a Close Encounter

The Story of My Camping Trip to The Highlands

by Elaine Edis-West

The moon dominates the sky, like a giant shiny button on a child’s velvet coat. I stand transfixed, my toes cold in the damp grass, my eyes wide in wonder. My torch is redundant, surplus to requirements under the moon’s silver splendour.

I zip up the tent behind me, the sound slicing through the night-time silence. My footsteps are equally disturbing, alerting my fellow campers to my whereabouts with every flip and flop. I resist the urge to walk barefoot, my recollection of a champagne-coloured cockapoo arching its back and depositing its dinner (its owner nowhere to be seen), enough to ensure my flimsy footwear remains noisily in place.

I walk slowly, my eyes roaming from the mighty mountainous backdrop, to the flat, glistening surface of Loch Leven. Both appear beautiful under the moon’s metallic rays and I pause awhile to look, listen and breathe. Despite the hour, my senses are wide awake, stimulated by the natural world embracing me.

I hear the gentle lap of water as it kisses the mossy shore. I smell earthy vegetation and a pinch of salt. I taste the ethereal mist as it ribbons along the surface of the loch. And I feel the presence of something unseen, the hairs on my arms rising en masse. I also need to relieve myself of the large mug of tea I drank before bed so I drag my eyes away from the lunar spectacle and follow the path.

Nostrils full of disinfectant, bladder now empty, I emerge from the artificially lit building rubbing lemon-scented sanitiser into my hands. The smell is unwelcome, threatening to overpower Mother Nature’s bouquet. I force my fingers into my pockets, stifling the zesty scent.

With the moon now behind me, I notice the stars: diamonds dazzling against a charcoal sky. I wouldn’t know Crux from Carina but I spend a minute searching for the Big Dipper or the Teapot. I don’t see either but I do gasp as one audacious star shoots through the sky in an act of fiery flamboyance.

I’m still smiling as I near the guy ropes of my tent. I tread carefully, lifting my feet high to avoid the taut lines. Before I can unzip the canvas door, the hoot of an owl floats from the neighbouring woods. An echo follows and my smile expands. The ballad continues and I close my eyes to appreciate the sound, both haunting and harmonic. I realise then, it’s not an echo, but a conversation. The owls are talking! What a privilege to experience this magical exchange.

Between hoots, I hear the breath of a stranger and I’m instantly alert. My heart drums like a woodpecker until I lock eyes with a stag. It’s so close I could touch it but I stand mannequin still, drinking in every inch of its moonlit magnificence. Its antlers resemble a tree, thick and branched. Its muscular shoulders, like the contours of land, an indication of its strength. Clouds of breath hang in the air, highlighted by the moon’s shimmering glow.

The spell is broken by the bark of a dog, no doubt the pesky cockapoo. Only when the stag turns its head do I notice the herd. As one, the deer retreat swiftly from the site. It’s a procession of elegance. The stag is the principal ballerina, and the herd, the corps de ballet.

Once the animals have disappeared from view, I clamber reluctantly back into the tent, folding myself inside my sleeping bag. My toes are icy cold but the beam from my smile soon heats them up. An owl lullaby lulls me back to sleep and a deer encounter fills my dreams.

I’m up early the next morning, keen to continue my Invercoe adventure. Boot laces tied, hat pulled over my ears, rucksack heavy on my back, I follow the path taken by the deer and tread a steady incline up into the woods. I squeeze through turnstiles, amble past benches and sidestep steams until, eventually, I spy a clearing. The wooded canopy opens out to reveal a cyan sky, cloud-free but for one wispy cirrus. I know my clouds better than my stars!

But it’s the view in front of me that takes my breath away. Up ahead is Glencoe Lochan. It’s a picture perfect scene of huge, green conifers and proud, pointy mountains reflected in the smooth, mirror-like surface of the lochan. It rivals anything I’ve seen in the Alps, made all the more special by the lack of any other human being. I put the desertion down to the hour and congratulate myself on my early start.

Taking the clockwise route around the water, I marvel at the constantly changing reflection, an image of calm punctuated periodically by a startled duck or a soaring buzzard. The air smells of pine, and the sloping limbs of the trees glisten with dew.

I imagine the deer herd quietly going about its business deep within the woods. I picture a family of foxes sheltering in a den, the owls resting high in the trees, squirrels foraging in the leaves. I feel honoured to share their habitat, if only for a short time, and slow my pace to prolong my stay in this wonderfully natural landscape.

Back at Loch Leven I sit on a rock, its surface flat and cold. I pour coffee from my flask, the bitter smell alien but welcome at the cool water’s edge. The surf no longer laps lazily onto the shore but surges forward in a brisk, impatient fashion. My body shivers and I cup my hands around my hot drink, absorbing its warmth.

My eyes are drawn to a statuesque heron, one leg slightly bent. Its feet are submerged, its gaze downcast. I try not to blink, willing it to reward my efforts with a successful catch. My hopes are dashed by a parcel of oystercatchers, the two-tone fly-by enough to disturb the gangly heron, its sprawling wings lifting it slowly but surely away until eventually, it’s out of sight.

The clouds in the glen are lower and thicker, a combination of stratus and cumulus. They wind themselves around the majestic peaks, adding drama to an otherwise harmonious vista. I’m reminded of an old dressing-up box. An assortment of hats, scarves, shoes and other costume props, it provided hours of endless fun during childhood. Today’s cloud is a white, silk scarf, added to a green and black ensemble. The striking attire entertains me once more, my enjoyment tenfold thanks to maturity and with it, my appreciation of the natural world.

Rubbing the chill from my legs, I make my way back to the tent in preparation for the drive to Skye. I’m promised white-tailed eagles and a circus of puffins, lazy seals and hunting gannets. If I’m lucky, I may even glimpse a minke whale.

Sad to be leaving, but excited by what is to come, I dismantle my tent and say my goodbyes to Invercoe. With one last glance towards the mountains, I spot the mighty stag. It lifts its head and bellows a farewell. I smile all the way to Skye.