Thursday, 24 February 2011

Swinging from the trees!

Myself and Shuzz have been wondering about hammock camping for a while now, it seems to be a popular option for folks who paddle and most people I've spoken too who've slept in hammocks say they're loathed to go back to ground dwelling unless they have to (i.e. no trees to sling a hammock from).
Last week we took the plunge and got ourselves hammocked up! We were both eager to try out the new toys at the weekend but Shuzz couldn't manage Friday night and I wanted to get out for two nights for maximum wilderness chill time!
Sean was up for Friday night though so I set off with him with a plan to meet up with Shuzz for Saturday night (Sean was only doing Friday).
I ended up with a mega-loaded boat as Sean doesn't have many small dry bags yet to pack in his pokey little yak so we piled his massive 100 litre dry bag on my boat along with all my junk!
My boat felt sluggish loaded up so much and Sean soon left me behind! Just wait til I get my sailing rig, no one'll be able to stay with me then!!!!
After a short but enjoyable paddle we arrived at our campsite.
We soon had things set up, it's easier in daylight now the days are getting a bit  longer.
It took a while to work out the skills of hammock rigging, it should be really quick next time now that I know what I'm doing.
Once we both had our accommodation sorted we went for a walk and scavenged some firewood.
Sean had a play about in the bay in my canoe, making a valiant effort at mastering the j-stroke.

I had a play about too.  

Once it went dark we started the fire and prepared our dinner. We decided to cook as much as possible on the fire box. I've taken to doing this more often recently, it saves gas and you can keep warm at the same time as cooking (plus it's fun!)
Sean was hoping to have a wallaby sighting and just before dusk one showed up to drink out of the loch, Sean dashed off to try to get a pic but startled the beastie who bounced off into the undergrowth. I threw some food out as we were cooking, confident that the wallabies would be back. Pretty soon Russell and Sandy showed up and started eating the food I'd scattered. 
Russell seemed to particularly enjoy the stump of the red pepper which he ate like an apple. 

We stayed up chatting and feeding the wallabies for a while then went to bed fairly early as we needed to make an early start the next morning to get Sean home in time. I jumped in my hammock not sure what to expect, it felt weird at first but very comfy and I soon got over the initial feeling of claustrophobia and worries that it'd collapse or I'd fall out! I slept well although I woke up a lot due to the unfamiliar sensation of being in a hammock. My alarm went off at 7:30am so I got up bleary eyed. The deal was I'd cook breakfast while Sean packed up his kit and got ready to leave. We should have had plenty of time but it was 10:15am by the time we got back to the cars so it was a rushed loading of Sean's boat onto the roof and a hasty goodbye. I was all alone for the paddle back to camp, it felt like easy going with an empty canoe. I had the rest of the morning to myself for a wander about the island to see if  I could spot the white Fallow Deer buck who frequents the area. I had no luck finding him so I chilled out in camp and re-rigged my hammock and tarp to incorporate some improvements I'd learned from the experience of the night before.
In the afternoon I paddled back to the put in again to pick Chris (Shuzz) up as Jenny was dropping him off there. We powered back in no time and Chris had fun and games setting his tarp and hammock up for the first time. It was funny watching the doubt on his face when he put his weight on the hammock for the first time (all your instincts tell you that it's going to collapse under you!)

A family of swans joined us for a while during the afternoon too. We wondered if it was the same family who'd visited us on a previous trip. They certainly weren't shy and an adult swan waddling right up to you is a little intimidating. They weren't aggressive though, probably just looking for some food to scrounge. 
After dinner Russell showed up again. This time he decided to clean up our leftover beef olives bourgignon from the pan!

 He washed that down with some flapjack which seemed to be a real hit! Chris tried to feed him by hand but even though he'd come close enough to touch, he wouldn't actually eat from a hand.
Chris had brought some Macallan with him so we sat about drinking that and feeding the fire until quite late while Russell dozed on the beach nearby.  Eventually we went to bed and this time I slept like a log not wakening until nearly 1030am the next morning. Due to the late start, breakfast became lunch and we had a leisurely pack up (with everything dry for a change) before paddling a very heavily laden canoe back. 

 I can't see me ground camping if there's the option to hammock in the future, it's just so much more comfortable. Chris and I both have underblanket projects in the pipeline to enhance the experience even further. I can't wait for the next chance to do some swinging (from the trees)!

Thursday, 17 February 2011

No Viz? No problem!

I went up to Glencoe on Tuesday for a days boarding. The forecast said it'd be clear and sunny until lunchtime but the clouds came in early making seeing a nightmare. I spent the morning at the top of the hill picking my moments to have a run when the clouds thinned a little then in the afternoon I went down to have a look at the car park runs. These runs seldom have enough snow to ride but I found that by heading out really wide from the top of the plateau Poma I could follow a series of gullies down to just above the car park (the wide angle lens on my camera in the video makes it look a lot further away than it was) then it was a five minute walk to the access chairlift to get back up and do it again. It was really nice riding and pretty much untracked. Some folks were going all the way to the car park but I figured it was safer to walk the last bit and not risk blowing out an edge on a rock. It was a great day despite the poor viz and despite riding alone.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Getting better.

Well I was out on the Big Loch again on Saturday and Sunday (including an overnight camp on Inchconnachan). I'm not going to blog the trip as such (since I've done so many other overnighters on Loch Lomond) but I want to record some thoughts and post the odd pic.
When I set off it was quite windy (upper F3/ lower F4) so I decided to head downwind which was fun (surfing) and quite interesting (difficult to steer and maintain a course), once I got into the relative shelter of the narrows I decided to see if I could make progress against the wind (which was a bit lighter there). It was hard work but I succeeded in paddling against the wind with my single bladed canoe paddle (where previously I would have had to resort to the double bladed kayak paddle).

I was pretty chuffed about this, I reckon my paddling is getting more efficient the more experience I get. On Sunday I managed to sneak up on some white deer on Inchmoan by paddling quietly. I really love the subtlety of all the different canoe paddle strokes, how they work and how you can blend them together to steer and propel the canoe and I can feel it all coming together in my paddling.
I had a few items of new equipment to try out this time.
First up my long awaited pair of Muck Boots. These are neoprene wellies that I'd read loads about on the canoe forum. They really lived up to the hype, comfy, warm, convenient and dry, a one boot solution to canoe camping trips (ideal for paddling and for wearing around camp).
I also got to try out my fishing shelter (inspired by Sean's beach shelter that we used to sit by the fire in the rain on a previous trip). It only cost £12 and is made of very light nylon so I was worried it would leak like a sieve but it held up well during the heavy (but short) showers on Saturday night. So far so good then but I'm not sure how durable it'll be (but for twelve quid......!)
One thing I've had for a while but not really used while paddling is my Snugpak Poncho. My idea for this was that it'd be a good waterproof for camping but would be ideal in the canoe when it was raining as well. I tried it on Sunday and it's perfect. When you're sitting or kneeling in the canoe it covers your legs as well as your body, it fits over whatever else you have on (for instance a buoyancy aid) and it packs up really small when it's not in use.
I finally replaced my old buoyancy aid too. My old one was one that I got free with my last but one kayak, it had to be pulled on over your head and always got caught on my drysuit zip and only had one pocket. I wanted to replace it with one with a front zip for easy access and some more pockets for my camera and other stuff. I couldn't decide whether to spend mega bucks on a top of the range one or go for a cheaper one that I'd seen reduced on the net. In the end I went for the cheap one, it'll float me just as well, has enough pockets (and a drinks bladder pocket on the back) and cost a third of the price of the high end ones I was considering.
I think this canoe is the best toy I've ever bought, I can't believe it took me nearly twenty years to fulfill my ambition to own one!

Friday, 4 February 2011

The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain (a retro blog).

A few years ago my sister and I hatched a mad plan. We decided to go and visit an old childhood friend for a long weekend.....................................The only slight complication was that our friend lives in central Spain, we were going to do the trip on my motorbike and the only time we were both free to go was in October!
We'd practically grown up with Jill and her brother Noel, their parents were family friends and we'd holidayed together as families when we were kids. When she finished college Jill had gone to Spain to teach English and had never come back. She met a Spanish guy (Carlos) and set up her own language School in her adopted home town of Caceres. My sis (Jules) and I had bumped into her from time to time when she was home in Yorkshire visiting her family and Jules had visited her in Spain while she was on holiday there. I'd not been to Spain since I was a kid.
   We booked the ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao in northern Spain and hoped for a settled spell of weather and began getting the necessary kit together for the trip. I managed to blag an intercom so Jules could navigate from the rear of the bike, Jules went out and bought new bike leathers for the trip and either already had or borrowed the other bike gear she'd need. All too soon it was time to go.
I left Helensburgh and rode south to spend the night at Jules' house in Manchester, the forecast was pretty bad for the whole trip and as I was passing Preston on the M6 the heavens opened. It was the kind of rain that looks like it's bouncing back up as it's so heavy and the traffic slowed to about 20mph. I could do nothing but laugh to myself at the absurdity of my situation as my supposedly waterproof bike boots filled up with water! Eventually it moderated to a downpour and I arrived at Jules' place a little soggy but otherwise unscathed.
Next morning it was dry but overcast as we left Manchester and continued south. The forecast was for more rain, indeed the whole trip sounded like it was going to be a damp and windy affair, not great riding conditions.
Thankfully my bike was a capable beast, a Honda VFR 800 sports tourer, capable of 150mph but comfy and surefooted with ABS and electric heated handgrips!
As we passed Stoke on Trent the rain started again, we didn't need to stop as we'd assumed it would rain and already had wet weather gear on. Jules had never been on the back of this particular bike before (although she's been a biker on and off as long as me) and when we stopped for lunch on the M6 toll she admitted she was feeling it a bit (riding a bike is like any activity, you become more comfortable the more you do it). We made good time down England (there was no reason to dawdle in such crap weather) and we realised we were going to arrive in Portsmouth too early so we stopped at a Little Chef and had cherry pancakes with ice cream and a thousand cups of tea to kill time.
 The ferry was reassuringly huge with bars, restaurants and a nightclub, once I'd watched the guys tie my bike down we went up and got our cabin (it was an inside cabin, all the outside ones had already been booked) and got out of our wet gear and had a nice hot shower then we headed off to explore and eat dinner. The ferry was busy with people heading to Spain for the half-term holiday and everyone was checking out the facilities for the 36 hour crossing. We barely noticed that we'd left Portsmouth but almost immediately the sea became quite rough. After eating Jules started to feel a bit ropey and headed back to the cabin to lie down and start eating sea sickness pills, I headed to the bar with my book and chilled out whilst reading  and necking a few pints. After a little while the boat became deserted as everyone became affected by the ferry's lurching progress, fortunately I felt okay so I kept the Australian barmaid company in her deserted realm for a few hours! When I got back to the cabin Jules had got rid of her dinner and was looking distinctly green, poor girl!
During the night we were kept awake by bow door banging and I became convinced that my beautiful bike would be reduced to a pile of broken plastic down on the car deck. The journey dragged on as we turned into the Bay of Biscay the swell peaked at 8 metres! The ferry was like a ghost ship and I only felt comfy either lying in my bed or upstairs where there were windows and I could keep the horizon in view. Poor Jules continued to be violently sick through the crossing but I was okay. Eventually we docked in Bilbao and with some trepidation we headed down to the car deck to see what remained of my bike, amazingly it was unscathed, those P&O guys know how to tie stuff down!
We rode out of Bilbao on a dual carriageway, it was dry but overcast and pretty cold (the air temperature gauge on the bike was showing 6 degrees C) the road rose sharply out of Bilbao and once we were clear of the city I gunned the bike up to 120mph. I wasn't bothered about getting caught speeding, traps aren't too frequent in Spain and I knew it'd be an on the spot fine if I was unlucky enough to get caught and no points, it was a chance to let my baby fly! The countryside was rugged but scenic, reminding me of the top of the Pennines in Britain and as we progressed south the road became a single carriageway and I slowed to a more sensible speed. We stopped briefly for coffee and fuel then pushed on.
As the morning wore on the weather started to get brighter, it warmed up and the scenery became stunning. This was what I'd hoped riding in Spain would be like, deserted well surfaced roads, great scenery and sunshine, even my boots started to dry out! Around 2pm we stopped for lunch at a roadside hotel.
We had a long lazy lunch before hitting the road again, we still had a fair way to go (it's almost 400 miles from Bilbao to Caceres) and the road was now winding and slow if you got stuck behind traffic. We did some exciting overtakes and I managed to get the front wheel up overtaking a truck (no mean feat on a fully laden 220kg bike!)
We hit Caceres right on rush hour. I'd expected a sleepy quiet town but it was a busy regional centre. Jules now decided that she couldn't remember where Jill and Carlos lived so we spent a fraught half hour exploring the town's one way system and doing a few laps! Eventually we got lucky and Jill met us and guided us to her house (named "Echo Hill" after a place near where we grew up).

Time to catch up, meet Mimi (Jill and Carlos' adopted daughter), freshen up and take an evening stroll (dinner is very late in Spain). It was beautiful, Caceres is a lovely old university town with stunning architecture and great views.

After a stroll we ate dinner then Jill dragged us out to her local for some pints of Guinness (really!) while Carlos kindly took on babysitting duties. We eventually emerged from the pub at 3am and wobbled home where Jill tried to unlock the door without waking everyone up!
The next morning we woke late, Jill had classes to take, Carlos was at work and Mimi was at school so Jules and I entertained ourselves wandering about, drinking coffee and generally trying to recover from the excesses of the night before.
Caceres is famous for it's population of storks, most had flown south for winter but one or two remained.


After lunch we wandered back to meet Jill and Mimi and went to the local plaza for a drink and to enjoy the afternoon sunshine while Mimi played. 

Later we met Carlos from work and went out sightseeing and for dinner.

Then it was home for an earlier night in readiness for the journey back up Spain the next morning.
Carlos warned us that the forecast was terrible as we loaded up the bike and prepared to leave but there was nothing for it but to push on. We had to catch the ferry back in a days time as Jules had to be back at work and the ferry only runs twice a week.
As we left Caceres it was dry but overcast with a strong blustery wind. Within half an hour the rain had started lashing down and the wind gained in strength. It was scary as the bike was blown off course by the ferocious gusts and visibility was really bad overtaking the heavy traffic. After a while I got into a rhythm (you can only stay scared for so long before you settle down and start to adapt to the conditions) but it was far from pleasant. It all went quiet on the intercom and I guessed that Jules was getting cold so after a couple of hours we stopped at a strange roadside place for a coffee and cake and to warm up then it was back out into the relentless rain and wind. The morning passed in a blur and we had lunch in the Spanish equivalent of a truck stop (complete with starched white table cloths and waiters in formal dress!) No one batted an eyelid at two soggy foreigners in bike leathers though. Then it was on towards Burgos where we left our route down and headed northwest to skirt the edge of the Picos de Europa national park. We stopped for fuel and the rain let up then the road started to rise and sweeping turn followed sweeping turn it was superb riding and we both enjoyed trying to ground the footrests on the fantastic constant radius bends and hairpins. The road topped out at a high pass then plummeted down into a series of canyons that reminded me of a cowboy film.

   By now it was getting late so it was time to look for somewhere to stop. We chanced upon a nice quiet hotel just off the main road and an easy morning's ride from Bilbao. We got a room and enjoyed a relaxing evening with a nice meal, and a few drinks (just what we needed after a day of contrasting riding conditions).
The next morning we took a token cheesy matching leathers team photo in our room before leaving!
We rode north to the coast then took the motorway which runs from Santander to Bilbao, it was easy riding and the sun was out although the blustery wind remained. We made Bilbao in good time and had a long wait on the docks before we were allowed to board the ferry.
Eventually we boarded and went through the cabin allocation ritual again. As the ship left Bilbao it was still calm and sunny but Jules had been tucking into the seasickness pills since we'd first arrived at the docks in preparation for what we knew was to come! We had a nice time watching the goings on from the top of the ship as she departed.

Then it was back into the rough weather ritual during the return crossing. Jules managed a bit better this time and sent me to forage for food for her to eat without the risk of leaving the cabin too often!
She did manage the odd foray into the outside world though!
We docked in Portsmouth in the evening, it was dark but not raining and we just pushed on back up to Manchester and the oasis that was Jules place. I chilled out there the next day then bimbled back to Scotland.
It was a bit of a crazy idea to go all that way for such a short stay and at that time of year but the abiding memories are of a fun trip, some beautiful scenery and great company.