Between the whirlpools of Campsie Linn on the River Tay in Perthshire and the village of Stanley, I raft down waterfalls of white into lakes laden with light. Then the river flows through twisting green corridors, wide beside walls of beech and birch trees before I have to begin paddling quickly. My heart beating fast, I head into the jaws of racing rapids, waves rearing towards me, swirling me high on to their peaks.
I’m packrafting the 117-mile-long Tay, Scotland’s longest and most powerful river, from source to sea, and this kind of excitement is par for the course. The river, which holds more water than the Thames and Severn combined, commences its journey in the west near Loch Lomond, before gliding east across the Highlands to Dundee, where it spills into the North Sea. However, we will end our journey in Perth, 87 miles from the start, because that’s where the river turns tidal.
Packrafting is a fringe sport, yet it’s quickly growing more popular. Small, light rubber boats fold up into a rucksack, so you can trek into the wilderness to access remote bodies of water, and the inflatable vessels are strong enough to negotiate the kind of whitewater you usually need specialist crafts for. Although slower than kayaks, packrafts are easier to use, making a journey like this possible for beginners like me.
Also making it easy is the expedition company I’m riding the river with: Secret Compass usually specialises in far-flung places like Mongolia and Sudan – my last trip with them was into North Korea’s mountains. This journey is its first UK trip, initiated since Covid. Many adventure travel operators have had to radically change their focus since the pandemic. I’m doing it as a private tour with my family – my husband and children Zac and Archie, aged 10 and seven – but there are also group tours (although for these you have to be over 21). There’s no denying it’s a challenge: for us, let alone our kids. But I’m a big believer that family holidays don’t have to be confined to the usual pigeon-holes. Youngsters are capable of far more than we often think.
Our guides are Sammy and Tom, and it’s immediately evident that rivers are their big love. On the first evening, in Tyndrum’s Muthu Ben Doran hotel, while I’m struggling to minimise my kit, Sammy points at his tiny, compact dry-bag containing little more than two pairs of pants. “We’re river people, renowned for being scummy,” he says. “Our dry clothes are like the crown jewels. They don’t come out often!”
Tom and Sammy have led river trips around the world, and they regale us with stories of paddling through Gabon’s rainforests; sea kayaking in Kamchatka, spotting Steller’s sea eagles; and trips to Nepal and Madagascar. Tom tells me he has been a paddler since childhood, when his father built him and his brothers a canoe.
Before heading to the river at the start of the trip, we scale 1,130-metre Ben Lui to find the Tay’s origin, a tiny spring tumbling out from the top beneath a cap of clouds. It’s June but there’s still snow on the craggy peaks, and we admire the views before following the Tay’s wriggling white headwaters down the mountainside. Our children scamper ahead of us, excited by tomorrow’s adventure and buoyed by Sammy’s brilliant sense of humour.
Early the next morning we’re on the riverbank, blowing up our packrafts. Tom shows us how to inflate them – I fill a large bag with air by billowing it, and then, using a nozzle, squeeze the trapped air into the boat, until it’s rock-hard. Our rucksacks, which carry everything for the next six days of wild camping (freeze-dried expedition food, tents and sleeping bags), are tied to the front in dry-bags.
Once on the river, low in the water, we enter another, elemental realm. Highland cattle stand sentry on the banks and swallows skim by. “Last time we paddled this river we saw otters and beavers,” Tom says. “You have amazing wildlife encounters as they don’t hear you approaching.” Meandering between mountains, we sweep through their reflections mirrored on the water, then traverse two small lochs, passing the ruins of an ancient castle on Loch Dochart. “River travel means you’re not on the usual trail with everyone else, and can end up in remote places,” Tom says. Indeed, that evening we pull up on the riverbank, brew tea, share whisky (Sammy’s luxury item) and make camp, concealed in a forest glade.
A couple of times during the journey we have to portage because the roiling rapids are too ferocious. Near the village of Killin we deflate the boats and walk through streets of gift shops and bridges crowded with photographers snapping the Falls of Dochart. I feel far removed. Unlike this tourist viewpoint, packrafting allows you to understand the river, connect with it, observe its changing character.
On day three we cross 15-mile-long Loch Tay, which is rough like the sea. Mist hangs over the green, rain-fed forest, flickers of white light sparkle on the waves and we see rainbows and ospreys. Far out in the middle of this vast water I feel small, like a pond skater, as isolated as I might in Alaska’s outback or the fjords of Norway. It’s a tough paddle, and once we reach the opposite shore I’m both jubilant and exhausted. Yet thanks to some ingenuity the crossing is plain sailing – literally – for our children. Tom and Sammy tie their packrafts together with our boys’ for this leg of the journey to create a ‘mega raft.’ Then they teach them how to create a make-shift sail from a paddle and tarpaulin, before the tail wind pushes them across the water.
Back on the river we whiz along on “wave trains” – long lines of rippling whitewater that speed like rollercoasters. We learn to pull into eddies at the side: circles of calm that dissolve the fury. We camp high up in the forest, looking down over the Tay. We wash in the invigorating water and watch oystercatchers, falling asleep to the swoosh of rushing water.
Little things bring joy on a trip like this. I wake marvelling at the cosiness of my thermal liner, enjoy the warm sun on my midge-bitten face (at times a head net is vital). Now we’re here, the kit chats we had before coming make sense: I see why a waterproof notepad is essential, a lifejacket with a handy pocket preferable, that dry-bags should be double-bagged.
The next day, feeling overconfident, I paddle ahead of the others, unprepared for some incoming rapids, and … capsize, much to the amusement of Zac and Archie. Thankfully I remember our safety briefing – lie on my back, feet forward – and all is fine.
Next we come to the hardest section: Grandtully’s grade three rapids. I follow Sammy to navigate rocks, narrowly avoiding going down backwards as the river spins me round. (“ You need to keep an active blade,” Sammy says later.) I lean forward for the final dip. Miraculously I make it. Our boys are watching on the riverbank for this section, as this part isn’t suitable for youngsters.
Every day we paddle for about eight hours, breaking on little pebbly islands for snacks. One day, near Dunkeld, we leave our boats to walk through Birnam Wood, which Shakespeare wrote about in Macbeth. Two ancient trees that would have been alive in the Bard’s time still stand. Further along, fringes of wild lupins spear purple and pink into the sky, and fly-fishers throw out their lines like lassos. The Tay is one of Scotland’s most famous salmon rivers, though a tweed-dressed gillie (a fishing guide) we stop to chat to tells us salmon fishing is under pressure: “We’ll be lucky if there are any salmon left in Scotland in 10 years,” he says.
On the last day we start to see signs of civilisation again: houses, dog walkers on the footpaths and a golf course. Eventually I propel myself triumphantly under the Georgian arches of Perth bridge – we’ve arrived.
We walk up the steps of the old-fashioned Royal George hotel, into reception rooms with tartan carpet and wood-panelled walls, where guests are eating cream teas under chandeliers. We are all euphoric about our achievement. Yet passing by in waterproof trousers and wet neoprene boots, I feel disoriented. I expected to relish the return to creature comforts, but later, as we celebrate in a nearby restaurant, I miss the campfire and the rhythm of river life.
Secret Compass’s Source to Sea expedition costs from £1,349pp. The price includes packrafting and camping equipment, expedition food and guiding. Its next group River Tay trip is from 27 August-3 September; it also runs private departures on demand