and had breakfast and a run around the beach.

What then followed was indecision, followed by a chase to find a data signal to get a forecast to see if we could paddle on Loch Sween to visit the Faery Isles again, and ferry times, to see if we could take a different route back. By Lochgilphead, we’d not managed either, so in increasingly heavy rain, we decided to head south again. By the time we got to Inveraray, the weather had improved, but sun was predicted for the Lake District on the next day, on the way home. It made sense to head south, target Ullswater once more.

We arrived at Waterside House campsite at dusk and parked up more or less in exactly the same spot as we’d been at a week earlier. It was blowing a hoolie and cold so we cooked up a feast of steak and venison and played cards until bedtime, intending an early start the next day and a looped walk up to the tops from Glenridding.

Of course we slept late and didn’t leave the site until after 10am. Predictably there were no parking spaces to found anywhere near the start of our planned walk, and traffic was building, so we elected to cut our losses and drive back via the Kirkstone Pass to see if we could really finish the brakes off. After a pleasant stop to enjoy the views and let the boys run about, and a surprisingly well controlled descent down the other side of the pass, we worked our way through Ambleside and Windermere in heavy traffic, stopping for petrol and a snack before hitting the M6 again heading south.

Approaching Lancaster, a bump dislodged a pack of olives Cara hadn’t packed in our haste to leave the petrol station. Looking at it in the rear view mirror to see if it was leaking everywhere, I could see an unusual amount of exposed carpet and it dawned on me that we had left our packed canoe, ramps and a ground sheet outside the pitch 80 odd miles up the road in the camp site. A rapid U-turn and a call to the site was inconclusive. Fearing the worst, it was with considerable relief that our not inexpensive belongings were exactly where we left them 4 hours earlier.

I chucked them in the back muttering, and we turned around again and started our return leg to my folks and ultimately back to London.

Over a thousand miles, one and a half tanks of water, half a litre of oil and I don’t wish to contemplate the petrol we consumed (which I actually logged, we averaged 25mpg). Through sun, rain, snow and high winds, up and down steep and winding roads, nothing blew, fell off or broke, Rudolph exceeded expectations and was a welcome safe haven in some miserable weather. Even the dodgy headlight stayed on throughout.

We camped in worse conditions last year in Skye but we did a bit more walking. This year our backpacking set up stayed in the van, a by product of having the option of wiping off the condensation and watching rain run down windows from a warm inside rather than feeling it run down your neck and wiping it from your eyes outside… There is a balance to be struck. Perhaps one day we’ll get there.

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