As we’re normally way up north for the British summer, I’ve forgotten how great a sunny 26-° southern English day feels. It’s been years. If it was France it’d be normal, but in the UK it’s not which adds to the magic. A perfect day then to bang out a Medway run from Tonbridge to Yalding in my newish Alpacka Yak. Even the wind was up for it, with a stiff, 15mph breeze forecast from the southwest.
With shoes, shirt and pfd in the wet bag, I slid down the chute off Tonbridge’s Town Lock, sat up straight and set sail. Overhead the wind was lifting the leaves, exposing their lighter underside, and with the river course (below) oriented right on it, I suspected this was going to be a good run. Eldridge Lock chute rolled up in under 20 minutes and that felt like at least a mile (1.3). And with no shoes or pfd the Yak felt roomy so I pushed the backrest low to get nicely jammed in. Paddle at eye level, a full draw from the feet, and I crack on.
Porters Lock already? OK then. How far is it to Yalding, anyway? Twelve something; couldn’t remember if it was kms or miles (13km), but I knew when we did it last June in my new IK that I was pooped well before the end. After Porters I pass some canoe-ers crouched on the floor of their boat, battling upstream. There’s no current but they’re sure fighting the wind. Further down the river, a couple with a camo-pattern IK are lunching by one of the locks. With the trees in full summer bloom and yellow lilies at the banks, in places the pea-soup Medway could pass for a backwater in Kakadu, with salties lurking in the shallows, eyeing up wading jabirus.
Much sooner than expected it’s the big slide down Sluice Weir Lock (above) which I knew was near the end. The short Yak surfs over the frothing base a lot better than a nose-burying kayak. I took no water on any of the chutes and the backwind even helped keep the paddle splash off me. After a quick visit to water the bushes, I top off the seat and hull. Holy moly, now the firmed up Yak is skimming along like a surf ski under the big-bladed Corry paddle. This last section was a l o n g haul last time, but I power on and there is, the Anchor Inn at Yalding. Don’t want to eat there again, so I finish off my water and check the watch. Two hours twenty. That seems fast; it was an all-dayer last time.
It’s another 5-10 minutes scoot down to the take-out at Hampstead Lock and a short walk to the station where it costs over a fiver to ride three stops back to Tonbridge. When I get home I Google Map the river distance: 7.5 miles or about 12 clicks to the Anchor. In two twenty that’s a pretty surprising 3.4mph or nearly 3 knots. I’d be pleased with that in my 14-foot IK, but in dumpy packraft? Not bad at all.
I am slowly working my way through a western variant of the Cape Wrath Trail, a hardcore, unofficial Long-distance path that runs some 200 miles between Fort William and Cape Wrath. More about the CWT here.
After scraping through the first part of the variant from Dundonnell in December 2013, I returned with paddlechum Jon to complete the remainder from Stac Polly mountain to Kylesku bridge where the regular route comes in from the east at Kylestrome. Following several humiliating episodes orchestrated by me in slackrafts, Jon finally saw the light and bought himself a red Alpacka Alpaca (the next size down from my Yak).
After kayaking around the Slate Islands near Oban I rode up to Achiltibuie on my very overloaded bike and met Jon at Di’s croft in Altandhu. We fixed up her electric bike, extended the goat shed then next day left a car at Stac car park (above) for our two-day paddle-walk to Kylesku. But things had already got off to a bad start: Jon had done his knee in on the previous day’s Etape Caledonia cycle race.
As a result progress was slow up the steep path onto Stac mountain and even slower once we left the path down the north side (above) for the trudge towards Sion’ loch. By this time Jon had recognised the value of using his hefty TNP paddle as a packstaff.
As the slope levelled off, ahead of us a deer fence cut through the scrub; we followed it until a stout corner post provided an easy hop to the other side. We were now heading directly for a bay with a small island to put in, but that was further than it looked, down small cliffs before dropping through an enchanting light birch woodland which the deer fence may have helped preserve.
While it was nice to come across the lost pocket of woodland, walking or boating, next time I think I’d take the Linneraineach path which starts a mile or so east of Stac. It leads all the way to the wadeable stream running into the loch (on the edge of the map, above) and is probably quicker and less effort. A walker would certainly be better off going that way instead of rising halfway up Stac and then down again, as we did. As it was, we were lucky that a recent dry spell had left a spongy crust on top of the saturated post-winter mire. On a few occasions that crust sheared away from the soggy underlay and sent me flying. Either way, this was packstaff terrain par excellence. Have I mentioned packstaffs yet?
On the small beach at ‘Island Bay’ we pumped up our supple new Alpackas and paddled out north across the loch towards Suilven mountain, passing between small islets and landing an hour later for lunch near ‘Shielding’ on the map. Initially the northwest breeze put us at the fetchy end of the loch and we took on the odd splash. But even with a wet bum, from any vantage point you care to choose, with its ring of peaks, the primeval Inverpolly basin (below) has got to be one of northwest Scotland’s most dramatic landscapes.
Over lunch I measured up Jon’s red Alpaca against my Yak but could hardly see a difference (it’s 3 inches shorter inside and out). But Jon was having trouble getting a full draw of the paddle with his bag across the bow (mine was below my knees). It’s possible these newer Alpackas have more of a wave-riding upturn at the bow which makes any bow-mounted bag slide backwards. That, plus a need to adapt to a gentler but more frequent ‘packrafting cadence’ saw Jon’s red Alpaca lag behind my Yak. Later we swapped paddles which made a small difference – we should have swapped boats too to see if man or boat was the culprit. My 2014 Yak has the slightly longer stern, but paddles much like my old one.
From Shielding we walked over the pass to Fionn Loch directly below the south wall of Suilven. As before, some canoeists were camped by the Uidh Fhearna river crossing (a deep wade for a walker; right), practising their moves and barely noticed us slipping into the water from a reedy lagoon. Once on the north side we found an oddly deep channel which led inland for a hundred metres saving some tussock and bog walking.
Rolling the boats up, I tried to persuade Jon that the seemingly vertical clamber up Suilven’s south face would be excellent knee therapy, but he wasn’t buying it. He had ten weeks to get into shape for a four-day trans-Pyrenean ride and didn’t want to risk it. So we set off north below the western prow of what the Norsemen called ‘the Pillar’ (below).
The 50k map doesn’t show a series of gradually ascending ups and downs over ridges running parallel to the mountain. With Jon’s paddle-supported hobbling it took an hour and a half to get to the high point where a view of our next challenge – Quinag (below) – revealed itself across a string of lochans.
Soon we caught a view of Suileag bothy far below but the terrain got gnarlier still, winding around lochans, small passes and down steep slopes. Somewhere here Jon chose to follow an indirect low route to spare his knee and somehow managed to sneak past me while I scanned from a high point for half an hour, trying to track him down. He was behind me all the time, kettle on and yellow paddle resting by the bothy’s doorway as a marker. I needlessly paddled over Loch an Alltain Duibh, assuming the river gully just upstream would be too awkward to cross. In fact Jon had found it an easy ankle wade.
In hindsight I’d say the path climbing up and down the saddle of Suilven to pick up the jeep track west to the bothy wouldn’t have been much slower than our route around the mountain’s western prow, let alone the added appeal of taking a quick detour from the saddle to Suilven’s western summit. Since we did this, the path on the north side of the mountain has been improved.
Suileag bothy is one of the tidiest I’ve seen, clean and basic with a fireplace and water from a nearby burn. It’s so much more agreeable to barge into any bothy and spread out like a normal person, than crawl around a tent like an invertebrate.
Next morning we followed the path north over a pass for two or three miles to the footbridge over the River Inver to Little Assynt; all up much quicker going. At the footbridge we carried on west then north, over another deer fence and ankle twisting tussocks to a beach beyond the sluice where Loch Assynt drained into the river.
Up ahead loomed the mass of Quinag mountain (above) and Jon and I debated the feasibility of tackling the Bealach a Chornaidh from the pathless west side. Leaving the Drumbeg path, a slope leads a kilometre and some 400m up to either a harmless scree bank or a lethal cliff. It was probably the former but too much for Jon’s gammy knee. We finished off our food under a gale-bent birch below Tumore and, as the wind was with us, decided to paddle Loch Assynt east to the road junction instead. The back way up Quinag pass would have to wait for another time.
On the water the southwest breeze wafted us helpfully down the loch, though the Alpaca was still notably slower despite my helpful demonstrations on how to paddle. I really ought make one of those instructional dvds, like Jane Fonda. Once ashore all that remained was a seven-mile road walk to Kylesku by which time the forecast wind and rain had caught up with us.
On the road walk I eyed up the terrain northwest of Quinag massif. It looks like the planned orange path shown on the map above would have been another convoluted cross-country struggle, even if it was a more direct line. Leave that to the crows and follow the regular path down from the pass east to the road (unshown on the map but it’s there). And that was the lesson learned on the land stages of this CWT variant. While there may now be a right to roam across the glens and bens of bonnie Scotland, who in their right mind would want to do that for any longer than necessary? Even wild animals develop paths; it’s less effort and happens to be quicker, even if it’s not a direct route.
Lured by the promise of a free meal at the hotel, Di drove up right on time and took us the last mile to Kylesku where a TV crew happened to be recording the retirement of the postmistress following no less than 61 years on the job.
So, my summary for this nearly completed CWT Assynt variant? For a boatless walker, once over Loch Broom and in Ullapool, the Postie Path is a dramatic way of getting to Achiltibuie where there’s a hostel, pub and shop. Over the hill it’s a major wade across the Narrows of Loch Lurgainn after which I’d recommend the Linneraineach path between Stac and Cul Beag to the stream before the long cross-country trek to a shorter wade across the Uidh Fhearna river at Fionn Loch. From here take yourself up and down Suilven’s saddle, then from the bothy take the track to Little Assynt footbridge. From here it’s a two-mile road walk to Tumore where you take the Drumbeg path before breaking off up to the Chornaidh pass and down to the road using the path to get you there. With a boat the Narrows can be paddled, so can Loch Sionasgaig, cutting out a long cross-country yomp. Another quickie over Fionn Loch, up and over or around Suilven and paddle the west end of Loch Assynt to Tumore from anywhere north of the sluice. Job done.
As far as I can tell, there are few other places on the regular CWT path where a packraft is worth carrying (which is probably why the path goes that way and avoids the Assynt). Except of course to get across the Kyle of Durness sea loch after the walk’s finale at Cape Wrath, if the boatman is not around and you don’t fancy the detour to the head of the loch. The image left from a few years ago must be a very low tide, but as you can see it’s potentially just a swim of a few metres. Eight years later I finally got to paddle the Kyle (below).