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Under the Ord walk, down by the sea

By Ben MacGregor

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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: Perfect conditions make exploring the coast by the Ord an unusually easy experience

View down the coast.
View down the coast.

The spectacular stretch of coast under the Ord, west of Berriedale, is often neglected by local kayakers. So I set out early one fine, calm morning to explore.

Berriedale can be difficult at low tide. I trolleyed my boat over the suspension footbridge and down the stony beach to launch. This is the easiest place in the county to watch the kittiwakes which have nests on the low cliff just across the river, they ignore people on the beach or in a boat.

Once out on sea I turned west and almost immediately was into dramatic scenery of high cliffs, rock stacks and sea-birds by the thousand.

Kayaking under the sea-bird cliffs causes no problem at all to the nesting birds, they simply ignore you. Others gathered on low rocks or on the water may take off, but disturbance is minimal.

So on a rare calm day I could just paddle along, around the rocks and in and out of caves, enjoying the scenes to the raucous calls of the guillemots with the pervasive scent of guano. There was also a higher-pitched cheeping from the chicks, mostly hard to see, brooded by the parent birds on their ledges.

By the end of July, almost all will have fledged and gone.

Bodach an Ord.
Bodach an Ord.

I paddled through a gap below the pinnacle of Bodach an Ord, under one amazing bird-cliff after another, some completely white with guano. This is an environment barely known and almost untouched by man, completely unsuspected by those who hurry over the A9 only a mile away.

Here are dark caves with hidden beaches of rounded boulders and guttural shags on nests guarding the entrances, here is a huge tumble of house-sized boulders, scattered down the hillside into the sea and the home to nesting cormorants.

There are stony beaches, inaccessible from above without ropes, just inviting you to land and explore. And on a day of almost flat calm with the cloud clearing to blue sky, for once I could paddle anywhere.

I found a long dark passage leading from one cave to the next and pushed myself along with my hands to emerge again into the sunshine. A small group of seals, unseen at the back of a cave, took to the water and I could see their outlines swimming under the boat.

In and out of stacks and skerries I paddled on, the sea and the rocks covered in birds, the green hillsides and whitened cliffs, some of the highest in the county, soaring above. Steep woodland clings to some of the hillsides, probably unvisited since the days when Badbea, just above the cliffs, was settled.

A small stone wall, improbably built across a little promontory, no doubt also dates from Badbea days when every speck of potential grazing would have been valuable.

A favourite spot is the tiny bay where the Ousdale Burn tumbles over the waterfall of Eas Poll an Damarin – you can only get to the beach from the sea. I would stop on the way back, for now I carried on round Ceann Ousdale and Neuk Mhor, where cormorants nest on a rocky headland.

Eas Poll and Damarin.
Eas Poll and Damarin.

Beyond Ord Point the cliffs subside and stony shores lead on along St Ninians Bay past Navidale into Helmsdale. It makes a good walk out from the town, scramble over the point of Green Table and discover another bay of driftwood ideal for barbecues!

Under the Green Table I stopped for lunch amid sunshine, calm seas and no midges. It was absolutely no hardship to paddle back the way I’d come and I was glad I hadn’t opted for a complicated shuttle with a cycle over the Ord.

I could kid myself that the world with all its troubles had simply gone away. I stopped several times, choosing a different selection of stony beaches and especially enjoying Damarin’s waterfall. You can get to the top from the John O'Groat’s Trail but even that is not easy.

Back at Berriedale the tide was now high, allowing an easy paddle into the little harbour. It was a sunny afternoon at the start of the school holidays and lovely to see several families with lots of children enjoying Costa Del Berriedale, sunbathing, swimming and splashing into the sea from the harbour where the river water was warm.

The kittiwakes sitting on their nests were completely unperturbed, others flew in like clouds of snowflakes to bathe in the fresher water near the harbour mouth.

It was rare indeed to be able to change and load the boat onto the car roof without freezing winds, driving rain or clouds of midges! A rare day of almost perfect weather indeed.

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