Just an advance warning – this post contains a lot of pictures, including a number of grey seals that may make you just go “aww..”. It just means the page might be a little slow to load. So with that out of the way…
Following from my post of a few days ago I’d arrived back on Barra on my bike and was about to chuck all my gear into a sea kayak for the journey south with a couple of friends. I didn’t bring my own kayak all the way from Cornwall, it was easier to make use of “ex-employee privileges”, or really just that they’re super friends and generous with it, and borrow a Valley Etain 17.5 from Barra-based Clearwater Paddling. It’s a usefully sized, rather than barge-sized, expedition kayak, perfect for cramming in kit and plenty of food without being tedious to paddle.
The plan was to make use of the now arrived calm weather and paddle south along the chain of islands south of Barra and Vatersay (the southermost of the inhabited islands), in order: Sandray, Pabbay, Mingulay and Berneray (another one, the other being at the top of North Uist). I found a wiki-commons map and put some labels on just so you can see where I am talking about.
Once south of Sandray the journey becomes a little more serious than the average weekend paddle. Remote from any assistance there is minimal boat traffic, your VHF won’t have line of sight with any receiving station and there are few safe get-outs, none on the west coasts of the islands – essentially leaving only the beach on Pabbay and the beach on Mingulay. Both face east and hence have some shelter from prevailing winds but can suffer heavy Atlantic swells. The west coasts of course face the full fury of the Atlantic, and prior to the lighthouse on Berneray being automated, the keepers there on occasion reported fish being deposited on the cliff-tops during storms… some 200m above the ocean surface. Hence the need for a reasonable weather window. Some tidal planning is also required, flow rates on spring tides in the sounds between the islands reach 4 knots with numerous overfalls. With some swell and wind over tide it has the potential to be a rather lively place. We were really lucky… light to moderate east to northeast winds and just a couple of metres of swell from the northwest. A rare opportunity to explore some of the more remote islets in the chain and to really become intimately acquainted with the incredible caves and clefts in the 200 metre high cliffs on the west coast of Mingulay and around Barra Head.
Distance-wise it is not a long paddle, the journey south on day one from Barra around the west of Mingulay to camp on the beach turned out to be 37km, we took all day over it however – glorious sunshine, fantastic bird-life to enjoy and so much to explore. You could easily break it into a two-day with a camp on Pabbay. Day 2 was a lazy day.. a morning on Mingulay exploring, swimming with the local seal population followed by an afternoon circumnavigation of Berneray, with the return journey, straight into a force 6 nor’easterly on day 3… Up the west coast of the islands to find a little shelter and an early o’clock start to make the most of the tides.
I would love to make this journey again with a long lens on board (my on-kayak camera is a fixed 35mm lens), the birdlife is captivating. Mingulay and Berneray in particular are home to large populations of Puffins, Razorbills, Guillemots, Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Skuas .. and eagles – both Golden and White-Tailed. I never tire of watching birds. Below the cliffs of Berneray, in one look up we saw four Golden Eagles and two White-Tailed sea eagles all soaring the cliffs together, circling lazily in the updrafts with their great barn-door wings. The birds see little human interference or traffic and thus are generally unbothered by the presence of sea kayaks. That combined with the clear waters means it is not unusual to paddle through the midst of rafts of Guillemots, Puffins and Razorbills, all hanging out together, while watching them ‘flying’ through the water beneath the kayaks. The waters between the islands are the domain of gannets. It is rather wonderful to be the subject of curiosity of these beautiful birds, soaring low overhead, their pale blue eyes very obviously checking us out. Then there are the skuas… not a large bird, sort of gull-sized, but aggressive. I watched a Great Skua take down a fully grown gannet (up to almost 2m wingspan) mid-flight. Dive-bombed from above it was like watching a plane crash as the gannet tumbled into the sea at speed. An incredible thing to watch first hand. Having seen the same thing before in the Sound of Harris the skua will attempt to drown its target. That time successfully, in this instance the gannet made its escape.
Enough with the background, I’ll tell the rest of the story, of what is truly a super short sea kayak journey, in pictures. Just as an aside if you’re keen to have a look at the area from the seat of a kayak and are not confident in making the journey alone or with friends then Clearwater Paddling run trips down here with camping opportunities on both Sandray & Pabbay, as well as to a number of other captivating destinations in the islands. You’ll have a terrific time.