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A step too far for a sea kayak? Wick to Lybster paddle is a committing trip


By Ben MacGregor

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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: An expose stretch of coastline makes for an exciting paddle when you can explore the many rock features along the way

Launch from Sarclet.
Launch from Sarclet.

I do my best to ignore the yellow plastic shavings; the only way to get my kayak up to the road at Lybster is to drag it up the steps from the shore.

I’d rather scratch the boat than wreck my back and hips. Sarclet is still harder, a quarter of a mile and a long rough climb to the road. It has been known for kayaks to be carried up the 350 or so Whaligoe steps but realistically there is no get-out on the 10-mile journey from Sarclet to Lybster.

I have paddled to Lybster in a day from Wick but that’s too far if you want time to explore interesting places. Even from Sarclet it’s quite committing, having manhandled the boat all that way down to the water, driven to Lybster and cycled the 12 miles back to Sarclet, the only way home is to paddle those 10 miles under largely unrelenting cliffs. But the sea was calm and the tide mostly in my favour.

This most austere part of the east coast is spectacular on a wild day, huge waves breaking halfway up the cliffs with spray and spume lifted in plumes out of the geos to be carried by the gale across the county.

On a settled day of warm sun and drifting low cloud the sea was, though, pretty much asleep and the caves, geos and stacks unguarded against an exploring sea kayak.

Looking towards Mid Clyth lighthouse from Skerry Mor.
Looking towards Mid Clyth lighthouse from Skerry Mor.

Sarclet in the herring fishing days would have been a very busy place. Now the bay is quiet and grey seals have their pups in the autumn. Every feature of the coast has a name, Herring Craig, The Buinns, Gearty Head, Lummers Geo…

Nowadays only the local creel fishermen will be familiar with these skerries, inlets and caves – to the occasional sea kayaker it is new every time, always different with the state of the tide, always some new passage through or between to discover.

The sea birds had mostly fledged and gone from the ledges, their nesting sites marked by big white patches on the cliffs. Adult kittiwakes, still to leave, flocked like snowflakes on an outcrop. Lines of sentinel shags perched on slabby skerries.

Certain features are remembered from previous trips, the huge Stack of Ulbster – no waterfall after the long dry spell – the dark Ellens Geo and of course Whaligoe with its famous steps. There used to be a café at the top – once I landed here and climbed all the way up for a coffee. The next time I found the place closed… This time I carried on, aiming to stop away from the tourists at the foot of even older steps.

The cliffs are high and threatening, the geos deep and dark. A tunnel leads right through the headland from Wester Whale Geo, under Bruan is the deep Red Geo, a sinister-looking place when you come across the 200-foot vertical and overhanging walls cutting into the hillside.

Tunnel.
Tunnel.

A big cave at the back goes a long way, far under the main A99 and the old churches but gets too dark and narrow for me to have ever dared to explore the far end. Maybe there is a stony beach and a flight of steps leading up… (See my story in From Caithness to the Universe!)

The remains of two old stone staircases lead down to the sea at The Haven and Hanni Geo – someone has recently added rope handrails but neither is for the nervous. Nor, indeed, is landing a kayak amid the rocks, but it’s a quiet place I like with the East Clyth Burn tumbling into the sea.

The fascinating coast carries on, another huge stack at Mid Clyth with a tunnel through it, the old lighthouse at Mid Clyth and then the flat rocks of Skerry Mor. You see these in the distance when you come over the Ord, they are often occupied by seals but if not make another favourite stop with grand views of the rocky coast and the Scarabens.

Interest never lets off all the way to Lybster, the old herring buildings at Occumster, narrow passages under the Stacks, you pass Shelligoe Bay, squeeze through below another stack and Lybster harbour is suddenly ahead.

Cave at Lybster.
Cave at Lybster.

Just west are some of the best cathedral-like caves in the county, wide and high with big pebble beaches at the back. An otter was running up the stones. I tried a photo but the flash recorded only the gleam of one eye.

You land just a few yards from the Waterlines Café, sadly closed this year, but another time you might enjoy a coffee and cake before the hard work of getting the boat back up to the waiting car!


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