Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Caledonian Canal (Fort William to Inverness)

Monday June 11th. Awoke late after a good sleep, and radioed the Caledonian Canal office to arrange entry into the Corpach sea-lock at 1300. The canal is 60 miles overall, however only a third of it is actually man made. The remainder is formed by the waters of four natural lochs: Lochy, Oich, Dochfour and the famous Ness. These run along the natural fault line that is the Great Glen, which has long been used for travel and communication. Once inside the sea-lock we are in fresh water again, and initially needed to climb what is known as Neptune's Staircase, a series of eight locks which elevate the water level by 19 metres. It was a hot day, and the staircase took several hours to ascend. Tourists milled about, taking photos and making home movies. We eventually berthed at Benavie, just above the staircase, and the next morning ventured into Fort William to get information about climbing Ben Nevis. Jaime bought an old cloth OS map dated 1947 in a second hand bookshop for £1 that was sure to help us find the way to the top.

Lady Ayesha in the Corpach Lock

We set out rather late on Wednesday with enough food and water to last the day. It may not be particularly high, compared to other great peaks around the world, but you do have to start your climb from sea level - all 4406 feet of it. The views down to Loch Linnhe and up the Great Glen were quite impressive most of the way up. Though once we reached the cloud line there was just a spooky silence. And then we reached snow!

Ben Nevis - half way up

Fort William from above

View to Loch Linnhe

The snow line

The view from the top

Memorial cairn

Survival hut at the summit

View from the top

As you can see from the pictures, visibility was very poor, less than 50 metres, and the view from the summit subsequently leaves everything to the imagination. Quite disturbing really, because your sense of vertigo is completely numbed when you can't see below you. There are various stone ruins there, and a survival hut which we looked into. It would be a pretty bleak place to get caught in bad weather. We also saw a number of quite tame snow buntings which appear to survive on the scraps of food left by visitors. It is a popular climb, and during the day we met at least 100 others along the way. It took us about three and a half hours to reach to top, and we were a bit sore from not having done much walking or climbing for a while. Half way down on our descent we parted from the main path and ventured around to the western side where we took a 'long-cut', following a river back down to the town, stumbling down steep boggy hills, covered in springy heather and wildflowers, ventually finding our way back to the boat at about 10pm.

Ben Nevis descent

Around the back - western approach

Heather and wildflowers

To be quite honest, canal travel is not very interesting for sailors. Having to run the engine like a motor boat is no fun, and the weather, being dull and cloudy didn't help. However, on Thursday, we enjoyed an opportunity to get the sails up in Loch Lochy, where we arrived at Laggan, at the northern end, by evening.

Sailing on Loch Lochy

We tied up to a pontoon near a number of canal cruisers. These are hire boats, often driven by people with no boating experience, and with unique steering capabilities, somewhat like trying to manouvre a shopping trolley. With any wind, these floating fibreglass boxes become almost uncontrollable and subsequently are usually covered in dents and scrapes. Clearly, they were to be given a wide berth. Although the canal guide gives no reference to a licensed establishment at Laggan, we were delighted to find an Old Dutch Barge which had been converted into a floating pub and seafood restaurant, moored only 100 metres away. They even kept several very nice ales. It was there that we got chatting to a young Corsican backpacker who was travelling along the Great Glen by foot. After a few beers we invited Roberto down to the boat for a whisky (cheers Matt & Ali) and eventually insisted that he join us for a day or two on the boat. When I first saw him earlier in the evening he was wearing a hat with a veil, looking like a bee-keeper, as protection against the midges. He'd been camping in a tiny tent in the damp grass by the loch, eating freeze-dried food, and so I think he appreciated a few days in the warm aft-cabin, with hearty food and no midges to contend with. He was good company and it was nice to have another person aboard for a change to assist with ropes and steering. So off we went the next morning, into Loch Oich and several further locks before reaching Fort Augustus at the southern tip of Loch Ness. This is largely a touristic town nowadays, with quite a few pubs nearby the canal. We chose the Poacher, where a capable group of local musicians were providing the stomping traditional music to some, how shall I put it... enthusiastic and energetic displays of dancing by the landlord and several inebriated punters. Rather than a bell for last orders, a piper walked through the crowd to stand in front of the door to signal that the night was at an end. Nothing like the enormous sound of highland bagpipes bellowing out in a small room to bring the crowd to a respectful hush, all spines a-tingling.

Fort Augustus - entrance to Loch Ness

Fort Augustus locks, with Roberto

About all we saw on Loch Ness

On Saturday we made an attempt to sail up Loch Ness, but with strong northeasterlies persisting, it was almost impossible. The mountains lining the lochs funnel the wind so that it is usually either dead ahead or behind. Unfortunately for us we were heading north. With gusts up to 30 knots pushing us back on each tack, we would be lucky to make 1 knot over ground. So the decision was made to return to Fort Augustus, and cook a tasty beef stew instead. We contributed to Roberto's cultural education by watching the DVD of Monty Python's Life of Brian. On Sunday we set off again into Loch Ness, this time under power, to Drumnadrochit, where we took a temporary mooring and rowed Roberto ashore in the dinghy, saying goodbye. From the boat we could see an historical re-enactment going on in the grounds of the ruined Urquhart Castle, near to where he planned on pitching his tent, so it looks like he had some entertainment for the afternoon. We, however, resisted the temptation to dress up in silly hats and drink mead, and carried on past grim and misty shores, into the final section of canal, and Inverness where we were to stay for four nights, mainly waiting for better weather to continue our passage north. I can't say it was a paticularly pleasant place to stay. Upon arriving, a bunch of bored children were throwing stones across the water as we descended the flight of locks. Then on the second night we were attacked by another group of youths throwing stones over the fence, trying to hit our boat and others. We reported this to the police, and the canal office, who said they had not had any trouble before, but I had witnessed another group of halfwit idiots shouting vile abuse earlier in the evening. So, given three incidents in less that two days, I suspect this is more common than they were admitting. Unfortunately the canal runs through a dirty area of run-down council housing where I suspect these kids have nothing better to do. The town centre is okay though, plenty of interesting old buildings, good shopping, art, bookshops and cafes. While moored there, I reinstalled the windlass which I received back from SL Spares, all repaired and working like new again. What a relief it will be not have to haul the anchor by hand any more. Finally the weather improved and we decided it was time to press on, out into the Moray Firth, the North Sea, and to the Isles of Orkney.