Cruise guest Paul Moore has kindly provided his review, and photographs, of the recent North Hebridean Explorer cruise:
After being last on the boat (due to finishing a work article on the train from Glasgow and emailing it from the Oban Costa!) I was welcomed into a diverse group on the Hjalmar Bjorge – mainly fellow British on this occasion and including several who had had the pleasure of sailing with Northern Light Charters before. I found my room that I would share with my fellow lone traveller Richard, and off we went…
Due to fairly inclement weather (passing Calmac barely visible through the mist) we overnighted first on Rum where we were able to land for a few hours the next day to improved conditions and the chance to tour Kinloch Castle, see the otter hide and do some walking. Rum was followed by a long stretch across the Minch to Loch Eport on North Uist where we found some shelter after a heavy swell and the next morning were able to land. Some looked for otters near the shore and others made an attempt to reach and scale Eaval, a 347 m hill in the area. I was one of those, and it took almost an hour of boggy walking to reach the hill, and I managed to get about three quarters of the way up before “having a rest”, with crew member Adam the only one to reach the top in time before we headed back to the boat.
The joy of landings with Hjalmar Bjorge is that there is no pressure to go to anywhere in particular – Mark gives some options of things to do and see in the time available, but each passenger can do whatever they want on landing, from sea swimming to history to birdlife watching…and there were a few hardcore sea swimmers in this group! This relaxed atmosphere also extends to the boat, where despite its relatively small size, it is easy to find space for some quiet time, or to socialise in the dining area, the wheelhouse, the sun deck or even the galley. And the group in age extended from myself at 38 right up to those in their 70s, but we all got on well with travel experiences to share. Equally, despite the age range, Mark’s professionalism and eye on the weather meant all those who wanted to get in the rib and land at the different island stops were able to do so quickly and safely, with life jackets always worn. Conversation on the boat ranged from the science of tides, the UK’s energy requirements to gambling, Blazing Saddles, single malt whiskies, our varied career histories, other passengers’ travels, and what exact species of unusual bird had been seen. Each evening saw the skipper outline his options for the next day and we gave our preferences.
After Loch Eport we headed to the Shiant Isles, where approaching was like something out of Pirates of the Caribbean or The Goonies as a Dutch tourist sailing ship was on the horizon next to the lofty basalt columns of the cliffs which rival anything the Giants Causeway or Staffa have to offer, and those aren’t easy words for an Ulsterman! We were very lucky with the Shiants, landing on all three main islands over the space of that evening and the following day…seeing everything from a massive puffin colony, most of which seemed to be literally wheeling around my head (and those of bemused sheep); to a colony of grey seals as well as numerous other seabirds too many to mention, as well as a trip through the sea arch in the rib. We had also had the pleasure on the journey of seeing bow riding white beaked dolphins, which on the trip as a whole were added to by bow riding short beaked common dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, a basking shark and a few minke whale sightings….as well as many, many seals.
Following the Shiants there was a rush up to Port of Ness and an overnight stop to assess the weather for the “big push”, as General Melchett would say, to North Rona and Sula Sgeir, the main target of the 10 day trip. It was made clear we would only sail up there and anchor if conditions were right and as it happens we were very lucky. On getting to Rona and overnighting, we had sunny weather and the chance to spend a full day there, which was magical, apart from me being dive bombed by great skuas about 20 times in one particular area. That said I encountered terns, fulmars, puffins, shags, cormorants, oystercatchers and other birds and their chicks in great numbers; and not being used to people, dispersed widely on the ground as well as the cliffs. I also came across a number of beached grey seals as well, including a pup hiding from me in a rock pool with mum looking on from the sea which I will always remember. I also had time to see St Ronan’s church ruin, the old village and the bothy maintained for surveys conducted from time to time by sea mammals students from St Andrew’s University. And I walked up to the lighthouse and helipad for a view of the whole island.
Next day we made it to Sula Sgeir for a drift around this huge gannetry, but it is much more than a stack, it is a sizeable small island, with a cleft through the middle cut by the storms. Then it was time for the long voyage back to Lewis and East Loch Roag, where the following day we were able to land twice to see both the Calanais Stones and the Broch at Doune Carloway. Again, this flexibility is key to the success of Northern Lights – these stops were not necessarily in the plan, but we were able to fit them in and just add to the itinerary.
Our next port of call the next day was the island of Scarp, west of Hushinish on Harris, where we arrived to its beautiful green water and white sand beaches. I scaled the hill up to the trig point, looking down onto the boiling western side of the island, then came down to look at the small cemetery which contains some Commonwealth War Graves. Others met the few local residents and walked up in the hills in other directions – again we sometime did our own thing alone, or chose to stop and have a chat, or walked in small groups. No pressure to do anything. As one of two single travellers on the trip, this suited me very well.
We left Scarp to make it to Lochmaddy, North Uist in worsening weather…which caused me to have to cut short my trying to get stormy photos of the bow from the top of the wheelhouse; and following an overnight wait there, we pressed on home, back across the Minch to Canna. Here we had a another magical day in the sun. Myself and a few others went up over the hills to the far side in search of sea eagles and the King of Norway’s grave. Others went swimming, and still others relaxed in the tea room or photographed the landscape, from Highland cows to lone churches on the horizon and ancient Celtic crosses, to the bridge to Sanday, the small island next door. The day was rounded off by Skye lit up orange in the distance with green Canna and Sanday in the foreground…..oh and hand dived scallops all round as Mark had been busy while we toured the island (after only finding velvet swimming crabs after a dive in East Loch Roag).
Next day we stopped back in civilisation in Tobermory, Mull to pick up some essential supplies (in this case we ran out of ginger beer and napkins), and then we had our last night in Lochaline, which to me was ideal as a mining journalist as it has the UK’s only high purity silica mine, hidden away underground under the hillside but with the loading jetty and stockpiles visible. That said Lochaline is a beautiful loch it its own right, and was the scene of several otter sightings behind leaping, panicking fish.
Thanks to skipper Mark and wife Anna for steering the ship in more ways than one, plus Steve the chef for his delicious food, and fourth crew member Adam for his hard work and keeping us entertained. I will be back on Hjalmar Bjorge sometime…especially if I can convince Mark to do the Irish islands!
DID YOU KNOW?
The first signs of habitation on Hirta (the largest island in the St Kilda archipelago and the only one you can really land on) are thought to have occurred c. 600 AD.