Up North & Out West - Four Day Road Trip & An Introduction To Van Lifing!
“Why don’t I put you on the insurance and you can go off roadtripping in the Cali? Seventeen words I couldn’t believe I was actually hearing. Our bestie Cath, owner of Steampunk Coffee was actually going to lend us her brand new 2017 VW California Ocean (@thenoplanvan on instagram) to go off on a 4 day road trip. Are you serious? This is not the type of stuff that happens to us on an average day so we were pretty stoked to say the least. Excitement levels were definitely peaking. Then of course came the inevitable question…Where to? We would have 4 days, a van we could cook and sleep in, it’s the start of the most beautiful time of year and we live in the most beautiful country in the World*. Instant and complete overwhelm. This would be our first trip in a van, a taster of what van life was like. The temptation to go as far west and north was there right away, Harris & Lewis? The NC500? No, we have a six year old, this is as much a family trip as a photography trip, time to tone down the reckless. In my last blog post I wrote about some of my favourite places to shoot and in it mentioned Glencoe, how I lived there for a while, had never shot any pictures there and how I would someday return to rectify that. This seemed like as good an opportunity as any to go and do just that. Distant memories of silver birch trees with gold and red autumn leaves contrasting perfectly against the blue of the slate in the Ballachulish Slate Quarry and the autumn colours of Glen Etive were further temptations. Ok, that’s it, end destination Glencoe, taking in Glen Etive, Loch Leven and the slate quarry at Ballachulish. But which route to take to get there? Loch Lomond and Loch Lubnaig are two places I had wanted to photograph for a long time so either route was as good as the other. Kilchurn Castle, Loch Awe and Castle Stalker one way, Loch Lubnaig, Loch Tulla and Rannoch Moor the other. This was proving trickier than I thought. Eventually the lure of Milarrochy bay and that lone tree at sunrise was too great. The route was set.
I love it when a plan comes…apart.
So we had a plan. The first night we would drive from North Berwick and park up on the western shore of Loch Lomond, make our way round early to Milarrochy and catch the sunrise and then head up to Loch Awe via Loch Fyne. A side of the road overnight stop to catch sunrise at Kilchurn Castle and then head up to Glencoe via Loch Linnhe. Spend a few days scouting and shooting around Glencoe, Fort William and Glen Etive before heading to Loch Tulla then across to Loch Earn and onto Perth to visit family on the last day. It all sounded so easy. Cue two weeks later. We were somewhere around Stirling, in the dark, and it looked as though the first part of the plan was in jeopardy already. First - The rain. Good ole Scottish rain, the type that makes even the fastest windscreen wiper seem oddly under-equipped. Then - Mist. Proper, honest Scotch mist, dense and consuming, as though the entire Earth’s atmosphere had organised itself and gathered on this one stretch of twisting, turning B road in the middle of Christ-knows-where, Scotland. Wtf was this? This wasn’t on Google Earth when I was planning this route. By the time we reached Loch Lomond it was apparent to all of us that the further 30 mile drive to the proposed overnight stop off on the Western shore was out. We were now heading to Milarrochy bay early and one of us wasn’t going to be sleeping…as it was me who planned this route I decided that would be me. Why the drama you ask? Well you aren’t really supposed to overnight park at Milarrochy anymore. A few lowest common denominators have ruined that pleasure for the rest of us by trashing the place so the National Park has stopped it, which I completely agree with. However, after a 2 hour white knuckle drive, at night, on roads neither of us knew and at times couldn't even see, in a 50 grand van that wasn’t ours…f*** it! I mean, we weren’t going to be partying till dawn, I had no axe for chopping down trees, no boot full of Stella. It was just us, a family of three in a van, on a photography road trip pulling over to calm our shattered nerves. It was around 4 in the morning, in the dark, with just the sounds of the rain, the wind and sheep that a reality of this trip began to sank in. If this was our own van, we might have been a bit more brave and carried on to the other side of this enormous body of water, parked up as planned with all of us sound asleep. But this wasn’t our van, this was someone else’s van and they like it, they spent a shit load of money on it, we are just borrowing it and they would like it back with nothing more than a few extra miles on it and here we are, illegally parked with their company branding all over the thing. Fuck! That and other stupid fears sat in my mind bothering me all night. At 5.32am one of those fears came knocking. I heard the car pulling into the car park, the searchlight finding us hiding in our little corner. I could just make out fluorescent letters on the side of the car. I guessed it was time to be moved on with a stern ticking off from the Park Rangers or Mr. Law & Order but it didn’t happen. They shone their light on us for a minute, turned it off and drove away. We were green lit to stay. Sunrise was due at 7:10am but the first hints of blue at 6am and the faint silhouette of that lone tree came as a welcome relief. Despite the rough night and the no sleep, watching that little tree slowly appear out of the gloom gave me a huge surge of energy. This was the trip and all of those fears, which now seemed as ridiculous as they of course were, were just part of it.
Sunrise came but the light never broke the mist. It was a soft, slow and swirling mist that clung to the loch and meandered amongst the trees. Beautiful and ethereal. I realised as I sat there bemoaning the lack of sunrise that actually the mist was far more atmospheric and befitting of the time of year. Every now and then an island or a group of trees dappled with hints of autumn colour would appear through the mist. The whole landscape was dynamic and changing. Each new reveal lasting barely enough time to photograph. I think the idea of the perfect sunrise shot of that tree had clouded my vision and this was my wake up call. It was far more beautiful with the mist, it was far more beautiful than I could have imagined and the shots I came away with are a lot more special because of it. The experiences of that morning completely altered the tone for the whole trip. I was no longer chasing perfect sunrises and sunsets, I was going to let the landscape and environment put on a show and I would be there to shoot what ever it came up with.
A sudden and decisive change of plan
A quick read of the weather report revealed this change of tone was a good choice. The whole West coast was a wash out, the original plan was dead and it was time to reroute. The second choice route through Callander looked much more promising for the afternoon so we packed up and headed out on our new route to Loch Lubnaig and boy were we glad we did. When we got there it was just hitting golden hour and the whole glen was washed with beautiful silvery golden light. I was out with my camera before the van had even stopped. The mist was there again, softening the hills and breaking up the landscape into graduated layers. Usually I like to look for one picture in a location but here I was setting up shot after shot. We decided to overnight here instead and it was definitely the best decision we made. Just as the blue hour was beginning to take hold the mist thickened and descended, the wind dropped and the loch became mirror still. One 8 minute exposure later and I had one of my favourite shots not just of the trip but ever. This was one of those special days.
As high as I was on the excitement of the last few hours, I was beat. I hadn’t slept at all the night before and if this mist stuck around, tomorrow’s sunrise could potentially be epic. I wanted to be up and on the side of that loch at 6am so it was an early bed. This is Scotland though, you didn’t really think the weather was going to hold did you? Stepping out the van at 6am was stepping into a world apart from the previous night. The mist, now cold, thick and low lying, was shrouding everything. Every now now and then rain would wash through in short showers. We had no internet here so had no way of checking the weather to see if things were going to improve and I felt like I had already captured the best picture I was going to get here the night before. Time to get moving. A quick breakfast, some coffee and on the road again.
Glencoe and another change of plan.
By late afternoon we had reached the Loch Tulla viewpoint, a place I have stopped on numerous occasions but never before had I seen the light as beautiful. When I was planning this trip, I of course had visions of grand Scottish vistas with dappled light and strong autumn tones. But everywhere we went there was mist. It was lingering around and completely transforming not only the landscape, but the way in which I was able to capture it. In these conditions the grand vistas just didn’t work, the mist made them bland and washed out - lifeless. However, when the long lens came out and I focused in on the more intimate sections of the landscape, suddenly it all came to life and made perfect sense. Hidden in that haze, in the meeting point of valleys and hills there was multi layered, dynamic and abstract micro landscapes, far more beautiful than the landscape as a whole. That mist, instead of being a hindrance, was actually forcing me to look deeper into the landscape and find beauty that I wouldn’t have normally found. My disappointment was instantly replaced with childlike enthusiasm for this new way of looking at things.
Our plan was to overnight in the car park near the Lagangarbh Hut in Glencoe. I wanted to catch sunrise on the Buachaille however, a lot has changed since the last time I was there and that car park is now ruined. No way were we taking the van in there. There we were again looking for an alternative spot. The light as we pulled into the glen was stunning but was coming in fleeting patches. Despite the wind and boggy ground I managed one intimate shot looking down the glen toward a metallic shimmering Loch Achtriochtan. A beautifully ominous rain cloud making its way over The Three Sisters was my second and last shot of the night. The clouds, rain and a strong wind had moved in and the light was gone. Locations for overnight stops were getting thin on the ground by this point so we decided to book into a campsite on the southern shore of Loch Leven and work on a new plan for tomorrow. The next morning the weather was challenging but I decided to go off on a trek and see what I could find. The mist was back but every now and then little pops of dappled light danced fleetingly on the hills, separating the different slopes up and creating those same dynamic gradients I had shot yesterday. On the way back the red berries of a lone rowan tree juxtaposing perfectly against the soft moss green hills in the background hooked my eye. It would have been great to shoot a long exposure and smooth out the loch but it was too windy. As it turned out this was perfect, just as I got focus and prepared to shoot, one little section of hillside lit up in perfect alignment with the middle of the tree and the movement in the water added extra drama to the shot. The end result is another of my favourite shots. Drenched in atmosphere, it perfectly sums up Scotland for me in one picture. I really like this one, even with the blur in the leaves.
The Secret Waterfall, The Quarry & The Uneasy Shipwreck
After breakfast, the cloud had thickened and descended so there was no chance of any more large landscape shots. We decided to move on and look for some more intimate scenes. On the way to the campsite the night before we had caught sight of another van parked up next to a little bridge that looked as though it may have had a waterfall passing underneath. As we passed again that morning they were gone so we decided to pull in and check it out. Sure enough, running right beside the car park there was a beautiful little waterfall surrounded by silver birch trees. Scattered all around on the black rocks were yellow and orange leaves from the birch. On the way back to the van curiosity got the better of me and I decided to cross over and have a look on the other side of the road. A perfect arch bridge, autumnal trees, rocks draped in yellow and green moss, tree roots and the stream tumbling over loose strewn boulders, it was one of those scenes that required no work, just set up and shoot. I was so glad I crossed that road. Moving on, we stopped in to explore the slate quarry at Ballachulish. I remember paying this place a passing visit years ago but never venturing in for a proper scout out. I have been searching for a good isolated tree for a while and had an inclination that this place would bear fruit. I was right, and it honestly couldn’t have been easier. 50 feet from the entrance to the quarry, with a backdrop of angled steel blue and rust red streaked slate stood a perfect silver birch dressed with the first hints of autumn colour. I couldn’t believe my luck. The whole quarry was lined with trees in various stages of autumn. I managed one more shot before the rain again moved in.
By this point we were getting hungry so decided to drive to Fort William for food. As we sat drinking coffee in the van I knew just round the corner from Fort William in Corpach lay the wreck of a fishing boat, lurching port side on the rocky shore with Ben Nevis looming large over her in the background. It’s a shot that has been taken many times before and I had no real intention on this trip of going there and adding my name to the list of people who have photographed it but it was right there, and the weather was grim and gloomy. Scotland was doing its thing again and it seemed rude not to just go round and have a wee peek. I was met with the bleakest scene I have stood in front of for a long time. The shore, covered in small yellow tinged rocks was rugged, slippery and hard to walk on. The sky was dark and churning hard with rain clouds. The water - steel grey and sinister. Then there was the wreck itself. Rarely is there a happy story attached to shipwrecks and I always find them a strangely beautiful but disturbing sight. This one was no different. I would love to say I enjoyed my time in this location but I had a weird, ominous feeling the whole time I was there. I love the shot I got and I’m actually really happy I convinced myself to go and get it but man I couldn’t wait to get out of there and back to the van. I’ve never had a feeling like that before.
One Last Stop And Then Home.
With a chance the weather was going to clear overnight and a sunrise shot on Bauchaille Etive Mor still up for grabs we made the decision to stay another night at the campsite in Kinlochleven. On the way back from Fort William however, we could hear sniffling and occasional coughing coming form the back of the van. Eventually it became clear our son wasn’t well. His cheeks flushed and his nose running he was in the first flushes of a cold. We pulled over and though it was a difficult and disappointing decision for us all we decided that another night in the van wasn’t the best thing for him. We phoned ahead and booked a night in a hotel just outside Perth where we have family and made our way there. It ended up being a journey all of us wished was over a lot sooner. It was dark and the rain was perpetual and heavy, the roads were narrow and twisty and required constant attention from both of us adults. We were tired, disappointed, concerned for our son, we hadn’t eaten for hours, hadn’t showered for days and I couldn’t shake that strange feeling from Corpach. I would love to say we had a good last night but we didn’t and that’s fine, this was a journey after all and all journeys have low points, this was ours. The next morning we awoke to the first sun we had seen since that perfect night on Loch Lubnaig. It reinvigorated all of us. Our son was in the grip of a cold but he has that unshakable ability to look on the bright side that six year olds are endowed with. Freshly showered and feeling optimistic we made our way into Perth, had breakfast with family and hatched a new plan for our last day. One of our original ideas when we were planning this trip was to pass through Aberdour on the first night and catch the sunrise on the old dilapidated pier at Hawkcraig point. For various reasons we had to drop that idea but as it happened that was now back on the cards. We packed up for the last time and made our way to Aberdour. Sunset looked good all the way up until 15 minutes before the sun was due to drop when the cloud moved in and snubbed out any chance of the vibrant colours I had hoped for. In its place, it left behind a beautiful soft rose pink glow which made for a much prettier shot than I could have imagined. A happy ending to an eventful trip and one we are unlikely to forget any time soon.
Fingers Burned & Lessons Learned
So what did we learn on the trip?
- Van life is awesome. From a landscape photography point of view, a campervan is almost an essential. Being able to wake up after a comfortable night’s sleep, make yourself coffee and then step out the door at the location you are shooting in is incredible. Our own van is now a must have.
- Plans are great, but don’t count on them. I’ve lived in Scotland long enough to know that weather reports don’t mean a thing. It can be raining in Loch Lomond and 20 miles down the road tropical sunshine. Sure, know where you want to go and plan routes to get there but don’t count on the weather doing you any favours.
- * Scotland was recently voted “Most Beautiful Country in The World” by Rough Guides and it is definitely deserving of the title. Landscape photography has led me to visit areas of this country I probably wouldn’t have made plans to go to and I’m incredibly grateful it has. This is a truly beautiful country. It’s a beauty that has tangible emotion attached to it, ancestral in its source. All at once you want to share it and keep it all for yourself and every time you look it is different. If you are reading this and you haven’t been, I urge you to visit. I can’t wait to head out and discover more of this fantastic country I call home.