Until relatively recently, I had a hard and fast rule that every year I would do one expedition that wasn’t to do with work and had to meet two requirements: it would involve my friends, and we would develop some skills. So in 2001, two of my best friends and I decided to go to Scotland in December. And we decided we wanted to test how self-sufficient we could be.
I’d been working at National Geographic since 1998 as its adventurer-in-residence, and foraging hadn’t been a part of my life. My friends and I wanted to see how much food we could forage to sustain ourselves over the five-day trip, though we recognised that it would be tough, and that the weather was probably going to be harsh and hard.
After the long drive up to Arisaig, we hired sea kayaks. We took some supplies with us, including dehydrated food, wine and fresh bread, plus onions and garlic to fry up with the seafood we planned to forage for our first night out under the stars.
In reality, though, we spent the first night in a pub called The Old Forge in Inverie. It was said to be the most remote pub in the British Isles, so an investigation was a must. It was truly a joyous place, a beautiful old stone building at the water’s edge in a tiny village. We ordered seafood and ate like emperors.
The next day, we paddled to Knoydart. Our route was going to be over to Skye and then round to Rum and Eigg and back to Arisaig. By complete chance, we got days with clear, icy blue skies, sunshine and flat, calm seas with almost no wind.
We paddled for about eight hours a day. It was cold. When the wind gets up even a little bit out there, it cuts you to the bone. After we had finished paddling for the day, then came the next crucial task: finding a spot on a beach where we could set up camp. We had to make sure to camp above the highest high-tide mark, and were grateful to be sleeping on dry sand – a true luxury.
I’m never happier than when I’m in a really good wild campsite. It is a great way to be connected to nature. It was quite something to be sleeping out in Scotland and to be able to look up at the moon and see the stars crystal clear, though we didn’t get any Northern Lights, sadly. The wild swimming – though absolutely freezing – was such a great way to start the day, too.
One morning, we woke up and there was a fully antlered red deer stag just walking down the beach looking like The Monarch of the Glen. Over our heads, golden eagles swooped. At one point, an otter popped up at the end of my kayak. I thought for a moment he was going to climb into my boat, he was so inquisitive. Then he just went off and started foraging, munching crabs in front of us.
We also had a minke whale and her calf appear close to our boats. It was an arresting sight, paired with the visually dramatic backdrop of the small isles of Rum, Eigg and Skye and the Knoydart Peninsula. While we were paddling, we trailed lines behind our kayaks to catch mackerel and pollack. One day, after a good few hours, my friend suddenly capsized into the freezing cold water. When we got him back into the boat we looked for the culprits at large: two tiny mackerel. They had got on his line and the pull of those tiny creatures was enough to overbalance him and send him into the sea!
Another big part of the experience was finding firewood, and getting the fire lit on a deserted beach. Once the embers started to fade, we brushed them to the side of the fire and put in the limpets, cockles or whelks – whatever we had found that day – and ate them out of the shell. We wrapped up the mackerel in seaweed and cooked it the same way, in the embers of the fire. It tasted exquisite. And as anyone knows, after a long day’s paddling in cold temperature, everything tastes like gourmet cuisine.
Whenever you are on a holiday that involves some element of modern technology, you are, to a certain extent, inoculating yourself from the environment. But the more you completely involve yourself in it, the more you feel connected to the world around you.
Our simple aim was to see if it was possible to live on limpets and whelks and cockles and very definitely mussels (and fish that we’d caught). We wanted to see how much of it all we could find. And we were pleasantly surprised by our results. Although, to be honest, we were spoiled. Because it was the middle of winter, we had those isles completely to ourselves.
That holiday shaped the course of our trips for the next decade, each involving some element of foraging and living off the land. I think that whole experience showed me, in a very pure and very beautiful way, that you really can connect to an environment.
As told to Roz Lewis
Watch Expedition with Steve Backshall on UKTV Play; dave.uktv.co.uk.