Towards the end of the summer holidays we travelled up to Chiang Mai in search of some more active adventures. Given that it was the middle of rainy season we figured that kayaking would be great fun so we booked a 2 day trip.
Cindy and Liz had never done kayaking before so we opted for the 2 day river Pai adventure, as it was mostly flat but fast moving water with a few class 1/2 rapids thrown in.
The route started north of Chaing Mai, on the way to Chiang Dow, and meandered its was down through the valley all the way back towards the Chiang Mai.
We kayaked pretty much the whole way back (55kms+ in total), stopping overnight at a local campsite near the river.
The only major obstacle on route was the weir, which was far too dangerous for us to attempt to run, so we got out above the weir and this was the end of the first day. We camped the first night next to the River Taeng, as tributary of the Pai and launched directly into the river from the campsite next morning.
I woke early, or rather was awoken by nature’s alarm clock. I left the window open the night before to keep the room cool and the jungle birds were enthusiastically announcing their presence to the world. I was tired and refused to get out of bed so I just laid there for an hour listening to the racket from outside and watching the shadows cast on the wall opposite slowly fall as the dim sun rose in the morning sky.
Eventually boredom got the better of me, so I got up, packed what few things I had bothered to unpack, and headed outside to see what was happening on the site. As it turned I need not bother because nothing much was happening at all. The rest of my jungle trekking party were still in bed, including Deaw who was snoring away in the front seat of his pickup. The porcupines had retreated back to wherever they called home and the campground was silent.
After a brief mooch around the site I decided to rest against the trunk of a tree. I checked that there were no ants’ nests or other obvious hazards and sat down, resting my back, soaking up the early morning sunshine. It was going to be another warm day (only 28C) but at present it was still cool enough to sit in the sun without roasting to death, so I sat their and did absolutely nothing.
Half an hour passed and finally there were sounds of life from my companions in the lodge next door – the usual stomps, crashes and mumblings of people still half asleep. Fast forward 20 minutes and bodies emerged into the sunlight – hungry, tired and aching by the looks of it. The noises had evidently woken Deaw as well and he emerged from his car. I asked him how he slept and he replied ‘like a baby’ – well that made 1 out of 4.
Breakfast over in the restaurant was a simple affair – a choice of noodles, soup or rice, but there was coffee – result! I chose rice and fried egg and I was quite happy until Andrew’s food arrived – His soup came in a massive bowl and was loaded with goodies – damn you food envy!
We finished up and before we left we picked up some snacks for the day. The aussie couple had forgotten to bring for snacks the previous day and Andrew had suffered in silence for quite a while until I realised has was struggling and gave him a spare Country Crunch bar I had kicking around in my bag. Today he was intent on not making the same mistake so he bought enough food to feed a small country.
We loaded our gear up and headed out for our second trek of the trip – this time setting out from the car-park nearest to the viewing tower. The first half hour followed the dirt path over the grassland hills.
Hiking along the fire scorched grassland in the heart of Khao Yai
After a while we veered off the path and headed for across the grassland, scorched black by the recent controlled burning conducted by the park rangers to encourage new growth.
Soon we were venturing back into the jungle again and it was a great be back under the protection if the canopy – it was only 10am but it was already roasting out in the open!
Deaw soon discovered elephant track and he decided to follow the tracks into. We made slow going through the thick jungle bush, it was very different undertaking compared to the previous day’s established path networks.
The tracks meandered steadily downwards to a stream at the bottom of a small valley. Every so often we would hear the deep whooshing sound of the huge wings of a horn bill high above. I tried in vain to get a good shot but alas they were too high and I could only manage a quick snap, my 200mm lens struggling to make out any real detail.
A fleeting glimpse of a hornhill flying noisily tree to tree high in the canopy above.
The tracks reached the valley bottom, where they dissapeared into the tangled mess of plants that were growing in the shallow, muddy river that spanned about 10 metres.
This place was leech central so treading across the river would have been a disaster. Fortunately Deaw had a better idea and we turned left and heading parallel to the river for a few minutes.
We were stopped by a large fallen tree in our path and as we were climbing on it Deaw told us a story about how he once almost walked straight into a bear that was busy eating and didn’t notice his party until they were within 3m. Both bear and humans had the fright of their lives and retreated as fast as possible…
It turned out the tree was key to us getting across the river. It had fallen right across the riverbed and was large enough for us to clamber across to get to the other side.
Crossing a natural bridge in between jungle sections, in search of elephants and buffalo. No leeches for us!
The rest of the group headed across the tree bridge and I took up the rear guard, keen to get a video of us all crossing the river. Half way across everyone stopped and there was some commotion and pointing of cameras. I headed over, keen not to miss out on what are often very temporary sights.
It turned out I needn’t have bothered, because there in front of me was a large tortoise chilling on the tree in the shade between the branches and he was interested in going anywhere, even with a group of trekkers literally walking over the top of his head!
We carried on up the other side of the valley and down into a trough on the other side. Here we stopped for a few minutes while Deaw took out a huge bag of salt from his rucksack and poured it all over the ground. Afterward he poured a whole bottle of fish sauce because elephants and other animals loved it, apparently, and could detent the scent from up to a mile away.
Detour complete, we headed through the jungle once again, ascending the side of the valley along a narrow track. A few minutes later we reached the edge of the jungle and burst out into the open grassland.
Once my eyes had adjusted to the glare of the midday sun I took in our surrundings. We were on the top of a grassy hill, overlooking a small lake. It was a gorgeous view and and I paused to admire it. Sweeping grassland to the front was flanked on all sides by jungle, with tracked meandering down towards the lake.
We trekked on down towards the lake and soon a watchtower came into view. Deaw informed us that the top of the tower was our lunch stop, and almost immediately everybody started to pick up the pace. I guessed my stomach wasn’t the only one complaining!
We stopped and ate lunch in the welcome shade of the watch tower, sat on benches that looked out over the reservoir on one side and over towards the jungle on the other. Somewhere in the canopy a family of gibbons were having a discussion and their cries carried audibly into the tower.
Bellies placated we set off along the final stretch of our trek, following a well used footpath through the grasslands, back towards the car.
The path was busy with tourists, being one of only 2 hikes that can undertaken without a guide and as such I resigned myself to the fact that the wildlife spotting opportunities for our trek were pretty much over – more people equalled fewer animals.
As the car came into sight however, so did a my favourite bird – an eagle soaring effortlessly overhead, using a thermal to gain altitude – what a brillant way to end the trek!
The plan for the rest of the afternoon was to visit some waterfalls, so we hopped in the pickup and Deaw drove us down to Haew Suat, a small waterfall with 5m drop, whose main claim to fame was being the waterfall that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character jumped off in the movie ‘The Beach’.
Like most Thai waterfalls in close proximity to roads, the place was rammed with tourists of all nationalities. I stopped to take a video and a few photos but didn’t linger for long, given how busy it was.
Haew Suwat Waterfall, featured in Danny Boyle’s movie ‘The Beach’
Next we drove towards the southern entrance of the park and after half an hour arrived the carpark that serves Haew Narok waterfall.
This carpark, though far larger and more spectacular, was quieter than the previous one, on account of the waterfall being a 2km hike away and it being located much farther away from the northern entrance of the park where all the main hotels were.
We strolled down towards the waterfall, glad to being only carrying camera equipment and a bottle pf water each. About 300m from the falls Deaw veered off the main pathway and asked us to follow him. We headed up until the jungle for the final time on the trip and along a disused footpath.
As we walked along on our right we were flanked by a wall of 6 foot high concrete posts that ran unbroken through the jungle. Curious, I asked Daew their purpose.
He explained that they were installed a number of years ago to stop elephant families from venturing too close to the top of the waterfall, after 5 elephants fell down the waterfall to their death.The pillars fulfilled their purpose, with no more elephants dying for years afterwards.
Unfortunately this all changed 2 months prior to my trek, when a baby elephant got swept away in heavy rains. The remaining elephants waded in to try and save the baby but in the end 11 elephants went over the falls and sadly died.
I mulled over this rather depressing tale and carried on along the narrow path until we finally reached our destination – an isolation outcrop high above the falls.
The route down to the cliff edge looked seriously dodgy – there were steps, just a slippery path, and the only safety feature was a rotten piece of wood jammed between two bamboo trees to form an improvised rail.
I would normally pass on going down such a route but I had a feeling that this was a sight I didn’t want to miss. A bit of shuffling later and I was stood overlooking the massive waterfall, taking in the gobsmacking view.
Far below the two lower tiers of the waterfall looked deceptively small but it was clear that elephants wouldn’t have stood a chance once they went over.
Haew Narok Waterfall, Khao Yai, Thailand. In October 2019 11 elephants died after wading into flood waters above the falls to save a calf in trouble.
Bats streaming out of Khao Luk Cave, North of Khao Yai National Park, Thailand.
Trying to find the perfect camping mattress is hard work and comparing different mats is a bit of a minefield. Here is a list of some of the popular mats on the market in 2019 and some stats to help you compare the different mats. If you want a mat adding to the list add a comment at the bottom of the page and I will add it to the the list!
See the information below the table for explanations of what the stats mean.
R Val – What do R-Values mean? The measure of how well the mat insulated the user against the floor. This is the US data for R Values. The chart below will give you an estimated minimum comfortable temperature for an average adult male.
WPW – Warmth per Weight(Higher the better)
How much insulation you are getting versus the amount of weight you have to carry.
WPC – Warmth per Cost (Higher is better)
How much warmth you are getting versus the cost of the mat at the time of cost.
LPC – Lightness per Cost (Higher is better)
How light the mat is versus the cost of the mat at time of publishing. Useful is you are trying to go ultralight on a budget.
Here’s how I calculated the ratings. I just made these metrics up , using the multipliers to give sensible values to compare.
2 days in Ho Chi Minh City and I was done. The non-stop pestering from hawkers, combined with the constant pipping of horns, was enough to drive me to breaking point.
So I hopped on a flight back to Bangkok and by 9pm I was sat at home on my pc, researching what to do for the rest of the week.
The idea of jungle trekking in Khao Yai had been rattling around in the back of my mind ever since I went camping there with friends the previous month, so after a bit of googling I found a company that offered the kind of experience I was looking for – a small group with more time trekking and less time visiting Khao Yai’s tourist traps (which admittedly are still very beautiful).
I sent the company a Whatsapp message asking about their next availability for a 2 day trek, hoping that there would be something in next few days and I was somewhat shocked when I received a reply back almost immediately with ‘tomorrow morning, 6.30am’.
My mind raced – it was now approaching 10pm and I would have to pack all my gear before going to bed and setting an alarm for 5:45.. should I ask about other dates?
Balls to it. “Excellent. Book me in. I’ll get packing.”
Fast forward 12 hours and I stood inside the reception area of the Khao Yai visitor’s center, attempting to wake myself up, while Deaw, our guide, showed us round a taxidermy display of the different animals we might see on our trek if we were very lucky.
It turned out that Khao Yai was home to a wide range of animals, far more varied than I expected, and hardly any of which I had seen in my previous camping visit (I had only seen Macaque monkeys and some deer). Wild elephants roamed freely through the jungles, two species of gibbon lived high in the jungle canopy, and there was a reclusive family of tigers that lived in one of the more remote valleys (their location is a closely guarded secret).
Macaque monkeys live all over Khao Yai and are an almost certain sight on any trip to the park, even if you don’t go trekking.
Tigers have been hunted almost to extinction in Thailand, partly because their body parts are highly sought after in chinese traditional medicine and partly because tigers are rather adept at killing people. Deaw recounted the story of the last fatal tiger attack in the park, back in the 1980s. A little girl who lived with her family in the park was writing in a book when her pencil fell through the floorboards. She went outsde the house to retrieve the pencil but was attacked by a tiger that was hiding under the house.
The girl’s screams woke the other occupants of the house and the tiger ran away, but the girl died the next day in the hospital. Rangers set up an ambush for the tiger but the tiger managed to claim one more life (one of the rangers in the ambush itself) before it was killed.
The tour of the visitors’ center ended and after a well needed coffee break we headed out on our first trek, towards the north end of the park.
Trekking was a two state affair. Most of the time I was half-bored trekking along, following our guide as we meandered seemingly aimlessly through narrow jungle paths. Every so often Deaw would stop to point out some interesting feature on the ground, such as termite mounds, or elephant dung.
Alternatively he would have us crane our necks up to look at the impossibly tall trees as he explained the important features of the eco system. Deaw explained how one tree started life in the high boughs of other trees and then cascaded multiple trunks and roots downwards until they finally reached the ground. The tree would then slowly grow around the host tree until it finally, after many years, killed the host. Every so often we would pass these trees and you would see the rotting corpse entombed within the tendrils of the parasitic tree.
A huge fig tree, with its strangling roots trailing down to the floor
About 30 minutes into the trek we had our first encounter with animal life, a Banded Kingfisher, chilling out on a branch only 5 metres from the track. This beautiful bird is unique amongst kingfishers as it doesn’t need to live near a pool of water to survive.
A Banded Kingfisher, chilling out on a branch
What amazed me was how our guide was able to spot the bird. Even after he told me exactly where to look it took me over a minute of staring before I was able to see the creature. I had already come to the conclusion that trekking without a guide would be a terrible idea due to navigation through the jungle paths being near impossible, but I was beginning to realise that without a guide I would have walked past most of the wild animals that lived in the canopy without ever noticing their presence.
It was early afternoon when we spotted the rarest prize of the trek – A family of endangered white handed gibbons feasting merrily on the fruits of a fig tree. These gibbons live in small family groups and roam across large territories, swinging effortlessly from tree to tree with their elongated arms. I stood transfixed and watched the group for about twenty minutes until my neck was stiff and sore.
A White Handed Gibbon, swinging from branch to branch.
Eventually neck ache got the better of me and I decided to lie down on the ground to continue watching the gibbons. Unfortunately the colony of ants whose house I had just sat down on were less than impressed with my home invasion and decided to evict me forcefully. Within seconds I was a ridiculous screaming mess as I attempted to dislodge the angry ants, most of whom were busily biting my bottom. The rest of my trekking group looked on in shock as I desperately dropped my shorts and undies, and proceeded to whack my bottom with great enthusiasm.
Once I was certain that all the ants had been removed from my bum and clothing, I pulled my shorts back up and apologised to the group, all of whom were in fits of giggles, for my impromptu strip show. The experience had certainly taught me a lesson and I spent the rest of the trek avoiding sitting on the floor…
The final hour of the first day’s trekking was pretty quiet and we didn’t see any more interesting animals. We followed the path back to the road and then were driven up to the campsite where we could check into our accomodation and grab some dinner at the local restaurant, ready for the evening’s night safari. The group I had joined (consisting of 2 Australians) had chosen to stay in huts for the trip rather than stay out in the jungle in hammocks and I didn’t want to cause complications – I would have much preferred to camp in the jungle but that could wait for a future trip.
By the time we arrived at the campsite the sun had set and I was starving. We sat down and ate dinner, a simple Thai affair with dishes of rice, noodles and a curry. Half way through dinner I heard a rustling sound from behind me and was shocked to see a huge porcupine bumbling around on the grass behind our table.
Soon the porcupine was joined by others and they seemed to be everywhere, crashing about in search of food!
As we were finishing dinner our transport for the evening’s night safari arrived, a Toyota Land cruiser, and on top was a little old lady wearing a woolly bobble hat. I was somewhat amused that the lady was wearing the hat, given that the temperature back in Bangkok rarely dropped below 20 Degrees C, later on in the evening I would understand!
Our night safari guide wearing her impressive bobble hat
We piled onto the back of pickup truck and headed out into the darkness, back along the park roads that we had travelled along earlier in the day, but now they were transformed by the night.
There were no street lights in the park and there was almost no moon, so the only illumination came from the pickup trucks two dim headlamps and from the high powered spotlight in hands of the little old lady stood up at the front. The light swept slowly from left to right, searching for the nocturnal animals that command the park after night falls.
Every so often a pair of small round reflections would give away the presence of the animals on the grasslands and the torch would stop. Samba deer and Barka deer roamed freely at night and we passed dozen of them, together with plenty of meandering porcupines.
One of the many samba deer that we saw on the night safari
I had originally hoped that we might see the odd elephant, as they were more frequently seen in the evenings, but half an hour into our safari and I had all but given up hope – we were already past Sai Sorn reservoir and were nearing the northern end of the park.
We rounded the final bend and headed towards the edge of the jungle. The the little old lady swung the beam round the left and homed in a large animal abound 100 yards away, standing in the middle of a salt lick – a large male elephant!
Excitedly we stopped and watch the huge beast as best we could from the distance as it feasted on the salty earth. Needless to say I was chuffed to bits! I tried to take a photo of the elephant but it was too far away and the photo turned out too blurry and noisy…never mind!
After a while we turned around and slowly headed back to our base. By this point our tour guide, Deaw, was absolutely freezing and was huddled in a ball on the floor. The temperature had dropped to 12 degrees and combined with the wind chill and humidity it was very chilly indeed.
I would have felt sorry for him but I had asked him why he wasn’t bringing a jacket as we were setting off and he replied ‘I am from Khao Yai and don’t need one’ – I think he regretted his choice! I was toasty warm wrapped up in my duck down jacket (these sorts of adventures were the reason I bothered to bring it Thailand) but the wind on my face was enough!
The return journey was pretty uneventful and the day’s activities were starting to catch up with us – everyone was knackered! We arrived back at the campsite, bade farewell to the safari guide ad heading for our lodges and well deserved slumber!
We woke up early and after a simple breakfast of porridge oats washed down with a coffee we broke camp, eager to make some miles on what we expected to be a long, hard slog of a day. Loch Ness was notorious for it’s changeable weather and so we fully expected to be battling swells and headwinds all the way.
The weather was calm and there was nothing but a slight southwesterly wind as we set out in our boats. Soon though the wind began to pick up and it was time to rig up our circular canoe sails!
Gone with the wind..
The wind filled the sails and almost immediately we were pushing a steady 5 km per hour without paddling at all! I opted to use my paddle as a rudder, steering the boat one-handed as I sailed. Mark wasn’t comfortable with the technique so instead kept hold of his paddle with both hands, paddling where necessary to straighten the boat.
What followed was 2 hours of utter sailing bliss. We glided along effortlessly, passing houses, lodges, rivers and inlets, all the while taking care to stay within 20 metres of the steep shoreline that flanked us on our left. The sun was beaming down on us and soon mark and I both had to don our silly hats to keep from getting too sun-burnt.
As time wore on we both began to get peckish and decided to find somewhere to stop for a bit of lunch and to stretch our now stiff legs. Landing spots were few and far between, but eventually we happened upon a perfect little beach – flat, pebbled and protected from the wind.
We grabbed a quick lunch of instant noodles, together with some trail mix – an essential ration for any trip of mine.
Having a swell time
The wind had been building steadily throughout the morning and the swell was beginning to develop – this afternoon’s sailing was going to be even more fun than the morning!
The stronger winds provided a great deal of fun in the afternoon, especially when the combined with the wake of the passing ships. We were tossed about merrily for a good few hours as we steamed on down towards our goal and the winds only died as we reached the ruins of Urqhart Castle, which marked the end of our day’s journey.
We paddled the last few hundred yards (I was a little upset that I didn’t to sail all the way!) read the entrance to the bay and took our boats out next to the remains of a derelict jetty. The jetty had once been the main landing place for those visiting Drumnadrochit, but as the craft sizes grew larger a new harbour was built on the opposite side of the inlet.
We packed up our boats and hiked the half a mile journey from the jetty to the campsite. Upon arrival at the campsite we attended to the most important item on the agenda…a shower! After 4 days paddling both Mark and I were beginning to smell pretty fruity, so a hot shower was an absolute godsend!
After freshening up we headed into the village to find some pub grub and beer!
Canoe take out
Grid: 524 291 – By the derelict Jetty at Drumnadrochit
Day 3 was the day I was really looking forward to, and for good reason – the river Oich! In favourable conditions it is possible to run the 8km of the river Oich down to Fort Augustus instead of paddling along the penultimate section of the Caledonian Canal.
The river run had two key advantages. Firstly it meant that we could use to current to carry us along down to the head of Loch Ness instead of having to paddle. Secondly the river has a number of continuous grade 1 and grade 2 rapids that make the journey exciting but not too hazardous.
All of this was of course dependent on the water level in the river. Too low and we would keep bottoming out in the shallower sections of the river, with all the risk of damage our boats. Too high and the grade 2 sections would turn into grade 3+ sections, a level of danger that we were keen to avoid. There were only two of us and we have only limited experience in tougher white water conditions and so would be foolish to attempt the river in spate conditions.
We rose soon after sunrise and took advantage of the calm sunny conditions to have a leisurely breakfast and coffee. It had dropped down to 3 degrees in the night and I hadn’t slept too well – my Static V2 was had an r-value of 1.4 and so was only rated down to 8 degrees, so my back was cold in the night. On the good side, the cold kept most of the midges away in the morning so I was able to enjoy breakfast relatively hassle free.
We packed up slowly and it was 10 o’clock before we were out on the water, heading straight across the narrow lake towards the northern shore. I had spotted an intriguing shipwreck the previous evening and wanted to take a closer look at it. Also the ruin of Invergarry Castle was on the north shore and I wanted to see if I could catch a glimpse of it.
The shipwreck sat tucked inside a small wooded inlet, only a few metres from the shore. It was half submerged and was listing over at about 30 degrees. The starboard deck and half of the cabin were protruding out of the black water, and we could see inside. All the radio and other equipment were still clearly visible inside the boat, even though the boat had clearly been there for years. Either the equipment was worthless or not worth the risk of salvage, or people don’t loot boats up here!
I circled the boat, giving it a wide berth so as to reduce of the risk of hitting any hidden protrusions, and then headed off to join Mark, who was heading off in the direction of the castle. Sadly as we paddled further along the loch it became clear that we weren’t going to be given a clear view of the castle from our boats and we would have to park up and walk up on foot if we wanted a good look. We felt we didn’t have time for this so we reluctantly paddled off along the loch.
The paddle along the remaining kilometer or so was calm and pleasant. Thick woodland lined the banks, shielding us from noise from distant roads. The occasional large boat passed us by in the centre of the loch, far from the shallows that we were paddling through.
Paddling the River Oich
Eventually we arrived at the weir that marked the entrance to the River Oich and we cautiously inspected the state of the river. The main chute ran on the left, hard against a small cliff, and followed the river round the bend to the right under some trees. It looked easy enough to run this first section of rapids – choppy and fun in places but unlikely to cause us any hassles.
We payed particular attention to depth of water running on the spillover that ran 50 yards to the right of the main chute. Advice on the internet indicated that we should only run the Oich if there was water running over the spillover, as otherwise we would likely bottom out in the shallower areas further down.
I tried to gauge the depth of water passing over the spill and it looked to be about 15cm deep – enough to keep us from hitting the bottom of the river but not too much flow to risk the rapids turning from grade 1/2 to grade 2/3. Normally we would be happy to tackle grade 3 runs but we were fully loaded and there were only two of us – not enough people to execute a rescue should shit hit the fan.
We sat mulling over the situation for a minute in silence before we turned to each other and nodded – let’s go for it.
I let Mark go first, partly because he had a spray-deck on and partly because I wanted to capture footage of him running the first set of rapids. He paddled out into the lake, lined himself up, and the accelerated into the chute. As soon as he crossed the weir lined be began bouncing around in the white water, but he had no problems at all.
After Mark cleared the rapids I adjusted my Akaso Brave 4 action camera, a cheap but functional clone of a Go Pro, and set off, following his line of attack.
What followed was an hour of pack rafting pleasure. The grade 1 rapids continued for another 500 yards under the main road bridge, followed by a small suspension footbridge. After that conditions flip-flopped between short but exciting sections that were easy and forgiving, interspersed with calm but fast moving sections.
Only the very last set of rapids provided any semblance of challenge, but even then that section was short and followed immediately by a calm section that would have provided an easy opportunity to rescue.
Eventually the river flowed down through Fort Augustus itself, finally casting us out into the south-western end of Loch Ness. We tired and hungry by this point and decided to go mooch around Fort Augustus for an hour or so, grabbing a hearty all-day breakfast and stocking up on supplies.
Our next key decision was whether to take the north or south shore along the loch. Given the width of the loch (1km of open water) and our near-terminal adventure on the first day, it was clear that once we picked a side we would have to stick to it.
I favoured traversing the south-east shoreline, on the grounds that it is much flatter and therefore there would be many more wild-camping locations available.
Mark on the other hand wanted to follow the north-western shore, as there was a village with a campsite half-way along the Loch, which meant that we could finally take a proper shower. Mark had also googled the local area and apparently there were a couple of decent pubs where we could have food and beer.
We mulled it over for a few minutes and decided that beer and hot food trumped wild camping – the north shore it was!
By mid afternoon we were ready to rock again and we bimbled back down to the head of the Loch and began the process of unpacking and re-inflating our pack-rafts, which by now we had down to a fine art and were able to be up and running within 10 minutes.
We set out on our trek with a slight tail wind and I quickly raised my mini-sail hopeful of a helping push along the Loch. Sadly it was not to be and a dead calm descended over the loch. It was looking like the sails were going to be pretty much redundant for the entire trip!
We carried on for a couple of hours at a leisurely pace, constantly on the lookout for a suitable camping location. As the OS map had suggested there were pretty much no suitable camping spots available. The land rose up as a steep angle straight from the water, making camping on the shore itself impossible, and the road hugged close to the water, meaning that we couldn’t look further inland for a location.
Eventually we found a small beach, no more than 2 metres wide at it’s deepest, and although it was within 20 metres of the road, it was quiet enough for the night. We dragged our boats out and began setting up camp, using rocks and sticks to stake out the fly sheet – a free standing tent would have been very useful.
We built a fire in the remnants of an old fire (this was obviously a well used location both for canoeists and car-based campers) and Mark set about cooking the meat that we had purchase from the butchers in Fort Augustus.
After dinner we finished the last of the rum and beer we had brought along with us (another reason to spend the next night near a pub!) and settled down for an early night!
I woke up early and I listened for the sound of tent fabric snapping about but could hear nothing. Clearly the winds from the previous evening had died down and after crawling out of my tent I could see that the loch almost glass calm. No sailing excitement today!
I scrabbled about in the entrance of my tent for my titanium pot and stove and once I had found all the requisite gear, I set about boiling water for a cup of instant coffee.
By the time the water was near boiling mark had emerged from his tent and proceeded to offer me single use brew in the packet fresh Columbian roast coffee packet, on the proviso that was get to share it. These packets allow you to have real coffee but without the hassle of carrying a cafetiere.
I jumped at the opportunity to have real coffee and ditched my instant crap back in my bag!
After a couple of cups of coffee and some ‘just add water’ Momo porridge, we began the slow task of breaking camp. 30 minutes later we had finished packing and were ready to depart for the day. We were eager to take advantage of the calm weather and knock of some miles off the journey.
The objective for the day was half way along Loch Oich, near Invergarry Castle. We paddled back out onto the water, the first of many strokes of the day pushing our boats on wards towards the centre of the loch.
The north shore was much steeper than the south shore, the tree covered hillside falling at an angle of about 45 degrees right down into the loch. We realised that we were right to have stopped where we did the previous night. I would be about 5 km before we were pass another suitable camping spot.
We paddled on for half and hour and finally spotted some movement in the far distance. One of the canoe groups that had passed us the previous day we beginning to load their gear onto the boats, ready for the day ahead. We have lost them in the storm the previous afternoon and were glad to see that they were okay. The open top Canadian canoes the were using are far more stable than our pack-rafts, but they could still be swamped or capsized in the wrong conditions.
We chatted with them as we passed and they agreed that things were a bit hairy the day before. They too had questioned whether to go round the bay but had decided to follow our lead…
The majority of the rest of the morning was spent hugging the steep coastline of the loch, neither Mark nor I daring to venture out more than 10 metres or so from the shore. The far shore grew slowly up from the horizon and by lunchtime we were at the head of our first loch!
I arrived at a line of pontoons close to the mouth of the canal, heaved myself out of the boat and then began walking along towards the lock itself. Suddenly a man came running down the embankment towards the pontoon, hands waving frantically.
It turns out that I had got out in a private marina area and if I continued to walk the 20 meters through car-park and up the towpath then the world would end or I would be shot, I forget exactly which. I apologised profusely to wavy hand man, got back in my boat and relayed the information to Mark. Mark was less than impressed the situation and was willing to risk damnation, but I eventually convinced him to row the 100 yards round the marina to a little slipway to the left of the marina.
Mark informed me that there was a pub nearby and that we should stop for lunch. We walked up the slipway, determined to find the pub – our first on route. It turned out the pub was actually located on a boat moored at the top of the locks which separated Loch Lochy from the second section of canal that we were to paddle.
We cross over the cancel via the little footbridge that sat on top of the lock gate and dumped our boats on the grass by the side of canal, taking care to deflate them slightly now that they were sat in direct sunlight (otherwise they might over-inflate and pop!).
I headed over to the boat and followed the ‘entrance’ sign down into the bowels of the boat itself . After clambering down a small set of steep steps my eyes adjusted to the dim interior light I could see that I had been teleported into a small but fully functional bar. There was the bar itself, with pumps attached, some leather couches that looked like they would swallow you if you sat in them, and affixed to the far wall there was a widescreen TV beaming a game of football. A small child, clearly a victim of the leather sofa’s embrace, sat transfixed and silent watching the game.
The barman took my order and then I took the rare opportunity to go to the loo in an actual toilet – a real luxury! Going to the toilet in a wet-suit is problematic at the best of times, but here in Scotland any exposed flesh is immediately assaulted by hundreds of midges and I already had several irritating midge bites on my bottom!
Afterwards I returned outside and we sat scoffing our sandwiches and savoring our cold beers, happy to have a break from the rowing and loving the sunny weather. After a good half hour we looked at each other solemnly and reluctantly got up to go. 20 minutes we were back on the water, heading on a pleasant tree lined section of the canal, a mere 2 km from Loch Oich.
Eventually we reached Loch Oich, a small, picturesque Loch, barely 300m wide. We paddled along the tranquil waters following the southern shoreline and eventually found a suitable camping spot in a flat wooded area that jutted out about 30 metres into the lake. We were fortunate that we got there early enough – 5 minutes late another group of canoeists came ashore and were visibly disappointed that we had got there first!
We pitched our tents and then set about the task of trying to replace the calories we has burnt through rowing. I scratted through the jumble of packets I had in my food bag and settled on an Aventure Food boil in the bag meal that was calling itself chicken curry.
Sadly, upon eating it I can say with full confidence that while it was pleasant enough to eat and replaced 600 lost calories it had never met chicken curry in it’s life! A bit of a shame, considering that some of their other meals, such as the Pasta Carbonara and Pasta ai-Funghi are great!
For dessert I knocked together apple pie and custard, using a couple of the mini apple pies I had in a packet, combined with some instant custard. I felt a bit like I was back at school in the canteen, but it was just what I needed – easy to make, tasty and packed full of calories.
After dinner we search around for some wood and made a small campfire in a fire circle that had been used by countless groups before us. I built a small heat reflector up behind it using sticks and then we sat watching fire TV for an our or so before retiring to our tents, exhausted.
We had a late start on day 1, largely due to a killer hangover from partying too much in Fort William the day before, and so we only set off paddling from Neptune’s Staircase at about 11:30 am.
After unloading all our gear from the car-park at Banavie on the Northern Western side of the Canal, we slowly set about pumping up our boats and performing last minute gear checks. While we had a backup vehicle available in an emergency, we were determined to complete the route unassisted, so we made sure that we have everything we needed and that all our gear was fully watertight.
Next to us a father-daughter team were doing the same, they also have an inflatable boat but it wasn’t a packraft – it was a far heavier (16kg+) Advanced Elements inflatable canoe – far more stable, with better tracking, but not carryable over any kind of distance.
Neptune’s staircase is an impressive feat of engineering, as a series of locks that raise boats 20 metres up from sea level in Loch Linnie, onto the first 10km stretch of the Caledonian canal.
The journey usually takes boats 90 minutes from start to finish, but as we were carrying our pack-rafts on our shoulders it took a mere 5 minutes of huffing and puffing to portage up to our first paddling point, about 20 metres beyond the top lock.
We set about putting our boats into the water, next to a youth group that were on an organised canoe tour. The group had hard open top canoes that were clearly faster than our own boats so we knew would have little chance keeping up with them on the canal.
By now the wind had picked up and the rain had set in (for the day!), but it made little difference as we were out on the water anyhow, protected by our army surplus Goretex jackets. The wind was blowing was gusting from the south west, which turned out perfect for us. Even without our little round sails raised(they aren’t allowed on the canal sections) we were given a 2-3km per hour speed boost!
Over the next 2 hours we made steady progress along the first canal section of the route. The were few boats travelling along this section and generally were on our own, with the exception of the occasional Canadian canoe groups who passed us with ease.
By mid afternoon the winds had dropped and we paddle the final 2kms unaided. We reached the second portage of the trip at Gairlochy, where the canal connected with our first loch of the trip Loch Lochy.
The loch was dead calm as we rounded the corner above the canal and caught sight of the small lighthouse which marked the start of the loch.
Given the favourable wind conditions we were more than eager to test out our canoe sails – small round sails that attach to the front of the canoe. The sails offer the opportunity to take a rest from rowing when a good tail wind (8mph+) is blowing and you can also travel crosswind if you use your oar as a makeshift rudder / keel whilst sailing, something I had practiced with limited success a couple of weeks earlier on Thirlmere.
We had decided earlier in the day to travel up the northern edge of the loch, as it seemed that there would be more opportunity for wild camping. This did however present us with our first difficult decision of the trip – whether to follow the coast round a large bay that opened up about 1 km along the lake, or whether to cut across the lake, saving us about a half a mile of extra rowing.
Mark was eager to make progress and rightly pointed out that the conditions were ideal for the journey. I had some reservations about the hop. The wind had shifted slightly and was now blowing straight from the west, meaning if we capsized we would be blown out into the middle of the loch rather than over to the other side of the bay.
After some head scratching we agreed to risk it and we set off, sails raised into the bay. As we headed into the bay the wind rose steadily and soon we were making excellent progress, 500 metres out from shore, with spirits high. The winds continued to rise however, and within a few short minutes we were firmly in the grip of a brutal squall.
The winds whipped up the waves and soon my boat was being tossed around violently in the swell. I tried to drop the sail and paddle my way towards the shoreline but it soon became clear that I would exhaust myself or capsize long before I reached shore. The side wind was tossing water onto my bow, threatening to swamp the boat every time a wave crossed the boat.
Mark had been blown too far ahead to be of any assistance if I did capsize and my wet suit would only offer token protection against the icy cold water – if I went in I was in real trouble.
Given the seriousness of the situation I decided that the only sensible course of action was to scream random obscenities and at the wind and get very angry with myself for choosing such a stupid course of action. I looked ahead and saw that Mark was still rowing against the wind, making little if any progress.
My only hope was to ride the storm and sail across the bay as planned. I hoisted the sail back up, which was instantly whipped towards the bow, somehow resisting efforts to snap the straps that we holding it vertical. If took out my oar and dug it into the water – partly to steer and partly to reduce the leeward drag that was pushed the raft towards the wrong shore.
The gusting gales still tossed the boat around but now I had a modicum of control – each time a large wave approached I could steer the stern of the boat to face it, minimising water ingress and reducing the possibility of capsizing. In the troughs between the waves I turned the bow to face the shore, allowing slow but steady progress.
For a long long time it seemed like my sailing tactic was a mistake, but gradually the shore grew larger in my view to the front. Dread and panic, slowly shifting to confidence and elation, fuelled by the adrenaline pumping through my system. I then realised that I had completely forgotten about Mark – I turned to see that he too hard chosen to sail through the maelstrom and was also approaching shore in parallel with me.
We crashed onto the beach, dragged our boats up out of the water and collapsed into a heap next to each other, both with shocked smiles on our faces. We had made it! Needless to say we had learned from experience and wouldn’t be taking the same chances again!
Our original plan was to continue along the loch for 3 more kilometres, but we quickly decided that we’d had enough of rowing for the day so we pitched up on the beach right where we were, using rocks to weigh down the pegs and guys.
Boil in the bag meals, such as those by wayfarer are an excellent choice for wild camping and Duke of Edinburgh expeditions. Simple to carry, cook and eat, they take away much of the hassle associated with camp cooking.
However on multi-day hikes and pack-rafting adventures, such as our recent Pennine Way and Great Glen Canoe Trail adventures, the weight adds up to the point where dehydrated rations are needed.
Wet rations typically sit around 150 calories per 100 grams, so if they were to be used exclusively then you would be looking at carrying at least 2.5 kg per day of wet rations. For a 5 day expedition your food would likely weigh more than rest of your gear combined!
Keeping the weight down
What is need then are foods with higher calorific counts:
3 – 5 day journey – Greater than 300 Calories / 100 g
5 + day journey – Great than 400 Calories / 100 g
. This can easily achieved through the use of carb-rich dehydrated foods and high fat, low moisture foods (e.g. cheese)
My main staple for breakfast foods are muesli or porridge, either of which can be made up using powdered milk. You can also carry normal breakfast cereal like cornflakes, but these tend to be quite bulky.
Muesli – 340 Cal/100 g
Porridge – 360 Cal/100 g
Cornflakes 360 Cal/100 g
On a long distance thru hike I rarely stop for a proper lunch. I tend to prefer to make a series of shorter stops where I might make a cup of coffee and have a snack bar.
Muesli Bars – 380 Cal /100 g
Chocolate Bars (Snickers) – 510 Cal/100 g
Nature Valley Oat bars – 470 Cal/100 g
Tortilla wraps make excellent hiking food and will normally last up to a week in your pack, depending on the filling. Because they are already flat you don’t have to worry about squashing them!
Tortilla Wrap – 310 Calories / 100 g
Cheddar Cheese – 400 Calories / 100 g
Mayonaise – 700 Calories / 100 g
Parma Ham – 260 Calories /100 g
Cup a Soups
Sachets of soup are incredibly tasty as a drink, but they can also be added to rice or pasta dishes to create a sauce.
Cup a soup sachets – 400 Cal/100 g
Nuts & Trail Mix
These are incredibly popular with long distance hikers and it is no surprise why – they are very high in calories! Banana crisps can also be added to muesli or porridge for extra flavour and a calorie boost in the morning!
Trail mix – 520 Cal/100 g
Banana Chips 510 Cal/100 g
Wasabi Peas – 470 Cal/100 g
Where possible I try to stop off at a pub or restaurant for dinner in order to have a full meal and fresh vegetables. Where this isn’t possible there are a number of popular options.
Quick to make and tasty, perfect for thru hiking. Make sure you bring powdered milk with you as most the packets need it!
Pasta n Sauce – 380 Cal/100 g
Rice / Cous Cous
Cous Cous is one of the easiest carb rich foods to make, it also uses up very little gas as you can simply add boiling water and then pop in a pot cosy for 5 minutes.
Savoury Rice – 380 Cal/100 g
Cous Cous – 390 Cal/100 g
Instant noodles are really quick and easy to make, which means that I will often have a packet when I stop for lunch. If you can find some fresh vegetables to toss into the pan all the better.
Super Noodles -390 Cal/100 g
Soya beanfeast bolognese / Falafel mixture
These packets really add an extra dimension to pasta-n-sauce style dishes, as well as providing an added protein boost.
Bean Feast – 380 Cal/100 g
Falafel Mix – 400 Cal/100 g
Apple pie and custard makes a tasty, calorie rich desert. Easy to make too – just boil some water, stir in the custard powder and then finally add an apple pie or two on top!
Apple Pies – 350 Cal/100 g
Custard – 350 Cal/100 g
Condiments & Extras
I always bring a few extra condiments to use to inject some flavour into meals.
Garlic Granules – 350 Cal/100 g
Milk Powder – 400 Cal/100 g
Hard Cheese – 510 Cal/100 g
Coconut Butter – 700 Cal/100 g
Dried expedition foods
Although they are expensive (about £5 each packet!) expedition rations are a really hassle free dinner option, especially if you are running low on gas. You simply pour in boiling water up to the line, close the zip and leave it took cook inside for 8 minutes!
Looking at the food above it is clear that there isn’t a huge variation in the calorific values per 100 g – on average about 400 Calories. Given that on an average expedition we will be burning a minimum of 4000 calories per day we will be needing 1Kg of food per day if we are planning on solely eating the food we bring with us.
This makes planning very easy – chuck in a mixture of dried foods and weigh the bag to see if you have the right amount of days!
Got any recommendations?
What other dried food do you bring? What works best? What’s cheapest? Add a comment below with suggestions!
I have wild camped twice on this qiuet fell, both times in winter and both times it snowed heavily! It makes an excellent winter camp because the access road is regularly gritted in winter and because the route up is easy to follow, even in poor conditions.
The route sets off from just down from Kirkby Stephen train station and heads due south over the fields. After a couple of miles through fields you arrive at the fell proper and begin the long gentle ascent up the shoulder of the mountain.
The final 100 metres or so is a bit of a lung buster but for the most part it’s pretty gentle!
Once you reach the summit it plateaus out and you can take your pick of locations, depending the strength and direction of the wind. If visibility is limited it would be recommended to stick away from the edge of The Nab!
OS Map Route