Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Barra (Part 2)

This has been partial written for a while - finally finished it.

I love the routine of waking up in a tent. There are usually a few seconds of semi-consciousness before
I remember where I am, why the ceiling is so close and why it is moving. Then it all comes back and I
unzip the outside world and let the morning in. The famous adage that 'you only get one chance to make
a first impression' absolutely applies to this moment each and every day of each and every camping trip.

Of course first impressions can be misleading. Waking up after my first night on Barra I took a brief look
outside, promptly re-zipped the door and went back to sleep. I needed it, I hadn't slept well. Although I was
awake enough to notice I was feeling much better than I had the night before - thankfully. My alarm had
been set to wake me up before sunrise, to make the most of any photographic opportunities it may have
afforded. After all it isn't ridiculously early at that time of year. But the combination of extensive grey cloud
and the aspect of my campground meant there was little to be gained from such an endeavour, and the
chill air which invaded my tent during my brief reconnoitre made me appreciate the warmth of my sleeping
bag even more. I dozed for another hour or so, with my first impression of the day distinctly mediocre. At
least it wasn't raining anymore, silver linings and all that.   

But the British weather is fickle. My first impressions were misleading and by the time I peeked out again
the clouds had blown over and the sky was well on its way to a cloudless, brilliant blue. I scolded myself
for indulging my sleepiness. The sun, though not yet high enough to shine down into the valley where I had
slept, was strong and bright on the hills of Vatersay which filled the horizon to the south. They were my goal
for that day and what a goal they looked!.

Despite the sunshine hinting at relative warmth to come, it was a cold morning in my shady valley. I wrapped
up warm (my Buffalo Mountain Smock was worth more than its weight in gold on this trip) and made hot
chocolate in the lee of a large boulder. Wanting to leave my tent pitched until the sun rose high enough to
dry the remnants of the rain and dew off, I took my camera and explored the little cove I had camped above.
In the rush and the rain of my first day my camera had sat idle for much of the day. I wanted to make up for
lost time today. The rocky cove presented all sorts of visually pleasing scenes from the colourfully striated
rocks to the long, but quickly shortening shadows cast onto pristine sand by lonely boulders.

I say pristine sand, but sadly, despite the tangible isolation of these islands, they were still not immune from
the now commonly discussed plague of ocean plastic. Bits of rope, plastic containers, nuggets of polystyrene
long smoothed through years (or more) of being tumbled in the surf - all were present on 'my' little beach,
perhaps in lesser numbers than mainland beaches further south, but plentiful enough.

With the sun now well up I packed the good-as-dry tent and set off up the hill on the start of my frustrating
loop back around to the road (see Part 1). I was feeling much better than the previous day; my stomach
was no longer engaged in abdominal acrobatics and with a good breakfast inside me I was raring to go,
although some of the aches made for a moderate rather than brisk pace! As I got higher the views expanded
around me until I crested the ridge I was crossing and the whole of the sound between Barra and Vatersay
was opened to my view. The fishing fleet in the distance was active already - the first boat of the day had
chugged out westward past my camp ground shortly before I left it. From my distant vantage point the fleet
on the calm water bordered by the sinuous coastline appeared like a flotilla of toy boats in a park pond.

On my back down to sea level I passed the site of an ancient settlement tucked into the side of stream
valley, the subject of an archaeological excavation several decades earlier. I considered what life may
have been like for these early islanders. The coastline was just meters away, presumably their primary
source of nourishment. The peat of the moorland I had just crossed would have provided their fuel.
Doubtless the high ground I had just descended from would have acted as a good look out point, whether
looking for family and friends returning from a fishing trip, or keeping an eye for less friendly visitors. I
reckon I could have managed that life for a bit! Bleak and lonely winters though, I would hazard a guess.

My contemplation and accompanying rest over, I did something those early settlers could only have dreamed
of - I walked to Vatersay across the recent (relatively speaking) causeway.

It was about this time that I seriously considered pinching myself. The combination of the weather (stunning),
the location (breath taking), and the opportunity to explore it all for a few days was very literally the stuff
of dreams. Crossing a small stream at the apex of a coastal inlet I noticed half a dozen seals playing in the
water - they saw me as I saw them, and watched me as I followed the road south east. So I stopped and
watched them back for a bit - there aren’t many seals in Stoke-on-Trent after all.

A car pulled up as I prepared to move on. On rejoining the road I was heartily greeted by a local man out
to stretch his legs. We chatted for over half an hour while the seals continuing their play in the bay. He was
generous with his local knowledge and as welcoming as anyone could ask for. He answered many of the
questions which had been forming over the 24 hours that I had been on the island, and I found my new friend
to be both open and honest. He welcomed the tourists (like me) but was saddened and frustrated by a
lack of respect for his island which many of them exhibited, a sadness and frustration which I immediately

A parting impression was that I had timed my trip well - given the choice my islander acquaintance would
take the winter rains and wind over the midges which plague the island in the summer. My trip hadn’t only
coincided with the last cheap flights before prices rise for the high season, but also some of the first ‘good
weather’ of the year - and not a midge in sight! Good is relative of course, it was pretty cold. I’d been wrapped
up, and with the miles I’d covered had been warming myself pretty effectively too, so I suppose I hadn’t
really thought much about it. But as the road continued east and rose a little above the shore line I could
see back towards the mainland of Scotland and the inner Hebridean islands - there were snow covered
peaks! I shouldn’t have been surprised I suppose, the forecast had suggested snow for the highlands, and
the morning before in Glasgow there had been a dusting on the surrounding hills.

The backdrop of snowy mountains and the rocky bays and inlets in my foreground gave a feel of landscapes
much further north, perhaps Canada or Fjord-land. But then my focus was distracted from the far distance,
because an Eagle was flying toward me! It was way up there, riding the late morning coastal thermals
against the bright blue sky, a distant silhouette. But what else is that big!? I was torn - binoculars or camera?
I settled on camera which meant a hasty lens swap was required. By the time I’d got my telephoto attached
the eagle had cruised directly above me towards the high moorland to the south of the road. I took a couple
of photo’s but they were never more than a proof to myself than I didn’t imagine it. I regretted going for
the camera as it disappeared behind the ridge; why couldn’t I have just enjoyed the moment? Nevertheless,
I had seen my first ever eagle - it was a noteworthy occurrence, and one which would prompt a change
of route a little later.

While feeling much better than yesterday I was still a little below par and not particularly happy with the pace
I was able to manage as I passed a view over the very literally named Castlebay, the main town of Barra
(more on that later) and the road doubled back on itself to head towards Vatersay's back-to-back beaches
and main village. A view point at the site of a World War II plane crash gave me another opportunity to
contemplate and enjoy the sunshine (obviously resting my legs was only a secondary consideration) before
pressing on for the last stretch to the beaches.

Few roads I’ve walked (or driven for that matter) reveal a better view than this one offers to its diligent
traveller. As it rises and turns a strip of white is unveiled, a strip tenaciously keeping the turquoise sea
at bay, backed up by a rear guard of dunes standing in readiness. Not since I lived on Caribbean islands
for a year have a seen water that colour. I’ve heard Barra referred to as ‘Barrabados’ and this view easily
justified that nickname! (It was Trinidad and Tobago by the way - and they are lovely).

My initial plan had been to go the southern extreme of the island, but consulting the map I decided that as
I didn’t have a kayak with me - darn those luggage restrictions - there wasn’t much to be gained from that
plan (that’s for another trip!). My new plan was height, as much of it as I could manage. But first it was lunch
time so I kicked back in the dunes between the two beaches and actually dozed off for a few minutes on
the short, rabbit nibbled turf in the warmth of the noon sun.  

Refreshed from lunch and a snooze I headed up, straight up to the highest point of the island. And what a
view wanted for me up there. The sun was starting to sink by this point, but still plenty high enough to highl
ight the stunning beauty of this island landscape. This was the ridge I had seen the eagle disappear over
earlier, and I had harboured at least a distance hope that I might see it again, but it wasn’t to be. The hills
themselves were a fascinating blend of stony outcrops and sodden peat bogs, not an ideal camp ground
especially when you throw in the bitterly cold and furious wind which blew consistently over its summit.

Deciding that there was room for comfort and a good night sleep as well as adventure on this trip, I descended
the hill to find a more sheltered campground. Preferably one close enough to the beach to enjoy the sunset
that looked like it was going to be pretty special. I hoped to find something suitable but I found something
better - probably one of the best wild camping spots I've ever had the pleasure of utilising. It overlooked
a white sandy beach dotted with black rocks, facing west, with the wide open horizon of the North Atlantic,
unbroken now until Iceland pounding waves energetically onto the shore. The grass was short, the soil
sandy and dry, and a natural berm provided a windbreak for my little tent to nestle under.

I'd allowed myself a relatively early night - I was there for fun after all - and settled down on the grassy rim
of the beach with a hot meal and a book to watch the sun go down - now that is the way to spend an evening.
After the views I had enjoyed during the day the sunset was a little disappointing to be honest, albeit
enhanced by the drama of the crashing waves on the dark rocks - but by then my standards of scenery had
been raised to a new level! I waited up long enough to see the stars come out before turning in to my warm
sleeping bag. I slept well that night, very well.

Final instalment coming soon!