North by Northeast
Camping in Britain’s Northernmost Isles • A storied presentation of our suggested gear for a 5-day trip.
Gear presented in this collection:
Unst, Scotland, 6:40am.
“Start at the bottom”, so they say.
But like most things in life, I can’t really be bothered with that, so I go for the very top and hope for the best. Unst, Shetland is the United Kingdom’s northernmost isle, and so Gardiesfauld is as far north as one could ever go camping. I wake up and the first thing I feel (or can’t feel) are how cold my toes are. This leads me to re-think everything I know about temperature. There’s chilly, cold, freezing, then I suppose there’s Shetland weather. It is absolutely baltic.
There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.
That’s what they also say. I seriously doubt the person who said that has ever experienced Shetland weather. I am told that even during summertime, the temperatures very rarely go above 19 degrees Celsius, and although the temperature only hovers around freezing during winter, the wind chill makes it feel at least 5 degrees colder.
My hands shake as I unzip my travel toiletry bag and I try to clean up as best (and as warm) as I can. I have never been more thankful to have a kit that can contain everything I need—the less moving around I have to do in my pyjamas, the better. I add “thermal nightwear” to my mental shopping list. Good call.
I could live here, I think to myself.
Gardiesfauld is a wide, lush site, and there is certainly no shortage of places to park a caravan or pitch a tent. Best of all, the path leads straight on to sea—the majestic, ruthless North Sea. I take Ricardo de Ungria’s A Night at the Circus and head out.
Another day, another campsite.
South of Unst but north of mainland Shetland is Braewick Café and Caravan Park, the second stop in my quest to camp my way through Britain’s northernmost isles.
Eshaness is known for idyllic walks and views of breathtaking Scottish coastline. I could head in any direction and find something I have never seen before. Today, I am sole audience to a majestic sea stack, referred to as the Drongs. Eshaness is home to Britain’s largest sea cave. It is said to be 60 feet high and spans over 5,000 square metres. A black head bobs up and down in the distance and precariously swims towards the edge of the cliff. It’s a curious seal, coming only close enough to have a good look at this human. I wave to say hello, only to startle. My newfound friend darts underwater and swims away.
This island is full of secrets.
The trek back to Braewick is long but never tiring. A brief stop at the well-known Eshaness lighthouse provided yet another highlight.
Since the beginning of this trip, I find myself heading to bed and consequently waking up earlier by the day. It’s probably just growing old, but I like to think that the fresh air is starting to do wonders for my sleep.
Having a comfortable travel pillow doesn’t hurt either.
“I will go this time, I really will. I’ll take my costumes, go to some headland and there build a shanty. It’ll be a dream. I’ll walk miles every day and the hissing of the sea will be music.”
—Ricardo de Ungria, A Night at the Circus
I am learning how to move with the sea and the sun.
It’s an interesting (and rare) phenomenon for me, waking up early. I am aware that owe this pleasure solely to the great outdoors.
I spend a good bit of the day at Sumburgh Lighthouse and its surroundings. It’s a good walk to the hill head, but I am told that during this time of the year, puffins frequent the southern Shetland cliffs, even coming close enough to take a good look. I have never seen such vivid colours on such a small bird. They are uncanny and endearing, flying low over the surface of the sea. Something inside my chest catches when one of them comes up to the side of the wall and stares at me.
“Just keep swimming.” –Dory, Finding Nemo
I am back at the Levenwick campsite for some food and soppy journaling. Levenwick is Shetland’s southernmost registered campsite, and is situated not too far from the airport. To cap off my last day camping, I decide to do something I have never done before.
Although sea swimming in Shetland is not unheard of, it most certainly not for the faint hearted. Having said this, I feel like I am pushing my luck. But then again, I’ve endured the baltic northern winds, encountered seals in the wild, and come face-to-face with a rare bird – how bad can a dip in the North Sea be?
I realised what a horrible idea it was once my feet were fully submerged. By that time it was too late to go back. I had to go for the plunge.
The locals tell me it takes around 15 minutes for hypothermia to kick in when you are in the North Sea.
The sensation could only be compared to a burning pain, except cold, if that makes sense. And the only way to sustain body heat was to keep moving. I did a few laps across the shoreline, until I could no longer.
Basking in that after-swim high, I dried myself off. The Levenwick beach was particularly sandy, and I can say with confidence that only full use of my microfibre towel could ensure that there was no sand in places where sand should not be.
I sit outside my tent, as I have for the past few days. I am not cut out for this rugged cold, not yet anyway. The mist grows so thick that the sky fades into the sea.
For a moment I am lost, engulfed between the sky and the sea. I love how nature makes me feel so insignificant.
Image credits: Adam Wilson (@fourcolourblack), Anton Sharov (@antonsharov), Danka Peter (@dankapeter), Dominik Schroder (@wirhabenzeit), Paul Rysz (@paulrysz).
About the author
Charity Johnson is a freelance writer and third sector cheerleader.
She regularly writes on the (re)telling of her geographical and ideological whereabouts.
To know more about Kim, visit her website!