October 21, 2020
A Trip Away from Home at Home
Words & Photos Annie Evans
It took months of deliberation, weighing up the cost vs. benefits. Eventually, with the commitment and excitement of a couple buying their first house, we bought the UltaMid 2. We knew we would love it, but we didn't realize just how much this square of light green Dyneema was going to change our whole camping experience.
Our first real adventure with it was to the very fringes of Scotland, a small chain of islands right off the Northwest Coast, which we intended to circumnavigate using our fat bikes and packrafts.
The Outer Hebrides, especially the Uists, is home to one of the rarest habitats on earth, the Machair. Found only along the Western Coast of Scotland and Ireland, it is as fragile as it is beautiful. A combination of crushed shell sands, wind, rainfall, and human practices turns these barren looking coastlines into vast wildflower meadows during July. Every area of Machair will vary slightly to the next depending on how the crofters have grazed or cultivated the land, and the flowers vary from place to place.
At its richest, around forty different species can be found per square meter and the air around filled with a variety of insects. Our favorite was to become the great yellow bumblebee that bounced from flower to flower in a comical way, more of a blimp than a Concord.
Using the 'Mid to camp was a revelation; unlike previous tents we had used, we could sit up and stretch out. Having that bit of extra inside space was lush, as heavy windswept squalls raced continuously out of the Atlantic. Rather than feeling cocooned from the outside world, we still felt like we were living outside, only dry and warm. We could watch the clouds form under the 'Mid so that we could open it up the moment the showers passed to soak up the view.
Having the packrafts allowed us to explore the islands of the islands. Kirkibost is a small Machair island, once connected to the main island, until a storm in the 17 century. It has the ruins of a farmstead but is now uninhabited apart from the cows that graze it seasonally. Camping tucked out of the winds, in the dunes, we could look back on the dots of light showing the indoor comforts, but neither of us would swap our wildflower bed for theirs. Here the Machair was less yellow, big white daisies reared up above, sheltering tiny purple orchids. We were settling into the rhythms of a trip: ride, paddle, eat, sleep.
We were relishing every moment of freedom, from the still frequent rain showers to our sand entrenched toes. Waking to a dry tent for once, we were up and away early as there are several sizeable tidal crossings to be done. Although the winds had dropped slightly, we still wanted to catch them at their narrowest, and preferably before the tides began running too strong. A short push through the sharp marram dunes and we were onto the first, over to Baleshare Island.
Riding the 7km beach along the island, most notable for not achieving a single contour line on an OS 1:50000 map, with only the gentle hum of our tires and the endless crash of the Atlantic surf for company. The sands stretched away for what seemed like forever, the tide lines marked with giant kelps and the odd jewel of jellyfish. The endless horizon to our right and sands in front made this small island a giant universe with us as its only inhabitants.
All too soon, we reach the next tidal crossing, the packrafts allowing us to jump straight over to Benbecula island without having to make a big detour over the chain of causeways that link the land. A few more sandy kilometers and we descended into the local supermarket in Balivanich for pastries and giant reduced price cookies. The excitement of a shop and lots of delicious food countered the joy of having been self-sufficient, no need of any human trappings for the past few days.
A few days of portaging, paddling and pushing on the East Coast and we had completed our circumnavigation of North Uist and Benbecula. A trip in our own country that had felt anything but. Sticking to the fringes, away from the human interior, allowed us solitude and space to breathe the salty air and let our minds dream.
Annie Evans is an outdoor educator, writer, photographer, mountain biker, packrafter, and mountaineer living in Scotland. Her excitement, curiosity, and stewardship for the natural world point her outside at any given opportunity. You can follow her on Instagram: @a_girl_outside