Monday, 6 June 2011

Day 17 - (Durness) to (Sheffield)

Wednesday 4 May - The journey home
The alarm went off at 7 this morning and we got up and packed. I'd been up to go to the loo already and had just missed a spectacular sunrise though the golden glow was already flooding across the campsite. At 8 we were waiting outside the Spar for the bus that would take us to Lairg to catch the train to Inverness. The two hour plus drive to Lairg was along mostly single lane road and criss-crossed some areas we'd walked across in the last couple of days - we drove to Kinlochbervie and past Rhiconich and through Achfary and past Stack Lodge. It was strange to revisit these places and to think that it only took an hour or so to drive when it had taken us several days to zig zag walk to the same place.
The train station was cold and blustery and the train was a little late but at that point we were off the interesting part of the trip and on to the conveyor belt home.
From Inverness it was train to Edinburgh and then to Sheffield and we got home about 9 - bored of travelling after 13 solid hours and a little shell shocked by civilisation such as it is.

Day 16 - Sandwood Bay to Cape Wrath (Durness)

Tuesday 3 May
We got up before the alarm went off today - chilled in the shadow of our dune - and Dave was so cold we had to pack up quickly and get going with no time for tea or food. We knew we had to make a relatively early start to get to Cape Wrath in time to meet the minibus to take us to the ferry to take us to Durness - Dave had called the day before from the Kinlochbervie Hotel to make sure the bus was running and also called the MoD to make sure that the firing range wasn't in use - we were in luck on both counts.
First obstacle was a crossing of the outpouring from Sandwood Loch which meant chilled feet for me. Second obstacle was a scramble up the cliffside - not my favourite thing to do first thing in the morning when I was still mostly asleep still - to get up high for the final slog across basically featureless bog in the general direction of the lighthouse.
This section was probably the hardest of the whole walk. Dave was bad tempered because he took a long time to warm up. I was upset because he was going too quickly for me and I kept falling into bog filled holes in a vain attempt to keep up. There was a particularly low point when Dave wanted to climb over a fence but I spotted a style and insisted on heading for that only to find myself knee deep in bog.
Eventually I had a little sob and we had a little hug and then we went on in better spirits. I think I was feeling emotional about coming close to the finish. I guess a part of me had never expected to do it, and definitely hadn't expected it to go so well. That's not to say I found it easy because it was still a challenge - but it was bearable, doable.
We had to climb another fence to get into MoD land and then up and over a hill, Sithean na h-Iolaireich, up a gully that looked like it might have been carved out by missile. The guidebook suggested that you walk near to the cliff edge but after having been up and down gullies and finding the bog still wet we decided to head off from this direction to avoid the final gully (which looked much too craggy on the map) of Allt na Clais Leobairnich and cut across to try to hit the track as soon as possible. This paid off and we clambered up from the bog on to the track for the last few kilometres.
Like the approach to the bay the day before, the approach to the lighthouse saved a view of the final destination until we were nearly there. Before then we came across some sort of sea predator bird perched on the side of the path for a moment before it took off to soar down below us towards the cliffs. The first sight of the lighthouse was a welcome one. The day was already hot enough that we had been wearing our sunhats for a couple of hours and we were looking forward to the promised 24hr cafe Ozone that we had heard about.
Just before the lighthouse we heard a pack of dogs barking away and for a moment I thought we might not make it to the end but then a door opened and a tall weathered man came out of one entrance and walked in to another - one with open and inviting red doors and a couple of nascent planters at the sides. This was Cafe Ozone and it was indeed open. We had several pots of tea and sandwiches and cake and then had a wander around the cliff top taking photos and a chat to the man who lives there while we were waiting for the minibus to show up. And reading the posters explaining the history of lighthouses. By the way, Cape Wrath doesn't describe the emotion of the area - Wrath is old Norse for turning point and it simply describles the point where the Vikings would turn to the east so that they could follow the coast towards their home.
The place is definitely out of the way and I couldn't imagine living there with the winter storms battering against the windows and the rough living conditions. The couple have been there about 4 years, getting cheap rent in exchange for running the cafe to encourage visitors - there's talk of them turning part of the buildings into a bunk barn for walkers. Meanwhile the lighthouse is automated and remote. Up on the hillside there was an old building that looked like the sort of squat concrete block that would have made a perfect Victorian lunatic asylum but was actually supposed to be an abandonned radar station.
When the minibus arrived, after the driver had cleared up the dog sick, we were whisked off so that the driver could pick up another lot of visitors - it was a busy day driven by the good weather. And so we started our long way home. The track covers about 11 miles along the north coast of Scotland to the ferry slipway on the Kyle of Durness. As we rattled along the track we chatted with the driver. He told us about the annual battle the local council fought against erosion on the road to keep it drivable. He told us about the two tourists in 12 years they had 'lost' over the side of the cliffs at Cape Wrath - one a keen bird photographer who stepped backwards unseeing off the edge and the other someone sitting on a nylon anorak on wet grass who basically sledded off the edge. He pointed out basking seals on the sandbanks in the Kyle of Durness among the clear turquoise of the water.
John the ferryman was waiting for us at the waters edge but it took some fussing before we set off in the motorboat across the short distance.
When we landed we chatted to some people who were waiting for the next crossing so they could go up to the lighthouse. As they got chatting to John we started walking along the road but, when they found out they would have to wait a couple of hours before the next trip, they offered us a lift to Durness which we gladly accepted. We weren't on the trail any more - lifts were finally acceptable.
And so we settled in to an afternoon in Durness. Visiting the tourist information centre to find out about transport out (only the 8.10 bus until the 16 May) then for more food at the local pub then to the campsite to set up the tent, do some washing, have a long and welcome shower and generally getting ready for a reluctant return to reality. I'd phoned home from the pub and been told that there had been a fair amount of forest fires burning around the area we had walked through a couple of days before - including a couple of walkers having to be helicoptered out. Again we were grateful for the luck we'd had.
After sorting out our worldly belongings we headed back to the pub for beer, pool and more food before heading to bed about 10.30.

Time on feet: 6.15 to 10.30, about 4.25 hrs
Distance covered: about 11k

Day 15 - Loch a'Garbh-bhaid Mor to Sandwood Bay

Monday 2 May
Alarm failed to go off at 6 but we woke up anyway, chilly but happy. Every time I woke up in the middle of the night the sky was ever more spectacular, a huge expanse of benevolent darkness dotted with diamond sparkles. It felt good to sleep out in such a setting.
As I tried to shake the sleep from my brain, before venturing out of the sleeping bag, I thought I heard deer footsteps on the hillside behind us - but by the time I'd wriggled out whatever had been there or not there had gone or not gone.
Got up, had tea and cereal and got packed up and on our way by 8.30.
The traverse along the edge of the loch had looked quite challenging the night before but in reality it was relatively easy and we made good time along the eastern bank of the first loch and then along the wind swept Loch a'Garbh-bhaid Beag (with interesting looking crags on the western side and a huge but lonely looking swan swimming around in the middle of the loch), forded the Garbh Allt and then joined a track down to Rhiconich.
At Rhiconich we were the only patrons of the hotel where we had tea and carrot cake and a little chat with the owner who pointed us towards the nearest little shop on our route and bemoaned the closing down of local facilities. He pointed out that anyone living around there who wanted to go to Inverness for proper shopping would have to go overnight if they were going by public transport.
We carried on, again under hot blue skies, and headed along the winding B801 road towards Kinlochbervie. The road was quite long but not a bad walk and the opportunities to admire the loch-filled, sea-viewed vistas were plentiful. We paused at the local shop on the way through Achriesgill - where we bought some great apples and realised that we hadn't had much fruit for the past two weeks. The walk along the road was made more interesting by the occasional wreck or rusted pile of heavy farm machinery and tumbledown shacks with car seats randomly outside.
In Kinlochbervie we detoured away from the route for a little trip down to the harbourside where the fishing boats were docked (the fishing and seagulls and the wreckage along the way reminding me of the town portrayed in Ken Kesey's Sailor Song) and went to the Spar for some ice cream before doubling back and heading to the Kinlochbervie hotel for a coffee and a refresh of our water. We didn't meet anyone along the whole way who objected to us topping up our water or to our hot and sweaty and, by now especially, unwashed bodies. In fact, apart from that one nasty bloke near Strathcarron, everybody we met seemed to be friendly and helpful and interested.
More road walking followed until we hit Blairmore and the car park from where a track would lead us down to Sandwood Bay. We were going quite quickly by now - covered about 8 miles in 2 hours and it wasn't even flat walking (though nor was it hilly as such) - and we started meeting people who were coming back from a day at the bay, chatting to a few of them as we passed by. It was another gorgeous bank holiday.
We didn't really get a good view of the bay until we were very close to it and then we finally saw what all the fuss was about. I'd been told by various people before we left how fantastic this whole bit of coastline was and they weren't wrong. Ahead of us stretched out a long crescent of golden sand with blue but white-topped waves crashing in around some of the rocks that littered the beach. As we descended down sandy dunes towards the sea we could see the Sandwood Stack off to our left, slightly fuzzy in the haze of the afternoon sun.
Walking in the sand was hard work as it always is, sinking backwards and downwards at every step, but we made our way along the beach before having a quick strip and dip (again in freezing cold water) and then getting dressed hurriedly as a couple who'd arrived behind us started heading our way.
We found a nesting place in the dunes, ate and got ready to settle in on our groundsheet again for the night and trusting now that it seemed it was highly unlikely to rain - our luck just seemed to be holding so well in terms of the weather.
As the sun started to go down so the temperature dropped and the wind started to pick up and we dressed in duvet jackets and fleece hats so that we could admire the sunset in comfort from the top of one of the walls surrounding our little nest. For a while, it was still a fair time till the sun would hit the horizon out to sea, we watched a beetle struggled up the steep slope of the dune towards us but our enjoyment turned to slight panic as it became clear that the beetle was heading directly for us and seemed determined to climb up onto Dave's jacket. Fearing some sort of attack Dave panicked and sent the beetle scurrying back down the slope beneath an avalanche of sand. He then had to hurry down the slope himself so he could dig the beetle out and make sure it was okay!
The sun, becoming a blood red orb, set right over the sea - a very fitting last night scene - and we finally got up and walking down again to the sea's edge to watch the final sinking of the sun beneath the horizon before retreating back and snuggling down in the warmth of our sleeping bags. The light from the sunset seemed to last forever but when I woke in the middle of the night the stars were all out again and I remember feeling really happy to be there. One time when I woke up there were the bright but small lights of a fishing boat visible out at sea.
It was hard to believe that our walk was nearly over, it was hard to believe that we were actually about to make it (barring final accidents and emergencies).
I was looking forward to a hot shower and clean clothes by now but I didn't want it to end.

Time on feet: 8.30 to 5.30, about 9 hrs
Distance covered: about 29k

Day 14 - Kylesku to Loch a'Garbh-bhaid Mor

Sunday 1 May
Alarm went off at 6 but neither of us wanted to get up so we continued to doze quite happily, comfortably and tick free, until about 9.30. Had a great night's sleep on flat ground and in an interesting location. There wasn't so much traffic and the view was great.
Finally got going, after cereal and tea, about 11.
The first part of the walk today involved crossing the Kylesku Bridge that we had camped under and then carrying on up the road for a while until we took a right turn towards Kylestrome and some sort of forest centre before branching left up a track through some trees and out on to the hillside where we ascended up and along with great views back towards the lochs, the village of Kylesku, and the looming shadows of the surrounding mountains.
We also started to see glimpses of the sea proper.
The track was good but again it was blue skies and hot, not helped by our late start, so it was hardish work going up hill - but seemed like a million miles away from our early days in Knoydart. The ascent continued till we hit the Bealach nam Fiann and then a quicker descent, still on good track, towards the Reay Forest. Going down the track we bumped into a Cape Wrather going north-south on a route completely of his own devising. He was a light weighter too - made more so by him managing to lose various parts of his kit on his first night at the bothy near Cape Wrath. We chatted for a bit and then wished him luck and carried on into the forest - enjoying the dappled shade of the pines and marvelling at the moss covered lumpen shape that looked from a distance like a transformed troll just waiting and biding its time until we got nearer.
Through the forest we went past Lochmore Lodge, with a huge lump of mangled lead nearby, and then emerged onto the shore of Loch More before turning along the road for the short walk to Achfary. The little village seemed deserted, definitely no cafe or pub, apart from a little girl playing outside a house and an older man sitting in a boat who we didn't even see until he greeted us as we turned from the main road up towards the forest track that was to lead us up along the Allt Achadh Fairidh. It felt like the hottest day of the walk so far and we were already nearly out of water so we paused for a little while in the shade of the plantation to have a quick snack.
Further up, once we were out of the shade, we refilled our water bottles and trudged on up the track towards the end of the valley before heading off right and following a deer fence along and down a quicker descent towards Stack Lodge.
Before the descent to the road we admired the strange rock pillows of the area in front of us, the area we were going to be working our way around. If you look on the map the craggy rocks almost look like city blocks that have been flooded with puddles.
At the road we found a path down to the foot bridge to cross over the river and then a path led towards and around the lodge before skirting the edge of Loch Stack and continuing NE and then N. It was starting to get a little late now and we were both tired in the heat. But ahead of us was the large expanse of Arkle and then later was the grey expanse of Foinaven - so there was something interesting to look at.
Eventually we had to leave the rough but easy track and head off towards the Loch a'Garbh-bhaid Mor where we were hoping to find somewhere to camp. This section was boggy even after all this time without rain and it wasn't clear where we should be heading - small rises blocked our view forwards. And then there were parts of the ground that were so dried out they crunched whe you walked on them.
After a little bit of bad tempered scouting about we found the loch and headed down a little gully towards it. It was very soon clear that there was no flat or dry ground to camp on so we set up the groundsheet on the small strip of sandy beach and hoped it wouldn't rain.
A quick strip wash later, in the last of the still hot sun but in freezing cold water, and we'd discovered that Dave was covered in more ticks - including in some very intimate places and on his windpipe. Nasty. Between us we got rid of the little beggars and then had tea.
Even when the sun disappeared behind the ridge to our left and a chilly breeze picked up it was still hugely pleasant (and despite the many tiny spiders that appeared all over the place). As it got darker and the stars came out we listened and watched as the birds of the loch settled in for the night by flying swooping traverses of the loch, squeaking as they went. The sun was going down to the north and formed gorgeous colours of deep red and orange in the v shape that showed our way forward for the next day.
At one point a bird we couldn't see flew past us and landed with a plop at the edge of the loch, then ran across the shoreline splashing and squawking loudly at us before panicking as it got close and turning tail and running back again - like a roadrunner but noisier. It was the funniest thing we'd seen all walk.
And so we tucked ourselves into our sleeping bags, and bivvies just in case the weather turned as it had last time we'd tried to sleep out - especially as we had no tent to retreat to, and fell asleep under a billion bright stars.

Time on feet: 11 to 7.30, 8.5 hrs
Distance covered: about 24k

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Day 13 - Inchnadamph to Kylesku

Saturday 30 April
I got up early to go to the loo and came back to discover that the tent was crawling with ticks - not a good way to start the day. So we got up, shook everything out, had some breakfast on a picnic table, and then left as soon as we could.
We started by backtracking up the way we had come the night before but then set off left before we crossed the footbridge and started up Allt Poll an Droighinn. The path quickly deteriorated into a boggy heath covered trudge and the wind had picked up to gust us along and about. It was wet and featureless and we were both in bad moods after the efforts of the day before and the disappointment with ticks making it almost impossible for us to stop and rest and enjoy the places we were passing through (when it wasn't too boggy anyway). It makes it sound grim but it was also awesome and we were heading up towards a rocky looking bealach with an eagle flying above and strange duck-like birds waddling across the rocks. It was hot when it wasn't windy and once again there didn't seem to be much of an early morning let up in the temperature.
Once we reached the Bealach na h-Uidhe it was a long zig-zag of a descent, but on a good and well-defined path that was a change from the peat bog - for as long as it lasted.
At the point where the path turned off to visit the Eas a'Chual Aluinn waterfall - the biggest waterfall in Britain - we stowed our packs behind a rock (not that there seemed much chance of random thieves considering there weren't even any walkers) and followed the burn down to the drop - noting that some of the peat had dried out so much that it was cracked as if it was in the desert. It was a bit too much of a drop for me but the view from the ledge above the drop looked a long way down and over towards Loch Beag. The lack of rain meant that the volume of the fall wasn't high but it was still spectacular.
We'd been told by a couple of people that it was possible to descend somehow directly from the waterfall and head over the east side of Loch Beag and to head towards a couple of bothies that meant you cut out the long bit of road walking. But we couldn't quite see how that would work so we stuck with the route in mind, also because it would have added quite a bit of distance on, and because we'd been told about one CWT walker who'd managed to poison themselves with the water in that area, and maybe because the bridge lights of Kylesku were tempting (probably not the last one!).
Instead we went back to our packs and loaded up again to continue on the windy path, as usual good in some places and boggy or missing in others, and headed down towards the road following another burn. The mountains ahead seemed to be smaller now and there were patches of vast lochs ahead.
We hit the A894, after walking along the side of Loch na Gainmhich, and walked along it for some time. This is a relatively pleasant bit of road, relatively wide for the amount of traffic and with better grass verges to jump on to when needed. At the bottom of the steep descent just after we'd joined the road we had a brief chat with a European cyclist (who was just about it go up the hill and head towards Ullapool) - it struck us that the windy way we were going was so indirect in many ways as to be indecipherable to most people!
It might have been pleasant but the tarmac has an almost instantaneous effect on our feet - making them much sorer than the tricksy but soft peat and heather. So by the time we arrived at the Kylesku Hotel,, especially with the heat and with the tick-related mood, I was definitely ready for a stop. We had some beer and crisps and then we had some more and eventually we decided to hang out here - watching the wind lap against the slipway and admiring the loch and the mountains and the blue sky and the various people who were coming and going on the bank holiday weekend. I tried to get us a bed for the night (feeling a bit pathetic and dirty and wanting to have a shower - especially knowing this would almost certainly be the last chance before Durness) but with no luck. So instead we ate at the hotel, nice and friendly and busy place, and then headed off to find somewhere to wild camp before it got dark. We didn't get far. Just along the path shortcut back to the road Dave recognised the Kylesku Bridge as somewhere where people had camped on the route (the joy of other peoples' blogs) and so we set up camp underneath the road bridge and watched the last of the sunset.
It might sound grim to camp under a road bridge but it was flat and comfortable and realtively sheltered and tick-free and we had a very good night's sleep despite the gusting wind (tent didn't bat an eyelid).
It had been a hard day psychologically, mainly because the last two days had been hard work and had exacted a toll. It's not much fun to be in glorious weather and fantastic scenery and yet not be able to stop to enjoy it for fear of being attacked by tiny but potentially lethal creatures. Luckily the day had ended much more positively.

Time on feet: 8.15 to about 4, about 7 hours
Distance covered: 18k