Learning the ways of the adventurer in the Scottish Highlands can be the most fun you can have outdoors: WORDS & PHOTOS FROM : Marcin Ochonski
If you feel like escaping London to get wet and wild in the great outdoors there are few places better than the Scottish Highlands. In Assynt (which takes its name from the Old Norse for rocky) there is no shortage of adventure activities on offer. You can choose from climbing some of the most spectacular mountains in Britain, canoeing down the River Ness to the loch and its eponymous monster, riding superb mountain bike trials and more. Just don’t be surprised if, in one of the wettest corners of the UK, you get a little soggy doing it.
That said, when I arrive in Dochgarroch, a small village about five miles from Inverness, the sun is shining – always good when you’re about to go in the water. My guides, Mike and Neil, hand me a lifejacket, paddle and helmet and tell me to jump into a canoe. After a gentle introduction on flat water I’m ready to rock and roll, and so is the weather.
It’s bucketing down. In seconds I’m soaked through and freezing, but if anything is going to make me paddle my hardest, it’s this.
The level of difficulty on the River Ness varies from lazy stretches to choppy rapids where the flow speeds up. We’re whizzing along and, despite the rain, I’m loving every minute. My fellow canoeists are capsizing around me but somehow, after several near misses, I make it back without a dunking. It’s time to swap the paddles for pedals.
Learnie Red Rock Trails, on the Black Isle peninsula, is a year-old mountain bike centre comprising 16km of routes. The trails, set in the stunning Learnie forest, cater for all skill levels from expert right down to complete novice, ie me. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve ridden a bike, just not on specially designed trails, and the feel is completely different and tremendous. This isn’t just mountain biking in a forest. There are green, blue and black graded trails, with a red grade ‘Fun Park’ and an ungraded dirt jump area.
Provided with the appropriate bike, helmet, gloves and biking glasses for a beginner, I try a few dirt jumps as a warm-up before I tackle one of the trails.
The meandering climb weaves through tall, swaying larches. It’s a fantastic thrill but you definitely need to be in top form. I stop at the trailhead and feel on top of the world – the view of the surrounding countryside would take my breathe away if I had any left. After one dramatic fall, covered in mud and with several new bruises and scratches, I finally reach the end of the track.
The only way is up
The next day is where the boots come on. From the coastal village of Lochinver we start our ascent up Suilven, one of Scotland’s most impressive mountains. After just 15 minutes of walking the landscape is transformed to a world utterly unspoilt and wild.
The weather changes constantly, we get rain one minute and blue sky the next which goes some way to explaining the swampy terrain. At one point I’m up to my knees in mud. As we get closer to the summit the path gets so steep there’s nothing for it but to get down on all fours. Just when I think no view can be good enough to make up for this, we reach the top and I take it all back. It’s magnificent, like being on another planet. It’s not Mount Everest but it feels like it. We walk back and the exhausting trip takes us seven hours in total.
After such exertions it’s time to take it easy and I opt for some more sedate thrills in the form of hunting for Nessie. A relaxing Jacobite Cruise on Loch Ness begins at Clansman Hotel Harbour, nine miles from Inverness. The range of tours on offer, starting at £9.50, include a peaceful, hour-long cruise to the deepest parts of the Loch. There’s no sign of a mysterious monster hiding in the murky depths but on dry land, the superb views of the ruins of Urquhart Castle are thrilling enough.
If you lied about being the outdoor type …
Tips for new adventurers
• It might sound obvious, but do some regular exercise for two weeks prior to your trip. I promise you, it’s not like walking down Oxford Street.
• Comfortable walking boots are a must. The guy I saw climbing Suilven in trainers didn’t look too happy.
• Take quick-drying trousers, fleece, hat and gloves. This isn’t Mallorca – it might get damp and chilly out there.
• Don’t get too drunk the night before. Pounding bike trails with a thumping headache is never going to be fun.