Monday, 6 June 2011

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

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