August 2009 SOTA and other adventures
5th August 2009 GM/NS-133 Creag Thoraraidh
The almost annual invasion of Scotland by the AAV clan had been somewhat spoiled last year by two weeks of incessant rain and I was hoping and praying this year would not be the same. As some sort of insurance we decided to have an earlier break than usual and went for the first two weeks in August. There was mutiny afoot as well and we opted for a coastal holiday to keep the “Can we go to the beach?” voices happy. We thought we would find somewhere to rent easily enough but trying to find a big enough house in an area far enough removed from previous adventures turned into a chore. Eventually a house was found right up in the North East corner about fifty-five miles from John o’Groats in the town of Brora.
Our usual plan is to have one week at about halfway between home and our cottage for the second week. Unfortunately we could not do that this time as the property was booked the second week. A search for somewhere else for the second week ensued and dragged on and on. Nowhere suitable seemed to be available. It seemed everywhere we wanted to go was booked “Due to the games”. Eventually we came South of the border in to England and booked a place in Seahouses for the second week, which seemed like a good base for some of the Scottish Borders.
A few busy weeks followed and we still had not looked at the potential summits for our two weeks. It was getting close and Helen and I sat down with a list of all the summits within 30 miles of our accommodation. For Brora we had a big list and most of them were un-activated, but the closer we looked the more we could see why. Most of the summits showed no sign of any paths and those that did where a route march before you started. We could have spent several weeks reconnoitring simply to work out where to try and park.
GM/NS-133 Creag Thoraraidh stuck out like a sore thumb because it showed a transmitter mast on the top, which indicated there must be a track up it. It was on the list but we could not find anywhere else suitable for our family party. That was okay with the kids, they would chill out on the beach for a change but I was somewhat disappointed.
The drive to Brora was long (455 miles) and kept getting longer as delays popped up on the SatNav and we re-routed to avoid them. We had been able to program various things in to the TomTom such as locations of summits and the cottage and we were using it, but the Discovery has built in SatNav and we had this running as well. Strangely a message popped up on the Disco’s screen warning of a delay that the TomTom’s traffic warning system missed. We had two seconds to decide which one to follow. We chose the wrong one and found ourselves in a queue. After two minutes we came to a sign saying 1hrs delay from here but the Disco came to the rescue with an alternative route. After ten hours we arrived in Brora but 500 yards from our destination TomTom then took us on a wild goose chase down some narrow country lanes, through a ford and alongside the beautiful Brora Loch. It was worth getting lost for the view but it took ages to find somewhere we could turn around and go the way the Discovery wanted to take us.
The house we had rented was one of the best we have had. It was not perfect but very close to it, the décor was a little dated, the paint on the eaves a horrid shade of near burgundy red, and the sixties style staircase was rickety bordering on scary, but it was spacious and welcoming with a large conservatory well kept gardens and had a huge paddock alongside. The paddock was perfect for my antennas and we soon had a home from home with everything bar the QRM on HF. Access to the beach was via a path through next door’s paddock and across Brora Golf Course.
After the drive up no one felt much like doing anything until Sunday afternoon and so we spent the 2nd August wandering along the beach and searching in rock pools for crabs and other sea creatures. Monday 3rd and the girls wanted to spend the day on the beach so after a little diversion to take some action shots of the Discovery crossing the ford we ended up on the beach opposite a former secret government listening station. Here I set up the portable station and played radio while the kids flew a kite and tried to dig to Australia.
Tuesday 4th found us at the Falls of Shin watching the Salmon leap, playing crazy golf and eating ice creams from the Falls of Shin Visitor Centre which is owned by Harrods and has a larger than life waxworks of Mohamed Al-Fayed dressed as a Scottish Laird in a kilt with a dog at his feet as its centre piece. I felt the same revulsion at the image as I do when I see the dictators of this world fawning over their giant bronze or marble effigies paid for by the blood of innocents. Later that evening we took a scouting party to find the access road for Wednesday’s SOTA activation.
Wednesday 5th August was bright and sunny, with very little wind. It was a perfect day for the summit we wanted to tackle but probably a bit too warm for anything bigger. We travelled North East up the A9 through Helmsdale to a roundabout. From here the new stretch of the A9 goes straight on while to the left the old A9 Navidale Road follows the contours of the hillside and soon becomes a single lane. Before you reach the single lane there is a house higher up on the left as the road bends right; access to NS-133 Creag Thoraraidh is via the tarmac private road in front of the house. Helen asked the lady of the house were we could park and if it was okay to walk up the path. She was most friendly and curious as to why and said we could drive up if we wanted to, as she owned the land. She said we should not miss her duck pond and told us to toot our horn at a special place and her tame deer might visit us. We drove up past the pond and found somewhere out of the way to park. The tarmac road continued for about half a mile to a transmitter enclosure. About a hundred yards short of this was a rough stony and rutted track that lead to another transmitter at the other end of the summit. It was quite hard going walking on this path but the long heather and boggy ground either side of it meant there was no alternative route. As we approached the second transmitting station we could see the trig point on our left. Now we had to bog hop our way treading carefully and probing with our walking sticks. Then we had to get over the wire fence and finally the ground around the trig was a little firmer.
My first order of the day after getting Helen in the log was to cable tie the mast to the fence. I put both the 2m J-pole and the linked dipole on the same mast and set up the FT857 on 5mHz running 30 watts. The first thing I heard was Barry GM4TOE/P on GM/ES-001 Ben Macdui which was a nice summit-to-summit start. Twelve more followed on 5mHz and as I was switching over to 7mHz Helen called me to work Jimmy MM3EYP/P on 2m FM. Jimmy was with his dad and Barry on Ban Macdui. Helen worked Tom MM1EYP/P; she had also worked Barry on 5mHz and managed to find a couple of locals on 2m thanks to being tipped off in advance by Robin GM7PKT as to where they might be hiding. Later she worked me from the trig on 433mHz FM as I made the trip back to the car, giving her five contacts and even qualifying on 2/70 alone, which has to be good that far North on a handheld into a simple aerial. A nice run of twenty five stations on 40m from all over Europe kept me busy for about 35 minutes, including a nice summit-to-summit with Martin OE5REO/P on OE/OO-072 Herrentisch and then I tried 80m. 3.666mHz was almost dead and I only got three contacts and those were a struggle. Calls on 14.285mHz yielded nothing although there was plenty of conversations on the band so I gave one last ditch call for stragglers on 5mHz and much to my surprise I found four stations to give me a total of 47 matching my personal best tally. The walk back to the car was easy as I had a spring in my step.
Thursday 6th we visited Dun Robin Castle and probably walked twice as far as we had on the summit; visiting the house, museum and gardens with a little rest while we watched the falconry display. I thought it well worth the visit but maybe not worth the entrance fee. Being members of National Trust we usually get into these sorts of places free.
Friday 7th started by seal watching at Loch Fleet and then into Dornoch for some lunch were we found their Highland Games about to start. Having never been to a Highland Games we decided to give it a go and for a few hours we were enjoying it until suddenly we all seemed to reach our bagpipe threshold and just had to get somewhere quiet.
All week locals had been asking if we had tried the wonderful fish and chips from La Mirage in Helmsdale so we decide to give it a try. The restaurant was fully booked so we ordered at the take-away. An hour can seem like seconds when you are enjoying yourself but spent waiting to be served when you are hungry and being bitten to death by midges it seems like a lifetime. These were the first and only midges all week but they made up for it. “Was it worth it?” you might ask. No it was not. These people must have no idea what good fish and chip tastes like. The chips were dry and like eating cardboard, while the fish had no taste whatsoever and the batter resembled a greasy sponge, naught out of ten for effort. It was so bad in fact that we could not face anything else and went to bed hungry.
Next morning we were up early and packed so efficiently that we were on the road at 9am (local) with a whole hour to spare.