As a hill walker scrambling up curved ridge on the Buachaille Etive Mor, then later as a fully-fledged rock climber looking out from the belay ledges of the great Rannoch wall I have always been fascinated by this great moor. It is a sight to behold from high above, the lochs that meander across it to the mountains that lay beyond, just screaming for an adventure across it! I always knew I would need to explore it eventually as there had to be a way across, and there was, it is called The Rannoch crossing!
I first heard of this legendary crossing during my time as a white-water kayaker. A means of crossing the wild and remote Rannoch Moor by navigating the small bodies of water that form Loch Ba before following the desolate channel of the Abhain Ba to the majestic Loch Laidon. From here a magnificent journey across huge Lochs and twisting rivers ensues to taking you East. Traditionally done over 3 days as a team with open canoes. It had me hooked years ago, sowing that little seed, just sitting there dormant, waiting.
Waiting at least until late last year when I spent a short time learning to paddle-board . A Rannoch Crossing on a SUP, a winter crossing when the rivers flowed bank full, the lochs cold and clear, snow still on the mountain peaks and no one around, bliss! …… That long sown seed had started to grow! Questions in my head were being asked, would it even be possible? Certainly it should be but a serious undertaking especially in winter requiring much more than SUP skills …. this was the journey for me!!
I started my research during Xmas, a lot of it … the obsession was growing and my Rannoch crossing was definitely going to happen, and in the novel form of Stand-up paddle-boarding. I only had to wait for the right conditions and more daylight. I started to plan seriously, it was all working out, everything looked good. I had it mapped, roughly timed and my minimal equipment requirements listed. A winter crossing meant it would be tough with the water frighteningly cold, the nights freezing and the days short. All worth the extra work for the winter beauty and the increased water levels in the rivers joining the lochs ……. Early April seemed to be the goal.
Then Covid-19 happened, Fuck me!! Travel restrictions and numerous other logistical problems. I could have worked it out and gone for it anyway but the MCOFS didn’t want anyone in the hills so I would be a proper mug if the shit hit the fan, and there was plenty potential for this. I held out hope for good news but it just wasn’t coming, April passed by and the outlook was still grim for travel … Ah well, shit happens as they say and it was now early wild swimming season. I love to wild swim and it allowed me to feed the “insatiable rat” that was so very hungry. The outstanding lochs of the Scottish Borders were easily accessible to me even during Covid lockdown.
The weeks of lockdown passed and travel restrictions slowly lifted, going North was now possible but I was well back into the business of wild swimming and my North Sea diving. SUP was put to the side and my interest in the Rannoch crossing had waned. At least that was until I took my SUP with me on a diving trip and spent a few beautiful hours on the sea one evening. An idea popped into my head as I towelled off atop St Abbs head, “A summer Rannoch crossing” this might be fun and all the work was done. That was it, the desire was back, the realisation of the plan might finally happen… I just need the weather on my side and the wind at my back. A couple of weeks later I was driving up the A82 on a Friday night with my SUP and small rucksack of survival equipment loaded in the back……………………
I packed the van before work and intended to head North to GlenCoe soon as I had finished, planning to start in the early evening from the layby on the A82 right next to Loch Ba at the top of Glencoe. If I worked hard I could reach Loch Laidon by sunset where I would camp on one of its numerous beaches. The Edinburgh By-pass and a car crash however had other ideas and by the time I was through I had lost almost 2 hours, not to be thwarted though, Onwards! I eventually arrived at the side of Loch Ba and made haste, I would probably still make it in time even if I had to hike a little in the moonlight
Heading off on loch Ba to the backdrop of a glorious Glencoe sunset was inspiring , so inspiring that I wasted another half hour on photos … Navigating Loch Ba to the Egress seemed easy on a map during planning but from flat on the loch the beaches and banking all look the same, like a continual wall with no exit. It is almost impossible to see a way out but luckily I had employed the use of my trusted GPS unit, on blind faith I followed it through to the start of Abhain Ba, the small river flowing between Loch Ba and Loch Laidon.
Abhain Ba was to prove shallow and twisting with more time dragging the Sup than not and with the impending and fast becoming darkness worrying me this was to prove one of the most difficult sections of the crossing. One that If I had been able, I would have kept for daylight. But that wasn’t to be as from here the midges went truly wild and what was just bearable before became a sadist’s testicle squashing torture-fest due to the ever-growing swarm around me. They were insatiable and I was forced to keep moving no matter what, suffer or suffer. I realised that I was literally following a GPS arrow and river bank blindly in the pitch black night. The cloud cover had shut out all light, not even a flicker, only a head torch reflection.
Suddenly I became very grateful that I always carry 2 sets of spare batterys. At this point in the crossing it was becoming very hard and difficult to keep going and extremely frustrating, then on top of everything the fucking midges upped their attack again!! Several times I had to immerse myself in the deep water just to have a break from them … the scourge of Scotland had me near breaking point , fuck those damn midges !!
Eventually I made it to Loch Laidon in pitch-black darkness, the clouds blocking any light. It was unnerving and I decided the safest place to be was bang in the middle of the loch away from any rocks, reeds and whatever else might be close to the bank, finally a little respite from the midge was finally had. I must have started to relax as my eye lids became very heavy, time for sugar. I sat down on my board, realising that I was in the middle of nowhere, on a remote loch at night …cool ! I dug out my KIND bars and filter bottle, fuelled myself up and set off following the GPS direction down the loch. Half nodding off I started to consider that if I did fully nod off and fell from my board would I find it again in the dark? Imagine swimming around out here with no board .. fuck that ! I got a little nervous and went to the knees for a while 😀 a lack of sleep can amplify the bad things in your head at times and I remember running through the Sahara desert on my own at night during the Marathon Des Sable thinking people were following me, convinced myself I could hear them and see their shadows but later deciding it was only the water sloshing in my bottle and the flicker of my head torch on the sand.
Eventually the sky started to show light and a small breeze finally got up, soon the midges were all but gone and I could see the shape of the loch in front. Loch Laidon is a long haul and this morning felt especially long, although looking at my GPS I realised that I had covered a lot of ground … Happy days.
Following my GPS on blind faith again it took me right to the end of the loch and straight to the Egress with the Garbh Gaur, a river I had previously visited with my Kayak. However thankfully it was a lot tamer than my white-water flood level visit. It flowed/portaged uneventfully and it wasn’t long before I was paddling into the secluded Loch Eigach, now in the blazing sunshine. I pulled onto a little beach, put my head on my rucksack and lay in the sun to grab 10 minutes, I awoke an hour later, super power nap!! I felt reborn and what a place to be alive. Checking my GPS I realised if I didn’t hang around, I could be at the Tummel loch by the end of the day and my Van, I really wanted my van, full of pot noodles, sweeties and coffee!! oh and my kingdom for a shit coffee 😀
Out of Loch Eigach lay the Gaur, another cracking white-water river, a grade 4 in spate with a cracking technical section but thankfully not today, once I had portaged the dam and power station it was even more portage than SUP but thankfully a single track road appeared close to the rivers edge to help out.
Further down it deepened and meandered a little before eventually opening out into the grand beauty of Loch Rannoch! I love this loch, it’s always busy though in the summer months. Despite a hard start due to a side wind it soon eased off and became a glorious paddle along its length. I was roasting at times as the sun was so hot but I was able now to go for a quick dip to cool off … I was buzzing!
Eventually I reached Kinloch Rannoch at the end and I took a well-deserved break on its beach, I was feeling it now but what a day I was having … No time to dwell, the pot noodles were waiting and my decision to go light with only KIND bars for fuel was starting to fail me
I portaged beyond the small dam and set off on a meandering canal like River Tummel which took me nicely across the shadow of the iconic Schiehallion and onto the Dunalastair water …From here I was treading carefully as there’s a huge Dam not long after after the main body that I wasn’t wanting sucked into!!
A short while later I cleared a corner and there it was in all its man-made concrete glory. The one thing spoiling the purity of this crossing is all the hydro-work after loch Laidon, yet at the same provides considerable interest to the journey… I made a bee-line for the shore though as I wasn’t interested in getting too close to this and from beyond it the shallow water portage-fest would be a nightmare. Knowing the river from previous white water visits I made for the road high above and hiked along it until I could safely drop back to the easier sections that intertwined with more portages down to the Tummel loch, soon that was gone and another final portage took me to my final stretch into Loch Tummel.
Loch Tummel is a fine Scottish Loch surrounded by fantastic scenery and I was enjoying the evening sun, still surprisingly full of energy. I was getting slightly bored with paddling but still enjoying the journey and being lost in my my thoughts on life and what was waiting for me in my van sat near the end on the shore …, full of pot noodles , oooohhh , paddle faster, faster!! … wouldn’t be long
Finally, it was in sight! the van!! the pot noodle transportation automobile!! the van of dreams full of pot noodles! I could see it, my muscles engaged for the final mile, the SUP became a speed boat…….. Pot Noooooooooooooddllllleeeee let me have it 😀 They never tasted so good ! EVER!! …. When I got there I didnt even pause on the shore, I was starving and the feeling as I walked towards the van was a mix of both desperate hunger and total satisfaction. I boiled the kettle, poured the Pot and sat on the step of the van eating, looking up at Schiehallion and absorbing just what I had done … happy days indeed 🙂
Looking back now I had a fantastic journey across a barren moorland above and beyond GlenCoe, it lead to a beautiful valley full of breathtaking lochs and mountains. It was 40 plus miles of extremely difficult terrain, very remote in places so not to be taken lightly. A high level of outdoor skill was required and my river knowledge helped me considerably … Don’t be afraid, just treat it seriously, learn your craft and as always research the shit out of everything 😀