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Rannoch Pitlochry on Low Water

Well we had a good go! Having set off a day late because of Robs other commitments we arrived at Ballinluig to drop a car off at what we hoped would be a staging post on the way to Perth. From Ballinluig on the confluence of Tummel and Tay, we then had to drag all the gear in Rob’s van, across to Bridge of Orchy for the night, to be in position for the next morning’s logistical juggling.

After all the rushing around, I set up the tent while Rob slumped back into his seat saying that his daughter had been violently ill the day or so before, while they travelled back home from their tour down the River Spey. Rob went quieter and quieter, with just the occasional belch giving away the rising storm.

I feasted on a huge chicken curry while Rob groaned. The rain started, which would have been a good thing, if only it had been decently heavy. After a long natter, we crashed in the tent. I was out for the count very quickly and was only vaguely aware of Rob stirring. However after a few hours kip, even my frazzled brain was awoken by the unmistakeable sounds of someone firing at both ends. Rob had gone down with the same bug as his daughter.

I had a vague notion that the “Cross Scotland” trip was over before it had even started. Next morning Rob was pretty wrung out and the rain continued its drizzling. A war conference was held and we decided to wait for a brightening in the weather and Rob’s constitution. He’s a plucky character is Rob and a good old dose of “The Wildies” wasn’t putting him off the possibility of his trip.

It took a couple of hours, but eventually my mate started to show distinct signs of life. It was game on!

It was necessary to shuttle 2 open boats, 2 barrels of food, canoeing and camping gear, 2 bags of assorted clothing, a day bag each and a weird looking collection of aluminium poles to the roadside on the A85, beside Loch Ba. This is a place well known to travelling photographers, with stunning views across Rannoch Moor and the Black Mount. Once unloaded, Rob drove his van back to Bridge of Orchy in the hope of finding safe parking for the next several days. I then had the joy of ferrying the assorted pile of kit to the water’s edge, while Rob hitched back up. Soon the task was complete and Rob rolled back after a surprisingly painless hitch back up the road.

The first lesson for this novice open boater then commenced. The black art of packing an open canoe for the “Big Trip”. This went fairly painlessly and we were soon ready to cast off into the wilderness. By now the mornings’ rain clouds had cleared oiut to give an absolutely stunning afternoon. The moorland was showing its most varied shades of spring green and the Blackmount behind us was highlighted by remnants of the winter snows.

As we made our way across Loch Ba, it was pretty instantly obvious that it was a team of one pro and one novice. I was left trailing in Rob’s wake as he effortlessly glided across the azure surface of the lake. By contrast, my erratic zigs and zags must have been excellent fat burning exercise. It didn’t really matter though, because after so many years of being too far inside my comfort zone, I knew I was going to have to learn – or burn even more flab.

After probably less than an hour we found the exit from the Loch into the R. Ba. Clearly the overnight rain had made little impression on an unusual Scottish drought. To call the river boney would not be doing it justice. It was a bit like the legend of the “pub with no beer”: this was the river with no water! Between the occasional pools, each rapid was a rocky toothed, body and boat breaking obstacle course. This is how Ranulph Fiennes should train for his polar sledging epics. We dragged and shoved; cajoled and cursed; grunted and giggled at the sheer daftness of our little holiday as we slowly crept down the couple of kilometres of river towards Loch Laidon.

Eventually the lake came into view and painfully (after several slippery rock induced dead legs) we got clear of the rocky river bed and pulled round a corner onto the lake shore for a quick breather and decision making. It was early evening now and we weren’t at all sure we would get along Loch Laidon before it got dark, reckoning it to be something like a 3 or 4 hour paddle (longer with me I think). However there was a reasonable breeze blowing in roughly the right direction so we went for broke and decided to get some miles in by sailing.

This was the start of my introductory; rafted canoe sailing 101 course. A collection of ropes and poles and a hefty lump of timber were dragged from the bags and boat bottoms and quickly assembled into an A frame masted catamaran. We cast of and after a couple of false starts, we finally picked up the best stream of breeze possible and at last we were flying!

We absolutely creamed our way up the lake; with the biggest tarp acting as a Viking style square sail and paddles jammed into the water at odd angles acting as rudders and lee boards. Our canoe sailing contraption was shifting as fast as a sophisticated sailing dinghy. Within an hour and a half, we were bearing down on the end of the Loch and right by the opening of the R. Gaur was a beautiful curving sandy beach with a sheltered cove behind it, perfect for tents and sheltering us from the oh so helpful wind. Mind you it was a bit sobering to think that in the 5 hours we had been going we had only made 14km of the 134 we needed to cover if we were going to get to Perth by Friday evening.

We quickly set up camp and after a large belly full of nosh for me and a couple of tentative mouthfuls for Rob, I finally got that early night I had been promising myself for the last 18 months.

The morning was a stunner. This was my first decent wild camp in over 10 years as far as I can remember and looking through the open flap of the tent into morning mist with lines of rocks seemingly suspended in mid-air was an eye opener after so long away. Once the brain started to click into gear, I was off with the camera trying to make something of the visual feast that was evolving by the minute as the sun climbed higher; while Rob set about his well practised routines of camp breakfast making with his King of the non stick frying pans.

We didn’t rush to strike camp as we were too busy taking in the rapidly clearing scene, and not a little hesitant about what the next stretch of river would be like. As the last of the mist evaporated, we paddled round the corner into the upper R. Gaur. At first we were lulled into an all too false sense of security. Long stretches of shallow but paddleable pools were dealt with using another new black art. Poling … another use for the collection of aluminium poles; and finally my 2 hours of punting in Cambridge came in handy!

The smug feeling didn’t last long however. The river steepened and became the same taskmaster as yesterday. There was a bit more volume this time but if anything, this steeper stretch was even bonier. I reckon it would be a fantastic paddle in kayak or open boat when there was about another couple of feet of water to play with. On the day though, that was just wishful thinking. It was grunt – shove – slip – get up – pull – swear and start again as we slowly crept the couple of kilometres towards our next bit of open water.

It took a good couple of hours to get within sight of Loch Eigheach and just as things looked up we came to some really meaty looking cascades. They were a series of convoluted drops. I had the funny feeling that this was going to be time for Black Art No.4 and sure enough Rob announced it was time for me to be brought into the inner circle: it was time for lining! I had to take an oath of secrecy never to reveal to strangers the exact point of balance for the central knot on his experimental closed loop system.

Once the BS was out of the way we semi led and semi got dragged downriver by 80+ kilos of boat and gear, trying to develop the skills of remote control Canadian canoe steering. I have to say, I almost attained a level of incompetence rarely witnessed on these rivers: but, I got down without being dragged in and drowned. A few hundred metres beyond the bottom of the falls we finally reached the loch. It was a relief to be able to get into some kind of paddling rhythm. This was a very remote feeling stretch of water. All too soon we reached the dam that keeps the waters of Loch Eigheach in check. Here I was to learn the joys of “The Portage”.

I can safely say the Joy of Portage is no competition for the Joy of Sox (This is a family site, but you get my drift!). To increase the joy, Rob had brought his secret weapon – the Trolley. This pair of wheels and 2kg of aluminium is guaranteed entertainment in its officially designated mode of use: i.e. 1 trolley; 1 boat. The portage here involved a 4.5 km stroll down the road, back up again for the 2nd canoe and repeat. 13.5 kn in total. Myself and Rob though, we’re clever and quickly hit on the labour saving device of a double decker trolley. Loads were rapidly reorganised into the bottom boat and we found it was remarkably easy to secure the 2nd boat on top. Off we set on our labour saving march!

Hiccup #1 made itself known within 200 metres. The tyres felt a bit squelchy. Rob casually dropped into the ensuing conversation, ” Oh b..round things ..ks! I forgot to pump them up. Now, you have to remember here that he had taken on; ordering and buying the grub, kitting out the canoes (supplied by him), scraping bags and paddling kit together for me and generally organising everything. After some typically gnarly outdoor cackling at the daft situation, we decided to push on.

Hiccup #2 arrived at this point. As we wove down the hydro track to the tarmac road, I noticed that the tyres were not just squelchy, but were about to have another disaster. The lack of air pressure meant that the tyres were floatinf round on the rims and were dragging the inner tubes with them. This meant the valve stems were getting twisted and were in imminent danger of rupturing. The Tuesday morning feeling returned.

Where the track joined the road there was a large bungalow so I suggested we go knock them up and see if they had a car tyre pump, working on the assumption that the residents would probably be fairly self sufficient in things mechanical. I went up to the door gave it a good rattle … and my heart sank again as I realised there wasn’t going to be much self sufficiency in supply. Clearly this was a bunch of Jimmies in a holiday cottage on a bender. First impressions can be misleading. I was only 75% correct. What a friendly bunch of P artists they were. I asked about car pumps – one of the guys went out back – and came back with a bike pump. When I looked at the adapter, hallelujah it was a car valve adapter.

Self sufficient or what! Even more amazingly the pump inflated the first tyre brilliantly. Tyre number 2 was a bit trickier. Rob took some persuading that letting the tyre right down was the answer to getting the valve into a pumpable position again. Fortunately it worked. I returned the pump to the blokes in the cottage and they insisted we came inside to have a beer or two. They turned out to be a bunch of friends who have an annual get together as they have done for (I think they said) forty years. They saved our bacon big style and two happy little bunnies set off with ever such a slight stagger down the road to paddle friendly water. I hope somehow, one of them at least, finds this article and realises that we were very grateful.

The plod down the road was a doddle with solid tyres and we soon found ourselves on the water at Bridge of Gaur. By now the time was marching on and when we reached Loch Rannoch, it was time to pull over for the night. We found a secluded bit of woodland on the north shore of the lake and with quite a breeze blowing we soon had a tarp up as a shelter and supper was on the go.

The next morning, after an initial paddle to Eilean nam Faoileag with its curious folly tower, we put up two smaller sails and again tried to up the mileage. It’s a good long way up Loch Rannoch, but soon enough we were clipping past the eyesore hotels and developments at the eastern end and arriving at the dam. The portage here was fairly straight forward and we were soon heading down the River Tummel. Two stomachs then demanded food, so quite quickly, we pulled off at a picnic spot on the north bank, tied the canoes to assorted bits of rock and wood and settled down to our picnic. Partway through the second wrap, something about the river caught my eye. It seemed to be flowing … like a proper river. As I watched the far bank, I realised that one by one the stones on the other side were being rapidly covered. “Rob, the rivers rising?!” It was more question than statement.

Grabbing our stuff, we rushed down to the boats and sure enough the boats were almost nose down in the quietly rushing flow. Rob had his loose in a few seconds, but my rope had got itself trapped between boulders out of sight in the water. The situation was about to turn embarrassing, when with a lurch the rope came free from beneath the boulders and I was able to hop in and enjoy a bit of proper river with water that seemed to be available in volume.

The next landmark was Dunalastair Water, a shallow, muddy bottomed poling project followed by another stretch of the R. Tummel to another dam. This time it was out on the North side, relay everything up to the road and go for the double decker system again. Another 4 or 5 km portage saw us putting on the river again below the power station at Tummel Bridge. A steady hour or so’s paddling brought us out into Loch Tummel and we needed to find a third camp site for the night.

Pulling over on the south shore this time, the camp site routine quickly kicked in and after a short photo session, the tent was up, the brew was being glugged and even Rob seemed to be looking forward to some solid grub. As the meal cooked we discussed our slow rate of progress and we had to laugh. In two and a half days we’d only managed about 50km and it was looking increasingly likely that we wouldn’t even reach Pitlochry – never mind Perth! We crashed early that evening, with my little half bottle of “The Water of Life”getting glugged by both of us for the first time.

Up early next morning and away sharp, we paddled off into a sometimes brisk easterly headwind. Immediately, my still poor paddling skills became a real issue and Rob had to give me some pretty intensive coaching to unlearn my”expert” goon stroke and develop a decent more efficient style. I found the official J style so counter intuitive it was really hard to get going at first. Slowly though, things improved and I began to keep pace with Rob after a couple of kilometres of struggle.

The wind was really starting to freshen up at this point, so we pulled out for a breather by a tiny little stream delta named Frenich, on the south shore, to be greeted by a “herd” of grazing geese in the next field. We were only 4km further on than the campsite and we’d already been going a good hour and a half or two hours, so the breather didn’t last long. As we were approaching the narrower eastern end of the lake, it seemed the wind was becoming more and more funneled. Back on the water, we set our sights on the craggy island – the Mains of Duntanlich and made a run for it across to the other side to try and find a quieter line of air.

Within 10 minutes I was trailing Rob and back on the old goon stroke, as I struggled with the wind. As the struggle continued I started to practise the next black art – boat trim: attempting to get my weight in the right place to balance the bulk of the boat against the force of the wind. And suddenly … the paddle wasn’t in my hand any more; as I shifted my weight, a blast of wind and a twist of the canoe had whipped it from my fingers and the continued blast had the boat running over it so I couldn’t see it! The best laugh of the whole trip was the sight of me frenziedly trying to hand paddle 250lbs of boat, body and gear against the wind to get back to my paddle … no chance! Within about 20 seconds I was metres away and Rob was out of earshot with the spare. Did I flap? No of course not, apart from my arms! It was alumium poles to the rescue! They don’t make the most efficient paddles – but they are infinitely better than bare hands. Quickly reunited with my paddle but feeling stupid and knackered, I continued a bit sheepishly in Rob’s wake.

Slowly we crept past the Mains of Duntanlich and lost its temporary shelter. It was quite a surprise when we realised that the shores of the loch were closing in, and we must be getting near the dam. I was still pretty wiped out after my “paddle pole” entertainment, and my boat still lagged behind Rob’s as we moved forward in a thankfully reducing wind. The dam duly appeared and we investigated which way round and down we would have to portage it.

A decision was made for the right bank – only a Scottish Hydro yard and two fences to cross (via stiles I might add) and a quarter mile of gear shuttle! The day had brightened up, so it was an extremely sweaty ferry operation. Once all the gear was down to the lower level we were able to have a breather over lunch. As we discussed the next sections, it was clear that Perth wasn’t on any agenda any more this week. Ballinluig and the car seemed like a distant possibility. There were serious doubts we could even make it as far as Pitlochry! Things were looking fairly amusing.

Packed up after lunch with the last of the wraps; we found and wound our way down the gorge of the Lower Tummel. The further down we went, the wilder and rockier the atmosphere became and the more we had to resort to our arctic sledge hauling techniques. Eventually we came to a set of falls where Rob’s experienced eye, decided it was time for a bit of lining. This had to be the Linn of Tummel, the crux of the gorge: it certainly looked the real McCoy! Clambering along the walls of the gorge, lining boats down quite complex falls – fishing Rob’s boat out and rescuing gear and paddles when the whole thing got swamped. Wot a larf! A serious laugh though, it was pretty rough stuff, you didn’t fancy messing up and falling on those rocks!

After a mad half hour, we had all Rob’s gear back in the boat except for his paddle – that had gone for the solo option! With his spare, we carried on down a gentler looking section of the gorge; actually able to paddle for stretches of more than a hundred metres. We had obviously tamed the Tummel Gorge and it was going to be plain sailing to Faskally Loch a few kilometres further on.

What is it they say about;”Don’t count your chickens …”? The gorge gnarlified itself again. And: the shallow rapids became little drops, which in turn became slightly bigger and so it developed again. At one point the gorge opened out but the river bed itself became a convoluted series of rocky drops and twisting shoots. There wasn’t going to be any paddling here! Out came the ropes again and it was back to lining and hauling. This time though, as we scouted the way ahead before getting committed, it became clear that the next few drop offs were going to be bigger than any we had dealt with so far. This had to be the Real Linn of Tummel.

Strangely, we found it easier to manage the boats on this stretch, and one tasty little rapid even had enough water concentrated in it so that we could shoot it properly. The final drop was a series of 2 metre falls that virtually plopped you into Loch Faskall. The final sledging moves being on a slimey shelf alongside this. Looking back up the gorge, I could feel a definite kayak twitch developing. All the river sections we had been on would be absolutely brilliant for a 2 or 3 day campaign on the next Autumn Scottish Tour with “The Boys”. Classic grade 3 and 4 whitewater with a bit of volume in the river, I imagine. I must read the guide before next Autumn.

Now we were on open water again on a new river, the Garry, disguised by the man made loch. With the watches showing 7 pm we came up to the dam at Pitlochry, where many of you may have seen the fish ladders. From the parapet of the dam the Garry beyond was just a shallows series of riffles, that looked like total bump and scrape for the next 5 or 6 miles to Ballinluig and the car. It was game over. The time to portage the dam and the fading light meant there was no realistic chance of finishing even to the car in good order.

There was a quick taxi ride for me to Ballinluig to collect our chariot, while Rob humped all the gear up into the car park. I got some funny looks wandering through Pitlochry at 7:30 on a Friday evening in dripping paddling gear; even funnier looks when I wandered into an “Offie” to ask about who the local taxi mogul might be. This was a second helpful character experience. The guy in the beer shop phoned around several folk and eventually got me a ride, because the taxi rank outside was devoid of taxis! You meet some great people on these jaunts.

Reunited with Rob, we filled the car; double deckered the canoes on the roof rack and headed for the boozer at Grandtully to try and get some beer and chips and @@@ and gravy. The beer was grand, the chips, gravy and chilli were better than passable, but I didn’t fancy my chances trying for a bit of @@@ with the drunken jocks in the pub that night. 3 out of 4 wasn’t bad after our stint in the wilderness. And, the upside was that the trip did raise nearly £150 towards the Kandersteg adventure and I can just about paddle my canoe up a creek WITH a paddle in the officially approved manner. Many thanks to every one who sponsored our attempt. According to my maps we made about 75 0r 80 km of the distance; according to Rob’s GPS toy it was 98 km out of the 130 + to Perth. And I should add a special thanks to Rob who’s many adventures in open boats here and over in Canada, gave me the confidence to have a go at one of the gnarlier beginner’s trips you can try.Like Arnie says:”I’ll be back!”