Wilderness Hebridean holiday heaven

Octane expeditions venture to World Heritage Coastline islands – the closest true wilderness of note to London. Our expedition bothy is an hour from Oban which in turn is a sleeper train journey from London.

Octane is located within one of Britain’s last remaining traffic warden free zones. There are no roads or cars and, if frappuccino is de rigueur with your wifi there’s going to be tears. That having been said, with solar powering our connection with near space satellite orbits, we’ve probably got wifi covered.

Wilderness beaches

Despite our apparent lack of mochalatte frappiatos we do have a wilderness coastline with azure blue waters and pristine white coral beaches. There are sea eagles and golden eagles soaring gracefully above world famous basalt pillar rock formations and seals diving alongside if eyes are averted whilst practicing the art of looking bashful.

Wildlife

Passing whales will gently and gracefully make your paddling efforts look pedestrian and there are famous basalt caves people have traveled from the farthest corners of the world to marvel at.

The archipelago of Staffa and the Treshnish Isles is some of Scotland’s most protected coastline – home to little otters and enormous orcas alike. Dolphins, seals, porpoises and basking sharks pass alongside whilst gannets fold their wings to dive from 60 feet in the air through the waves like spears to catch smaller fish below.

Gastro wild camping

We eat the wild food we catch and do not believe campers should survive on a diet of baked beans, biltong and instant coffee. Our gastro campfire recipes keep guests fuelled for each day ahead:

  1. Tender summer squid with chorizo + aioli
  2. Seaweed rosti with baked trout + wild garlic
  3. Baked cod with tomato, garlic + shoreline herbs
  4. Shoreline crab linguine and wild garlic
  5. Squid, chickpea + chorizo salad
  6. Hebridean hobo haversack
  7. The scallop diver’s dram
  8. Blood orange seared wild scallops
  9. Baked wild sea trout and shoreline herbs
  10. Wooded shoreline double garlic risotto
  11. Blueberry orange muffins
  12. Cinnamon breakfast buns

Live light

So kick back and relax – all food, provisions and equipment are included. If you forget to pack something it’s more than likely it can be purchased from our store. Not that much requires bringing – sleeping bag, waterproofs, torch, walking boots, swimming trunks and some money for your train or plane home. Sourcing food amongst stunning, wild remote islands is most enjoyable whilst traveling light – an Inuit saying ‘live life like you are in a kayak’ is a good starting point for packing a bag for expedition.

The folding kayak

Our craft of choice is the Folbot Cooper Expedition. Folding Kayaks give Octane the ability to travel more lightly and to be more mobile. Other kayaks types don’t fit on a rib or indeed in the pickup truck rear bucket.

Aluminium has long since replaced the wooden frames making it lighter, stronger and smaller when stowed. Furthermore it is more buoyant at sea giving the craft a superior load capacity for expedition provisions.

Closer to the sea

I prefer folding kayaks because the give of the canvas makes me feel closer to the sea. Others prefer the sleekness and sheen of fibreglass kayaks making them a great deal faster and I love them too – they save energy in paddling and are the Formula 1 of the kayak world. But they still don’t fit in the rib or in my truck.


Octane offers gastro wilderness expeditions – employing Octane’s Eight* methods of sourcing wild food for the pot, we eat the world’s best food, ocean fresh**.

*Octane’s Eight is our philosophy – we believe our travelling guests, being closest to the world’s wildest fresh foods, might quite like to eat the world’s wildest fresh foods. 1) We line fish, 2) we lobster pot, 3) we spear fish, 4) we sea forage, 5) we land forage, 6) we deer stalk, 7) we seed the sea, 8) we seed the land.

**Ocean fresh – the term fresh fish is of course relative. On the high-street, at supermarkets and in city restaurants fresh fish really means days old so, when patiently waiting for your number to be called at the fish-counter, be ready to ask where your fish is from and how many days ago it was likely caught. Supermarkets invent terms to suit their needs and, as a discerning consumer, it really is your right to challenge nonsense. At Octane we have therefore made a new, differentiated and entirely transparent definition – Ocean fresh. Simply put, it means caught and eaten same-day.

See OCEAN FRESH in practice – with the post ‘Drive–by calamari’ – ocean fresh calamari caught, cooked and served in under an hour.

Art of tarp

Sleeping under a tarpaulin under the stars guarantees a night more comfortable than in any type of tent.

The possibilities for camping with a tarpaulin are endless and, because this camping style requires no poles, the packing weight is low and packing size greatly reduced. Leaving more room for luxuries if you’re that way inclined.

Boat and tarp

A favourite camp style for sea kayakers uses the boat as the back wall (positioned perpendicular to the wind), wrapping the tarpaulin around the kayak hull and extending the sheet forward as a roof with its end edge supported by two paddles and guy ropes making the construction taught. Another pole positioned centrally increases headspace as required.

This puts the camp in the lee of the boat and often, the view out to sea in front of the widescreen opening. Forget Netflix entertainment, this is adventure unfolding on the doorstep.

Force 7

This design withstood an on-shore Force 7 under my watch and it was an extremely comfortable night. Just like listening to rain pitter-patter on a tin roof whilst tucked up at home, I slept soundly through the night occasionally to wake and smile as I listened to the fury of the storm.

Downside

One must be ready at any moment to reposition the aspect of the camp. There is a risk the wind direction shifts in the night, gets under the front side and the whole shelter acts like a windsock. I’m not sure how confident I would have felt is it was an offshore of the same strength – waking to see your home floating off in the Atlantic swell might be beyond the pale.

Safe as houses

The tent pegs should be the type with a flattened blade (looking more like the a spade than a skewer) as they offer more grip in loose soil and sandy beaches. Secure pegs mean tight lines meaning a secure home. Using luminous markers makes finding such things in the middle of the night easier if the wind direction shifts.

Modern tarp is lightweight however the word originates from early maritime days with the tarring of the palls (holding perishable goods) to make them repel water more efficiently.

Jack Tars

Sailors would also tar their over-clothes giving them the name Jack Tars (later becoming oilskins). Nowadays a tarp is more likely to be made from polyester coated with urethane but the effect is the same.

To ensure that you don’t awake in a puddle in the night, locate your camp away from run-off areas, on the flat and well above the high tide mark. It is also important to locate the camp away from areas under cliffs and, so as to minimize the hazard of winds, position the camp in less exposed areas.

Come rain…

However, if the rain does come, life is more comfortable under a tarp because the air moves and the sleeping area does not feel damp or muggy, as it would otherwise do in a tent.

…or shine

Likewise, it is cooler under a tarp in the heat because the air moves through the area whilst remaining in shade.

…life’s better under tarp

Whatsmore, nothing beats the view from an open sided tarp positioned on the cliffs facing out to sea.

So, whether you prefer an A-Frame to a Low Tetra or the Shade Sail to the Gunyah, there is probably a tarpaulin camp style to suit your needs. Indeed I know of 66 tarpaulin camp designs…

Watch this space for photos of all over time.

Iona, Scotland’s sacred isle

This tranquil isle has attracted saints, raiders, kings and pilgrims all with an eye to creating, viewing or stealing the art within.

Columba (Callum), an Irish missionary, traveled to Scotland to convert the Picts to Christianity and inhabited the island of Iona starting his mission from a cave.

He arrived in 563 AD with twelve dedicated companions and built a monastery, which stands to this day with pilgrims by the thousand visiting from every corner of the world each year.

Monking slouch

Monks were technical masters in agriculture, irrigation and building and monastic communities became trailblazers in trade, agriculture and learning, securing themselves a pivotal, authoritative and long lasting position in society. Monks of the time were no slouches.

The island gained a history of global importance and, as a result, Iona receives over half a million visitors annually. Not bad for a windswept island with no cars, barely one mile square.

Human sacrifice

When Columba was building the first chapel on Iona, and in line with other British legends of foundation sacrifice, a voice is said to have told Columba that the walls of the chapel would not stand until a living man was buried below its foundations.

Unfortunate Odan

The legend is that Odan, another missionary who had preceded Columba’s arrival at Iona, asked to be buried alive beneath the chapel and, in accordance with his wishes, was consigned to the earth believing his soul would be saved. Hence the name Odan’s Chapel (Reilig Odhrain)

Generous burial

According to different versions of the same tale, either Columba wanted to see Odan again or Odan attempted to climb out of his grave, and in both versions Columba quickly covered the pit with earth to save Odan’s soul from the world of sin.

Odan was the first of many to be buried there – it became a burial place for the Lords of the Isles and Scottish, Viking and Irish kings alike are all buried here.

Iona Abbey

Columba went on to build Iona’s great abbey. The abbey stands to this day and has become one of the most iconic centres of Christianity the world has known.

From a network of churches, starting at Iona and stretching all over Scotland, Christianity eventually spread. Much credit is due to later missionaries, but they all drew their inspiration from Calum Cille, ‘the island of Columba’s church’.

Murderous pillage

When Vikings landed at Iona in 795 AD, fuelled by the taste for previous sackings of ecclesiastical outposts such as Lindisfarne, they killed some 100 monks in a single day on what is now known as Martyr’s Bay.

The massacre made distinct from other bloody events on Britain’s coastlines only by the sheer numbers involved. The Vikings also laid waste to the abbey.

Cows and women

Columba is known for his abstinence and he banned cows and women from the island. He is believed to have said ‘where there is a cow there is a woman, and where there are women there is mischief’.

Cowboy builders

However, in 1203 AD a chieftain called Macdonald Reginald rebuilt the abbey and, doing away with traditional ways of Iona, added a nunnery.

Clearly Columba had the last word for it lies derelict today with the roof caved in and some walls falling in – perhaps the builders had omitted the burial of a living man below its foundations.

Iona today

Today visitors come in the hundreds daily. Iona is at the end of long pilgrim route, similar to Santiago de Compostela only much, much older – indeed its history precedes Columba with St Oran arriving even earlier.

Beautiful Benedictine cloisters are preserved, ancient Celtic crosses and artifacts, works of art and stained glass windows – the abbey is a most tranquil and refined place in the wildest of locations.

Mochalattéd masses

For those who can’t bear the madding crowd, visitor centres and those convinced a hiking stick is necessary for walking between coffee shops, there are some hidden gems on Iona.

The absence of cars on the island means many don’t, won’t or can’t venture beyond the ferry terminal, the coffee shop and the abbey so it’s easy to find deserted white sand beaches, wilderness coves, aqua marine waters and abandoned bothies.

I recommend the disused quarry and quarrymen’s croft, well worth a visit.

Ticks – meet the sucking little critter

Sucking little ticks. They are more than a nuisance and can make us very ill but a little savvy protects the sensible.

Meet Ixodes ricinus, the lyme disease carrying arachnid. He is a simple critter with modest requirements – an ambient temperature of 7ºC or warmer and a warm blood host upon which to feast.

Both his stipulations are met in Scottish abundance here in summer in his west coast domain. He feeds on birds, sheep, cattle, dogs, deer, horses – and, of course, us.

On the up

Much evidence reveals an increase in Scottish tick numbers, one of the causes being the country’s increased deer numbers in woods and moorlands – areas favoured by our Ixodes.

By Scottish tick I do not mean to suggest Ixodes has a sporran. Or that he paints his face with woad. Indeed he is quite cosmopolitan and, elsewhere also popularly known as the sheep tick, wood tick or castor bean tick, his kin are found widely spread in colonies throughout northern Europe.

So, it is not fact that he is particularly Scottish. But it is certain he loves to peddle his wares in the Hebrides.

Arachnid minority

Only some ticks carry disease. Indeed it is only Ixodes ricinus who carries the lyme disease (Lyme borreliosis) people should be concerned with and only between 1% and 10% of these little charmers carry the dangerous bacterial agent which transfers the disease to humans.

Back to woed

But, returning to the geo–ethnic origins of our Ixodes in Scotland, it is said his tiny frame thorax can swell from 2mm to 11mm when bloated. And, for those of us not yet gone metric that is the equivelent of the length of a grain of rice to the width of a penny piece.

He may not go to war in woed but he sucks enough blood to paint an army red.

Precautions

Worryingly records also show an increase in cases of lyme disease although it this may be relative to the greater number of ramblers now enjoying the Scottish highlands.

For those who do enjoy walking and wild camping, it’s hard to avoid ticks in the highlands. The best one can do is take precautions as follows:

  1. Always avoid wearing shorts as ticks easily attach themselves to bare skin
  2. Wear gaiters as a sensible step to prevent ticks getting in under your trousers
  3. Wear sleeves with elasticated wrists to prevent them getting up your arms
  4. The host normally has to go to the tick and not the other way around (they are part of the spider family so the have no wings and can not jump). Ticks locate themselves in tall overhanging vegetation waiting for a host to brush past
  5. Ticks often live on the underside of bracken leaves
  6. Spray permethrin and DEET (di-ethyl toluamide) repellents onto clothes
  7. Spray your dog with a repellent from your pet shop
  8. Remove outer clothing before entering a house or a tent

Removal

If one of the little critters is discovered on the body a tick remover (specialised tweezer) should be used and these have instructions on the box.

If such a tool can not be found, try to grab as much of the animal as possible including its head using standard fine tipped tweezers and pull gently without twisting to withdraw the entire animal in one.

Do not use heat, ice, creams or gels to persuade the tick to leave as he may regurgitate his stomach contents increasing the risk of lyme disease transferal.

Home making

Our little charmer seeks warm blood on which to live and sets camp on its human host in areas of the body where blood vessels are found closest to the skin.

Knowing what a tick looks for and knowing your own body means they are often easy to find.

Swing low

Genitals are the warmest enclave on a human body, an area where blood vessels run close to the skin surface. They are also the closest to the ground. Particularly so on a male.

This being so, I have found ticks often migrate to the same area – don’t panic and certainly don’t mistake his approach for over-familiarity. It is better to have this homing beacon on one’s body than to have the critters migrate to a hundred other places.

In the grand scheme the experience is only a mild inconvenience – soldiers where a condom in tropical swamps to avoid leaches doing far worse!

Always seek professional medical advice.

The craft of packing your craft

Packing a kayak for expeditions at sea is a nack worth practicing with patience to perfect — afterall, there is always the rule of wobble to consider.

Consideration of balance and trim, efficient access to equipment and kayak load can improve a paddler’s performance, efficiency and overall confidence making an expedition into the wild more fun.

Wobble

A sea kayak is an amazingly well balanced and stable craft — until it is occupied with a passenger at which point it becomes inherantly unstable.

The rule of wobble

A good analogy is that of the hot air balloon where the weighted gondola keeps the otherwise unbalanced craft upright. In the damper world of nautical parlé, commercial boats without a cargo take gravel ballast onboard to achieve the same.

An awareness of balance and trim aids a kayak’s performance and a badly trimmed boat can frustrate and limit a paddler’s expedition enjoyment.

Therefore, as a general rule, lighter items should be packed into the extremities of the boat – the bow, the stern and higher parts of the kayak whilst heavier items should be placed lower and more centrally within the boat hull.

Afterall, the rule of wobble dictates that ballast gives a craft stability.

Unnecessary kit is sure to frustrate those setting and breaking camp each morning when other more important tasks must be done.

Kit list

Unlike with a food shop, on an expedition one can’t pop back to the store if an item has been forgotten. So treat an Expedition Kit List as one might a shopping list – it improves efficiency no end. The same list should be used with each expedition thus improves with time.

First lay out all proposed travel items into three piles – essential, good to have and luxury. From these three piles it should be easy to decide what does and what does not fit into the boat.

Easy access

Items packed in extremities are of course harder to access on land and impossible to access at sea so a dry bag with essentials should be kept on the deck. This bag should be considered as your survival kit – if everything is lost this is the one bag which must be saved.

Afloat

It is prudent if the deck bag is slightly larger than the contents within so that it can be inflated and used as a flotation device. In any event it should be buoyant.

Some kayakers refer to this piece of kit as a bail out bag (if they need to bail in a hurry, leaving everything behind) and survivalists might call it a bug out bag (the item they grab come the reaping).

I have no intentions of bugging out or ever leaving everything behind so I call it what it is – a survival kit.

A good survival kit should be small enough to be transportable and accessible and large enough to contain all things useful. However, be sensible – they say size isn’t everything. The kit should not be so small it can be kept sewn into the lining of a handkerchief or in the heel of a shoe — although quite fun, this is the stuff of movies.

Important items last

Bear in mind that very little is accessible on the water and items required first when on dry land (tea making kit, shelter, warm clothing, lunch etc) should be stowed last so that they come out first.

Packing is most efficient using several smaller dry bags as opposed to one large one that will most likely not fit through a hatch.

Ensure that you have a head torch handy so that, when unpacking onshore at dusk, both hands are free to reach awkward corners of the hull.

Colour coding dry bags can be helpful. Even better, those with windows (manufactured by Ortlieb) eliminate the need for emptying dry bag contents all over the beach just to find a toothbrush.

Attention on deck

Deck items will increase windage and raise the kayak’s centre of gravity neither of which are helpful with regards to craft control. However, in remote areas at sea, it is essential to have a spare paddle on deck, water, energy snacks, VHF radio, paddle float, sunscreen, chart, binoculars and flares.

Securing stowed kit is essential so that, in choppy seas, boat-balancing items do not shift. However, for long distance expeditions to remote areas, such a quantity of kit is required that, in reality, kit is so tightly fitted that it is not able to move.

However, it’s often best to keep your craft as light as possible as a low slung boat in high seas can be problematic.

City break

If your deck is covered with items that don’t fit in your kayak too many items are probably being taken. If this is the case perhaps your Expedition Kit List requires another edit.

The Inuit saying ‘live life like you are in a kayak’ is a good starting point for planning expeditions where simplicity is key. Indeed the saying is a mantra and a reminder of how few material things are needed in life, not a reminder to pack for a city break.

If you are having difficulties fitting all items in the boat try: ironing all clothes before packing them and try using compression bags to minimise kit volume. However, the trouble with low kit volume is that it sinks like a stone.

Stress less

Remember never to carry your boat when it is fully loaded as this may stress its structure.

A week at flight school

They are wrens I think — tiny yet portly rotund with beaks and tails protruding. They bounce and hop seemingly yet unable to walk but that’s unimportant – this is flight school.

I have kayaked 60 miles and am resting my arms from the incessant Hebridean Sea for a day or so. Above my hammock and hanging loosely from the rafters of my boat hut hideout is a muddled length of rope and, entwined within its curling loops, is a delicate little nest – perfectly circular and the size of a half–sized indoor football.

The nest is carefully fabricated using fine grasses from the rough shoreline machair and mosses found in shadier places. Peeking from the tiny circular entrance, feathers reveal inside is a cosily cocooned paradise.

Fledgling show

The chicks have merely been a squawking distraction but, on my second day resting, the little fur-balls appear and, athough they have developed flight feathers, they still patchily wear nursery uniforms of feather down. They look a shabby lot — first day at school with overdized uniforms to grown into.

Green for go

My long journey has reached its end but it is apparent others are beginning theirs. I watch the chicks at the doorway to their nursery home and, queuing like an orderly troop (referred to as a stick among paratroopers) of soldiers at the jump door, they leap into the unknown with an inbred, innate and genetic show of unbending faith.

Unable yet to fly the chicks drop from the entrance one by one, fluttering their wings to slow the hazardous descent and, like helicopters with damaged rear rotor, they spiral to controlled crashes on the hard boathouse floor five feet below.

Exposed

Just like a stick of deployed and landed paratroopers, they are quickly up and standing, shaking their newly dusted wings as if gathering and collapsing parachutes in readiness.

Art of concealment

A flutter of flight–feathers held high above the dusty floor signals equipment checks are complete and, with a last shivver of expectation, they each run across the exposed concrete plain to begin the search for height and safety.

Targetted

They are innately aware they are exposed in the open and at risk of being seen by any one of their Hebridean enemies including the Scottish wild cat, rats, squirrels, crows and of course barn owls.

They run to the edges of the boathouse drop zone, looking for shade and shadow to minimise their outline. Tactically speaking these troops haven’t yet missed a trick in the art of camouflage.

Enrolment

I count 14 wrens and, without exception, the entire stick finds its way back to the height of the rafters via the aid of various helpful pieces of decaying agricultural machinery propping up the boathouse walls.

The stick is standing in an orderly line along one of the many rafters fifteen feet above me. Enrolment for flight school has begun. All present and correct.

Into the void

I watch in fascination as, one by one, sometimes in pairs and often with no apparent order at all, the plucky little novices leap from their lofty training tower to the drop zone below.

This is a perfectly located flight school – inside a barn and hidden from the eagle-eyed sparrow hawks roosting on the nearby cliff top. I dread to think of the potential damage to a stick of wrens practicing from the bow of a tree in the open.

Addled

When doing the same, humans often experience a medical phenomenon called sensory overload. The human body is not designed to compute and process the unnatural madness of jumping into thin air and, due to the excessive rush of endorphins, it is commonplace for a skydiver never to remember the first five seconds of a free-fall.

For some thrill-seekers this is five seconds lost. But many others pump substances into their veins in the hope of losing as much. The intoxicating mix of endorphins and adrenaline give the body a high so heady many become addled with addiction – parachuting is a dangerous pastime.

Merry-go-round

I wonder why these troopers do it. Are they addled too? Probably. After each jump they hasten back to the perch for another go without pause.

There are 14 of them and their energetic cycle is endless. Their portly appearance, the result of continual feeding by both parents during early spring, gives them a charming look of indestructibility most suited to the hardships of bad landings at flight school.

Escape

This carry-on is ever on-going. For a few days I am entertained by these budding little Red Barons. Soon they begin to never touch the boathouse floor and, as they become increasingly confident, the stick thins and, one by one, they summon the courage to slip out of any of the many rusty holes in the corrugated iron wall to peek into the beyond.

The stick numbers fluctuate as some leave and some return but, gradually, the numbers thin.

Awarded wings

I wish them all luck and am convinced their chances are high. Once outside the boathouse they rarely fly but prefer to hop about under the heather and confine themselves to the vast network of dark tunnels within the low growing forest offering shadowy protection from skyward eyes.

After four or five days the boathouse is mine again and, with flight school closed and all students graduated, all is strangely quiet and I continue my journey.

Expedition kit – Kelly Kettle

The Kelly Kettle remains one of my favourite bits of expedition kit for its pure simplicity of design where form beautifully follows function as wistfully as Hilton’s little lap dog.

It can be fuelled with heather and twigs, saving weight on heavy bottled gases, and takes water to boiling point quicker than any camping cooker on the market.

Designed like a chimney, the flame travels up through the centre of the polished steel water holding container to heat it from the centre using the form’s large heat-conducting surface. As a result it uses a fifth of the fuel and water is brought to the boil in a fraction of the time.

Kelly Kettle minimises the use of or requirement for heavy, bulky and carbon emitting gas canisters. However, when wild camping, especially on remote Hebridean islands, there is often no wood fuel available but this is no problem for the Kelly Kettle which is at home in such windswept and exposed environments.

So efficient is its conduction of heat that the process of making tea can be done with fine sprigs of heather and small twigs. The fire that heats the water within the kettle is sheltered from the wind by the tube shape of the kettle itself and after water has been boiled the hot embers can, if required, be used to start a campfire using beach driftwood.

Kelly Kettle comes in a few sizes  ranging from the single user to the largest of which suits expedition groups. I choose the smallest as its best suited to the confines and limited access of a sea kayak leaving more room for other camping equipment.