Scottish Highlands 2020: Part Eight
29 July 2020
Today was beach day! In the dark the night before, I ended up driving around the area, unable to find a particularly good spot to park, with two parking areas right by the beach saying no overnight parking allowed. I drove around for a bit before I finally found a nice quiet spot that looked tucked away, and would also keep me safe for the night. I was done in by then, so I did little more than cook the quickest meal, and tuck myself into bed. The area was sheltered and quiet, and after the night before, sleeping was SOoooo easy!!! In the morning I took my time getting awake and ready for my beach practice day. Part of me was excited, part still very nervous – clearly my experience in Dorset earlier this year had left some lasting effects on me. (I haven’t written a blog about it yet, but the full story is on my Instagram). When I drove past the bay briefly, it was clear the tide wasn’t going to be in for several hours, and my concerns from the evening before proved to be totally unfounded. There was nothing I could do for now, as the rock I hoped to photograph was nowhere near the water and so, with all this extra time on my hands, I decided to head over to Smoo Cave. I had been very surprised by the location being so close by when I passed it the night before, but very pleased because it meant I could do two locations in one day – both of which I had been very much looking forward to.
Arriving at 9.30, I found that there were still quite a few spaces in the small car park. I am not sure how full this area gets later in the day, or in a really good season… but I imagine it might be a problem to park at times. With my timing perfect however, I parked up quickly. Finding the attraction to be absolutely free, I took the camera and the dog, and full of excited anticipation, headed down the stairs to the entrance. My first surprise was that I didn’t come down the side that I had seen others come down on online blogs and videos. No idea why – I didn’t notice a further car park over to the eastern side, and neglected to hike up that way to explore either. That’s a mistake for sure, as the cave entrance looks far more dramatic from up that side judging by pictures available online. But, as this was my first ever visit, I think missed opportunities are allowed, as they are what encourage me to make return visits. 🙂
On this occasion, I wandered down, and had a look from the front. Initial explorations show a huge cave entrance and a short gorge with a thin river flowing down the centre towards the sea. The tide was out, so I don’t actually know how far up the sea will come, but there is a simple little footbridge crossing the river, so I assume it doesn’t get dangerously high. There are lots of images online of the cave front, and although I did explore a little, for some reason I didn’t photograph it myself. I think it might look better with a dramatic or a blue sky, but when I arrived, the featureless grey one made it a flat and drab sight. Inside, the cave was large and light, with a pool of water at the back, and a covered wooden walkway to one side, leading into another cave area. There are signs about small boat tours, but didn’t see any operating today. The covered walkway followed above the river, and after the quick exploration inside the cave, I walked on over to the awesome sight I had come to see…
Only it wasn’t.
Images I had seen online showed a gushing waterfall in a cave, pouring down into a pool before flowing off. When I reached the barrier, I was faced with a tiny effort of a fall, almost dribbling down a cave wall. I was gutted!! I stood for some minutes staring in complete disappointment at the sight, and wondered where the water was. Of course, as its a waterfall, it’ll be dependent on water levels flowing down the river, and I hadn’t taken the glorious summer that we have been having, into consideration. Eventually after I had stared long enough, and several other people had wandered over, and away again, I decided that I should give this a go anyway – who knows, perhaps a long exposure would help bring the waterfall out a little. I squeezed myself into a corner to allow other visitors space to come and view, and set up with a heavy heart. River settled herself down between the legs of the tripod, as she often does. and just watched as the other visitors passed. The first few shots weren’t very good, so I went for a much longer exposure instead, and extended the time, ending up with shots varying between 30 seconds to 68 seconds. As the time went on I felt that maybe the water level was increasing, but wasn’t too sure… in the entire hour of my attempts to get a shot I hoped for, it didn’t grow substantially although it was a bit more than a dribble when I eventually left. I vowed to come back in a different season to see if there was any difference in the waters’ flow, because it must look very different at other times.
It wasn’t until I looked at the shots on my laptop that evening that I realised what I had managed to capture. My chin hit the deck at some of the images. The waterfall was pretty clear after all, but better than that, the long exposure had drawn out some stunning swirls and lines as the water flowed away. I loved these, and I had a real problem picking the nicest one out of them to edit and use. The subtilty of the fall helped give a calm and peaceful image, and the stillness of the rest of the water helped add to this. I ended up totally pleased that the waterfall hadn’t been gushing after all… the feel of this image would not have been possible if the water had been flowing faster!!
As I left I took a photo of the cave entrance with my phone from the edge of the walkway. I liked this shot as well, but the cloud quickly covered the little patch of blue that was there, so my attempts with my Canon weren’t as nice. Since crowd numbers were growing too, it didn’t help having people dotted everywhere in the shot so I wasn’t worried. The visit first thing was definitely a good call I felt.
After this, I went over to Sango Bay, parked up right near the beach without any problems, and waited for the tide to come in. I practised on a few rocks that were closer to the edge before the water reached its peak, and then stayed at the main rock trying all sorts of settings. I managed a nice dreamy look, but I really struggled to get the shots with lines heading down the beach. I simply couldn’t get them to show up nicely. Another photographer joined me, saying hello and mentioning that his daughter recognised me from Dunnet head 😀 We chatted for a bit, and discussed the technique through, and eventually I think I sussed it. It seemed to need a shutter speed of around 2 seconds, and it was all about timing as the waves pull away from the camera. He was very kind and patient, and he came to the conclusion that it wasn’t just me and my inadequacies with this type of shot. He concluded that this beach wasn’t particularly good at frothy waves, and that where the water was coming around the main rock, it was reducing the likelihood of getting a straight line back towards the ocean. He suggested I might have better luck at a different beach. Satisfied I seemed to be getting something at least, he then left, and I don’t think he actually took any photos of his own!
Shortly after I met a sweet couple Rachel and… (Shite I forgot his name! I want to say Robbie, but I don’t think it was..) Anyway, he too was learning, so we chatted a bit about what I had been trying for today, and they told me they were on their way to Skye next. I assured then they would love it there, telling them about the blog I had not long written about all my days there. I wonder how they got on…?? As the afternoon was now drifting into evening, they went off for tea, while I continued on the beach, now moving to different rocks. I found this one, which I really liked. The tide was now starting to go back out again, but I managed this shot before it stopped coming up as high as the stone, and before the light started to dip behind a darkening cloud. I quite liked it. Still not lines, but the water lapping here was even more gentle with no froth whatsoever, so I really wasn’t expecting that type of shot this time. A little further, and now right at the end of the beach, I found a small bridge with a river tumbling over some rocks and flowing on to the sea. I snapped a few photos here as well, but now the cloud over my head had really dulled and flattened the light, so I left it and walked quickly back to the camper before the downpour hit.
Once I had finished on the beach, I looked ahead to tomorrow and tried to think of where I might stay the night ready for the next location. I was even more excited about this one, because this was the one place I had most looked forward to seeing in person. I didn’t settle on any plan in the end, but paused in the car park to feed River and just drove in the right direction, hoping a stop off point near the location would reveal itself! Less than an hour into the drive and I had to pull the car up short, and reverse it back to a safe stopping point. Now this spot WAS on my list, but I had neglected to notice it on the route map – and I had never expected to see the exact shot I wanted right by the roadside! Thank goodness it was, I might have missed it entirely!
This was Loch Stack, looking pretty much exactly like all the stunning photos I had seen of it. Light was failing for me however, so I didn’t want to get adventurous and hike all over it. I literally just stepped out of the camper, camera in hand, gingerly made my way across the uneven ground to a spot almost behind the hut, and snapped about 6 pictures of it. The sky was what it was, and there was no indication that the scene in front of my eyes was going to be any different, so it was pointless attempting anything different right now, or taking time to seek out any further vantage points. Its a classic shot, and very hard to get wrong I think! I wasn’t unhappy, but told myself to pay attention to the map better so I can plot these stops in better time in future! Next time I am this way, I will have a better look around, and hopefully I will also have a different look to the scene. (sun/fog/snow etc.)
As I continued the drive, the time was clearly getting away from me, so, when I spotted another camper parked up in a lay-by on the A894 overlooking Loch Duart, I decided to call it a day and pull in for the evening. I cooked a brief meal, and as I stood eating it out of the pot, I looked out at the gorgeous view through the window. As I was here, I thought I might try and grab a quick photo, it was that lovely, even though it was getting dark. What a mistake!! When I stood outside to take a quick snap with my mobile phone, I was horrified to find millions of midges attacking me. I could barely take 1 photo before I ran for my life back to the safety of Fred. I spent the next 30 minutes clapping in the camper, trying to rid the confined space of the small cloud that had managed to follow me in. Midges and mossies love me usually, and I was really fearful I would get eaten alive in my sleep. River just stared at me in total confusion. Goodness knows what my ‘neighbour’ thought was going on in there!! This was my first real experience of the issues that were to hound me for the rest of my trip, and I decided that maybe that photo would have to wait till morning!!