Wild Lochaber draws near

Ben Nevis

This year’s Wild Lochaber Festival starts on 16 May. Daniele Carotenuto had a chance to sample some of what it has to offer.

May is a busy time in Lochaber. It’s when the Outdoor Capital of the UK puts on the Wild Lochaber Festival to spread the word about the wilderness of this beautiful place, and last year I was lucky enough to sample some of the action.

In Fort William, I met up with Cara MacRae, the event officer from Lochaber Chamber of Commerce, who had organised some activities to keep me busy.

My base was at Banavie just five minutes from Fort William, at The Moorings Hotel, on the banks of the Caledonian Canal at the Neptune’s Staircase flight of locks. The hotel offers a complimentary round of golf to every guest and there’s a gym, too. My room was big, warm and had a view of Ben Nevis – what else could I ask for?

Ben Nevis from The Moorings Hotel - Photo: Daniele Carotenuto

Ben Nevis from The Moorings Hotel

I wanted to try to spot some of the “Big 5” wildlife species, namely golden eagle, otter, seal, red squirrel and red deer.
Would I succeed?

Day 1 – Evening cruise on Loch Eil with Crannog Cruises

I boarded the colourful Souters Lass boat at Town Pier in Fort William for a two-hour tour. The skipper’s commentary on history and geography of the region was fun and informative, and a chance to enjoy the sunset and tranquillity of the loch.

The boat was big, with plenty of space on the external deck or in the lower deck with a bar and tables, very useful also as a cover when the wind is blowing. The tour was a great way to spend an evening after hours of driving, and gave me a good taste of the area.

Cormorants in flight spotted from the boat - Photo: Daniele Carotenuto

Cormorants in flight spotted from the boat

The very calm Loch Eil is home to many aquatic species, and the boat got close to some herons, but the magic moment was when we turned to go back to Fort William, showing a glorious Ben Nevis lit by the sun setting from our back. It was chilly but really worth staying outside as much as possible.

Crannog Cruise operates during the morning and afternoon as well, with different tour options on Loch Linnhe, some of them reaching the local seal colony.

Loch Eli at sunset from Souters Lass boat - Photo: Daniele Carotenuto

Loch Eli at sunset from Souters Lass boat

Day 2 – Wild West Safari and SeaXplorer Fast Boat Wildlife Adventures

With batteries fully charged thanks to a full vegan breakfast, I met up with Ian, the guide for my half-day safari. The tour in his minivan started at Fort William then crossed Loch Linnhe at Corran, and followed the other side of the loch for some time, stopping every now and then on request or at Ian’s suggestion.

Every tour with Wild West Safari is different, and can be customised to meet expectations. Ian is totally flexible and has plenty of information to share about the habits of the wildlife and the vegetation of the places we visited. We stopped along the road in panoramic points of view and we were able to spot some distant otters, birds of prey and guillemots.

A very distant juvenile Golden Eagle hovering near Kinlochleven - Photo: Daniele Carotenuto

A very distant juvenile Golden Eagle hovering near Kinlochleven

During every stop Ian was keen to show me the typical herbs and flowers of the place and we also tasted some – always with an explanation of its properties and associated stories.

We also paid a visit to a site at Inchree where usually red squirrels come to eat at the feeders. A large wooden screen allowed us to stay hidden and the holes in it were large enough to put a camera lens through to take pictures. It was a place I would have never found by myself. There were no squirrels for us, though – perhaps the loud noises of a nearby saw and some barking dogs didn’t help.

My afternoon adventure, on the SeaXplorer, had a totally different pace; along with three other passengers I was given a life jacket and jumped on board the fast boat, which is… fast!

Gulls at Town Pier - Photo: Daniele Carotenuto

Gulls at Town Pier

We left from the Town Pier at Fort William, and this time the aquatic tour was on Loch Linnhe. Our skipper pulled our legs about the weather, probably to scare people from abroad, though actually it was pretty much a normal day in Scotland, raining, sunny, windy, beautiful and changing every two minutes.

He responded to every question we asked while on the way to the Seal Island colony on the Black Rock. We stayed quite far from the seals, with the engine off so as not to disturb. A long lens is always the best solution when photographing wildlife.

The colony is quite healthy and populated and the seals did not seem to care too much about the traffic on the loch.

Part of the colony on Black Rock, the Souters Lass Boat on the background - Photo: Daniele Carotenuto

Part of the colony on Black Rock, the Souters Lass Boat on the background

The tour was a mix of wildlife, amazing landscape or rather “lochscape”, history and information about the businesses that depend on the loch and the thrill of moving at high speed on the water.

Day 3 – Wilderness Guides Canoeing

After another very early morning super large breakfast I decided to go back on my own to the red squirrels place at Glenrigh. This time it was completely silent and I had a lucky encounter. The animals are very shy, and I only saw one for few seconds but now I know they exist.

Red Squirrel at Glenrigh - Photo: Daniele Carotenuto

Red Squirrel at Glenrigh

Back at Fort William I met Chris and Anita, from Wilderness Guides Canoeing, and we drove towards the west coast. With us there was also Morag, a very outdoorsy blogger from the area.

The plan was to explore Loch Moidart during a half-day tour, in two canoes. For Morag and I this was a first, and we were provided with a dry bag and a paddle.

Anita and Morag paddling in Loch Moidart - Photo: Daniele Carotenuto

Anita and Morag paddling in Loch Moidart

Canoeing is a straightforward activity suitable for all ages but can be very tiring, especially after a few hours. For me, the feeling of being linked to the water in a very natural way made me forget about the effort of continuous paddling. Alone at water level, the only noise came from the soft splashes of the paddles against the surface.

I have tried kayaking before but canoeing was a different experience. The sitting position and space allowed me to move much more than is possible in a kayak. There was also space to bring along my photographic gear. Being in a tandem canoe meant it was also possible to have a chat while going, and talking with Chris was a pleasure. He made me want to explore the area in every season to spot the differences, and I felt like he knew every rock on the loch shore.

The water depth in Loch Moidart varies from a few feet in places, deep where the bottom is clearly visible as well as the vegetation and the fishes, to very deep pitch-black areas surrounding Riska Island.

Castle Tioram ahead - Photo: Daniele Carotenuto

Castle Tioram ahead

During the first hour we spotted some deer in the hills around us and I found myself in total awe at the view of the remote Castle Tioram reflected on the water surface. From that low angle, the light was just right. The smooth motion of the canoe allowed me to appreciate the environment in a very cinematographic way. I never felt in any danger.

We eventually reached our first stop, a very secret place according to Chris, a wonderful sandy beach on a strip of land surrounded by the sea. It was indeed the perfect place for a break. Wilderness Guide Canoeing provided fresh brewed tea, coffee, and also homemade biscuits. To boil the water Chris used a Kelly kettle, which is very effective when it’s windy especially when used with natural fire starter like wax-dipped fine wood shavings.

Break at the secret sand beach - Photo: Daniele Carotenuto

Break at the secret sand beach

We spent some time stretching our legs and then it was back to paddling. This time we found our canoes surrounded by curious heads popping out above the surface or swimming around us. We also managed to see some seal pups – again long lenses or binoculars were needed as Chris was careful to keep us at a fair distance from the wildlife.

One of the many curious visitors from the local colony - Photo: Daniele Carotenuto

One of the many curious visitors from the local colony

Our last stop before paddling back to our car park was Castle Tioram, and near here we saw some arctic terns. Cormorants and oystercatchers are common sights, here, too.

The canoeing was probably the part of my weekend I enjoyed the most as a way to enjoy the nature with a strong sense of freedom, while taking pictures and also doing some physical activity. I will be doing that again as soon as I have the chance. Wilderness Guides Canoeing offers longer trips as well, with the chance to camp in very remote places.

Arctic Terns greeting us during the way back - Photo: Daniele Carotenuto

Arctic Terns greeting us during the way back

What a fantastic weekend full of life and nature. I can’t wait to repeat the experience.

During the festival a vast number of activities are available, and the Outdoor Capital of the UK website is the best starting point to find out about tours, events and accommodation.


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