Monday, 30 May 2011
The alarm went off at 6am and we were off by 7am - glad that there was no more rain, instead there was an amazing sunrise with dragon's breath and bright sun light illuminating the valley.
The first stage of the walk today was along forest track, good track though not particularly interesting. There was a little bit of confusion as the guidebook talked about choosing between a higher or a lower road but to us it seemed to be just one road and we thought we'd missed a turning. It was already warm.
When we got to Oykel Bridge we were glad that we hadn't carried on the night before as there was nowhere obvious for us to have stayed and certainly no warm welcome at the Oykel Bridge Hotel which seemed to be completely empty and cold when we had a quick look, hoping perhaps for some breakfast.
Instead we carried on into Caplich Wood and had breakfast just off part of the track. The tracks are kind of relentless but do mean quite fast walking and the stony aspect of the ground makes ticks seem less of a threat if you do want a break.
Following the track led deeped in to Glen Oykel and, as we came out of the forest, we went through a gate warning of loose cattle. After our first and only experience so far we weren't that keen on the idea but hoped that we could avoid seeing any wild cattle - they seemed the biggest threat of anything we'd seen so far. So we walking along the river in the growing heat and got to Caplich farm just as they were putting fodder out. Obviously that meant that the track we were on was the very same track that an entire herd of highland cattle were about to walk down towards us. We had to avoid them by going high on the hillside around them until we ran near to a fence - if we stopped walking the cattle got skittish and one would inevitably start charging up towards us. At a small break in the procession of the herd we got down on to the track and crossed past the point where the cattle were still coming down from the hillside the other side of the fence. And then we kept walking, fast, trying not to look back. Not pursued.
After a while we headed back into more forest and along more river - this time with increasing evidence of fishing activity with little numbered plates. Apparently the draw of the river, which was lovely, to fishermen was encouraging the people who own the place to build more road along the river - which got a bit confusing when the instructions and the map said that we needed to head past the ruined building at Salachy at the end of the track. When we were there, despite it being royal wedding day, there were workmen extending the track and one of them, in a very friendly and understanding way, pointed us in the right direction and stopped for a bit of a chat.
The green gully got steep and wooded, the first real point of interest in the day, an interesting trawl up the western bank of a gully and moving in and out of trees where there were fallen trunks to the next bit of track. And then more track.... along to Loch Ailsh where we joined a road along the lochside, strong colours and warm skies, and on towards Benmore Lodge (again no welcoming cafe unfortunately).
After the lodge the track went on for a bit and then became a path, still following the River Oykel. Feeling tired and hot we stopped by a nice bit of river and were going to have a little rest and perhaps a dip in the river to cool off. But very quickly it became clear that there were ticks around and so, feeling a bit frustrated now, we packed up and moved on. Cursing the little blighters.
To suit our new mood the path degenerated into a rough and difficult path until even that eventually vanished and it was another trudge of an ascent with the end of the valley coming slowly closer. It looked high ahead as the valley floor sloped up - looking towards Conival and Ben More Assynt - and we kept slogging away until it was time to cross over the River Oykel (by now labeled as Allt an Dubh Loch Mhoir on the map) and headed up the steep eastern side of a burn towards Am Bealach. We stopped a little way up the hill to refresh our water bottles which had been drunk dry and to have some cereal to eat. The way had looked intimidating and it was good to pause and regroup.
But then it turned out that it really wasn't so far up the rest of the hill and we joined a path descending down Gleann Dubh. It was obviously a good path though there were still bits where the path completely disappeared and we had to find ways up and down through a gully and there were some bits near the top that were slightly eroded or exposed (as far as I was concerned), but still relatively straightforward. Considering it's a well trodden path and there must be many people walking up towards Conival and that area, we were the only people around and the mid-evening light was beginning to fade.
Loch Assynt appeared in the background and the haze made it difficult to locate Suilven over to the east and we were tired and focused on hitting the town - such as it was. On the way in to town we stopped at the lodge and picked up the food parcel they had kindly agreed to keep for us and then we headed to the hotel and had food and beer and Dave played a few games of pool with a guy from Edinburgh. There wasn't anywhere to stay so it was just a matter of finding somewhere to set up camp - we decided to go for the car park in the end (better than it sounds) and set up in the dark. Very very tired and slight sore feet but at least all that forest was out of the way.
We saw quite a bit of wildlife today - caught sight of perhaps a fox near Benmore Lodge as well as aqua and orange butterflies, frogs, lizards, a discarded adder skin, plus of course deer.
Time on feet: 7 to 7, 12 hrs
Distance covered: about 34k
Saturday, 28 May 2011
A nice comfortable night passed to the sound of rain pattering against the window but the rain had halted by the time we got up. The alarm went off att 7.30 and we got up and had a none cereal related breakfast and then packed up.
We chatted to the Dutch women who were in the room next door and who'd come in late the night before as they'd been stuck the other side of the fire for about four hours. They had come over to pick up their husbands who had just finished the CWT - one of them had tried to do it a couple of years before but been forced to turn back at the Glomach Falls. They said that their husbands had been finding it hard going and had had trouble near the start with river crossings - again reinforcing how lucky we were being with the weather.
Iain gave us a lift out to Inverlael and we started off into the forest tracks after putting on suncream as the clouds had cleared after the earlier rain - this turned out to be premature as the skies clouded over for most of the rest of the day. The track walking was mostly straightforward but there was a tricky bit where a path was supposed to head up to cut through on to a higher track but there was no way of getting through the trees and the undergrowth so we had to hack back up a track that was overgrown and rambling and then go back up to hopefully hit the track we wanted to be on - which we were luckily. These forest tracks are painful.
After exiting the forest we followed another rubbly track up and up (at somewhat of a cracking pace and for most of which Dave was far far ahead) to join up with the Allt Badan Seasgach where the track (which was boggy enough) completely ran out and we forded the river and had only faint quad bike tracks to keep following. In an attempt to get out of the bog we tried to get high, keeping the Allt na Lairige on the right and then contouring round into Glen Douchary where we headed down towards some ruined sheepfolds. Behind us there was the impressive ampitheatre of rock around Cadha Dearg with clouds gathering.
We followed the eastern bank of the River Douchary along, via an impressive jump, and then along more invisible path bog land (i.e. a path of the map but nothing visible on the ground beneath the peat and heather). Most of it was a trudge but there was one quite scary descent into a gorge (crossing the dry Allt nan Caorach) where the end of the heather appeared to disappear into a precipice - not so deep but steep. The descent wasn't so bad after all but the ascent was grim, following a thin path that sloped and eroded off back into the gorge and my heart was racing wildly when we reached the top.
Eventually we hit the western end of Loch an Daimh and followed the shortline along the expanse. This is where we would have arrived if we had taken the easier route straight out of Ullapool. At the eastern end of the loch we had a little break at Knockdamph bothy (about 3 till 4), making a cup of tea and having some food sitting on seats in the entrance of the bothy and watching the intermittent drizzle.
We'd decided to try to make it to Oykel Bridge tonight despite feeling a bit dislocated after our break. And anyway, Knockdamph was too early in the day to quit and the bothy was not quite alluring enough to tempt us to stay. So we repacked and continued along the straightforward track. After a little while we saw the next bothy glinting in the sunlight ahead of us and then the clouds pulled in so that it was soon clear that it was about to rain. We made it to the Schoolhouse Bothy just as the clouds dumped a few hours of rain on the ground. The original idea was simply to shelted in the bothy and to use the dry post to change in wet weather gear. But the rain carried on and we soon decided that we might as well stay where we were. The bothy has been recently done up and the room we were in was wood lined like a sauna and very cosy - it was another one we had to ourselves.
Once the rain had stopped the evening became a lovely one, that dark treacly golden light sliding across the countryside and rainbows ahead of us. The river passing under Duag Bridge was suddenly a torrent, several feet higher then it had been not so long ago.
We ate and slept and passed another easy night.
Time on feet: 10.30 - 5, 6.5 hrs
Distance covered: 26km
Thursday, 26 May 2011
A proper lie in at last followed by refreshing showers and then a trip to the washing machines to de-crust some of our clothes. Dave's clothes are mainly clean but my trousers are very crusty with all the dried peat bog that I managed to fall into.
Leaving the washing to go we went back up to the Ceildh Place for breakfast and another stormingly sunny day.
More chores: drying the clothes either in the dryer or in the stiff breeze flowing over the campsite and the town (a breeze that left us wearing jumpers and sunhats) and then off to the post office. Apart from the usual maps we also sent back food that was spare because of our speedier than expected pace and because we hadn't been eating all that we had expected to eat. And, most controversially of all, Dave had persuaded me that we should send back our fleecy clothes - it simply wasn't cold enough though it had been nice to have clean trousers and a different jumper when we'd hit civilisation in Kinlochewe and in Ullapool.
Then we did a bit of shopping, including proper food for the evening, and walking about before we packed up the tent and went back to the docks to wait for the ferry and the bus that would take us, hopefully, towards our rest place for the night. It was a lazy day but I'd obviously spent far too much time in the sun and had a little bit of a dizzy and headachy sensation.
The bus left late (it was due at 4.40) but the driver did agree to drop us off at the bunkhouse rather than make us walk back along the horrible main road.
So, we made it to the Forest Way bunkhouse www.forestway.co.uk and what a great bunkhouse it is - clean, modern, well-equiped, sympathetically done and in a nice setting away from the road. The host, Iain, was happy to help and advise (he'd already spent time on the phone talking us through bus options and volunteering to pick us up if the bus didn't work out) and he also agreed to drop us back off at Inverael the next morning - saving us again from the horrible road. He also sold us eggs and bread so we could have a fried breakfast in the morning.
After a bit of chatting, with Iain and with a guest (who had stayed in the bunkhouse the night before and who was trying to go home but couldn't because the road was blocked by a forest fire) who was staying in the b&b but eating in the bunkhouse, Dave cooked an awesome stilton, leek, onion and mushroom pasta and we spent a pleasant evening reading walking magazines and relaxing on the sofa.
It felt a bit odd having such a break. Ullapool is the sensible location to break the trail if you are doing it in two stages and it had occurred to me that things were going so well that maybe we should quit when we were ahead. But it was never a real option. Just an idle thought.
The skies finally clouded over in the late afternoon and, after drinking lots and lots of water, I began to feel better after the too much sun part of the day.
Time on the go: None
Distance covered: None
Wednesday, 25 May 2011
Alarm off at 6 then again at 7 - too cold and weary to want to get up. The trouble with camping in scenic river side valleys is that it takes so much longer for the sun to rise over the hills and warm everything up. So instead of lingering in the early morning shade we packed up and headed up the track and the hill towards Dundonnell Forest (another 'forest' with no sign of trees but covered with lochans which glinted in the sun). Up on our right were some impressive mountains but, embarrassing though it is to admit it, we didn't actually realise that this was the An Teallach range even though we had been drinking the beer happily in Kinlochewe.
The plateau was bleak but the lochans glittered in the sun though the day was still young and occasionally cool.
It wasn't long before we started to meet people, first the occasional couple and then the odd group, and it was clear to us that we must be near a car park - this volume of people was not something we'd experienced so far on the walk. After a little descent down into Gleann Chaorachain we settled by the river to have some breakfast, acknowledging the hikers heading up into the hills, just where the plantation started.
After cereal and tea we carried on down the easy track, admiring the rock (mostly Dave) as we went, until we hit the A832 near Corrie Hallie. As others have we were sort of hoping for a nice little cafe at the art gallery but there was nothing to be seen so we carried on through the growing sun. A short walk along the road then we turned right and crossed over the Dundonnell River and followed the instructions in the guidebook through the fence and then a steep scramble up the hillside to meet a path contouring up the hillside through pretty trees dotted with spring flowers. Occasionally I would take a little breather and each time look back to admire the outline of the An Teallach range which was ever more spectacular and dramatic.
The path led to the head of a waterfall, another warning in the guidebook and another vague trickle in the place of the huge torrent we were led to expect. I'm not saying that the guidebook is misleading, just that we were incredibly lucky in our Scottish weather experience.
After the waterfall there was a long flattish trudge across moor until we started to see the bright lush green of the flat valley at the head of Loch Broom. The valley floor was, I began to notice, still a long way below us and I wondered how steep the descent was going to be. We did start going down after passing through a gate, zig zagging down a quad bike track till we got to the plantation we were supposed to descend down the side of. If only it had been that simple! Trees had fallen haphazardly down, blocking the simple route and forcing us to scramble along and then down and then back up the side of the valley. The guidebook, to us, wasn't clear that you should stay relatively high on the hillside hence the yo-yo. Finally, after passing the end of the plantation and the cottages down to our right, we (me gingerly) descended to the track and had to break out across an apparently neutral field to get back on to the road - there was no sign of the gate that was supposed to lead us there. It was interesting that the most difficulty we had in getting anywhere was because of new fences.
With shaky legs we hit the tarmac and headed along the minor road to the A835 at Inverbroom Bridge. As we had arrived a day early for our booking at the Forest Way bunkhouse we had decided that we would hit Ullapool, do some washing and have a day off before heading off again. We didn't need to rest but we'd not forced ourselves to go slowly to fit in with the scheduled breaks - this worked well but it was even better later when we could go as fast as we wanted without having to worry about stops. My mum had asked about our itinerary before we left and I had explained to her that the way we walk tended to be more flexible and that sharing a route with anyone would probably just lead to anxiety!
Anyway, Dave had been fairly confident that we would find a bus stop somewhere between Inverbroom Bridge and Inverlael Bridge (the start point for us when we resumed). That proved to be rather optimistic, as did the idea that a nice white building would turn out to be a pub. So we decided to try hitching for half an hour and if that didn't work we would get a cab. We'd made it to Inverlael so you couldn't really accuse us of cheating on the route. And the 10k walk along the busy and narrow road was nto attractive and had not been recommended by others.
A very nice man picked us up and drove us along the lochside, he even dropped us off at the entrance of the campsite where we arrived about 5pm. We set up the tent on a nice flat bit of plump green grass with a nice view out over the caravans to the end of Loch Broom where the water headed out into the sea. Hungry now we headed to the chipshop and ate our (rather expensive but award-winning) chips on the quayside watching the business of the ships and the tourists trying to avoid the aggressive seagulls.
For the rest of the evening we toured the various pubs and eateries checking out the beer and the crisps and finally settling on the Argyll for falafel burger, salad and chips.
The day had been surprisingly gruelling, another hot one despite a cool breeze at times, and we were in bed about 10pm. Happy, well-fed and on track for a civilised lie in.
Time on go: 8 to 4; 8 hrs
Distance covered: about 20km
Alarm went off at 7.30 in time for breakfast of egg in a roll from the hotel kitchen back door. Ours was the second alarm to go off - Toby (the Munro bagger from Carlisle) had already headed off towards Fisherfield to try and get 6 Munros in the bag. Gradually everyone got up and got their stuff together, chatting a little but mostly all looking a bit tired still. It was eerily quiet overnight and the lack of snoring in a room full of men was more disturbing to me than anything else.
Chatted finally with the guy from Glasgow doing the CWT and found out that he'd had similar problems with the marked path, the deer fence and the river - glad it wasn't just us!
Finally we set off about 9.30, along the road and then along the path following the Kinlochewe River towards Loch Maree - admiring the bright yellow of the gorse flowers against the dramatic cloud ringed mountains to our left and back towards the Beinn Eighe nature reserve.
The relative flat didn't last long and we were soon ascending up the Gleann Bianasdail with steep ranges either side and dramatic views. Yet again there was a simple path to follow up and up and more up along with some scary bits of eroded path. At one point an eagle soared overhead.
At the top of the pass we plateau'd and then started to descend to Lochan Fada - a truly dramatic looking loch isolated amongst the hills. Clouds swept across the otherwise blue sky and the day couldn't seem to decide whether it should be steaming or freezing.
We crossed the outlet of the lochan as it flowed back down the way we had come up - supposed to be potentially the trickiest crossing according to the guidebook but relatively shallow and eased by stepping stones for us. Skirting round the lochan was easy enough and we even found a couple of white-pebbled beaches and spotted an incongruous motorboat hidden away.
Then there came a confusing stage where our direction was not obvious and where the guidebook directions were a bit hit and miss - we needed to locate a particular small loch to descend from otherwise we could end up in the wrong valley, and this is a land full of various bodies of water - even with the dry weather. Dave did a fantastic job of navigating and exploring (though it would have been a lot more difficult given bad visibility) to find the right bit of the hillside to descend, rise up to the bealach and then to descend further down -criss-crossing the river as usual, slogging around bog and trying to find the path of least resistance down Allt Cul Doireachan until we reached Loch an Nid.
We followed the path along the western side of the loch and admired the sheer grey slopes of rock, patches of snow still clinging near the tops. A deer herd watched us carefully. It was still early so we decided to ignore the possible camping spots, hoping to make it as far as possible so that the next day's walk to Ullapool would be shorter and we could enjoy the so-called 'fleshpot' of the big lights.
We did make it a few more kilometres along the river but then came to a spot which seemed too good to miss - a scenic bend in the river with hills all around, the sun going down and a curved log made for two to lean against. Plus the track we would follow was just about to start and we couldn't spot an obvious place further on to camp. And we were a bit battered by the wind and the fluctuations in temperature and the trudging along.
So we stopped in a lovely but breezy spot and Dave fought with the stove to make us our usual three course tea.
When the sun went down the spot turned out to be chilly and damp but still beautiful.
Time on go: 9.30 to 5.30, 8 hrs
Distance covered: about 20 km
Sunday, 22 May 2011
It was a damp but cosy night, snuggled on the wooden floor of the bothy. We woke up with the alarm at 6 and with cloud which eventually gave way to drizzle and then to rain. Breakfast over we packed up and were away by 7.30. We were only going as far as Kinlochewe today as we were booked in to the bunkhouse there for the night and needed to pick up the next food parcel and sort out a few bits and pieces - but we were also on a deadline to try to get to the shop before it shut at 12 and were eager to cover the 11k or so - not expecting any difficulties on this section at all. Or so we thought.
The start was straightforward enough, to continue down the track that started from the bothy and headed down towards the River Coulin, the forestry estate and the Coulin cottages. We saw many signs of logging activity - a huge wall of cut trunks and a lonely looking caravan with a guy in a high-vis jacket outside and the devastation that is left behind - but few signs of life. It was raining steadily now and I was testing out our solution for taking photos on rainy days which was a small map case with the camera dry and snug inside. It worked relatively well but was awkward to use - I have some interesting photos that seem to have been taken inside a fishbowl and can't claim to be great photos but they are atmospheric enough.
After Coulin we turned right towards Torran cuiunn and a confusing bit in the guidebook which suggests that you go around the forest on boggy and rough ground rather than head into the forest on the obvious track. We decided to gamble on the track going somewhere near the direction we wanted and this turned out to be a fine decision though we had to backtrack a little to get to the path marked on the map as we had missed an earlier turn off. These forests are rough going - the tracks are not like forest tracks we've seen before and tend to be rougher and less certain, neither of us are particularly confident heading in to a forest section that we'll come out where we want to!
But luckily enough the path came out exactly where Dave had predicted it would and we were back on open moorland with enticing but rain shrouded views back towards the Torridon hills.
It was the next part of the trail that threw us completely. Both the map and the guidebook agreed that the trudge along the moor - on a path that occasionally was obscured by mud - was followed by a forest section that could either be approached by going through or going round the trees. But the forest here had been stripped and only refuse and a high deer fence surrounding the apocalypse remained.
We chose to skirt around the fence as suggested in the book, it was only supposed to add a tiny amount on to the distance, and struggled through the bog and the drizzle. It was hard work but seemed straightforward until the point where the plantation is supposed to end and you start heading easterly down and in the rough direction of the road. Walking down through a pretty ravine we came across some new looking footpath signs and were happy that the way should become more obvious. Instead... the path ended in an ever newer looking six foot high deer fence through the wire of which we could see the next footpath sign inviting us into the banner area. What to do? We crossed the river to our right and tried to see a way but again it was just deer fence. We explored off left but there was no sign of a gate or a stile at first. Going further round we found a gate and even though it was secured with rough wire rather than an inviting looking latch we decided that this was our best option - the only other choice was backtracking for several not particularly nice k and then heading in to the forest to an uncertain destination.
In the end we still had to clamber over a six foot fence and we were still no clearer - we could see where we were on the map but we were surrounded by deer fence or a wide river. After a little more frustrating exploration we plumped for the most direct route, both a little annoyed at the obstacles that man had thrown into our path and both a little damp too, which involved a careful crossing of the river followed by a determined trudge across a field towards the few houses at Cromasaig and then a slightly defeated hike along the road towards Kinlochewe - by which time the drizzle had practically stopped and our bad moods dissipated as we realised that we were out of the confusion, that we had made it still before the shop shut, and that we had managed to overcome the most tricky section of the walk so far.
We spent a pleasant enough afternoon in the shop, then in the Whistlestop Cafe (recommended) where we dried out and filled up on good food in an interestingly decorated place. Next we headed to the hotel where we collected our parcel (phew) and booked in to the bunkhouse - sorting out the parcel, hanging up our damp things in the drying room, washing our smalls in the sink and having refreshing showers all before anyone else turned up.
The bunkhouse ended up being relatively full, four lads from Kent, one lad from Carlisle, and, though he turned up much later on, one guy from Glasgow who was actually doing the Cape Wrath trail though he had started up on the McNeish route and was going a slightly different way (he was whacked out and decided to stay in Kinlochewe for the next day and we never saw him again).
Most of the afternoon and all of the evening was spent in the bar of the hotel http://www.kinlochewehotel.co.uk/ , chatting with the barman and some of the carvaners (Willy and Edith especially, old hippies from Edinburgh and lovely to talk to) and other walkers. It was a warm and friendly atmosphere and we managed, despite or perhaps because of our short day, to devour a three course meal as well as our customary packets of crisps and multiple pints of local ale.
Time on the go: 7.30 - 11.30, 4 hours
Distance covered: about 11k
The alarm went off optimistically at 6 but the rain was still beating down heavily on the tent so we both wordlessly decided to ignore it. Eventually the call of nature drove both of us up and into our waterproofs and then out into the weather - the rain obviously pausing as we got out of the tent. Miraculously the rain held off while we packed up the wet tent and though the change in the weather had dented our romantic bivvie at least we had kept dry due to Dave's forethought in putting the tent up.
The mist came down again and kept us damp and slightly chilled as we trudged in vaguely companionable silence onwards and slowly ascended up towards the loch and the forest. Just before we reached the forest we saw a pair of deer again, hovering on the horizon. Were they the same deer? It's impossible to say but why not?
By the time we reached the forest it seemed that the worst of the mist had lifted and it felt a little drier and we felt a little more awake after a standing breakfast. The forest section was uninspiring but still rather wild and we finally joined the track down towards Attadale and relative civilisation. We hadn't gone to explore the Lochan an Iasaich - partly because we didn't feel bothered and partly because we didn't want to find that the position would have been even more dramatic than our camp on the river (though we both felt we'd made the best decision). The track was lined with that rough large gravel which twists your ankles and makes you long for more robust footwear but we made good time and were soon on road and heading past Attadale Gardens which appeared to be just opening for the day.
At the main road we headed right towards the 'station'. Originally we had decided to do what perhaps could be termed a cheat here and take the train from Attadale along to Achnashellach to avoid the long trudge along the road. I wasn't totally sure that this wasn't cheating but could see the logic in avoiding tarmac. As it turned out though we arrived at the station at 10.15 and the next train wasn't until 12.37. As the station consisted of a tiny shelter big enough for us but not our packs and as the weather was threatening another rainstorm we decided to go with the walking on tarmac. Apart from anything else we had seen a sign for the Corran Pottery and the chance for some real food and a few cups of tea was too good to pass up.
The road to the pottery was fairly busy and started by climbing up a nasty hill. The whole road provided very littled verge to cling to - not pleasant at all and we'd probably recommend the train to people rather than risk it.
After cheese toasties and lots of tea we continued to walk to Srath Carran (where we arrived at about the right time for the train but by now we decided we'd stick to the road - as it turns out the train would have been a better option though obviously part of us felt that walking the whole thing made it a 'purer' experience). Dave bought some meths at the relatively well stocked local shop there and we got shouted at by some mean English guy when we struggled to find the path out of town - we'd followed the guidebook instructions through New Kelso but should probably have followed the footpath that breaks right straight after the road bridge over the River Carron.
There was a short bit of walking along the river and through the forest which was pleasant enough - the weather had got warmer and drier now so the Goretex socks finally came off and, although the rain clouds came and went over head, it didn't rain again that day.
After the forest came a gruelling walk along the A896 towards Achnashellach - all the road surface was hard on our feet and the mostly single lane width meant that we were constantly up and down off the verge to avoid speeding cars. It was hot again now too.
But the scenery was interesting and we were diverted for a little while by a signpost to Torridon and the realisation that the character of the mountains around us was changing as we trudged.
Eventually we made it to Achnashellach around 3pm and wound our way up the track to the train station, hoping beyond expectation that there would be a cafe here. It didn't look hopeful but there it was - a cafe in someone's house which was open and friendly and could supply us with crumpets and scones and yet more tea.
After an hour sitting in the garden, eating and chatting to the owners (who used to live in Orkney), the vague chill and the threat of drizzle as well as the need to get somewhere for the night drove us on and we headed up through a little more forest and then along the River Lair with inspiring views of Fuar Tholl to divert us. The different rock and the strangely carved shapes made Dave a happy bunny and, notwithstanding the cafe breaks, the day suddenly got a lot better. After passing a few walkers going back towards the road, we broke off from the main river along an easy path (it was all good path today with the worst footing being in the forest) by Drochaid Coire Lair and heading towards the River Coulin.
We descended a little through the brown hills and Caledonian pines to get finally to the Teahouse Bothy about 6pm. This bothy was recommended to us by Andy from Fort William and we had been looking forward to it while also dreading that we would arrive to find it already occupied, knowing it was small. But when we got there we found no-one else and no sign that anyone else existed. Just before the actual shelter was an amazing waterful, not high but wide and plunging into a perfect plunge pool if only it had been warmer.
So we settled in to the bothy and cooked, watching the weather closing in a little around us but admiring the still beautiful sunset and the scenery around. The guy at the cafe had told us that the forecast for the next day was for heavy showers but every prediction we'd been told so far had been wrong and, anyway, we had little choice to go on regardless of the weather.
My last note in my notebook for today simply reads: 'Going so so well so far. Very happy!'
Time on feet: about 8 to 6; 10 hours (take off about 2 hours for eating!)
Actual distance: about 24k.
Sunday, 8 May 2011
Alarm went off at 6. And then again at 7. Still, we were up in time to see the sun rise over the top of the mountain behind us and warm the tent before it was packed up.
What a day! We headed, with no others in sight, up the lovely valley along the Abhainn Chonaig - bright flame colours of the dead bracken and the sideways morning light - up through a little bit of Dorusdain Wood and then a slog of an ascent on a contour along the gorge of the Allt an Leold Ghaincamhaich towards the Bealach na Sroine. Already the sun was blaring down on us and the pine trees of the forest behind us had a strange visual affect that made us feel dizzy or tripped out.
From the bealach it was a steepish descent down towards the big attraction of the area - the top of the Falls of Glomach. The noise of the water rushing over the edge was heightened by the gale force winds that gusted as we (tentatively in my case) approached the drop off and tried to look down.
This was not my sort of place to be. I hate heights and I hate exposure to heights. Now our way forward was to skirt along a perilous path to the side of the waterfall. I quote from the guidebook - 'Take great care, as a slip may mean not just a broken leg but a fall of a hundred metres or so into the ravine.' Nice.
Strangely enough it still didn't occur to me to back off and, as Dave was well aware of my trepidation, we took the path carefully. Dave took control of the camera though I refused to pose for pictures apart from on the sturdiest part of the path - once we'd found the actual path rather than the way that takes you down for a better look at the falls. It turned out, despite the wind and the occasional bits of erosion, that the path was not so bad after all though I wouldn't want to attempt it in wet and muddy conditions.
The path clung to the side all the way down to the forest to the foot bridge and we even met a couple going up the other way at one point - much to our surprise, we'd got used to not seeing anyone during the day.
We joined the track leading along the Glen Elchaig and I enjoyed the flatness for a while though it was getting unbearably hot again. It was a long walk without the distraction of trying not to plunge to our deaths but it was made more entertaining by our first encounter with a herd of highland cattle - mums with young calves. We walked carefully past them where they were feeding but then, feeling a little safer, stopped to consider taking a photo of the cuties. One of the cows took umbrage at this and started rushing towards us but didn't have to go far before our flight reactions kicked in and we were off up the road. Thank goodness we'd gone past them first...
Otherwise, crags along the route gave Dave something to look at. I hadn't realised before this trip how much he knows about different sorts of rock - it's all climbing related but impressive to me at any rate.
Finally, hot and fairly bothered, we made it to Kililan where we sat for a while pondering where we might end up for the night. The change to road walking had made both our feet ache. Dave removed a tick from my ankle and we had some more 9 bars and fruit and nuts. There was nothing in Kililan to hold our interest apart from the newborn lambs and the strange tree that was so full of bees you could hear the buzzing from a way away and so we walked on, thinking that we might find somewhere nice to wild camp around Loch an Iasaich.
First there was a little bit more road walking out of Kililan and along and right towards Nonach Lodge before we followed the signs to skirt round some cottages and on to a boggy path that followed up the River Ling. The river is 'gorgeous' (Dave's accidental pun) with lots of plunge pools and rapids and rocks and white water and clear pools and after a couple of kilometres we found what seemed to be the perfect place to camp - it was relatively near a burn to get water and was also near the perfect swimming spot where we cooled off a little in the cold water before setting up camp. The plan was to bivvie out but the clouds were coming in a little so we put the tent up just in case. Dave built up a fire using some stones that had obviously been used before for the purpose and we ate in front of the fire as the dusk fell.
At one point we looked up to the hillside behind us and saw a pair of deer watching us from the top, their outlines slightly hazy against the failing light. Dave said that they were our deer spirits watching over us, I said that they probably wanted to drink and we were in their spot.
As the night got darker we huddled into our bivvie bags and watched the stars come out. For about half an hour we stayed out but then, as Dave gently snored beside me, I watched the clouds pour over the stars and felt the first few drops of rain. I waited, hoping that they would be a test only, but it was not to be and the rain came down. It didn't take too long to get drily in to the tent and back to sleep and the rain, which went on all night, didn't take away from the beauty of the spot.
Time on our feet: 9 to 6, 9 hours
Distance covered: about 26 km
Saturday, 7 May 2011
Getting from Glenfinnan to Shiel Bridge had taken a day less than anticipated so we felt okay having a slow start - the start got slower and slower till eventually we only made it from one side of Shiel Bridge to the other. At least it was movement in the right direction.
We got up to another lovely day despite the night of rain. Mist was streaming in from the mountains and birds were singing in the trees.
After much needed showers we went to the Shiel Bridge shop where we had sent our first parcel and, joy of joys, it had arrived. We paid there for the camping and bought a tick twister remover - time to deal with the lowpoint of the discovery of the little blighters.
Sitting on the picnic bench nearest our tent we laid everything out to air in the growing warmth of the sun. I called home to reassure my parents I was still alive and, just as my mum answered, one of the horses in the nearby field ran past bucking and farting at the same time.
Then we settled down for a grooming session and removed the ticks, noting their positions as we went. Dave seemed to have been the most attractive of us - gaining about 20 to my 5 or 6. They're tiny things some of them - tricky to get at in some areas. I'm not as good at removing them as Dave is which is unfortunate seeing as he had most. We're not sure why he has so many more, whether it's because he always goes first or whether he is intrinsically more tasty than me.
After that we did set off and we did try. But then we were waylaid in the garden at the Kintail Lodge Hotel again (just for a few) and eventually it became clear that we were not actually going to get very far that day. It didn't matter. We were still on schedule and it was a nice place to hang out - watching the boats and the sunlight on the water and noting the various biker-wedding related going ons. So we settled in for a few pints and ate there again when we got hungry.
Finally, somewhat reluctantly, we left and walked on towards the other Shiel Bridge campsite in Morvich. Passing mountain goats and letting the wedding party pass us as we went, watching the cars zoom across the road built out into the loch and admiring the tumbledown buildings. I managed to drop the camera on the road which was one heart breaking moment but luckily the only damage it suffered was a slight scratch on the case - I was a lot more careful for the rest of the walk!!
The Morvich campsite looked like a grim caravan site from a distance but up close was a lovely site with teletubbie style grass and good clean facilities. Any campsite with picnic tables for the campers gets extra marks in my book anyway.
Time on our feet: very little
Distance: about 3km
Up at 6 after a good night's sleep despite the damp and rather unsanitary feel of the place. We set off along Barrisdale Bay and headed, still slightly sleepily, right to follow the flanks of Loch Hourn. I'd expected this part to be flat for some strange reason - but it wasn't. It was however interesting and varied with green filled gullies, strange rock boulders, colourful birds and interesting pines and other vegetation (neither of us know anything about flora or fauna so we're free to enjoy things for what they appear to be rather than what they are...).
We stopped about 3/4s of the way along to have some cereal (the water in the bothy was not safe to drink so we'd just had a couple of cups of tea) and it was then that the day started to turn sour. Dave spotted a little tiny bug crawling on him and it soon became clear that there were ticks around. Originally we'd thought that it was the wrong time of year for ticks but despite this there's no substitute for reality and the ticks obviously didn't realise that they weren't suppose to be around. A quick investigation proved that not only were there ticks around this particularly nice and scenic riverside spot that we had chosen but that there were also ticks embedded in various parts of our anatomies. Nice. During the course of our investigations, Dave was examining my chest, obviously the only other walkers we'd seen that day came traipsing down the path. A comedy moment looking back on it and I hope they weren't too offended at my flashing them.
A bit disheartened by this we packed up quickly and walked on, a little subdued.
We carried on towards Kinloch Hourn, passing a family having a picnic and a couple in a car who were curious where our path came from. There wasn't much in Kinloch Hourn to attract our attention - it was probably a sign of our slight depression that we weren't even tempted by the cafe - so we continued on.
A steep ascent first through the gardens of Kinloch Hourn House and then up a rough track at an even steeper angle followed. Once up then there were great views again across the lochs and various mountain peaks that we could see but couldn't identify. From here it was estate track and a steady ascent through the Kinlochhourn Forest, going past the small shed of a shelter and then branching off right away at the end of the track and heading up the Allt Coire Mhalagain towards the Bealach Coire Mhalagain. There was no path and it was again a case of zigzagging across the river to try to find the best approach, avoiding the spurs and gorges and as much of the damp boggy stuff as we could. It was hard work but slightly alleviated by the awesome views behind us and by the imposing Saddle and Forcan Ridge to the left of us.
We made it up to the lochan (at 699 metres possible the highest point of our walk?) and were lucky to meet someone up there who knew which way down we should take as the instructions in the book were unclear once we were there. The book suggests you look for a 'line of large stones' but actually you should look for a dry stone wall that contours down around the base of the Forcan Ridge and leads you on to a path over the Meallan Odhar and then to the Bealach na Craoibhe. The sun was starting to lower now and was glinting on the remains of snow that dotted the ridge. The scenery was rocky and Dave was in his element.
From the bealach there were two choices - the straightforward one was to take the path that descended to your right and follow the main road to Shiel Bridge, the less straightforward one was to descend without a path down the steep grassy slope to your left and then follow the Allt a Choire Chaoil along until it joined the Allt Undalain. Obviously the latter being harder and wetter then that was the route we were going to follow... After trudging for some time we finally found a path after crossing to the left side of the Allt Undalain and we followed this, racing the sinking sun, down to Shiel Bridge - finally getting some pace in to our aching legs.
It sounds like it should be easy to follow a river valley (or so I thought at least) but the windings of the river, the spurs of land, the gorges of the tributaries, all combine to make it much more of a challenge than I had expected. Perhaps I should have a look again at ridge walks as an alternative despite my lack of balance and fear of heights (much reduced after this walk it has to be said).
Stalking straight past the campsite we headed straight for our first pint of the trip and made it to the Kintail Lodge Hotel about 8.30. They were, bless 'em, still serving food until 9.30 so we had several pints followed by delicious meals followed by some more pints. www.kintaillodgehotel.co.uk
It felt long a long way back to the campsite (the bunkhouse here was booked for a wedding party) and it was hard work putting up the tent for the first time this trip but we made it before the rain came down.
Dave woke up about 4 with slightly damp feet as a result of our slightly impaired putting up of the tent but we shuffled things around and luckily didn't have to repitch the whole thing...
Time on our feet: 8.15 to 8.30 - 12.25 hrs
Distance: about 26km
Up at 6 and a quick pack up and breakfast, trying to be quiet and not disturb the others too much (also getting over the shock of being the first up!).
Another lovely morning with wisps of cloud over the river and the glow of sunrise beginning to illuminate the valley. Despite that I woke up in a bad mood and was finding it hard going to start with.
Today's route started of by working back on to the main path along Glen Dessarry, skirting along the forest plantation and gently up (avoiding boggy patches which is pretty much a theme to some extent or another of the whole walk) towards Bealach an Lagain Duibh where we had a quick snack break and I enjoyed the feeling of already having reached the first pass of the day.
Next a long descent down to Sourlies bothy on Loch Nevis - a boggy sludge with lots of rivers, deer sightings, pretty lochans and massive waterfalls. Glad we didn't try to force ourselves all the way to Sourlies on the first day - it would have been hard work, miserable and we wouldn't have been at all in the mood to admire the scenery and the solitude around us.
Apart from deer and insects we saw no-one all day. At Sourlies (which seems like a great bothy, very mountain hut like with interesting hammock feature) there were a few tents scattered in front but no people. Also lots of empty mussel shells.
However, it was too early for us to stop there for the day and we pressed on after another short 9 bar stop. 9 bars are awesome and have got us through many energy lows on our various walks - http://www.9-bar.co.uk/
The next part of the day, again in the heat and humidity that threatened to drain our energy reserves and shorten tempers, was along the 'estuary' following the River Carnoch. It was a hard slog but relieved by the joys of the scenery. The valley narrowed but it was still boggy and at one point we ended up on a sort of short cut that was quite a precipitous path along the river. The river was awesome, plunge pools and rocks and rapids flowing high and low through a primrose covered gorge. There were a couple of possible places to wild camp but again it was too early and we pushed on.
At the end of the river the instructions state that you go off the path to 'leave the river and ascend the very steep side of the glen' for about 100 metres. We didn't feel this instruction really did justice to the amount of height!! After scrambling up for what felt like a long time we did finally manage to find the promised path and, after shaking out my wobbly knees, continued to climb gradually up to the bealach before descending down Gleann Unndalain. The descent today was long but on good path even if some of it was a little scary (to me). There were more stunning waterfalls and no people to be seen, only deer (some alive, some dead).
Eventually we made it down to Barrisdale bothy (not an MBA one) about 7. There were quite a few people camping here and no-one staying in the bothy itself which we thought was a bit odd until we had a look at the rooms - the ceiling was covered in damp mould and there was rubbish under the bunks as well as some sort of unidentified turd on the floor of the toilet. Nevertheless, we stayed in the bothy so that we didn't have to worry so much about packing in the morning, so we could get and stay dry (my feet again particularly) and I thought we might as well make the most of them when we found them. Not to mention to save any issues that might arise with Dave's back.
Time on our feet: 7.30 to 7, 11.5 hrs
Distance covered: about 21km
Woke up to a fine day with horizontal strips of mist hovering over Loch Linhe. Had breakfast in the bunkhouse and spent some time on the terrace drinking tea, looking out over the loch and watching the white mist roll in from Ben Nevis' direction. Pondering the trip ahead...
Caught the 8.30 train from Fort William out to Glenfinnan.
We'd chosen, after a lot of consideration of the various options, to start here rather than Fort William as it avoided the road walk you faced if you took the ferry straight from the town. We'd also chosen not to do the Cameron McNeish variation that started off along the Great Glen Way as we were keen not to miss out the Knoydart section - even though we knew that this would make the first few days some of the hardest of the whole trip. As neither of us had been further north than Fort William we thought we'd stick to the definitive route - trusting that the authors had something in mind when they picked the route!
Another advantage to doing it this way was crossing over the Glenfinnan Viaduct (the Harry Potter bridge) and then being able to walk back up under it.
After a bidt of final fiddling with packs (and me pre-emptively taping the parts of my feet that have been hot spots in the past) we set off about 9.30. First along a bit of the road and then left up in to Glen Finnan - up a good road then track then path and a nice gentle way to start. The Corryhully bothy was the first point of interest we went by, having a nosy look inside and stopping for a brief chat with the one guy we'd seen so far - he was spending a few days Munro bagging (a common theme for many of the walkers we met - very very few were doing the CWT). We paused about 12.30 for a 'lunch' of 9 bars, dried fruit and nuts up on the pass of Bealach Chaorainn. The glen was pleasant and gave us some time to adjust to the packs which were definitely heavier than they were for our practice weekend!
The second half of the day was a lot tougher, a bit of a reality check after the easy morning. The heat and humidity had got more and more oppressive as we'd progressed and the good path simply ran out at the top of the pass. We descended down the Gleann a'Chaorainn over wet, boggy tussocks with no clear path or direction of how to stay with dry feet. We criss-crossed the river as we went, trying to find the easiest/ driest route and not always succeeding. Up high to our left, in the shimmering of heat haze, we saw our first tentative herd of deer and were naively pleased - not considering at all that this also meant we were firmly in tick territory now.
The descent seemed to take forever, the affects of the heat and the first efforts of the trip not helped by my clumsily falling over at any opportunity and ending up with wet and gritty feet (there's a fine line between the risk of wet feet and the need to put on the Goretex socks - I often miss it!).
Actually, here's a good time to state that we were both using Inov8 with Goretex socks for when they were needed - a great plan but hampered a little by the differences between us. Dave's Inov8s have a much higher surround and this means that he can walk over things and not get wet where as I will get wet. The shoes are only partly to blame, I am not anywhere near as graceful as Dave is at walking and that is particularly true of river crossings (though I did improve at this as we went - I had to).
Eventually, after plumping for the eastern side of the river, we headed towards the forest and the next stage. We arrived at the brige over the river Pean (probably should have cooled off here) and felt whacked out. There was a choice now. Our original plan A had been to head all the way to the Sourlies bothy but it was clear now that we were not really in the mood or the state to go that much further. So instead we headed in to the forest and cut through on the forest paths towards A'Chuil (the house of Eil) bothy in Glen Dessarry, arriving about 5.
After a quick dip in the cold river we headed up to the bothy to eat soup and rehydrate some food and ate outside in the warm glow of the sunset, chatting a little to the others who were in the bothy (all of them bagging tops of one size or another). This was our busiest bothy experience but I was too tired to worry about the basic sleeping arrangements or who's snoring was the worst.
Time on our feet: 9.30 to 5 - 7.5hrs
Distance covered: about 17km
Thursday, 5 May 2011
Base pack weights were about 7.5kg for Dave and about 6kg for me (without food or water or fuel). Dave's pack weight goes right on up there once the food gets added as I'm only carrying a few days of day food at most (being the weakling of the outfit).
We'd managed to get train tickets for £60 but only at very specific times so we left Sheffield at 12.56 and headed off on the journey north via Doncaster, Edinburgh and Glasgow - finally arriving at Fort William just after 10pm.
Stayed in a twin room at the Fort William Backpackers (http://www.fortwilliambackpackers.com/) which was great. It was near the train station and had a good relaxed atmosphere. We also had a good chat with Andy, one of the guys running the hostel, who'd done quite a lot of walking along the route we were taking and he recommended a couple of things that came in very useful later.
The journey up was easy and long, giving Dave a last chance to put some information on the paper sheets of route instructions and giving me a chance to look longingly out of the window on the way from Glasgow up - remembering last year's journey on the West Highland Way and spotting familiar valleys. There was much less snow on the tops this year. But the more we got in to the mountains the more excited I started to feel about what we were about to do and the more relish I felt in the change of scale within the year.
The West Highland Way was a great first backpack for me - straightforward in some ways but a definite step up from the occasional weekend backpacks - but the Cape Wrath Trail is something else altogether! Very few people (that I talked to) seem to have heard of the trail but one thing that all the blogs agree on is that it is a tough trail that requires serious effort. So the question remained - was I tough enough??
Dave had spent the previous week planning the route on the maps using the guidebook and looking at the variations that were detailed on different blogs - giving us plenty of options and working out distances and possible places to stay the nights. I'd spent some time in the evenings picking information out of the book so that we had instructions to go with the basic route.
There was a rough itinerary that looked like it would take us 17 days to complete the trip.
We spent a frantic morning wrapping up the food parcels we were planning to send ahead. Dave had phoned places at appropriate distances to check they were happy to take delivery and he'd ordered in enough dehydrated food, 9 bars and fruits and nuts to sink a battleship - all we needed to do was find shoeboxes the right size and then make sure the right maps got send ahead to the right destinations. We dragged the four boxes to the post office and sent them off - one less thing to worry about; we'd worry about the boxes getting lost if that happened...
The afternoon was spent washing and treating and drying our technical clothing. Then shopping - those last minute bits and pieces and our last decent coffee for a while.
And then in the evening we packed. Because most of the gear we've used before we've got packing off to an almost fine art so it didn't take that long. So we had plenty of time to order in pizza and watch a couple of films. Our last night in our own bed for a while and a fine night's sleep.
It's going to take a while to put together the route description, updates on facilities, and some pictures (it'll probably take longer than the actual walk!) and may evolve as it goes. But here goes - maybe someone out there will find it useful or be inspired to try some or all of the walk.
One thing is for sure, we're unlikely to do the exact same route again but we're certainly going to head back up to the areas sometime. We saw some amazing scenery and met some wonderful, interesting and friendly characters. You can't ask for much more than that...