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Issue 29 - Scotland's adventure playground

Scotland Magazine Issue 29
October 2006


This article is 12 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Scotland's adventure playground

The area around Fort William and Lochaber is promoting itself as the Outdoor Capital of the UK. Sally Toms looks at what's on offer

Scotland’s Western Highlands have always been an outdoory sort of place.

Ben Nevis has attracted hill climbers and mountaineers for centuries, and more recently several major outdoor events have used Fort William, the largest town, as a base including the Annual Scottish Six Day Motor Bike Trials and the Mountain Bike World Cup.

As well as the United Kingdom’s highest point (Ben Nevis is 4,406 ft high), this corner of Scotland also boasts the deepest; Loch Morar is 1,017ft deep and reputedly hides a Loch Ness type monster called Morag within its depths.

The region has some 37 rivers and 1000s of coastal, forest, mountain, munro and long distance walks, as well as some of the oldest ice age ravaged rocks on the planet – ideal for climbing and scrambling.

It also has the largest indoor ice climbing wall in the world – The Ice Factor – a mountaineering centre in Kinlochleven that runs courses indoors and outdoors all year round.

A few years ago, businesses and local communities began to realise the tourist potential of their landscape, and the Outdoor Capital of the UK (OCUK) was launched – a limited company with ambitions to marketing Fort William and Lochaber as the premier destination for outdoor pursuits and adventure tourism.

The specified area includes 2,000 square miles around Fort William and Glen Nevis, Glencoe and Loch Leven, Ardnamurchan, the Road to the Isles, Glen Spean and the Great Glen. But there are no specific borders and some activities will take you even further.

There are activities on offer here that you might not have even heard of. You can: sail; water ski; wake board; white water raft; coast walk; cross country mountain bike; downhill mountain bike; quad bike; cruise the sea and lochs; tour the glens; clay pigeon shoot; do archery; horse ride; stalk; watch wildlife; go 4x4 driving; climb; scramble; ice climb; rock climb; munro bag; mountain walk; paintball; shoot; mountain run; paraglide; ski; kayak; sea kayak; canyon; gorge walk; dive; fun yak; go kart; take part in motor bike trials; golf; fly fish; orienteer; ropework; scuba dive; play shinty; bowl; snowboard; curl; hang glide; and more.

No doubt some readers will be reeling in horror at the thought of so much exertion, but not all the activities are extreme.

You can choose to scale a mountain, abseil down a rock face, paraglide from Ben Nevis and kayak a river, or you can choose to idle about in a boat catching salmon, or tour Glen Coe in a vintage car, stopping here and there to enjoy a bit of lunch.

Scotland Magazine tried a few of the activities being promoted by the OCUK, to get a feel for exactly what is available. The first was an all-day kayak expedition led by Rock Hopper tours.

Not surprisingly, six hours kayaking is physically hard work but the experience is well worth it. Half days or even longer trips are also available if you prefer.

After a brief tutorial, you hit the water in a small group of about eight. The kayaks are stable and easy to manoeuvre, and your guides are always nearby in the unlikely event that you get in to difficulty.

The calm waters of Loch Linnhe are perfectly suited to beginners and the scenery is hard to beat.

Looking over the side of your kayak into the clear, deep water you might experience a pleasant rush of vertigo. Grey seals surface around you, their shiny dog-like faces watching you curiously as you paddle about.

Kayaking is a good opportunity to get close to things not easily accessible by foot. This particular tour allowed us to paddle out to Castle Stalker on its small island. Though the castle is not always open to the public, you can have a good poke about outside and the tour guides are a wealth of information. Film fans may recognise it from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Highlander.

For sailing and kayaking activities, it is advisable to wear a hat and plenty of sunblock, as well as sandals or shoes you don't mind getting wet. Cameras and other personal belongings can be safely stored in waterproof bags in the ends of the boats.

Sea kayaking is a really safe and fun activity that allows you to journey through new areas and explore uninhabited islands and coves. It’s good value for money, too, half day trips start at £35.

Next we tried quad biking. In our opinion, the most fun you can have on wheels.

It doesn’t matter what you wear for this activity as you are provided with an all in one body suit to guard against splashes – of which there are many.

For just £35 you can spend a happy few hours ramping about in forests and on open moorland.

There were four quad bikers on our trip plus two professionals. Your guides are always on hand for reassurance and will never push you to do anything you’re not comfortable with. They’ll even take photos of you as you splash through some really big puddles or get some air going over a jump.

At the end of the day you'll be grinning like a muddy idiot – guaranteed.

But for those who don’t feel like getting wet or muddy, clay pigeon shooting is a great choice. It’s just one of many activities available from Monster Activities based at the Great Glen Water Park in South Laggen. You’ll be driven up into the beautiful forests around Glengarry to fire 20 or 12 bore shotguns.

If you’ve never tried shooting before, do. It’s extremely fun and with some careful tuition is incredibly easy to pick up. With your shotgun tucked under your chin and ear defenders on, just shout “pull” and watch the bright orange clay whizz away from you. It’s hugely satisfying to see it burst into a cloud of dust and tiny pieces after you’ve pulled the trigger at just the right moment.

Bring waterproofs and sensible shoes for this activity, as well as midge repellent (especially in June-August). Twenty five clays costs £22.50 and lasts the best part of an afternoon, depending on how many there are in your group (you take turns). And despite what your instructors may tell you, you don’t have to go and pick up every clay you miss.

Monster Activities also offers white water rafting – another favourite activity in the area which has rivers of all grades in abundance.

And from April to October you can raft on the only dam released river in Scotland, the River Garry. This is ideal for beginners as you’re guaranteed a predictable flow of white water.

Equipment and training is supplied, but take with you shorts, a warm jumper and towel, plus shoes you don’t mind getting wet. Expect to pay around £40 for the best 2 1/2 hours of your life.

One of the newest activities on the scene is canyoning. Fitted out in wetsuit, helmet, elbow and knee pads, you’ll spend an action-packed (and very wet) afternoon slipping about over rocks, swimming through rapids and leaping from cliffs in to deep pools. It’s a fun and hugely popular activity that will allow you to discover secret waterfalls and hidden places off the beaten track.

But this is just a taste of all the adventure you can experience in Fort William and Lochaber.

We haven’t had space to mention all the snow sports on offer: 44 on-piste runs located on two ski areas, and kilometres of the best off-piste in the country. Or for that matter the miles of forest track perfect for mountain biking, where you can test yourself on the World Cup downhill track or just pack a picnic and spend the day ambling through forests with your family.

The lochs, glens, beaches, forests and mountains make this one of the most outstanding outdoor playgrounds anywhere in the world. There are more activities on offer per square mile here than anywhere else in Europe, and there is something to suit people of all ages and abilities.

But whether you’re eight or 80, give something a go even if adventure isn’t your usual cup of tea. There might be an adrenalin junkie inside you just waiting to get out.

The Outdoor Capital of the UK
Tel: +44 (0)1397 705 765

We went with:
Rock Hopper
For sea kayak tuition and expeditions
Tel: +44 (0)7739 837 344

Monster activities
For clay pigeon shooting, white water rafting and canyoning
Tel: +44 (0)1809 501 340

Quad Bike Tours quad bike tours
Tel: +44 (0)1397 732 731

We stayed with:
Rhiw Goch B&B
Accommodation overlooking the Caledonian Canal and Nevis Range
Tel: +44 (0)1397 772 373

Tomdoun Lodge
A remote Scottish sporting lodge located in beautiful countryside.
Excellent seafood restaurant recently opened
Tel: +44 (0)1809 511 218

Getting there: Lochaber is easy to get to with all UK airports providing scheduled flights to and from Glasgow, Inverness, Edinburgh, Prestwick and Aberdeen.
Trains arrive in Spean Bridge, Fort William and Mallaig daily from London and most other UK stations. The road network is good and coach and bus travel is efficient and an alternative way to enjoy the journey north, west or south to the land of mountains, Highland glens and rivers. Contact OCUK or Traveline Scotland for more details Tel: +44 (0)870 608 2608