Where do I start? For some reason it seems appropriate to begin in the middle. The tough hardcore world of stupid ideas and adventure saw myself and Judith sat in the Loch Inn, Fort Augustus surrounded by foreign tourists. It was heaving and everyone is crammed in tooth by jowl, the couple next to us are from Tolouse and we have to inform them that there isn’t table service. The matriarch behind the bar answers another odd question from someone unfamiliar with the environment of a pub and rolls her eyes. Two large plates of food appear and I sip my beer. It’s a tough life when you leave your comfort zone.
There was a stipulation for this trip from Judith that it had to include some home comforts and it couldn’t be the sort of type 2 fun I seem to actively seek out. So our journey across Scotland started in London catching an overnight sleeper train to Fort William. We had booked a cabin/twin berth rather than sleeping seats, luxury. It was an enjoyable journey. Although the cabins are tiny especially when you’re carrying a load of gear the bunks were comfortable and I think we both slept fairly soundly. After waking up we gazed out of the window at the Scottish landscape rolling by.
We arrived in Fort William about 10am and did the only logical thing to do before setting out on a long trip, visited the cafe in Morrisons and had a cooked breakfast. After picking up a couple of last minute provisions it transpired that my theory that we could get a train to the start of the canal was correct but it ran incredibly infrequently and we wouldn’t be on the water until late in the day. So wanting to get started we splashed out on a taxi to the canal office at Corpach. Here we handed over £10 per person for a facilities key. This enables you to use the showers, toilets and water points at various points along the length of the canal.
The first 1km section of the Caledonian canal isn’t particularly exciting and ends with a long flight of locks known as Neptune’s staircase at Banavie. So taking the advice of the guide book we hiked this section and up to the top of the locks where it was time to get the boat inflated and start paddling. The weather conditions were good, although the wind was against us it wasn’t strong and the skies were clear. Progress was slow, packrafts are not fast moving crafts. Packrafts with two people and associated camping gear are even slower. The guide book for the Caledonian canal gives a 5 day itinerary for completing the route. We had 8 days, no need or for that matter ability to rush.
The end of paddling for the first day brought us to the informal camping site at Gairlochy. About 6 or 7 miles paddled and a good place to pause before our first attempt at paddling on an actual loch the next day. The facilities were really good and incredibly warm which was a welcome bonus. After some food and a stroll to the loch side we turned in for an early night. Morning came and after a breakfast of porridge and a long time spent packing everything up we headed back out onto the water.
The second day of paddling took us out of the sheltered harbour at the top of the canal and onto Loch Lochy which is the second largest of the four lochs on the Caledonian canal. Luckily again the weather was favorable and we made slow progress into a slight headwind whilst the sun shone. Easing ourselves in gently we stopped frequently and followed the shore around the lock. The scenery was incredible with the snow covered peak of Ben Nevis looming over us to the south. As most other boats took a more direct route across the loch it was also incredibly peaceful. Occasionally we would stop and as the wind span the boat on the water just sit gazing at the mountains whilst essentially listening to the silence.
After 8 miles and approx. 4 or 5 hours of paddling we arrived at our stopping point for the evening a ‘wild camping’ site on the shore of the loch which consisted of a wooden shelter, fire pit and composting toilets. After unloading the gear and rolling out bivy and sleeping bags we attempted to relax with an open fire but the swirling wind meant picking a smoke free spot wasn’t possible. Feeling weary from the days effort we again opted for an early night.
Read part 2 here.