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 Justine's Journal

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Orkney - Never Stop Exploring!
Monday, August 29, 2005

I'd forgotten how wonderful Scotland is.... but after a month surrounded by her charms I am once more full of praise for the jagged mountains of the NW, the constant sqwaking of birds in Orkney, the rich greens of the moorland & the friendly "oc eye de noo" of the people! It's all wonderful.. except for the midges! Alun and I had a great 2 and a bit weeks of paddling around Orkney despite weather that could at best be described as 'average'. It was really windy and pretty rainy for the first week and we got into the habit of paddling into the wind for a day to reach a new island, then spending the next day exploring by foot. Most of the islands are fairly dominated by farms but they still retain quite a wild feel, partly because they are in such a remote, windy and tidal spot. Almost all the islands have some vertical sandstone cliffs with hundreds of perfect ledges for breeding birds, while other birds seem to thrive on the beaches, moorland and farmland. It was great to get close to guillemots, black guillemots, fulmars, shags, storm petrels, skuas, turnstones, ringed plovers, redshanks, curlews, lapwings & many more. (I'm showing off now because I learnt to identify lots more birds on this trip!) On North Ronaldsay, we even helped (well OK, watched) people ringing linnets (by twilight) and storm petrels (in the dark). We also saw basking sharks which was very exciting, and a first for me.

Orkney is covered in so many archeological sites that it's described as a walk-in museum. I'm not that into visiting old settlements but I loved the way that we could just walk into ancient buildings and tombs and touch the stone homes that people built and sheltered under thousands of years ago. On Sanday, we crawled into one tomb on our hands and knees, borrowing a torch that was stored by the entrance in a wooden cupboard. I got a much better sense of what it might have been like for the neolithic people when we had the place to ourselves and had time and space to let our imaginations wander.

We met some fun people including a farmer from Shapinsay called Kenny who was amazed that we happened to land on the beach outside his farm because he is was "the only kayaker in northern Orkney". We had a great evening with him and his wife Mary drinking whiskey and putting the world to rights. We also bumped into a sea kayaker from Maine called Lee who had mutual friends, and a couple who starred in the UK TV programme 'Castaway' and who now run a pub on Rousay.

The kayaking was always interesting with every island's coastline having a different character. The tides are strong and run up to 14 knots in the Pentland Firth so we had to remain aware of what was happening. We nearly ran into trouble on the 14km crossing over the Pentland Firth to South Ronaldsay. Despite timing our crossing so that we reached Orkney only 1 hour after slack, a strong 3-4 knot current pushed us to the SE and away from land as we drew close. I was using my Garmin GPS and our nice straight-line track suddenly veered drastically and we were heading out to sea. The fast current was over shallow land and kicked up 2-3 foot rapids. We paddled like mad across the choppy water, trying to ferryglide across it before we were swept too far from land. The GPS track was still not encouraging but fortunately we spotted a distinct eddyline and were able to cross into the eddy into a flow of water that took us back towards the land. Phew!

Most other days we encountered strong currents and we tried to time our journeys so that the current was behind us pushing us along, but sometimes we ferry-glided across currents or fought against them for a short while. All part of the fun! It was one of the first trips where I used my GPS continuously and I enjoyed seeing how our speed changed in different conditions. I was using Garmins 'bluechart' software which gives you a map and tidal chart of the area on your GPS so we could see how different depths of water affected our speed and get a better understanding of what the currents were doing.

After our trip in Orkney we drove along the North coast of Scotland to Ullapool where we went climbing at Reif for 2 days. We happened to come across a small art studio where we were blown away by the vivid landscape paintings of James Hawkins. Check out his website below... unfortunately my favourite paintings were both £3,000, so we bought a small brochure instead!

Our last week in Scotland was spent filming an international adventure race, the Wilderness Arc, which was a great way to see the region around Fort William, including the Ardnamurchan peninsula.

This blog is a bit more diverse than my 'usual' posts which tend to concentrate more on action! But I also really enjoy seakayaking as a means of exploring places, people and wildlife. Our Orkney trip was as much about discovering the world on-land as the world on the sea! You can see some photos on the galleries page.

Out n About in Orkney
Saturday, August 13, 2005

hello from Orkney... a group of remote and pretty islands off the North coast of Scotland. Alun and I have been touring them by kayak for almost 2 weeks now. The tides are very strong here and we had fun crossing a race called 'the Pentland Firth' just to get to Orkney. Currents get up to 14 knots there... needless to say we tried to cross at slack water but as it's 14km across and slack water lasts only a few minutes then we encountered a few strong tidal streams! It was pretty windy for the first week, giving some exciting conditions for paddling and we chose to stay on shore and explore some of the towns, villages, hills and hundreds of archeological sites here. It's a great place to visit because it's fun whether you are on land or on sea. My favourite island so far is NOrth Ronaldsay which has a 13 mile wall all the way around it to keep the sheep on the beach where they feed on seaweed. We saw people sheering with hand sheers, gazed up at the tallest landbased lit lighthouse in the British isles (do you notice how there are always about 4 precursors to ... the best/ tallest/ biggest... etc!), saw lots and lots of birds which I'm learning to tell apart, and were fed very well (including on local mutton). I'll write more when I get home.... there are free showers where we have landed here on Rousay island so I better go and get clean.

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