A ‘Girl Friday’ Adventure: 40 days and 40 nights in the wild

Noisy neighbours…

I moved from London to Skye seeking peace, wilderness and a life closer to nature.
I found one of those things but the rest wasn’t quite what I expected…

On this funny old island I discovered new friends, hundreds of things to do and a diverse, vibrant community.
I was definitely closer to nature but my calendar has never been busier!

I fell head-over-heels in love with my new home here yet I’m still searching for that peace. I haven’t quite got there yet.
The desire to find a certain type of solitude with nothing but the hills or sea for company pulls at me like a little fishhook caught in the back of my mind.

The peace and calm of the cold white sands of Scarista, Harris

 

So in 2015 I set about on a plan that would help me find it…

A solo expedition to an uninhabited island far out at sea; somewhere remote, wild and windswept.
No human contact, no electricity, no entertainment such as books or sketchpads. I’d be completely alone… wildlife and the landscape would be my only company.
It would be a kind of Castaway or Girl Friday experience, only without the sand or the sunshine!

Sleeping under the stars just outside Inverness (hopefully I’ll be doing this without the injured-ankle support boot on my island adventure!)

I located my temporary home; a set of beautiful but precipitous craggy islands about 40 minutes out of Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides. Their owner, Tom, was incredibly kind and accommodating, if a little bemused by my requests.
Shortly after I’d secured my stay I was lucky enough to win a grant from Tim Moss’ brilliant Next Challenge and a big bundle of kit from Lyon Outdoors. It doesn’t seem like an unusual adventure so I was heartened to see that people were interested.

There’s a surprising amount of planning involved to be able to exist in such a pared-back way…
What safety measures do I need to put in place in case I fall and break an ankle? How do I get there?
Do I bring food supplies or do I exist on shellfish and seaweed? (I still remember Tom’s face as I proposed catching the invading black rats as my main form of sustenance…)

The adverts launching Eden on Channel 4. The photos show the beautiful scenery of Ardnamurchan

 

But when the opportunity to take part in Eden popped up in the middle of all this planning it was hard to turn down…
I temporarily postponed my solo trip.
The islands would always be there, this Eden project would not.
Besides, a year spent off-grid in the woods sounded like the perfect halfway stepping stone to my island adventure.

Now Eden has finished… I’m out and settling back into reality after Reality TV and, excitingly for me, my Girl Friday trip is back on!
At the beginning of next year I’ll be hopping on a boat and setting up camp as these feathered friends begin to arrive for the nesting season…

 

Atlantic puffins (photo by inhabitat.com)

Spending a year off-grid in Ardnamurchan wasn’t exactly the immersive close-to-nature experience that I had expected.
In fact, it was more community-focused than I had ever imagined and it often felt like a constant battle to persuade certain people to respect the environment in which we were living.

Now my island trip is back on the only community I’ll have to interact with is the millions of puffins and seabirds that descend on the rocky cliffs each spring. They may turn out to be incredibly stinky neighbours but I can’t wait!

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Never say no to an adventure

We’re probably all a bit fatigued with inspirational quotes at the moment. They’re posted in Facebook and Instagram, plastered over T-shirts and cushions…

‘Never let go of your dreams’

‘Be your own inspiration’

‘Believe in yourself’

Let’s face it, they get pretty annoying after a while.
But sometimes you find a motto in life that deserves to be celebrated. Something to repeat to yourself whenever you’re faced with a choice. Something that even deserves to be written over an over-edited picture of a pretty landscape and made into an annoying inspirational quote…

Mine is to ‘never say no to an adventure’.

Life is short and this has served me well so far so I’m keeping it.

And it’s something I’ve listened to recently… This week I packed up my little cottage in the North End of Skye and moved out.
I’ve had plenty of adventures there that I still need to write about, WILL definitely write about. Just not yet, because, in the meantime, I’m off on another adventure.

It’s not the end of my Skye journey or even my life on Skye but it’s the end of my life in that house and a little pause in proceedings.
I’m sure I’ll have plenty more to write about when I get back (it won’t be long) but, right now, it’s time for adventures…

xxx

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Skiing at the Nevis Range

My favourite winter warmer!

A most effective winter warmer

Sometimes I think that the most apt way to describe my new home is that it’s a playground for people who love being in nature.
If you’re into anything outdoorsy there’s so much to do here; walking, climbing, swimming, sailing, diving… and in winter, skiing.

There are no snowsports on Skye unless you fancy lugging your skis up a hill and praying that you don’t hit a boulder or a bog on your way down. However, there are lots of ‘proper’ resorts just a couple of hours drive away such as the Cairngorms, Glencoe or Glenshee.

The Nevis Range is my closest resort, about a three hour journey from the North of Skye, just on the edge of Fort William.
I adore skiing; every time I step outside onto snow, breathe in the icy air and hear that familiar crunch I get a yearning to be on the piste. It’s a weird craving but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling it.
So, when I noticed a couple of empty days on my calendar I decided to grab the chance and take myself off for a day or two to Nevis.

Driving into the Nevis resort

Driving into the Nevis resort

To get a full day on the slopes I decided to check into my hostel the evening before. I’d booked a night at the Glen Nevis climbers’ hostel owned by SYHA.

I’d just like to say a bit about the SYHA organisation because I think they’re fantastic.

I used them almost every night when I travelled round Scotland in 2013; scrimping a bit on my accommodation meant that I was able to splash out on Michelin-starred restaurants without worrying about costs.
But then, it wasn’t really scrimping at all…
Okay, so they’re not exactly luxurious, they are hostels of course, but each facility is clean and well-equipped, they’re in some incredible locations and their staff are fantastic sources of local knowledge. Whilst some of their buildings are, others are old converted schoolhouses, loch-side hunting lodges or even UNESCO Heritage Sites. I really can’t recommend them highly enough.

Glen Nevis hostel, basic but comfortable

Glen Nevis hostel, basic but comfortable (photo by hostelworld.com)

I had a bit of admin to do before leaving Skye which meant that it was dark by the time I crossed the bridge. This wasn’t a problem until I neared the Cluanie dam where the roads wind around the hillsides over the deep, half-frozen lochs below. Suddenly the clear night sky turned white and I was in the middle of a blizzard. Within minutes the tarmac was covered in inches of snow and, despite crawling at a snails pace, I found I could barely control the car.

I was just over halfway to Nevis; do I turn back, continue forward or pull over and stop altogether? I continued on with my shoulders up round my ears, muscles rock-solid with tension. I tried as hard as I could to forget the stories I’d read in the local paper before Christmas about people veering off the road and drowning in the lochs below. I kept my windows wound down just in case.
Driving at 15-20 mph I thought it would take me all night to get there. A couple of times I pulled over to let another car overtake only to find them further down the road having skidded off to the side. As I noticed the drivers talking furiously on their mobiles and I thought of the tortoise and the hare!

Not ideal...

The start of a blizzard. Uh oh…

It took about 5 hours in total to reach Glen Nevis, 20 minutes of which were spent trying to excavate myself from a snowdrift I had slid into on a corner (it’s amazing the superhuman powers that a bit of panic seems to bestow)

Whilst I was excited to go skiing, I hadn’t quite intended for it to be on four wheels…

The Nevis Range was particularly busy on Sunday because they had a special anniversary offer on. It was a bargainous £12.50 for a day pass, apparently the same price they were sold for in the 80’s. With equipment hire it still came to less than £35 for the whole day.
This meant that there were more visitors than usual but to be honest it wasn’t any more crowded than an average day in any European or American resort. It must also mean that on quiet days, weekdays perhaps, you can have the pistes almost to yourself.

Whilst there isn’t the atmosphere or scale of a large Alpine resort, it was surprisingly good skiing. Though when the signs at the top of the lifts say to watch out for natural hazards they really aren’t kidding -I had to narrowly swerve more than one massive water hole on my way down.

Perhaps this isn’t great place for anyone partially sighted!

I mentioned this to a local instructor I shared a T-bar with, a hairy young guy that smelled strongly of woodsmoke. He laughed and said that the odd tumble down a hole or over a rock is what made the area more interesting. That’s one way to look at it I suppose!

Looking down onto Fort William and out towards Eigg

Looking down onto Fort William and out towards Eigg

I was lucky enough to have chosen to ski on a bluebird day and the views over Fort William were extraordinary. It was so clear that every now and again you could even see the island of Eigg in the far distance.
You can tell it’s not a wealthy resort, the visitors are mostly locals, but what it lacks in shininess it more than makes up for with the landscape.

I took the opportunity to take a couple of pictures; one for my Grandpa who’s currently recovering from his third hip replacement (this is a replacement replacement, he doesn’t have three legs!). He skiied in Scotland back in his army days so I was thinking of him twofold up there.

The other was for my friends at Whalefest who are drumming up support for a campaign by asking for #Whalefie pictures (basically selfies with some kind of cetacean, please get involved as it’s for a great cause!)
I got a few funny looks pretending to kiss a sparkly whale Christmas decoration at the top of a mountain!

Get well soon, Gramps! xxx

Get well soon, Gramps! xxx

A whale weirdo!

Pucker up Moby! 

Whilst I’ve enjoyed my own company for most of my adventures up here, I think I’ve finally found something which I think would have been better with friends. Yes, being alone is a chance to really concentrate on technique but there’s something about having a laugh with a group of mates that makes skiing extra fun. It wasn’t ‘not fun’ it just wasn’t ‘as fun’.

That said, I did make a few friends on the gondola and chair lifts up; a couple of sea kayak instructors from Wales became my lift buddies for the morning. I also learned here what most 7 year-old know to be true, that sharing a packet of Love Hearts can do wonders for popularity!

Wind-blown snow-covered fences, a sign that not every day up here is quite so calm

Wind-blown snow-covered fences, a sign that not every day up here is quite so gentle

Still, the end of the day came too quickly, though the sunset cast a beautiful soft mauve light over the emptying mountainside. I treated myself to a hot chocolate with marshmallows and cream whilst I watched it and waited for the gondola queues to shorten.

Too exhausted to face another night-time blizzard I checked in for another night at the hostel. I fell asleep fully-clothed and face down on the bed where I had an incredible dream about being a record-breaking winter Olympian.
Unfortunately I think it’s going to take more than one day here at Nevis to get to that..!

Up, Up and Away!

The week before I planned to leave for Skye was probably the busiest I’ve had all year. A multitude of family birthdays, work meetings and social events meant that some days were literally planned down to the hour. Getting everything done and everyone seen before I left meant that packing was pushed to the wayside until the day before I was due to go.
Luckily, not knowing where I’d be or what I needed meant that it didn’t take long to pack up the car. Anything I’d forgotten could be sent on or bought later.

I planned two days for driving as I can barely drive for an hour without getting sleepy:
Leg 1: Chiddingfold to New Lanark, 7 /12 hours.
Leg 2: New Lanark to Skye via Fort William, 5 1/2 hours.

There’s something quite satisfying about driving straight North, an easy route, no map, but really there’s nothing exciting to say about a 7 hour journey up the M6…
Apart from one moment when I passed through the Lake District and the sun began to set. Some characteristically moody song by London Grammar came on the radio as the pelting rain began to let up. A deep amber light washed across the landscape and a rainbow appeared above the carriageway. It was a bit silly but it was a beautiful moment. It hadn’t hit me until then that I was embarking on quite a big adventure.

It was dark by the time I got to my overnight stop, the working village of New Lanark. It’s an incredible place, an old cotton mill settlement that’s now a UNESCO Heritage Site.
I was booked into the New Lanark youth hostel, one of many fantastic places run by the SYHA. When I travelled across Scotland last September I chose to stay in hostels so that I could afford to splash out on Michelin meals and special experiences. I may have paid pennies for a bed but many of these hostels were simply amazing buildings to stay in; an old schoolhouse, a hunting lodge and a climbers cabin are just a few of the properties they run. New Lanark is definitely up there with their most interesting:

New Lanark Youth Hostel (photo courtesy of SYHA)

New Lanark Youth Hostel (photo courtesy of SYHA website)

 

I was up early the next day to travel through the Trossachs to Fort William. Yesterday’s drive was dull and grey but this one took me through dramatic scenery, along lochs and through glens. I had to work hard to concentrate on the road when my eyes wanted to follow the sweeping slopes of the hills up into the clouds. Driving through Glencoe and then the Great Glen is surely the most wonderful way to be introduced to the Highlands and Islands.

 

Glencoe (photo courtesy of Glencoe Mountain Rescue website)

Glencoe (photo courtesy of Glencoe Mountain Rescue website)

 
After a couple of hours I’m driving over the bridge to Skye from the Kyle of Lochalsh. The island welcomes me with characteristic grey drizzle, a moody hello. It takes an hour to drive to the main town of Portree and I scope out every business and road sign in case it comes in handy later. The signposts and caravans gradually give way to greenery and rocky coastlines as I push further North until I arrive at the harbour. So, this is home.