“Dear to the seabird is her rocky ledge.
Dear to the Islesman is the World’s Edge.”
Tell me, Muse, the story of that man who was driven to wander far and wide…
The irony of reading the epic Odyssey on a microadventure was not lost on me. But if there is one thing I have learned during this Year of Microadventures it is this:
Since I began taking on these provocatively mundane “expeditions” I have discovered that coming up with an interesting plan, and committing to it, guarantees an interesting, informative, challenging and rewarding experience. You don’t need to deal with the Cyclops’ giant or the Siren’s song to have an adventure. All you need is something challenging, somewhere new, and a bit of spare time and imagination.
This was a microadventure I was looking forward to more than most. I boarded the ferry in Aberdeen and unfolded my new map. Names like The Slithers, Bluemull Sound and Muckle Flugga sparked my curiosity amongst the wiggling, jagged cartography of islands, inlets and hilltops of the Shetland Isles.
It was fitting that I was looking at Muckle Flugga on my map for this was where this trip began. Or rather it began at Lord’s Cricket Ground. Or, more precisely still, it began when I heard a radio interview on Test Match Special with a lighthouse keeper,Lawrence Tulloch, from the Shetland Isles who was on his first ever visit to London. In a soft, lilting dialect -almost more Norwegian than Scottish- he told how he had often listened to cricket matches as mighty waves crashed upon Britain’s most northerly lighthouse, on the storm-lashed rock of Muckle Flugga. Muckle Flugga! What a beautiful name! And I had never heard of it.
I reached for my biggest atlas. And there it was -Muckle Flugga- farther north than St Petersburg or Helsinki, a tiny island off the north coast of Unst, the most northerly of the main Shetland Islands. It was over 100 miles north of John O’Groats which was my previous benchmark for extreme northerliness in the UK. The very top of my country (apologies to Shetland and Scottish separatists). Not only had I never heard of it, I had never BEEN there. I began planning…
And so they came to the rolling lands of Lacedaemon the Shetlands: myself and my friend Joe. The plan was simple, as always: we would travel from the south of the islands, right the way to the top, by bike and by packraft. No buses, no ferries. Just us and a supply of heavy pies, for although we were more than a hundred miles north of Scotland’s mainland, her culinary heritage still dominated up here.
We loaded our folding boat onto our folding bicycles. I have little tolerance for gimmick expeditions and I worried if perhaps I had crossed the line here. Why packraft when there’s a ferry? (Particularly a fabulous ferry where you can transport livestock at the price of 70p per head!) But virtually all expeditions have a measure of artificiality to them: deliberately making things more difficult than they need be in return for the thrill of success against the odds.
We began pedalling north. This mighty three-day microadventure was to be my longest bike journey since I finished cycling round the world. We passed the 60 Degrees North latitude: the Shetlands are closer to the top of the world than Magadan and parts of Alaska.
Fat seals basked on beaches. At our approach they flopped and flapped to the sanctuary of the pale blue bay where they raised their eyes above the water and watched us carefully until we remounted our overladen, underpowered 3-speed bikes and wobbled away.
Throughout our ride the sea would appear at surprising times and in surprising places: we were never more than three miles from the sea. Long-fingered fjords (“voes”) probe all around, appearing first to your left, then to your right. By evening the skies were heavy and the voes a dull gunmetal grey. The half light felt calming, charming, soothing, as did the tiny hamlets we passed through.
In a sheltered voe a few women were sorting themselves out for an evening row, fitting oars to rowlocks, chattering, and clambering aboard. They called to me, asking if I wanted to join them. I said “no thanks”: always the worst reply to give to invitations when travelling, and immediately regretted it as the boat pulled gently out into the still water. An idyllic way to relax after what probably had not actually been a very stressful day for them. I thought of rush hour on the London Underground and wondered why I was not living up here instead. This question turned over and over in my mind throughout the trip as I tried to work out whether I would be very happy or very bored living in one of those tiny communities. Probably both.
A lovely thing about summer journeys in the north is that you can potter and faff to your heart’s content and still not run out of daylight. We pitched our tent and cooked dinner beside a bronze peat stream in broad daylight at 11pm.
Long hours of daylight also means there is no hurry to leap out of your sleeping bag at early o’clock. It’s a civilised sort of adventuring. Particularly so when you wake to the familiar Scottish drumroll of rain on the tent.
The Scots have a word for their default weather: dreich. Urbandictionary.com defines dreich as a “combination of dull, overcast, drizzly, cold, misty and miserable weather. At least 4 of the above adjectives must apply before the weather is truly dreich.”
It was truly dreich. We rode onwards considerably less in love with the Shetland Isles than we had been the day before.
The weather was not just an excuse to be miserable. It was also a cause for concern. For today we needed to take to the sea, paddling across the strong tides of Yell Sound to the next island. As we stood by the waves I felt very anxious. The current was flowing fast, the wind was brisk, and we could not see the far shore. The slate grey sea was foreboding. This was to be my first foray onto the sea in my packraft. We folded the bikes, lashed them to the rafts and paddled tentatively out into the Sound on the slack of the tide. I was full of doubt as to how far we would get.
We made good progress though until the tide began to race once more, at which point we could make no further leeway. We bolted for the sanctuary of a small, uninhabited island. There we pitched the tent and shivered in wet clothes for a few hours beside a dilapidated croft, waiting until the tide slowed once more and -hopefully- the fog cleared sufficiently for us to see the island we were heading for.
Scudding rainy drifts vext the dim sea as we began. But at least we had caught an important glimpse of land through the mist. There lies the port; the ferry puffs her smoke. There ahead of us gloom the dark, broad seas. But our uninhabited island held little appeal so we took to the rafts once again.
The paddle turned out to be quite easy, though it was through heavy evening rain. We were wet but happy, excited at having taken on something that frightened us and then carried it out well. We paddled nonchalantly up the shoreline of Yell for an extra mile or two, relishing the calm evening, the occasional rising seal, and the elitist feeling of being in your own boat and therefore privy to views that no landlubber nor ferry passenger would be able to enjoy.
When you are soaked to the bone there is only one option for the self-respecting microadventurer (as opposed to the ascetic, masochistic zealot of my youth): we headed to “Britain’s Most Northerly Pub” to drape our sodden gear across their radiators. (Though we are not now that strength which in old days moved heaven and earth, that which we are, we are…).
The landlady clucked pityingly over us, and called us fools to even be contemplating tomorrow’s paddle across the notorious Bluemull Sound. Soon we heard the pleasing “ding” -common to many Scottish dining experiences- of the kitchen microwave and all felt better with the world.
We chatted with locals as we waited for our nuclear-hot meal to cool. As well as their charming accent and their obsession with the weather (even by British standards) I was struck by their proud love of their remote lives. A machine mechanic from the crab-canning factory was also the island’s mobile DJ, putting on discos in village halls in his spare time. He would have scoffed had I mentioned David Cameron and his “Big Society”, but that is how life works in small communities. A major highlight up here was “Chinese Night” when, once or twice a month, Lerwick’s Chinese Restaurant takes to the road in a caravan and cooks up a taste of the East on the different islands. Chewing hard and long on my scampi I could understand the appeal.
“Sunshine!” shouted Joe, unzipping the tent. Instantly I was awake and happy. Few places on Earth can match the beauty of wild Scotland on the rare occasions when the sun is shining and there are no midges. We pedalled, in summer holiday mood, the meandering narrow roads of Yell towards our next paddle and the one that had worried me most. Bluemull Sound is only a narrow stretch of sea but currents can race through at up to 14 knots: way beyond the capabilities of packrafts.
Fortunately though the sun was shining, the tides were calm, and we paddled easily across the gentle water in jubilant mood. Paddling round rocky coves we saw seals and sea otters as well as thousands of birds. We celebrated reaching Unst, Britain’s most northerly inhabited island, with a swim in the clear, cold bay. Nothing could stop us now.
Unst was my favourite of all the islands. There was a palpable atmosphere of calm, gentle living. Yellow meadow flowers waved in the gentle breeze, grazed by eponymous ponies. Hills rolled ahead of us. On all sides was water and tiny islands studded across the glimmering sea. Small homes were dotted up the flanks of green fells. Even the bus shelter had character.
We soon reached the end of the road (for all the distances were tiny in this microadventure). We pushed our ridiculous folding bicycles cross-country, up a hill, through a bog, and onwards until we stood and whooped on the north coast’s cliffs. Silhouetted puffins bustled overhead or veered crazily in to land, wings flapping desperately, orange feet splayed as they reached for grip on the cliff. Gannets and skuas swirled in the wind. Ahead of us a small islet was completely white with guano and seabirds. The cacophany of the colony mingled with the turquoise waves smashing below us, and against the rocky isle of Muckle Flugga just offshore.
The lighthouse began to twinkle from the rocks. The long day wanes: I stood outside my tent in the soft solstice midnight light looking out to sea. I was at the very top of Britain. I realised that only now was I beginning to understand how little I know of my own country.
Our tent was pitched on a patch of grass flat green like a snooker table. A pace away from the door was the cliff edge. The only sounds were birds and waves. Not only was it one of the best camping spots I have enjoyed in Britain, it was one of the best in the world. You don’t need much time or money or expertise to experience a night’s camping like that. You just need to go do it.
*** Joe has just finished university. He is very knowledgeable about the brave new world of DSLR video and is looking for challenging work involving film making, travel or journalism. Contact him here. ***