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Kayak offers a route to secret spots on coast

By John Davidson

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Puffin country near Dunbeath.
Puffin country near Dunbeath.

You don’t need to travel far to find places where nobody sets foot from one year to the next. No further than the east coast of Caithness, between Lybster and Helmsdale.

The top of the cliffs may be busy with crofts and farms, the A99 and A9, the John O’Groats Trail, but there are hidden bays of rock and shingle below. While it is possible to find a way down to some, this is rarely easy and there are others which you’d need ropes to reach.

In the past, any access to the sea would have been known and used. Now these places are forgotten and any route of approach has been lost to landslips and scrub. Few people come in from the sea. The bays are protected by reefs and rocks, making approach by boat dangerous. Even kayakers mostly like to keep going and avoid scratching their shiny boats by landing among the sharp boulders.

For me, sea-kayaking is first and foremost a way of visiting the amazing places you can’t easily get to otherwise. You need to learn all the seamanship skills, but once you are competent you can go out on a fine day and explore.

And that coast between Lybster and Helmsdale is not one to be rushed. Take time to explore the caves and inlets and to land wherever it is possible to do so!

The bay under Knockinnon.
The bay under Knockinnon.

My first proper sea trip was from Dunbeath to Latheronwheel on my own. It’s easy enough for a beginner on a good day but I remember finding it scary with small choppy waves. A highlight was landing on the two bays of Fraigheach, below Knockinnon.

You can indeed just about make a difficult route down from the north at low tide, but this is completely overgrown with long vegetation in summer. I don’t expect many apart from myself have visited that bay in the intervening years.

Latheronwheel is a favourite spot for sea-kayakers to launch. You can trolley a boat down the harbour slip and paddle out of the little harbour.

You can guarantee to be watched by tourists and probably photographed at this time of year; best not practice rolling or self-rescues in the harbour!

Other than at low tide, just round the corner to the south, you can go right through a cave with a big opening in the roof like a skylight.

Given the day of light winds and low, silvery cloud, the sea was choppier than expected. Now, though, no bother to me, except that it wasn’t suitable for paddling close into the cliffs. There are lots of little caves and arches and inlets to explore.

The John O’Groats Trail runs along the top of the low cliffs. Here a fortune in grants was wasted putting up deer fences then planting the slopes with trees which had no hope of ever growing. You can still see the pockmarks of these failed plantings. Now sheep are back.

The big cave at Lybster.
The big cave at Lybster.

I passed the bays and carried on south under higher cliffs with more stacks and caves. The puffins which nest here in holes above the cliffs had now departed, leaving the rocks to the shags and fulmars. The headland just short of Dunbeath is pierced by a wide cave through which it is easy to paddle, emerging at a rocky cove which was once the local tip. Now it’s a fine spot. There are also a couple of narrow slot caves you might get through in good conditions. At Dunbeath I was surprised to see a group of kayakers getting ready to set out. It was the Inverness club bound for a paddle down to Berriedale.

The bay at Knockinnon is perhaps only 300m from the A9 but you’d never know it. Well-intentioned beach cleans have left this spot alone, and you can beachcomb among the detritus and driftwood which add so much interest to the shoreline, as well as providing lots of habitats.

It would be a great spot for a barbecue. Spend some time just enjoying the privilege of being able to reach such a spectacular and unvisited bay.

There are, though, some remarkable spots even closer to civilisation. No more than 400 metres across the water from the Waterlines visitor centre at Lybster is a huge cave with a big shingle beach at the back where you can land and walk further in.

It’s completely unknown to tourists and indeed I don’t know of anyone else who has actually set foot there. Caithness keeps its secret places well hidden.

The cave near Latheronwheel.
The cave near Latheronwheel.

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