Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge - Season 4, Episode 1

The Continuing Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge
Season 4 - Episode 1 - Oban to the Shiants
Exploring the Isles of the West Cruise    July 10-19, 2019

After a 13 month absence it was good to be back aboard Hjalmar Bjorge on my fourth annual guide trip. Last year's cruise had headed south from Oban, this time we were heading north: way north, as far north as you can get and still be in the Hebrides. Our primary destination: the island of Rona, 45 miles above the Butt of Lewis. But would conditions let us get there and, more important, would we be able to land?  On our way north we planned to visit the Shiants, and on the way back the far-off Flannans.

On board were ten guests looking forward to seeing some of the most remote islands of the Hebrides: Nigel, Wolfgang, Don, Dave, Maggie, John, Jan, Leif, Steve, and Doreen. It was good to see Nigel and Wolfgang again, as they had been on previous trips with me. The crew was skipper Mark, his wife Anna, and chef Steve. Also crewing was Michelle. All guests who travel on Hjalmar Bjorge know Michelle, as she runs the administrative side of the business from her office in Dornie. Once a year Michelle manages to escape and get some fresh, sea air.

Due to technical difficulties during the previous cruise, we got off to a late start on Saturday, July 10. We had planned to spend the first night at Canna, but we only had time to make the three-hour motor to Tobermory. It was a misty and gray afternoon, with low clouds, as we made our way up the Sound of Mull.

Fish pie was on the menu that night. There is an ongoing joke on the boat about me and fish-pie. In a chapter in my second book about a visit to St Kilda aboard Hjalmar Bjorge in 2004, I mentioned that I hate fish pie. It was true at the time, but only because I'd never had a good fish pie. Steve's pie was excellent, and devoured in record time. The forecast was looking good for the coming week, which boded well for setting foot on Rona and the Flannans.

- DAY 2 -

Thursday morning we left Tobermory in our wake as we began the 100 mile cruise north to the Shiants. It would be nine hours of steaming, with no shore leave, but that meant we'd be back on schedule for getting to Rona.  The highlight of that long day at sea was a sighting of three minke whales. Around 4pm a group of three islands appeared on the distant horizon, and at 6pm we dropped the hook in the sheltered bay of na h-Eileanan Mora, the isles of St Maelrubha, also known as na h-Eileanan Seunta, the sacred isles.

The plan was to spend two nights here, which would give us a whole day to visit the three islands. We went to bed that night serenaded by the sounds of fifty-thousand busy puffins flying back and forth between the sea and their island burrows. We were also serenaded by guest Don, who dazzled us with his singing, accompanied by guitar and harmonica.

- DAY 3 -

It was a misty morning as we made a very slippery landing on Eilean Tighe. I have gone ashore here many times over the years, but due to the low tide this was one of the most tricky landings I'd made anywhere in the Hebrides. The bowling-ball-size rocks of the beach were covered with green slime. It was as if the stones were coated with oil, making every step an adventure. Fortunately we all got ashore safely, where we made the short walk to the bothy for a group photo.

From left to right: Maggie, Steve, Nigel, Jan, Don, John, Dave, Dorren, Leif, and Wolfgang.
A short, but boggy walk to the south took us to the Iron Age farmstead, and then on to the summit of the island. The views coming and going with the wind-blown fog.

When time came to leave Eilean Tighe we carefully made our way across the slimy rocks to board the inflatable. It was so treacherous that at times I had to crawl on all fours, and at one point was down on my knees, getting seaweed stains on my pants. When Michelle saw me she commented that I was looking green and slimy - not the first time a woman has said that to me.

After a short break back aboard for lunch we set out to visit Eilean Mhuire, the eastmost island of the Shiants. The island is mostly cliff-girt, and I only knew of one way up. It was a route I'd last done in 2003, that involved a slow climb up a very steep slope. When I'd made that climb there had been a rope, but I'd been told the rope has long since vanished. It would be a difficult ascent, but Mark said he knew a better route that zig-zagged up the southwest side of the island.

The 2003 route seen in 2019 - no rope today

Coming down in 2003
Mark set us ashore at the head of a narrow inlet, well sheltered from the sea. Then led us up the steep grassy slopes to the top of the island. Just below us was something amazing. On the south facing side of the island a grassy slope dropped steeply to the sea. The slope was covered in a light sea fog, it was also covered in a mass of busy puffins.

We sat entranced for an hour, watching as the sun gradually burned away the fog. It was hard to leave, and I thought I'd never seen a better puffin colony anywhere. But the day was not done. Once Mark picked us up in the inflatable were were given a tour of the sea caves next to the landing, and after a fast ride over to Garbh Eilean he took us through the great sea-arch on its eastern tip.

Two islands in one day. Amazing, but as I said, the day was not done. There was one more island. Garbh Eilean, which has a massive puffin colony in the boulder field under its eastern cliffs. We were set ashore at the narrow inlet west of the arch, where after a steep, but short climb, we entered puffin city.

It was a spectacular spot. A large field of yellow-lichen-encrusted boulders, a puffin standing on every available bit of rock. Below and between most every boulder you'd encounter a growling puffin, warning you to keep clear. This amazing boulder-field of puffins was quite a contrast to the environment of the colony we'd just seen on the grassy slopes of Eilean Mhuire. I'd have said, at the time, that there is no place in the Hebrides where you could have a better puffin encounter. But in a few days time I would be proved wrong.

Back aboard we settled in for our third night; once again serenaded by puffins, and Don playing his amazing fold-able guitar - I've got to get me one of those! In the morning we lifted anchor to continue our voyage north. Where would we end up for the night? Could it be Rona? 

Monday, July 1, 2019

In the Isles of the West

The fourth annual Exploring the Isles of the West cruise departs July 10, so I will be offline for a while. There are still four berths available for next year's cruise, which departs April 25, 2020. For more information see the above 2020 Guided Cruise tab, and this Northern Light Cruising Company page.