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.
At Burns Night you have to drink whisky. Well, you don’t have to, but you don’t have to do anything really. I strongly recommend drinking whisky though, on Burns Night and on most other nights. But whisky is not a particularly accessible drink, and if you get your first few whisky experiences wrong then you’ll end up with a lifelong aversion to this magnificent spirit. Also there has been an explosion of interest in whisky in the last 5 years or so, meaning that supermarkets are carrying a much wider range and distilleries are producing a lot more varieties. Prices have also gone up, making buying whisky a bit more daunting for the beginner. So here is a quick guide for buying and drinking whisky for Burns Night, or any other night, or during the day because conventions and customs are just products of our imagination.
When drinking whisky, add water. Add as much water as you need so that it doesn’t burn your mouth and you can taste it properly. Don’t use ice or really cold water, cold things have less taste (hence why you keep vodka in the fridge and lager is best served cold) and you want to taste the whisky. You want it strong enough to be warming, but not burning. Don’t feel bad about doing this, unless you have bought a bottle at cask strength (c. 55% alcohol) then it’s already been watered down before being bottled. So add some water and get it to a level where you actually taste the stuff. Maybe in the future you’ll become accustomed to the burn and enjoy it, but for now add the water.
For your first whisky, get a good blend like Chivas Regal, Monkey Shoulder or Ballantines. Blends are designed to be smooth, with no one flavour predominating so are an excellent starting point into whisky. Don’t buy a litre bottle of Bells unless you’re very clear about what sort of night and following day you’re after.
Single malts are not necessarily better than blends but they are generally more expensive because at least half of a blended whisky will be grain whisky which is cheaper to produce and has a more neutral flavour. If you want to go for a single malt, then stay safe and get one of the glens like Glenlivet, Glenfiddich or Glenmorangie. These are all excellent whiskies from the main whisky area of Scotland around the River Spey. They are smooth, not too fruity and unpeated. Avoid anything that is finished in a wine cask or something like that, plenty of time for those later.
There are two main flavours of whisky and at some point you’re going to want to explore the wild outposts of peat. Whiskies from Islay taste like nothing else. They are made with barley that has been dried in peat smoke and taste smoky, salty and medicinal. The first time I had a Laphroaig (pronounced Laff-roy-g) I thought I’d accidentally licked an ashtray and I was still tasting it the next morning. It’s great whisky but try someone else’s before you decide to buy a bottle. Laphroaig and Ardbeg are probably the most commonly available Islay whiskies and the standard 10 year olds are great. If you can find the Laphroaig Quarter Cask then that’s slightly less peaty having picked up more wood flavour from the smaller cask – it’s excellent and great value.
(As a side note, Ardbeg Uigeadail and Corryvreckan are two of the last good deals you can get at duty-free. For £50-£60 you will struggle to buy better whisky. The standard Ardbeg is good but these are great.)
The other big flavour is sherry, which comes in when the whisky is aged in casks that used to hold sherry. Whiskies like Aberlour and Glendronach taste of dried fruit and Christmas pudding and smell fantastic, so go in for something like that if that appeals. To check how sherried a whisky is, just look at how red the liquid is in the bottle, the more colour it has the more sherry flavour it has picked up from the whisky (unless it’s a cheap whisky that has had colour added).
But whatever you do, add some water, smell it before you taste it and hold it in your mouth for a while. You won’t be drinking a lot of whisky, or at least you won’t remember drinking a lot of whisky so savour the drinks you do remember and think about what you’re drinking.
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.
Rob had ordered up some rafts for us from packrafting.de (cheaper to get them from there rather than Scotland for some reason) and booked tickets on the sleeper so we were definitely on. Lots of discussion over email on what kit we needed and what we were all buying (basically lots) and we finally met up at my office after work on Friday to do our final packing with the rafts.
It was immediately apparent that these bags were pretty heavy and I think we were all surprised / scared just how heavy they were, no going back though… We had dinner at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and then headed to Euston to catch the sleeper to Glasgow. Getting the bags onto the train was not easy and there was just about room for us in our bunk with the packs as well. Special mention here goes to the lounge car on the train and in particular the reasonably priced cheeseboard.
Changed train at Glasgow and on to Corrour. By this stage we were all nervous about stepping off: weather forecast was terrible, the packs were really heavy and we had a fair way to go before dark, but we did step off to be greeted by this fantastic sign at Corrour station:
We walked for about 10-15 min until I noticed that Quiller had had enough of the heavy load and ditched his packraft. This did make the walking easier but would surely make the water-bourne sections more difficult.
Back up to the full flotilla we settled into a decent pace and soon adjusted to the weight. Scenery was fantastic and we were eager to get deeper into the hills. All pictures by the way are courtesy of Rob.
There was some construction work going on at the far end of Loch Ossian, putting in a new hydroelectric plant and we also saw a few people who were staying at the YHA on the loch. The works meant that though our map said that the path went across a river, getting across now actually meant a pretty large detour to get up to a point where it was fordable.
We were probably over cautious due to having just started and also the size of the packs but the river was flowing fast and was coming up to waist level in places. In the end we found a spot where it was a bit slower and shallower and crossing was reasonably straightforward, felt like an achievement though. Most of us kept our clothes on as well, not sure what Quiller’s up to in that photo.
Later on in the day I showed a lot less patience in walking straight through a river, this left me with wet boots for the rest of the trip and was pretty stupid (they would have got wet anyway though). It was a long afternoon of walking and the final stretch down to the bothy seemed to go on forever. We could see exactly where it was but it just didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Finally we reached it at around 7 I think, having walked pretty much solidly since about 11.
We had the bothy to ourselves and the next morning all woke up with aching shoulders and legs. Luckily however the wind was in the right direction and not too strong so we inflated the rafts and set sail for the first time.
It felt a lot better to have the packs on the rafts rather than on our backs and breaking up the journey like this is one of the great things about packrafting. The wind was in the right direction to blow us up Loch Ericht, there was no one else to be seen and we even got some sunshine on occasion.
We hadn’t got used yet to quite how generous Scotland is with its weather – it has a lot of different weather options and likes people to experience all of them, preferably during the same day. So we would think about stopping during a bright patch, only for it to immediately start snowing.
We were planning to wild camp somewhere near the Loch that evening but after we stopped basically at the helipad of Ben Alder Lodge (a very strange place) we realised that with a couple of hours of walking we could stay inside in Dalwhinnie.
This was a pretty tough route march but I was very glad we did it. The Dalwhinnie bunkhouse had clean beds, showers, cold beers and an unbelievable breakfast the next morning. The owner couldn’t have been happier to see us a day early and looked after us very well. Next morning started with a visit of the distillery (would have been rude not to) although tours were booked up due to the arrival of a coachload of welsh indian visitors which we didn’t expect. The bottle of triple distilled Dalwhinnie served us very well on the trip, delicious whisky which I highly recommend. The plan was then to raft along the river Truim to Newtonmore, and this was the first real test of the rafts and our rafting skills…
For a couple of years now I’ve been reading about packrafting and thinking of how to get into it, my friend Rob (who came on the January microadventure) has been banging on about it for ages. We made it up to Aviemore in November one year (2012?) hoping to do a packrafting course with backcountrybiking.co.uk but their insurance wouldn’t cover us at that time of year and we ended up going kayaking instead. We’re all getting older with other commitments intruding into our lives and maybe this spurred Rob around New Year to send an email declaring 2015 as the year of the packraft:
Lads – I think 2015 is going to be the year of the packraft.
What would be your appetite to try a week in Scotland in late April / early May? Starting in the West, making our way East….I’m open to doing either packrafting (walking and rafting) or even bike packing (cycling and rafting).
Nothing set in stone yet, just wondered whether this is something anyone would want to have a crack at.
I answered the rallying call along with another friend of ours from uni, Quiller and we started to put together a plan. After a couple of afternoons looking through lots of maps, plotting bothy locations on Google Maps and Bing Maps and reading river guides we had a potential route. In hindsight this route was incredibly ambitious, it’s very easy to say we might as well knock off some Munros while we’re there, but these sorts of thoughts disappeared pretty much as soon as we tried on our fully loaded packs. We also massively underestimated just how severe the weather could get in the Highlands in April and we did not even attempt to get over the top of any Munros.
Rob got in touch with David Hine to ask for his view on our plans. David has some incredible trip reports on his blog and was a big inspiration in us actually getting this trip organised. He was very helpful and wrote Rob a long reply, which was generally supportive although sounded some sensible notes of caution:
Snow and ice in general can still be extensive during April in the Cairngorms…not that that’s a reason to change your plans, just be prepared for it,…that can also make some parts of the rivers more threatening….
So the plan was to leave work on Friday and get the overnight sleeper train to Corrour, walking from there to Ben Alder Bothy on the Saturday. Sunday we would head up towards Culra Bothy (annoyingly closed due to asbestos) and wild camp. Monday would take us to Dalwhinnie before on Tuesday getting a taxi / bus / train towards Loch Insh and then rafting into Aviemore. Wednesday we head south towards Braemar, getting there on Friday. Saturday we would meet up with my wife and her sister and raft along the Dee towards Balmoral before heading over to my parents at Aviemore. That was the plan, what we did deviated from that slightly, route map here.
The trip was fantastic. I will explain in later posts what made it fantastic and also what I would do in the future to make similar trips even more fantastic.