The final day of the trip and the three of us were to be joined by Sarah and Rachel for a bit of rafting down the Dee to see how far we could get. We pushed off early as we due to meet Sarah and Rachel in Braemar and had a pleasant float down before meeting up with the others.
Rachel had hired a packraft for the day but rather than suggesting that Sarah hire one as well I decided to buy a Klymit Litewater Dinghy, reasoning that it cost about the same as renting and I would be able to use it on other trips.
The Litewater is very light but probably more of a lilo than a dingy. It has great reviews and in particular this video made it look very capable.
It’s actually a great little boat boat for what it is and it is incredibly lightweight. You will not stay very dry in it though and it is not as fast or as hardwearing as the Alpaca packrafts. I was definitely lagging at the back of the group and having to do a lot of bailing and paddling. It being much more open than the Alpacas made even very mild white water much more interesting as the risk of falling out was very real.
I took a couple of punctures though from running through shallow water, leading to the site of me walking along the bank of a river, wearing waterproofs and a bike helmet, carrying a lilo while someone fished on the other side. I wish I had a picture of that, can’t imagine what the guy was thinking.
After my second puncture I decided to call it a day for the Litewater and let the others go on at a better pace. I packed up the raft and started walking on the road, aiming to hitch a lift to Lochnagar distillery. I managed to pick up a lift after about 30min walking and then had an enjoyable time sitting at the distillery, drinking some whisky and having a look around while waiting for the others. Was also very glad not to have had to carry a raft up the hill from the river. By all accounts the river got a bit more exciting so probably for the best that I bailed when I did, rather than fall out further down. Would recommend the Litewater for still water or canals in good weather when you don’t really mind about getting wet, not so much for actual white water.
This was then the end of the trip, our Dalwhinnie glasses had survived and we managed to get another stamp in the whisky passport. It was a fantastic trip, hard work but a lot of fun. Too many highlights to mention but the first day and night in the bothy was great, getting off the train in the middle of nowhere. Packsledging was a fun innovation, wild camp by the river was lots of fun, massive pub feeds after a day of walking tasted awesome. Need to work out a way to do this again…
We spent a good night in Corrour bothy, updated the bothy book and drank most of our whisky. Managed to get the scraps of coal lit but Quiller’s plan for drying out our boots proved to be extremely optimistic.
It’s easy to sleep well after a hard day of walking and my body seemed to have got used to the effort as I didn’t have the same level of cramps and aches that I did after day one. We’d also learnt now to hang all our food up out of the reach of mice.
Breakfast was the standard coffee, granola and powdered milk but I really enjoyed it as I did every breakfast. It makes a big difference if you can look forward to your meals, something that was emphasised when our bothy companion chose to eat his packet of pasta cold, despite having just made himself a hot cup of tea. Difficult to understand that decision.
The original plan for the day had been to head round to the east out of the Lairig Ghru, towards Derry Lodge but we’d learnt that the bridge there had been washed away and fording rivers at the start of the trip had been a real hassle. So instead we decided to follow the pass down towards White Bridge and then across to the Linn of Dee. The walk would be less interesting and challenging but definitely doable, unlike the original plan. Hopefully after the Linn somewhere the river would be high enough for us to get the boats out and float down towards Braemar.
It was a pretty overcast and wet day but we appreciated that with the ridiculous sunburn we all had. We were also looking forward to walking on more solid ground again, I know Quiller had done all the falling over in snow he needed to.
It was a pretty uneventful walk down to White Bridge and then an easy walk along the forestry trail to the Linn of Dee. Felt good though to be walking on more solid ground as we kept watching the river for when we could put the boats in.
Getting down to the Linn of Dee and an actual road again felt quite an achievement and we said goodbye to our bothy companion who was planning to walk along the road to Braemar and get the bus. I’m glad he had our path to follow coming through the pass and we all got through safely.
The Linn of Dee is definitely a portage, trying to get through there would be suicidal, but not far downstream we decided to get in the boats. The river was probably high enough and we were definitely tired enough of carrying the packs. This transition seemed to take ages as Rob and I managed to do everything in the wrong order and just faff around.
The river probably wasn’t technically high enough but the packrafts proved again their durability and also their manoeuvrability as we picked a path downstream between the rocks. We found a suitable place to stop and camp near Victoria Bridge outside Inverey. It was obvious from the many fire-blackened stone circles that lots of people had taken advantage of Scotland’s enlightened wild camping laws and stayed there by the river. There were some fallen trees for firewood (to use in an existing fire mark, not sure if we would have made a new one), it was flat, there was water from the river – a perfect spot. What wasn’t perfect was that we were pretty much out of whisky by this point.
This would be the last night spent out on the trip though and it was good to finally put up the tents and tarps that we’d carried all this way. A party of three is a bit awkward with a two man tent so I stretched out under the tarp. Looking back at this now, my tarp pitching skills have definitely improved, don’t know why I’ve given myself no headroom there, even though it was quite windy.
We’d walked through from Aviemore and seen the river grow from a tiny trickle at the top of the Lairig Ghru to the power of the Linn of Dee and next day we would raft it as far as we could go. Our whisky passports we’d got at Dalwhinnie had Lochnagar as one of the stops which seemed eminently achievable the next day. No walking – just packrafting.
Last time we’d just left the Dalwhinnie distillery with another bottle of whisky and also 3 small tasting glasses. I had little to no hope that we would be able to transport these glasses intact across the Cairngorms but they were too nice not to try.
I should mention at this point that we were all fully convinced of the merits of an ultra-light approach to backpacking and were doing anything we could to make our packs lighter. I had stopped filling my water more than about half full since day 1 as there was water all around us. Quiller had perhaps taken things to extremes by not packing any form of mug, but Rob and I were very jealous of his extreme lightweight pack.
The plan from Dalwhinnie was to take the rafts along the river Truim until it met the Spey and then on to Newtonmore. This would be the first time taking the rafts on a moving body of water and we were fairly apprehensive about ending up going down rapids or over a waterfall or something but looking at the map and doing some research online it seemed like the only thing we had to worry about was the Falls of Truim about half way to Newtonmore.
We’d heard amazing things about how the rafts could float in 6 inches of water and looking at the map the river seemed like a fairly decent size so we decided to go for it. The clincher was that there was no other obvious route to the Spey that didn’t involve walking alongside a road. It had snowed heavily overnight and we fancied getting back in the boats.
What followed was a very frustrating and nerve-wracking hour or two as we partly floated and mostly walked down the river, dragging our rafts. Grounding out is not something you really want to do in inflatable boats but despite our best efforts to find the deeper water we couldn’t help but hit the bottom often.
This was probably the low point of the trip for me. The river meanders (as rivers do) and so we were covering tiny distances on the ground in exchange for a lot of effort. Having wet feet wasn’t a problem, David Hine’s recommended approach of woolly socks inside neoprene socks was excellent and kept everything warm. But trying to drag / carry the raft plus the large pack it had strapped to it was a challenge.
The river did get deeper though, and we were rewarded with our first short bits of fast water which were a lot of fun. I think we finally reached the Falls of Truim around 4.30 which was pretty good considering how slowly we covered the first few km. The Falls was definitely a portage for us considering the gear we were carrying and our lack of rafting experience but by then we were pretty cold and wet and tired and welcomed the chance to transition again and complete the journey on foot.
So we took on another route march for a couple of hours to get into Newtonmore. It was all along a cycle path next to a main road which wasn’t particularly interesting but did mean that we could put down a pretty solid pace and we were soon at the hostel in Newtonmore.
The hostel was great, the drying room was very welcome as was the hotel bar across the road where we feasted and I started drinking strawberry beer for some reason (it was on offer), before we headed back over to sit round the fire, drink whisky and impress Austrian tourists with how manly we were (very).
The next morning the plan was to get down to the Spey and take it all the way to Aviemore, maybe stopping for lunch at Loch Insh on the way. In the original plan we had thought about taking a taxi from Dalwhinnie up to Kingussie or Loch Insh, but we were a day ahead of schedule and decided to keep going under human power.
We were finally on the Spey and it was a much better river for rafting than the Truim, the first hour or so was really enjoyable as we could sit and float downstream. It’s great to be able to just take a a break but keep moving towards the goal.
Rob had somehow managed to put a small hole in the top of his raft when packing it up one day so we had a small stop to repair it but repair it we did. Not easy to do in the snow but a combination of toilet paper and ethanol managed to dry the raft enough for the patch to stick.
As the day continued though the weather got steadily worse as the wind picked up and the snow showers became more and more intense. Due to the large tubes riding high of the water the rafts are not good in wind – great when it’s with you, but unless the river is a dead straight line (like Loch Ericht) then it can get pretty tricky. We persevered for a while until none of us was having any fun and we were finding it difficult to make progress. So it was time to transition and get walking again.
This was tough, the ground was soft and boggy and the weather alternated between snow and strong wind and bright sunshine. Scotland really is generous with giving you all of its weather. It was frustrating to have to follow the meanders of the river, but there was no way we could have cut across the softer lower ground. The last bit did involve finding a path through a pretty deep bog but we got through and eventually made it to Loch Insh around 3pm. We had a massive amount of food and a few beers in the sailing club cafe and as we watched the wind coming across the loch we decided that we could probably just get a taxi the last stretch to Aviemore.
It was a shame to not be able to cover the whole distance under our own power, but none of us really fancied trying to raft in that wind or walking alongside a road for 2 hours. Especially after burgers, macaroni cheese and pudding. It is amazing how fast a car is when you have been walking and rafting.
We checked in to the Old Bunk House in Aviemore and started to work out what we were going to do the next day. The weather for crossing the Cairngorms was looking dangerous so we needed to get some more information and potentially come up with a back up plan.
I think this counts as a microadventure. It didn’t involve wild camping or sleeping outside but there was a fair amount of walking, some of it in pretty terrible conditions so I’m counting it as the February entry in the year of adventure.
We’d been given a voucher for Canopy and Stars by some friends for our wedding and had finally gotten around to actually booking somewhere. A lot of places on that site need you to book for a week or a minimum of 3 nights which is a bit frustrating but eventually we found somewhere after speaking to the company.
We booked two nights at the Shepherd’s Hut at Argoed, near Brecon
So plan was to leave work earlyish on Friday, get the train out to Reading where we would pick up a hire car and then drive to Brecon. I got the hire car through Budget, a 10min walk from Reading station for the great price of £41 until Sunday afternoon. There wasn’t a problem or extra charge with dropping it off out of hours either so this worked out perfectly and something I’d definitely look at doing again.
Saturday we got up fairly early to a cooked breakfast in the main house and then drove into the park to attempt a fairly ambitious walk around the Brecon Beacons. The weather was not good, it had been snowing the past few days and visibility was very poor when we got out of the car. I was excited and up for the challenge of some more difficult navigation and conditions but I probably underestimated just how bad it could be.
As we got up to Corn Du the wind was coming in very strongly and the snow was quite thick. I don’t have any photos as neither of us really wanted to hang around and take photos. Sarah had injured herself earlier slipping on the snow and so we decided to come down off the hill and cut the walk short. We walked down past a lot of people heading up in jeans and trainers – not sure they knew what they were letting themselves in for. Everyone else along the ridge was in full Goretex plus crampons. Once you got down out of the cloud the weather was pretty reasonable though, amazing the difference up at the top.
So back to the hut and then later we walked down to the Felin Fach Griffen for dinner. This is a great gastropub with fantastic food which was a lot better than I was expecting in a random Welsh village.
The next day the weather wasn’t much better so we decided on a low level walk to the waterfall at Sgwd yr Eira. This is a big waterfall which you can actually walk around the back of and was good to go and see. It was interesting seeing the remains of gunpowder works along the way as well and to see the different varieties of landscape. This walk worked out a bit longer than expected though as we took a wrong turning at one point, deceived by what looked like a place to cross the river. After weighing up our chances of wading across or building some sort of bridge or stepping stones we doubled back on ourselves, adding about an extra 45min to the walk. This was a lesson to carry more food than you think you’ll need – by the end I was starving. However, I can vouch that a long walk outside will do wonders for hangovers brought on by excessive wine, beer, food and whisky.
So despite the lack of any camping, I’m going to call this my February microadventure. I’ll be looking for an excuse to go back to the Brecon beacons as we had a great time.
What would I do differently next time?
Give more respect to the weather forecast and adjust plans where necessary – should have come up with a different walk for the Saturday
This was in some ways the most ambitious microadventure I’d attempted to date. Firstly it was mid-week (Thursday night) so more logistically complex in having to leave from work and go to work the next day. Secondly it was the middle of January and some of the coldest nights of the year. All previous microadventures having been done in the summer at the weekend, this would be a couple of important firsts. To allow for this most other elements of the plan were kept as simple as possible.
So, I met up with Rob and Tad at Waterloo after work and we got the train down to Guildford with a couple of excited cans on the way. We then took a short walk from the station to the Kings Head pub for dinner and a couple more pints. In the cold weather it’s important to fuel the fire and fill up properly, and the Kings Head proved completely up to the task with large portions of burgers, pizza and chicken. (This article has some great tips on how to be as warm as possible in your bag.)
After dinner we took a short walk up to Pewley down (map here) to find a spot to make camp. This plan was pretty easy to come up with but I think I may finally have found the reason for Bing maps: planning microadventures. The combination of having OS maps available and the birds eye view makes it very useful for spotting potential wild camp areas, much more so than Google maps.
The hill was a lot steeper and higher than expected which was good news in that the views would be that much better. The first task was to collect some suitable sticks to use with the tarp. We had thought about just going with bivvy bags but Tad didn’t have one and we didn’t fancy waking up with our bags covered in frozen condensation so tarp was the only way. Finding sticks was very easy and I’m glad we didn’t bother bringing walking poles to use. After a bit of scouting round we found a flat spot with a good view and set up camp.
Doing this in winter means that you can set up camp earlier and worry less about being discreet as there is no one else around. We saw one dog walker at around 6.20am who shone his torch at us but no one apart from that.
We then sat down to enjoy the outdoors and some whisky. Top marks here went to Tad for bringing a bottle of Laphroaig Quarter Cask – an excellent whisky. I had in my split hip flask some Ardbeg Uigeadail and some new make spirit from Glenglassaugh which I had aged for a month or so in a very small cask.
Rob had brought a couple of mystery choices that had been in hip flasks for a while, they all went down excellently.
After drinking a fair amount of whisky and realising we still had to go to work in the morning we got into our bags. It took a bit of sorting to get in and snug but I was then warm for the whole evening, wearing a lot of merino and sleeping in my silk liner inside my bag, inside my bivvy bag. I woke up a few times during the night but on the whole was warm and comfortable. Tad on the other hand had a worse night – doing this in -4 temperatures does need some more serious gear than what you can borrow from your girlfriend.
We got up about 6.40, packed up the gear, had some coffee from a flask prepared at work the previous day and headed to the station.
Train back to Waterloo, shower and change at work and then into meetings. I was pretty spaced out during the morning, not sure if that was due to sleeping out or the 5 pints and multiple whiskies. All in all this was a great success
What would I do differently next time?
Get a better pillow setup, it was a bit low and stopped me sleeping well on my side
Make sure I knew my knots before leaving
Take a different waterbottle or have it in my bag to stop it freezing overnight
In the summer while we were down in Devon we took the opportunity to go for a microadventure in one of the only places in England where you can wild camp legally – Dartmoor. Amazingly in England and Wales (but not Scotland) it is illegal to wild camp pretty much everywhere, this site gives some good info. As it says on there, you can in practice get away with wild camping in lots of places where it is technically illegal, like Ditchling Beacon, but it’s great on Dartmoor to not have to worry at all about being discreet.
So we walked up during the afternoon (I can’t remember exactly where we parked or camped) and although we had grand plans about a big walk before pitching camp, pretty soon we got a bit tired and bored of walking and started looking for a place to pitch the tarp.
The weather was fantastic with amazing visibility although it was quite windy. So we went and found a flat spot with a hill behind us where we were a bit sheltered from the wind.
We’d picked up a stick from earlier in the walk to use as a lifter and set up the tarp in the same lean to way. We’d obviously got a bit out of practice on the knots though as I woke up during the night to the sound of one of the guylines flapping around and had to jump out of my bag to go and re-tie it. This was more difficult than it might have been as I had drunk a fair amount of wine and whisky before bed. I did though manage to catch sight of a fox who was sniffing round our camp.
We cooked a reasonable 2 course dinner of pasta and steamed pudding and then wrapped up to watch the stars and also the firework displays celebrating the various regattas along the coast. Seeing fireworks from above is quite strange but it was great being able to see them.
Fairy lights threaded through the tarp attachment points make a great lightweight lighting solution.
I was surprised how cold it was overnight considering it was during summer. It was a completely clear night though and we were in a pretty exposed spot. Having said that I was very cosy in my sleeping bag and bivvy bag combo and just wore a t-shirt and boxer shorts to sleep. In the morning it took us a long time to get out of our bags because they were so snug, but we did get up, had a quick breakfast and walked back down to the car. Microadventures are great.
What would I do differently next time?
Take nicer food for dinner and focus the evening more on dinner than the walking
So last weekend, inspired by Alastair Humphreys we went on an adventure across the South Downs. I’ve read a lot of AH’s reports on microadventures and while he is very strong on the reasons for going and doing one, how much fun it is and how easy it is, he is a little light on the specific details of going about one. This post then is intended as both a record of our adventure, and a guide to anyone thinking of doing something similar.
The first thing to note is that the start of the adventure is not when you step off the train, or when you leave your house, it’s much earlier than that. It starts with planning where to go and ensuring you have the necessary equipment. AH is rightly very keen to lower the bar on doing a microadventure as far as possible, but in my view there are a few bits of specialised kit you will need – especially if you are trying to convince your sceptical wife to come along with you:
A warm sleeping bag. We’d previously spent a cold night not sleeping very much in our cheap synthetic bags and decided that wasn’t worth repeating. We therefore invested in Enlightened Equipment quilts from the US (review here). These are crazy warm and incredibly light compared to our old bags
Bivvy bags. These are pretty essential to microadventures and the no-tent ethos
A tarp. This is theoretically not necessary if you have a bivvy bag, but I really enjoy setting up a basha with the tarp, using just cord and some sticks and pegs. It’s also great to have a dry place to enjoy the scenery
The next step is then deciding where to go. We live in London and so the obvious choice was the South Downs – it’s easily accessible without a car. I did some googling for a route that would combine a good walk with a pleasant pub for dinner and a good spot for a wild camp and came upon this old article which seemed perfect. Finally I bought the relevant OS map, did some route planning to check timings and worked out when we would need to leave on Saturday morning.
We ended up getting the train at 0815 out of Victoria down to Shoreham, taking our McMuffins on the train with us. At 940 we started walking out of Shoreham, towards the South Downs Way.
In retrospect, I would probably try and get the bus to to the start of the south downs way, rather than have the hour long walk from the station.
We climbed the south downs and headed east, keeping the high-rises of Brighton on our right. The path was busy with cyclists and other walkers but I don’t think any of them were planning to sleep out there that evening. We walked for a couple of hours and then stopped for a lunch of snack eggs, oatcakes and cheese.
A couple more hours of walking took us past Devil’s Dyke and down to the Hiker’s Rest. This is a great little van in the grounds of a National Trust farm doing fantastic food and drinks. We stayed there for an hour but could have stayed longer. A theme of this day was that we did too much walking and not enough stopping. It was then another couple of hours along the downs and finally down to Ditchling. This last stretch was pretty tough going, having been able to see the town for so long from the top of the downs, it was depressing to find out how slowly it came closer when down at ground level.
One of the best things about spending the day walking is that you feel completely justified in eating an incredible amount of food at the end. So that’s what I did. It did not make the walk back up to the top of Ditchling Beacon any easier. We ate in the White Horse pub which did great beer and average food but wasn’t showing the football, had a good selection of newspaper and didn’t complain when we took out shoes off. After checking the weather forecast, we decided we better head back up the hill if we wanted to pitch camp in the dry. The trip back up was a lot easier than I expected, amazing how a rest and some food improves things.
I’d read online that others had wild camped on the top of Ditchling Beacon and so I was fairly confident of finding a spot to sleep but the reality was a little more tricky. Wild Camping is technically illegal and so we wanted to find a secluded place to stop. We also wanted a view from our sleeping bags (otherwise what’s the point of being up there?) and since the south downs way runs right across the top of the slope, we settled for a spot on the north face of the beacon that was a lot further from flat than I would have liked. It was however secluded and there was a fantastic view, so with the light fading we settled for 2 out of 3.
We’d picked up a spare stick on the way up through the woods which came in really handy as a lifter on the back of the tarp, greatly increasing head room. It rained pretty heavily during the night but the combination of tarp and bivvy bag kept us bone dry. In fact I don’t think I even got my bivvy bag wet. The slope was an issue though and I was continually sliding down towards Ditchling. Things improved when I used my bag under my feet to counteract the slope, and improved further when I took my pad out from inside my bivvy bag. My pad is so thin I don’t often notice it anyway and the ground was probably soft enough to do without. That is definitely the next item to be upgraded.
I woke around 4 with sunrise and another incredible view. There were also some great bird songs around. I need to find the time to learn some bird songs and so identify what’s around. I can do lark, blackbird and pigeon but that’s about it.
It was still raining when we woke, and after sitting around wondering if it would stop, we bit the bullet and broke camp at 610. On a wild camp it’s a good idea to get going early before anyone finds you. It took us about an hour to get going and the walk was then a bit miserable. It was raining continuously and we were sore and tired from the day and night before. I found out just how slippery the chalk can be in the wet.
We got to Lewes in time for the 1020 train back to London. The last part of the walk being along a very narrow bridleway of chalky clay which had been ploughed up by horses and lined with wet grasses. This was probably my least favourite part of the walk but it had been preceded by some great scenery, this time looking south on the rolling downs. We were back home by 12, having walked 35km since 10am the previous morning.
What would I do differently next time?
Not bother walking from Shoreham to the south downs way, would get the bus instead
Take more and longer stops on the walk
Not go down into Ditchling for dinner, we could have just cooked on top of the hill and spent more time finding a good place to camp
Take a different route into Lewes to avoid that last path
All great learnings for the next microadventure – I am completely sold on the concept, just need to work on the execution.