Category Archives: Travel Reports

Travelling with packboats

Fitzroy: Follow The River

I just dug out this story I wrote a few years ago about our packrafting adventure in northwest Australia. There’s more here, including vids. Originally published in Terra magazine 2011.

In the far northwest of Australia is a barely tamed region of spinifex-clad tablelands, big seasonal rivers and the world’s largest expanse of tropical savannah woodland. About the size of California but with a population of just 40,000, the Kimberley hosts marginal, million-acre cattle stations, tracts of land returned to local Aboriginal people, remote wildlife conservation ventures and undeveloped national parks. 

But the Kimberley might be better compared with Alaska, a wilderness that is under threat. Inaccessible by road for the rainy half a year, the Kimberley is such a relentlessly tough environment that unlike in the rest of Western Australia (WA), exploiting the valuable mineral resources known to be here only now become viable. WA itself is a state the size of India but with 3% of its population, and continues to thrive on a century-old mineral boom. The Kimberley is under pressure to join the party, but as a parallel environmental awareness to conserve Australia’s last tropical wilderness has grown, industrial development of the region has become controversial, not least with the current plans to turn the ochre cliffs of James Price Point 20 miles north of Broome into a vast LNG plant. No one wants to see the Kimberley end up like the Pilbara highlands, 600 miles to the southwest, criss-crossed with private railroads and pitted with huge iron ore excavations as hills are turned into holes to ship the ferrous rubble to resource-staved Far East. But the Kimberley one other abundant resource which the populated southern rim of Australia is crying out for: water.

Most visitors experience the same Kimberley; they transit the 450-mile Gibb River Road, a dirt track which bisects the region between the former cattle ports of Wyndham and Derby in the west. With a branch track leading north to Kalumburu on the coast, it’s the Kimberley’s only track, dotted with fern-clad gorges, waterfalls and swimming holes. It was an area I’d visit eagerly when updating an Australia travel guide, often spending too much time and fuel money researching out of the way spots that ended up as just a few lines in the finished book. But even then I knew I’d barely got beneath the Kimberley’s skin and my work there left me wanting to see more. Specialized trekking outfits used local contacts, helicopters and seaplanes to access outback areas, but charged several thousand dollars.

Follow a river – that was the way to do it. With high humidity and average daytime temperatures over 90°F, the constant need for water was solved, while the boat took the weight off feet and shoulders. I’d researched short trips with inner tubes or float bags, but they weren’t really sustainable. Then in 2010 I discovered Alpacka packrafts and knew I had a tough, lightweight craft with which to explore a Kimberley river. 

All that remained was to choose a river. Most of the big Kimberley rivers, the Durack, Drysdale and King Edward drained into the Timor Sea lapping an uninhabited and fjord-riddled coastline of 1500-miles on which the small Aboriginal outpost of Kalumburu was the only settlement. But up here the presence of estuarine or saltwater crocodiles as well as 35-foot tides heaving through rocky gaps to form ‘horizontal waterfalls’ made bobbing around in a tiny raft a risky idea.

Horizontal Falls, where the falling spring tide rushes back out of the lagoons through narrow gaps

The key for this visit was to pin down an amenable stretch of water with easy access and exit points and without the menace of saltwater crocodiles. I knew well that no matter how easy you made it – the coolest period, the flattest river – the harsh conditions in the Kimberley would take its toll. My mate Jeff and I didn’t want to be abseiling down ravines, hacking through snake-infested rainforest or looking twice at every passing bit of driftwood in case it slowly started swinging its tail from side to side. 

The most likely candidate was the Fitzroy, at 500 miles the Kimberley’s biggest river and in peak flood, the highest volume river in Australia, flowing at up to 30,000 cfs under the Highway 1 bridge at the town of Fitzroy Crossing. Running the churning Fitzroy in the unpredictable Wet sounded a little extreme for me. The good thing with packrafts is that extended portages are relatively effortless; the excess payload adds up to a 5lb raft and a 4-piece paddle. So Jeff and I decided September, the end of the dry season, would make an easier introduction; cooler and less humid just as long as we were prepared to walk between the pools. 

Mornington

The take out was obvious: the bridge at Fitzroy Crossing, the only town for a couple of hundred miles along Australia’s peripheral Highway 1. And some eighty miles upriver, Mornington Wilderness Camp seemed like the best place to start. A former cattle station spread across the King Leopold Ranges. I’d visited the Camp a decade or so earlier, soon after the Australia Wildlife Conservancy had taken it over and de-stocked it. It’s one of nearly two-dozen sanctuaries the AWC manages on the continent and at nearly 800,000 acres, one of the largest, with a range of unique ecosystems as well as high levels of biodiversity which included several rare and threatened species.

When we arrived at the Camp, following a 30-minute flight from Fitzroy Crossing, the Camp’s manager Diane was midway through a pre-dawn finch census lasting several days and assisted by volunteers from all over Australia. The ranges around Mornington are one of the preferred habitats of the stunningly colourful Gouldian Finch, an endangered passerine or ‘songbird’ whose breeding patterns and habitats have been disturbed by changes in the bushfire regime as well as introduced predators, topped by the feral cat – the scourge of indigenous birds right across Australia.

When I think of the Kimberley, it is above all the chorus of the largely unseen birds which evokes the spirit of northern Australia’s wild and remote corners. From just before dawn until sunset the bush resonates with avian chattering, from the strident squawks of the corellas, cockatoos and kookaburras, to the milder coo-ing of the crested pigeons. This would be the daily soundtrack for our five-day descent from the Mornington to the highway bridge. 

Dimond

On the water soon after dawn, by the mid-morning of the second day we arrived at Dimond Gorge on the southern edge of the Ranges. Here the Fitzroy cuts back on itself as it pushes past the gorge walls, scoured smooth by the monsoonal torrent. At the southern exit where the gorge walls are just a few hundred feet apart, a dam had been proposed to match those on the Ord river in the eastern Kimberley. In 1960 the original dam enabled the development of the Ord River Irrigation Scheme (ORIS), the new town of Kununurra and with the much bigger Ord River dam completed in 1972, the 400-square-mile expanse of Lake Argyle was formed. But the ORIS has been slow to reach any potential. Thousands of kilometres from its domestic market, the produce, mostly sugar cane and high-value sandalwood, gets shipped to Asia and the power generated from the huge dam only supplies Kununurra and a nearby diamond mine.

Water has become an acute problem in the populated southeast of Australia where the steady depletion and raising salinity of the Murray-Darling basin which fills most of New South Wales and Victoria has led to water restrictions. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the country, the Fitzroy’s wet season run-off spills into the Timor Sea at a rate of a ‘Sydney Harbour’ every nine minutes, or evaporates from the vast 1000 km² surface of Lake Argyle. This potential was anticipated in the 1980s ago when a 1200-mile pipeline to already drought-stricken Perth was proposed, until it transpired that the cost of securing and delivering water to be six times that of local desalination. And so by 2006 the world’s first desalination plant to powered by a nearby wind farm was opened just south of the city Perth, supplying nearly a fifth of the city’s needs.

Emerging from the uplifted sandstone escarpments of the King Leopolds at lunchtime on the second day, we were having no such shortages. The preceding Wet had ended five months ago breaking all Kimberley records, and as we’d flown into Mornington a couple of days ago it was clear that, against our expectations, below us the Fitzroy was still flowing and four-fifths was open, paddleable water. There’d be a lot less walking than we’d anticipated.

Now, ahead of us lay the cattle country where we expected the river to lose its depth and definition as it meandered southwest among granite outcrops towards the highway. Sure enough, after lunch the flow soon dissipated into a jumbled rock bar with one particularly tough portage over huge boulders which left me croaking with thirst. Walking consumed so much more energy than paddling and we fully expected the stage across the cattle plains of Fossil Downs station to be tough, fly-ridden and with the menace of semi-feral stock. 

Although we’d end most days exhausted, it in fact turned out to be the highlight of our traverse. There were no more rock bars but periodically the river’s main channel became choked with flood-borne sand which diverted the remaining flow into the trees along the banks. Here, under a cool canopy of river gums replete with twittering of birds, we’d wade the sandy shallows for hours, towing our rafts like sleds. Occasionally we squeezed under- or climbed over a log jam, or sank to our hips in quicksands.

Jeff was using a $30 PVC pool toy rather than a fancy, $1000 Alpacka, so had to nurse the limp raft and repair punctures almost daily. The cattle and harmless freshwater crocs (a species unique to northern Australia) usually scuttled away or stared indifferently as we sploshed by. At one point the acrid reek of urea announced a huge colony of riverside bats which once agitated, took to the wing in their hundreds with a high-pitched screech. Come the evening, we’d spread out on a sandbank with plentiful firewood within arm’s reach, and set about steadily rehydrating ourselves from the day’s efforts.

By the fifth day we sighted the Geikie Ranges, the northern gateway to an unbroken, deep channel which flowed past the distinctive ramparts of Geikie Gorge National Park. Here, eons of flooding had eroded the former limestone reef into bizarre, scalloped forms. Freshwater crocs laid their eggs on the adjacent sun-baked sandbanks while out in the 100° heat, we paddled into the twilight to complete a marathon 12-hour, 20-mile day on the river. By the following lunchtime we crawled up the steep bank below the highway bridge at Fitzroy Crossing. Jeff could barely face another moment in his excrable pool toy, but like me, he’d followed the river. 

Kayaking the Sussex Coast

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Seawave 2 Main Page
Newhaven to Brighton
Hayling Island
Seawave 2 rudder

Once we were let out in the Covid summer of 2020, we did a very nice coastal walk from Hastings to Rye along the Sussex coast. Hot, but not so windy, it would have been just right for paddling. Today conditions were similar for a westbound transit from Rye back towards Hastings.
High Water (and a spring tide too) was at a very reasonable noon in Rye, with a forecast of 8-14mph from the east and a bit of a kick at 3pm. I was hoping for the upper limit and a bit of splashy sport, so brought the WindPaddle I’d used on the packraft last month in Scotland in much stronger winds.

It’s only a 10-minute walk from Rye station to a boat ramp on the quay where the water was still inching up the concrete as I pumped up the Gumotex.

I was taking a gamble trying my untested new rudder set up. Because I expected it to play up, I fitted the stock skeg so I could lift a problematic rudder and carry on as normal without coming shore. To be without a rudder or skeg with a backwind at sea would not be ideal.
Being the ever recirculating goldfish, I forgot to try out my sail stick mount idea.

Rye hasn’t been on the coast since 1287 or so when, along with gradual land reclamation, the biggest of a series of 13th-century storms filled the adjacent marshy inlet with silt and shingle which finished off semi-abandoned Old Winchelsea and radically redrew the low-lying coastline where the Kent and Sussex borders meet. It was the same in Pevensey to the west.
The gif on the left from this interesting regional website shows how the coastline of southeast England was transformed in the late medieval era. Where the Rother river once flowed directly east to enter the sea at New Romney, the filled-in bay saw it diverted south below the old hill town of Rye, now stranded two miles from the sea.
The then important port of Winchelsea was rebuilt on its present site in 1288, but eventual silting saw both it and Rye’s maritime importance decline. What this area may lack in epic spaces common to the north and west of Britain, it gains in fascinating history. 1066 and all that.

I set off along the River Brede which wraps around Rye’s south side like a moat, and soon joins the Rother. It’s about 5km to the open sea.

I’m into the wind but the grass banks are under water and the wind turbines are spinning merrily; all good signs.

Rye Harbour. The tide is high and I’m moving on.

In 45 minutes I reach the old breakwater opposite Camber Sands where I recall bucket & spading as a child. The sea looks depressingly flat.

Seals at the river mouth (a few days later).

It’s nearly 10km to the distant cliffs, a two-hour haul. And with the breeze from behind, I’m soon streaming with sweat. I’m not sure my water will last.

Going with the Flow
A few years ago while planning Newhaven to Brighton, I learned an odd thing about Sussex and Kent tides. For the last two hours of the incoming (eastbound) flood, the tide keeps rising but reverses westbound along the English coast as it backs up at the Straight of Dover and spills back down the sides. That makes HW is around the same time in Folkestone, and 140 miles to the west, past the Isle of Wight, but HW at all the places in between lags behind.
Tidal steams are not that strong here – wind will have much more of a bearing on paddling – but this means you get only four hours eastbound flow with the flood tide and prevailing southwest winds. But if you time your run with a warm easterly off the continent and go westbound – as I did on this occasion – you get a much longer run with the tidal current; eight hours or more; maybe 45km all the way to Eastbourne. The question is: can you paddle that long.

A breeze picks up so I flick up the sail. I check my GPS and am doing 3-4kph, while I can paddle at around 5-6kph. Then the breeze drops away. I wasn’t really planning to paddle the full 30+ clicks to Cooden station, but I can always get off at Hastings, a few stops before.

At least the rudder seems to working as it should, though any quick response is dulled a little by the skeg. A rudder’s not really needed in these conditions, though it compensates for me being blown gradually onshore.
I’m trying a rudder lift-line only, not a rudder lowering line as well. But once in the boat I find I can’t turn enough to even see the lifted rudder to flick it down with the paddle, so I’ll probably fit a drop-line later.

I creep along the expanse of Winchelsea Beach. It’s hot work in a backwind. Eventually I reach the start of the cliffs where the coast turns more east-west, putting the wind directly behind me. But paddling at effectively wind speed, there is no cooling effect. More familiar with paddling at the other end of Britain, I’m not used to 27°C.

Then, as predicted, around 3pm the breeze picks up and I can get the sail up.

Paddling half a mile from the shore, initially it was hard to know if I’m moving and at what speed. So waking up the GPS screen was a handy way of telling if the sailing speed was worthwhile.
With the odd gust I reach nearly 7kph, but average less than 5kph, a bit slower than paddling, but I’m not dripping like a leaky tap or needing to drink. In fact I could nearly doze off.

The cliffs inch by. This is the sea end of the Wealden sandstone formation, less high and steep than the better known chalky Seven Sisters to the west, or Dover’s white cliffs to the northeast. Both chalk cliffs are part of the same formation or bed, but when the land was squeezed and uplifted to the dome or hump was eroded away to expose the older sandstone below. This is what they call the Weald, and near Tunbridge Wells, East Grinstead and Frant, the weathered sandstone ridge produces small outcrops where I started rock climbing as a teenager (right).

I pass the Stade, the east end of Hastings where the cliffs drop back down. A few souls are enjoying the last day of summer on the shingle beach.

I keep going to the pier and decide to have a leisurely take out there. It’s gone 4pm so another 10km to get the train 6.15 from Cooden would be a rush.

Landfall by Hastings pier.
Compared to the fabulous Summer Isles, for me these southeast coast paddles lack drama and interest, but are easy to reach if tomorrow’s weather looks good.
We walked Hastings to Rye again a day or two later; it took about the same time and was more enjoyable (though it was cooler).
The rudder foot pivot worked fine, though needed a bit of re-tensioning at the pier. Next time I can confidently leave the skeg off, though I can see a rudder would only be needed when sailing or paddling in windier conditions. That is all I have to say for now.

IK&P Video of the Week: Alaska with IKs

Nicely shot vid with drone footage of an Ozzie father and son’s tough, 250-km paddle and portage through Alaska’s Brookes Ranges in a pair of Advance Elements Expedition Elites.
After getting dropped off at Summit Lake on the Continental Divide (see map, right), they followed the Koyukuk River south, with a plan to climb the 7500′ Mt Doonerak, Alaska’s ‘Matterhorn’, not far from the river and 20 miles west of the Dalton Highway.
With extra gear piled high on the decks, you do wonder if this made the 4-metre Elites unstable in what looked like relatively easy but shallow white water. That led to a couple of capsizes and the loss of the crucial sat phone. Other dramas ensue.

Land, Sea and Loch: Packrafting Knoydart

Anfibio Rebel 2K main page
MRS Nomad S1 main page

Looming over the Sound of Sleat opposite the Isle of Skye, Knoydart is a famously rugged peninsula that’s inaccessible by road; part of the so-called Rough Bounds. Rising north of Loch Nevis, the mountains top out at the 1020-metre (3346′) summit of Ladhar Bheinn (‘Larven’), before dropping back down to Loch Hourn. On an OS map, contour lines here are as dense as spaghetti and to the south, Loch Morar is Europe’s deepest body of freshwater. Sounds like packrafting country!

It took just a morning to stitch together a challenging three-loch loop via Loch Quioch, but once I got there the initial 20-km stage down the channel of Loch Hourn looked a bit daunting alone in the untried packraft sailing outfit and required a 4am start at Low Water if I was to do the loch in one tide. By the time I tried something else, I was pushed back by wind and tide, so I settled for a good look around, tested the sail on the Rebel 2K, the Six Moon Designs Flex PR pack harness and a new tent before returning a fortnight later with Barry with whom I’d paddled the River Wye last April.

Driving up to Mallaig freed us from train timetables, which left the weather and 18-kilo packs as our main constraints. Unfortunately, the forecast dropped an F5 headwind on the Friday we planned to paddle out of Loch Nevis back towards Morar or Mallaig. Along with agreeable tide timings, I realised this was a limitation of circular packrafting routes on the Scottish west coast: chances are you’ll hit a prevailing southwesterly which may slow your packraft to a crawl (as I’d found). Depending on where you are, that can mean turning back or a tough walk out. Maybe both.

So Barry and I flipped the plan: hike 16km from Inverie (the only village on Knoydart) over to Barisdale, paddle inner Loch Hourn (7km), walk up to Loch Quoich (8km), cross it and then head 6km to a bothy in desolate Glen Kingie. From here, on Windy Friday we’d walk 6km over another pass to the 20-km long Loch Arkaig and try and sail the F5 west, maybe getting as far as Fort William via the River Lochy, though gusts out here were tagged at 40mph. At Fort William we’d catch the train back to the car in Mallaig.

Coastal Packrafting

Rebel 2K main page

Around here the inshore sea paddling is exceptional, even if packrafting the inland lochs is also pretty good. Having done most of the latter routes, I thought I might try some coastal packrafting.
Garvie Bay arcing west to Achnahaird Bay looked like a good one and happens to parallel probably the best walk on the peninsula which we’ve done many times. That route could be a 20-km combination of cycling, walking and paddling, but as it was the last calm evening for a while, we thought we’d go out together in the kayak and I’d try the packraft on the way back. That way everyone got to play.

A light NW breeze blew onshore as we cut across Achnahaird Bay like a blue fin tuna. The approach of HW meant we slipped through the submerged skerries of Rubha Beag and into the crab’s claw inlet of Camas a Bhothain (Bothy Bay). This seemed a good spot to deploy the packraft with the aid of my exciting new gadget, a mini electric pump. I unrolled the boat over the water and let the pump buzz away for a couple of minutes, topped off with the hand pump, then clambered aboard.

Paddling away, I realised this was the first time I’ve paddled my Rebel 2K unloaded and I was a bit shocked by the bow yawing. Now fully back-heavy, one good swipe of the paddle and it could flip a 180°, just like my old 2010 Alpacka Llama.

Ah, but in my haste to launch the lifeboat I’d forgotten to fit the also-untried skeg which comes standard on the 2K. I waddled over towards Rubha a Choin beach and slipped it on easily, while the Mrs transferred to the Seawave’s front seat.

I’ve been ambivalent about the value of a skeg on a packraft, but now back on the water the yawing was notably reduced. If you think about it, a packraft actually pivots from a point around the middle of your swinging paddle, not from the stern, as it feels from the seat. The centre of mass behind the pivot point does make an unladen bow yaw more, but the stern will yaw too; just less and unnoticed.

On the Wye my 2K was fully loaded with the centre of mass moved forward and which minimised any yawing, even without a skeg. (With a heavy load over the bow a reduction in yawing is well known with packrafts). Now unloaded and with the bow riding high, swish-swosh yawing was exacerbated, but is actually happening at both ends of the boat. So any type of fin or extension of the stern (like the post-2011 Alpackas – right – and all subsequent copies) will constrain this, while not affecting steering. So, bottom line: skegs work on a packraft and are easy to retro-fit.

All the remains is a packraft’s agonisingly slow speed. These are not boats made to enjoy the sensation of flatwater paddling; they are boats to enjoy getting to out-of-the-way places easily. Any type of disturbance to progress, be it wind or current, may slow you to a stop, or worse. Something like the longer Nomad S1 I had would be better for this while still being packable. Still, in these ideal conditions it’s nice to float along observing the coastal features.

Paddling back down the east side of Achnahaird Bay, a back-breeze made progress feel achingly slow. Lately, I’ve come to value metres per second (m/s) as a metric of wind or paddling speeds. Something moving past you (or vice versa) at three metres per second is easy to visualise, though I suppose we can all visualise a 3mph walking pace, too. It’s what YR uses and is easily converted to ‘double + 10%’ for miles per hour (so 5 m/s = 11.18 mph). Or just double it and you nearly have knots (5 m/s = 9.8 kn), for what that’s worth. Crawling past the rocky coast it looked like I was doing 1 m/s at times. We had a race: diminutive Mrs in a big, long kayak; me in the packraft. Within ten seconds the Seawave streamed away while Bunter frothed up the water like a cappuccino machine.

Oh well, you’re as fast as you are. Like cycling in Tajikistan rather than Kazakhstan, for the best experience match your routes with your mobility and conditions. Next calm day I’ll do the full Garvie loop.

Kayaking Summer Isles; a lap of the Taneras

Seawave Index Page
Summer Isles Kayaking Guide

Another forecast of calm winds in the Summers. Or is it? The BBC and YR reports are contradictory: the former has too-strong-for-IK winds from the south; the latter shows light winds from the north. Others show light winds from the south. How can they all be so different?
Maybe I should just look out across the water? All looks serene so let’s make paddle while the sun shines. I wheel back down to False Man’s Harbour and set off with two hours before high water.

No side PRVs?
Am I missing not having added pressure release valves in my side tubes, as I did to my original Seawave? Not really. I am running 0.3+ bar in the sides (official: 0.25) but temperatures up here in NW Scotland are hardly tropical. I try and leave the boat in the shade at the house and de-air the side tubes for a couple of seconds after a paddle, effectively manually depressurising the sides to about 0.2 bar, rather than having fitted PRVs do it for me automatically. The more vulnerable stock PRV in the floor purges automatically at 0.25.
On my next paddle I have to top up all three chambers with the K-Pump as I would have to do with all-round PRVs anyway. About 30 kpumps brings the sides back up to over 0.3 bar. The difference now is I use a manometer to check the sides are about right. Before I would just pump until the side PRVs purged. It’s about a minute’s more faffing.
As with a lot of things I do to my IKs: sails, rudders, decks and now, trolleys and headwind weight transfer – it’s fun to experiment. But in the end they’re all largely over-shadowed by the simple enjoyment of paddling. With sides pumped to >0.3 bar I find I can cruise easily in the near-still conditions at 6kph.

Let’s try and make the outside of Tanera Beg again. Two days ago I got blown off that idea.
Kayaking tour party mustering at the north cliff of T. Beg.
But they seem to be dawdling, as if unsure whether to go ahead.
I paddle past and on to the big cave on T. Beg’s south side. That crack at the back might be passable at max HW.
The view out south towards the Wedge of Angus and Priest Island beyond.
I slip through the popular arch at Tanera Beg’s southeast end.
I notice a small second arch. The water is too high and gap too narrow to squeeze through with my Seawave, but it’s only a foot deep below, so the window of opportunity is as narrow as the arch.
What would Freud have made of all this arch-threading.
Being more exposed to the southwest, Tanera Beg has some deeply weathered sandstone cliffs.
Midway through, I decide crossing over to Tanera Mor seems too easy.
In the prevailing calm the three skerries to the south don’t look that far.
It’s just over a kilometre to Sgeir Ribhinn (‘Stack C’) according to the GPS. That will take 11 minutes.
Once there, I fail to notice the double-arched cave we found last time. But this is HW. A guard-bird observes.
Over to the south side of Tanera Mor. The new owner is employing scores and spending millions here. New cottages here and there, plus tracks to isolated beaches (for building stones, I was told). They now ask you not to land in the more built-up Anchorage on the north side.
There’s even a new house and other construction alongside the tidal lagoon of An Lochanach where I stop for a snack.
Two kayakers pass by. Earlier, I could clearly hear them talking behind me across the flat water, long before I could see them.
I cross the Bay and stop off on the mainland below our place to collect something.
Looking west: a buoy with Glas Leac Mor behind.
I recently read that a hazy horizon (Outer Hebrides not visible) means stability; warm, humid air.
Good viz and crisp detail = cold air and wind.
I head to Altandu, near the campervan-packed campsite.
I drop-off and pick up a bucket. Coming back through Old Dornie harbour, a quarter headwind kicks up, pushing the bow left.
I use the chance to load the bow with 10 litres of bucket-water. It does seem to make a difference: the bow bites better; no correctional paddling needed, unlike the other day. A good trick to know (I’d brought the drybag up front for that purpose).
Another 13-mile day in the Summers, but I could have managed twice as far.
How easy IK-ing is without wind. As is portaging with a trolley.

Landfall on Eilean Mullagrach

Seawave Index Page
Summer Isles Kayaking Guide

After a fortnight of chilly north winds and a diminishing woodpile, today was one of those rare days in the Summer Isles (far northwest Scotland) where you could paddle pretty much where you liked in an IK.
It was also a chance for me to try out my new skeg-wheel trolley which Jon, who was staying down the road, had made for me.
With no boat of his own this time, we set off in mine to see what we might see.

We rolled down the road to the Fox Point, the nearest and least effortful shore access from where I’m staying.
Apart from the clatter of the solid wheels, the set up worked perfectly: stable and smooth.
The spring tide had bottomed out so we looked for the least ankle-twisting put-in.
We have no plan so head towards the Ristol Islands across a glassy sea.
With the calm, we take on the outside shore of Eilean Mullagrach; here the refracting northern after-swell makes it a bit choppier with some alarming waves breaking over reefs.
Unless you’re a gannet, this is the only way to get onto Mullagrach, a gantry at the northeast tip.
Usually alone, I’ve never done it, but with Jon to tend the boat, I climb up.
With access so difficult, Eilean Mullagrach was never occupied or crofted. I think it’s now owned by a bird protection enterprise. Perhaps they built this guardrail and cut the steps. There’s what looks like a hut at the island’s south end, just past the (not very) high point.
Nice to see sea pink and yellow lichen again. The former mostly found on the sheep-free islands and skerries.
View south over the Summers to the Fisherfield mountains.
The channel with Ristol behind. Better get back; the taxi’s meter is running.
We scoot back north out of the channel and take a break on Ristol beach before cutting through Old Dornie harbour back to False Man inlet.
I leave my kayak overnight with a plan to come back for more tomorrow.
Next morning I’m relieved to see my Seawave hasn’t floated off into the Minch.
I top up and decide to head round the outside of Tanera Beg for starters.
All is calmish as I cross Badentarbet Bay, but as I near T. Beg an unforecast southeasterly kicks up and keeps on kicking.
The west side of Tanera Beg would be too exposed, so I divert into the Tanera Channel, using the lee of the smaller eileans.
Nice looking wooden trawler.
I’m hoping to at least visit the arch at the southeast end of T. Beg.
It’s only 500m away but it’s quite lively and gusty now so I don’t risk it.
Instead, I turn east to get into the lee of Tanera Mor, and take a diversion through the usually cut off pool of Acairseid Driseach (these Gaelic words just roll off the tongue).
A bit disappointed, I head back to slot harbour but the wind seems less bad or may have passed.
So I collect my trolley and strike out for Horse & Goat Island.
I estimate it’s about 2 miles across Badentarbet Bay. The wind drops and even becomes a NW tail breeze.
It’s actually more like 3.5 miles to the tidal channel between Horse & Goat.
By now the spring tide is at full flow against me and I wonder if the two islands have joined up yet.
I needn’t have worried; the NW breeze is stronger than any tidal current and there’s at least a foot of clearance.
I pull over for a snack and a drink. Last time I was here was with my failed Semperit project. What a nice boat that could have been.
I knew from here it would be a 2-mile into the wind hack to Badentarbet beach.
Or even more annoyingly, a three-quarter headwind. It’s less than 10mph, but despite pushing hard with my left arm, the boat kept getting pushed right. Where is my rudder now?! I should have picked up some rocks to weight the bow at Horse Island to see if that trick works. Next time I’ll carry a waterbag to do the same; it’s something I’ve read of but never tried.
From Badentarbet Beach it’s a stiff climb – 1st gear pushbike – back up the road to Polbain, but on the road the skeg-wheel trolley again makes for easy, hands free towing with the boat hanging from my shoulder via a knotted mooring line. I can walk at normal speed with loads less effort (and time) than carrying the deflated IK.
Having a trolley like this makes the IK nearly as versatile as a packraft: a boat you can start here, end there and easily transport back across the difference.

So ends another great 12-mile day out in the Summer Isles whose configuration enables numerous ways to spin out a trip as pirates, winds and stamina allow, and all without getting too far out.

Packrafting the River Wye

Rebel 2K main page

With the exception of a few rivers … (Lugg … Severn … and the Wye), there is no confirmed Public Right of Navigation on other physically navigable, non-tidal rivers in Wales.
Canoe Wales

Free canoe camp below Symonds Yat marked

The Wye is the only river in (mostly) England where you can paddle for days and over a hundred miles, and not need to dodge a weir, portage a lock or confront a scowling angler. Even the few towns are historically intriguing. The whole valley is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (‘AONB’), or ‘countryside’ as some call it.
You don’t even need a BC licence: from Hay-on-Wye the river uniquely has PRN (‘public right of navigation’; like a footpath’s ‘right of way’). There is no other river like it in England so I don’t know what’s taken me so long, other than the prospect of another staycated summer makes you reappraise your own backyard.

I invited myself to join Barry who lives near the river and who’d just bought himself an MRS Nomad. He’d done Hay to Hereford once and pronounced it a bit tame, so proposed Hoarwithy (Mile 51 from Hay) to the tidal finale at Chepstow (Mile 107 according to the table, left, or Mile 100 in the same sourced EA pdf guide.

Fifty-odd miles: two long days and a bit, we estimated (wrongly). Our riverine transit had to be timed to meet HW at Brockweir, 7 miles from Chepstow’s sole jetty, otherwise we’d be stranded by tidal sludge or swept out into the Severn and end up in Tristan da Cunha.

Chepstow jetty at LW; messy.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tidal profile like Chepstow: on a Spring tide the water can rise nearly 9 metres is less than two and a half hours, then take over ten hours to drop. This is because your Atlantic Ocean is piling into the western edge of the European land mass, including the funnel of the Severn (with Wye) estuary, creating among the highest tides on the whole darn planet. The game of ‘grab the jetty’ would make an exciting conclusion to our trip, especially as we’d have to be on the water before dawn to time it right. The guidebook warns: continue beyond Chepstow at your peril. Most canoeists dodge the tide timing game and take out at Brockweir.

I thought I’d do the Wye in my Seawave, but then decided all that space and speed and glide would be too easy. Anfibio did me a deal on the Rebel 2K I tested last autumn (they’ll readily drop the tax to the UK so you don’t pay it twice). The three-night paddle would be a good test of their internal storage system for packraft touring. And the wet bits in between, a good test of the boat. My review of the 2K here.
Short version: with a good, rain-fed current, the Wye is a fabulous, easy and scenic paddle. We saw just a couple of Gumo Safaris on a bank, and some club rowers out of Ross. Plus loads of parked up canoes waiting for the rental season. I hope to do it again in the summer. With no lifts, I’d try to leave Hereford early for Symmonds Yat free camp (see below). It’s 43 miles but in the conditions we had could be an easy ten hours. And if you don’t make it, no bother. Then it’s five hours paddling to Brockweir where an early afternoon HW could bring you two hours into Chepstow for a train home.

Guildford to Hampton: the Long Wey Down

Seawave Index Page

One of England’s first navigations, dating back to 1653. That’s probably why this historic canal feels quite natural and river-like, apart from the virtual lack of current.

All hands to the barrel pump! The day will be long, sunny and warm. High time to tick off ideas matured over the winter months of Lockdown.
First on the list: the River Wey from Godalming to Weybridge in Surrey. Or should I say, the historic canal called the Wey Navigation which is paralleled in places by the old river. It’s one of England’s oldest navigations (commercial inland waterways) which once connected the Thames with the Navy base in Portsmouth. At the time a safe way of transporting stuff, including munitions produced near Godalming, without risking encounters with Napoleonic marauders in the Channel.
For years I’ve been unsure whether the Wey was a dreary canal with more locks than the Tower of London, or a grubby, semi-urban river with weirs and other obstructions. Turns out it’s a bit of both but better than expected. All I had to do was RTFM!

Compared to the similarly popular Medway, which I’ve done loads of times in IKs and packrafts, summer and winter, the Wey Nav feels less agricultural, more scenic and has an interesting history if you slow down enough to look. But it lacks the Medway’s unique canoe passes which scoot you down the side of each lock (right), avoiding up to three laborious carry-rounds per mile.
Parts of the original river survive in places to either side of the canal, which is what caused me confusion. I now realise the Navigation (managed by the National Trust) gets priority in terms of water levels and maintenance. As a result the occasionally nearby River Wey might be shallow or chocked up with fallen trees or rubbish. But you can combine both to make loops like this.

Because of the Wey’s multiple channels and numerous weirs and locks, I tried British Canoeing’s PaddlePoints website, a comprehensive database of paddleable river map routes with handy icons (above) for put-ins, parking, hazards like fallen trees, feral teenagers (I’m not joking) and so on. You can reset to delete extraneous icons (‘Covid-19’ ?); I just wanted to clearly locate the locks and weirs and river’s branches, though on the day ‘Navigation [this way]’ signs at junctions were clear. Closer scrutiny of the map shows that in places the blue line guides you along the old, choked-up river, not the Nav, and not all weirs (an important feature to know about) are shown as icons, even when they’re clearly evident on the Sat view underlay. And so the Map view (as above) can give a misleading impression of which way to go. As you’ll see below, at one point the blue line even guides you over a weir. Common sense prevails of course, but you can imagine some beginner clutching their PaddlePoints app on Map view getting sucked into a weir. I realise now this content is user-generated like OSM or Google Maps, and so errors, inconsistencies and lack of moderation are inevitable. As such, you can report icon-points, but it’s unclear if the route (blue/green line) can be corrected by users. If nothing else, PaddlePoints helps identify which rivers you’re allowed to paddle in England and Wales, and what the rules there might be.

I fancied a full dawn-to-dusk recce: as much as I could fit in from Godalming (where most paddlers start) before my tank ran dry. I might even reach Richmond on the Thames, a section I enjoyed last December in the Arrowstream. That is actually quite a haul: 20 Weymiles plus another 15 on the Thames, including no less than 17 lock portages on the two rivers. But the great thing about ending a paddle in an urban area is I could air down when I got worn out and rail home.
Thirty-five miles? Dream on, bro! I’ve only paddled two days since September so was far from paddle fit. Then again, the pre-dawn brain wasn’t on top form either: I set off in the right general direction, but on the wrong train.

Oh! Mister Porter, what shall I do?
I want to go to Godalming
And they’re taking me on to Hoo [k],
Send me back to Woking as quickly as you can,
Oh! Mister Porter, what a silly boy I am!

After backtracking, I decided to catch up with myself at Guildford, 5 miles downstream of Godalming and missing out 4 of the Wey’s 14 locks. I dare say I’d appreciate that later.

Clapham at 7am. It’s all a bit of a blur.
In Guildford I slip onto a closed towpath and enjoy a quiet set-up without the usual ‘Oh Mr Porter, is that one of those inflatable canoes? I’m thinking of getting one…’
Just around here I realised I’d left my Garmin out in the sun to catch a signal… Should have gone to Starbucks.
I’m trying out some old runners as water shoes instead of my usual Teva Omniums.
Do they really believe this or is it just juvenile baiting?
Alternative use for a big slackraft.
At Bowers Lock I spot my first Intex of the day, a 100-quid of K2 Explorer on its maiden voyage with daughter and dad.
Under an old bridge a real K1 belts past with barely any wake. Looks like fun but what happens when she stops? Same as the bike on the left, I suspect.
As canals go, not so bad.
Triggs Lock. With a little work this side sluice could be a fun canoe chute (lens finger shows scale).
All they need to do is get rid of the guillotine and add a galvanised chute at the end.  
How about it, National Trust? It would be like turning Downton Abbey into a Discount Carpet Warehouse!
Soon after lunch at Papercourt Lock I pass two chappies also heading for Weybridge in something called a Sea-Doo.
Flip yer paddle round, mate, you look like an amateur!
Not another lock, TFFT! Just some general-purpose gates to hold back Viking raiding parties.
At this scenic and willowy point the canal runs right alongside the M25 London orbital motorway.
The tyre noise is like Niagara Falls.
Mile 12 at Basingstoke canal junction. By some civil engineering synchronicity the M25, Wey Nav, Basingstoke Canal and a railway mainline all cross or meet at this point. In its way it demonstrates the history of post-medieval commercial transport: rivers > canals > railways > highways and airplanes. That’s my MA thesis, right there!
At New Haw Lock I need water but the lawn-mowing lock keeper says there’s no tap for a couple of miles.
It’s an awkward portage over a narrow road bridge too. Luckily, this chap helps me out. Thanks, chum!
Coxes Lock with a doable weir to the side. I may try it next time and risk censure from the NT.
Well, according to BC’s PaddlePoints website, that’s the way to go!
Weybridge Town Lock. Another awkward portage over a road bridge on the left.
In places the Weybridge backwaters look like an Everglades retirement village.
As I approach the Thames Lock at Weybridge things get wobbly and I have an out-of-boat experience.
Amusingly lock-themed gates close the footpath so us portageurs can pass.
Finally at Thames level, hallelujah. And there’s a tap set into the jetty too. I drink like a camel then me and the boat have ourselves a wash.
Over six hours from Guildford, but even with a drink and food to spare, I don’t have another three hours in me to reach Richmond. Maybe I can do two hours to Kinsgton.
Now on the Thames, I become a great admirer of roller portages.
The game’s up at Hampton Court Bridge if I’m to have enough energy to roll up the boat. The station is right there.
It’s a warm evening on the Thames and they’re all out in boats and the riverside parks. The Rule of Six? Do me a favour!
The skiffs collect bird poo while two lads fire up their Intex Challengers. I’ve seen more Intex IKs today than anything else.
Why? Because they cost from under 100 quid, float just like a Seawave [but track like a bin bag].
And he may be saying to himself: ‘My god, what have I done?’
Dusk back at Clapham Jct. All up, only 21 miles. I blame ten portages, no resting and my nifty but 3-kilo Ortlieb roller duffle.
With too much food, it all made the boat just a bit too heavy to carry easily. Where the lock-side grass was lush I dragged the boat, but I have a better idea.

Just before the GPS packed up at Basingstoke canal junction, I was averaging 5.5kph on the move. Pretty good with no current to speak of. On the livelier Thames I estimate I was moving at up to 10kph before I withered. Same as in the FDS Shipwreck in December.
My tall BIC backrest (left) initially felt great then collapsed on itself. Usual story: needs a stiffer insert.
I was trying out my new footrest tube attachment points which worked great. Only when one heat-welded strap broke near Addlestone was I reminded how essential footrests are to comfort, efficiency and stamina. I jury-rigged something up between two D-rings which have been staring in the face all this time.

My 2021 Wey Survey of UK Paddling Trends 

  • Hardshell canoes: 1
  • Hardshell kayaks: 1 (+ 2 K1 racers)
  • Hardshell SoT: 1
  • Vinyl IKs (cheapies): 5
  • PVC (bladder) IKs 3
  • iSUPs: 10+  (mostly women on iSuPs, too)
  • PFDs worn, almost none then again, mine’s more of a handy waistcoat)
  • FDS spotted: none (interesting as readers here are mad for that page)