Did I screw up and misread the fine print? Did I sign up for a mountain climbing course or learn to impersonate a mountain goat? Those thoughts flashed through my mind as I carefully picked my way along a narrow, rock-covered track that rose, fell and curved along a steep mountain. I glanced up to find sheep looking down at me. If they could laugh, those wet and wooly critters hanging out high among the heather, I’m sure they would have had a good chuckle at my expense.
On our way to Uist, we stopped at Huisinis on Harris, the southern portion of the Outer Hebridean islands of Lewis and Harris. We were trekking to Traigh (Beach) Mheilien. Between the rocky mountainside and the deserted island of Scarp, gannets plunged, like daredevil cliff divers, into the blue water of the strait. Submerged for some seconds, they resurfaced, rising to the sky with prey clutched in their beaks; no doubt the poor fish were still alive, struggling to break free, not at all thrilled to be turned into sushi.
On the cliffside I was also in the grips of a struggle. Huffing, puffing, heart racing away, I stopped for a brief rest, sucked down some water, pulled out the camera and watched the awesome spectacle. Batteries recharged, I refocused on what I was dealing with.
Wind, slippery rocks, mud, moist sheep droppings and hidden, grass-covered rabbit holes; a path skirting the occasional deep, rock and water-filled abyss. I had no desire to take a fumbling tumble to my doom.
Having fallen behind, I was glad to catch another breather while John gave us a quick history lesson about Scarp. No one lives on the island since the 1970s. Had it not been used as the launch-pad for a failed science experiment it would be just another quiet little island, one of over 100 islands in the Outer Hebrides. Scarp’s 15 minutes of fame came during an experiment in 1934.
A German scientist, Gerhard Zucker, had futuristic, Star Trek-like ideas of transporting matter, in this case mail. The idea seemed great: eliminate the mailman and the boat and use rockets to hurtle mail through the air and across the water. Unfortunately, he bombed; the rocket exploded. A 2004 movie, The Rocket Post, is based on this experiment.
Finally, the path wound down onto grassy dunes. Shingles, large boulders and fine-grained white sand stretched along a seemingly deserted blue and white oasis. Cold turquoise waves lapped onto the curve of beach. Sunshine and a patchwork of ragged clouds and blue sky hung over us as we made our way down the shore to a wind-protected cove.
Each found the perfect spot among a cluster of large boulders. Nibbling on salmon finger sandwiches, cream scones and strawberry jam while sipping cups of Earl Grey tea in a classy setting like the Ritz, couldn’t have topped the simple lunch we savored along the water’s edge. Conversation dropped away as we ate our sandwiches and chips, leaving a companionable silence, disturbed only by the soothing sounds of surf splashing on the rocks and seabirds soaring in the distance.
Dark clouds drifted in, bringing fat raindrops that plopped on sea, sand and us. We gathered our gear and pulled up our hoods.
John led us up a steep, grassy hill to another wind-blown summit. At the ridge, he pointed out Lazy beds, explaining that in the past, crofters grew crops like barley and oats on the uneven waves of grass-covered lines on the hills and valleys.
I wouldn’t mind being lazy right now, I thought, dreaming of an afternoon nap. I had hoped the walk back, coming on the heels of a leisurely lunch, would be less strenuous.
Foolish me. Boot camp with Rain, hail, gale: No bother-John was far from over. Yet to come were other hills to climb, places and sights to discover and challenges to meet.
For more information on the Scarp rocket launch experiment, click here