Friday, June 17, 2011

Cape Wrath Trail, Day 13 to 15

Day 13

Strathcailleach to Cape Wrath, & on to Kearvaig

After yesterday's navigation debacle, I had the map & compass out to plan my route in detail. Oscar and Mark gave me the grid reference for the point they'd crossed the MOD fence the day before. I took a bearing, estimated the distance at 3 km, and judged it would take about an hour over trackless but clear ground. So 56 minutes later, I was gratified to be striding up to exactly the point where they had covered the barbed wire with plastic bottles, to climb over. From there, I took another bearing, taking me over a small hill and meeting the track to Cape Wrath Lighthouse, about 4.5 km away. At the top of the hill, I could see the track but not the lighthouse. I had a surge of relief and exctiement; barring a very unlikely accident, I knew I was going to make it!

I reached the track just over an hour later, and then strode out along it to the lighthouse. This is hidden around the other side of a small hill, so you don't see it until only a couple of hundred metres away.

I noticed there was a small cafe there, but I'd planned to make a brew myself. I sat in front of the wall, out of the wind, looking out over the Atlantic, next stop Newfoundland (I couldn't see it.) I'd been saving a small cake (chocolate brownie) for the occasion, and had it with a cup of tea, watching a skein of geese fly past. As I was packing up, a minibus arrived with a group of tourists. After 2 weeks of near-solitude, I was perhaps a bit too eager to talk to them. However they all seemed impressed when I told them I'd walked there! I caught up with their driver in the cafe, and arranged to be picked up from Kearvaig Bothy at 1pm the next day (thus saving me a long walk to the Kyle of Durness).

Strolling down the track towards Kearvaig, I had a sense of quiet achievement. I'd made it to the Cape within 2 weeks, mostly under my own steam (hitched rides aside!) I'd been under a mild but constant pressure to keep walking, and get just that little bit further each day. Now that pressure was lifted, and I now I could look forward to a relaxing night in a good bothy.

Kearvaig Bay came into view, and didn't disappoint. A perfect golden beach, enclosed by high cliffs, with a turquoise sea breaking over the rocks, and the white-walled bothy set on a green lawn. No-one else was there, but there was a box of firewood and a supply of bottled water, left by the MOD who use it regularly. I had a brew, then went out exploring. It was a windy and hazy day, with a slight haar coming in off the sea. When I got back to the bothy, three fishermen had arrived, with a very welcome bag of coal; and then later more walkers arrived. The weather improved, and we all enjoyed a clear if chilly evening, watching the lingering rays of the sun slowly fade, and the stars come out overhead. In the gloaming, we also spotted a fox trotting along the beach, no doubt in search of seabird nests. An idyllic end to a fantastic walk!

Distance: 17.5 Km
Time: 4.5 hrs

Day 14

Kearvaig back to Ullapool

I felt I deserved a lie in, but even so I was up reasonably early. It was a sunny and breezy day, and the bay looked even more beautiful in the clear morning air. I took a walk up along the clifftops, taking pictures of the nesting birds on the cliffs. At one point I disturbed the fox, which ran off from behind a rock, where it had presumably been dozing and dreaming of fresh eggs. The others had all gone off for the day, so fittingly enough I had a last brew and lunch on my own, then walked up the track to wait for the minibus.

I was picked up shortly after 1pm, and was soon at the Kyle of Durness, another beautiful spot. Seals basked along golden sandbars, and a variety of sea and land-birds wheeled around us. The "ferry" arrived, actually just a man in an open boat with an outboard motor. As it was still windy, we had a bit of a soaking on the way over, although it was still sunny.

At Durness, I first thought I might have made a mistake. I was relying on hitching a lift south to Ullapool, but it was a suspiciously quiet road! I just had to be patient though, and after a while a retired couple picked me up. They were on a scenic drive, and decided they might as well go to Ullapool too, so they very kindly took me all the way to the campsite. I celebrated that evening at the Seaforth Hotel, in their seafood bar, with a huge plate of their award winning fish and chips. 

Day 15

Ullapool to Glenfinnan

Another early start, and breakfast at the Tea Store; then I started hitching back to Glenfinnan. The day went very well, with my first lift taking me to the outskirts of Inverness; the second down Loch Ness as far as Drumdrochit; and the third all the way back to my car at Glenfinnan.

I arrived at the car two weeks and half an hour after leaving. A quite surreal feeling! I changed into some clean "ordinary" clothes, and set off back down to England; with a strange mixture of feelings. Relief at finishing and everything going to plan; proud that I'd made it without any major mishaps; delighted with such fine weather; anticipation of sleeping in my own bed that night; but sad to be leaving that beautiful country.

I promised myself, I'd be back soon!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Cape Wrath Trail, Day 10 to 12

Day 10

Elphin to Quinaq

Here my route deviates from the usual Cape Wrath one. Rather than head east to Knockdamph, I wanted to go north through Inverpolly, past Suilven. This meant a long hike up the road out of Ullapool, which I shamelessly avoided by hitching. I quickly got a lift up to Elphin, and was off along the track by 8:30am. I reckon this cut a day of walking from the overall trail, but I'm not a purist or claiming any records. Anyway it's my holiday, so there.

Another sunny and breezy day, with Suilven and Canisp rising dramatically ahead of me. Unfortunately I lost the path after a couple of miles, and had to slog over grass and bog for a mile or so. Falling over at one point didn't help my mood. But then back on a good landrover track, which led me along and below Suilven. It's a very impressive mountain, with its steep sides, two main tops and undulating ridge. I ate lunch underneath it, and shortly afterwards met some guys just down from the summit, which was extremely windy. I also dropped into Suilag Bothy, and was tempted to stop there. However it wasn't even 2pm yet, so I left it for another trip.

The rest day in Ullapool hadn't done me as much good as I expected. I think I'd got out of the rhythm a bit, and my heels were complaining again. A stretch of road walking, with no lifts available this time, didn't help. I took the path up to Gleann Leireag which took me towards Quinaq, another very beautiful mountian. I found a camping spot beneath the crags on the North west of Quinaq, and it was a very impressive spot in the evening sun. The wind dropped too, and so after quite a hard day, I enjoyed an idyllic evening, sitting in the tent brewing tea & eating eccles cakes.

Distance: 26 Km
Time: 10.5 hrs

Day 11

Quinaq to Loch Stack

Another fine morning, although chilly and heavy dew on the tent & grass around me. The sun soon burned off the light cloud, and it was a easy walk out to the minor road which leads to Kylesku. I didn't mind walking along the road in the cool morning sun, there were good views of the coast, each bend of the road revealing another little idyllic bay. After about an hour though, a car stopped and offered me a lift. Rude to refuse, I thought, and so I got a lift to Unapool, about 1 1/2 miles from Kylesku. There I got a cheese & ham toastie and pot of tea from the very twee 'Teashop, Doll and Toy Museum'. This offers a great view of the geologically important Moine Thrust and Glen Coul Thrust, which can be clearly seen in the slanted rock strata above the lochs.

From there I walked up the road and then took the track towards Loch Stack. It was still sunny and breezy, and the extended dry spell was giving me some problems. Normally I'd refill my water bottle from streams along the way, but with water levels so low many were stagnant and very peaty looking. So I was often quite thirsty along the way.

I had a superb view of Arkle and Loch Stack as I descended, once again more reminiscent of the Alps than Scotland. I met the only other walker of the day, an older lady who'd come over from Kylesku that morning & was on the way back again. Once down through the forest, I walked along the road, this time no-one gave me a lift and by the time I reached Loch Stack Lodge I was hot, tired and thirsty. I continued on a stalkers' path until I found a spot by a lochan, and camped there. It had been a long day and I was glad to just flake out early.

Distance: 30 Km
Time: 9.5 hrs

Day 12

Loch Stack to Sandwood Bay (Strathcailleach)

Another cool and breezy start, but sunny after an hour or so. I walked out to Rhiconich Hotel, and the sun not yet being over the yardarm, enjoyed a pint of orange & lemonade there. Then walking and hitching up the road to Kinlochbervie, where I bought some more food. From there I got a lift all the way to the Sandwood Bay track.

By now I was feeling fit, my aches and pains had all gone, the sun was out and I was within a day's walk of the Cape. I yomped over to Sandwood Bay in just over an hour, and took off my boots for a walk and paddle along the length of the beach.

Sandwood is said to be the best beach in Britain, and on a sunny afternoon I certainly wouldn't disagree. A huge perfect stretch of golden sand, with the turquoise sea rolling in, it could be mistaken for a tropical idyll. Until you try paddling, when you find the water removes all feeling from your feet in about 30 seconds. I had a very relaxing couple of hours there, comfy in the knowledge that my next stop, Strathcailleach Bothy, was only a couple of kilometres away.

Rabbie Burns said, of the best laid plans, "gan aft agly". I reckon I went aft agly as soon as I left Sandwood Bay. Looking at the map now, I have no idea how I managed to miss the bothy, but I ended up hacking over heather and bog for far longer than I should have done. I know very well that when you're lost, you go back to the last place you knew where you were. So I've no idea why I kept hacking on for another 3 km! By the time I stopped, mentally kicked my arse and started to retrace my steps, the sky had clouded over and bands of drizzle were sweeping in from the sea.

I finally found the bothy an hour later, and was glad to see I had company. The peat fire was lit and while peat doesn't exactly lend itself to roaring fires, it was putting out a very welcoming glow. Two Dutch fellas - Oscar and Mark - were in, they had just finished the Cape Wrath Trail and were retracing their steps back to Blairmore, to be picked up by their wives. They gave me some useful info and encouragement for the final day, and enthused over the Kearvaig Bothy, where I'd be staying after making it to the Cape..

Distance: 21 Km (should have been only 16 though!)

Time: Too long.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Cape Wrath Trail, Day 7 to 9

Day 7

Loch an Fada to Shenevall

With a short day ahead, I slept in to 7:30am, and was off just over an hour later. It was cool and breezy as I headed over pathless slopes towards Bealach na Croise, but once over the other side the sun began to cut through the haze and it warmed up. I met a pair of walkers who had camped at Loch an Nid, and were on their way to bag some Munroes. After that, a very pleasant stroll along the shores of the lochan, down past waterfalls and pools (too steep sided to get down into, sad to say), and then onto the broad plain leading towards Fisherfield and Shenevall Bothy, which I reached at 1:30pm.

Once again, I was the only one there, but it being Good Friday, I expected company later. The bothy is excellent, clean and well maintained, with a good supply of wood. However I decided that the bedroom could get stuffy later, with lots of people in and the weather so warm, so I put the tent up just outside. I spent the afternoon drinking tea, washing clothes, having a (short) dip in the river and sunbathing. Several groups arrived, but all were making the most of the good weather to press on and camp further into Fisherfield. Then in the early evening, 4 folk arrived from Aberdeen, one of whom, Claire, I knew from Glenmore Lodge. Claire was as pleasantly surprised to see me as I was her, especially when she declared they had plenty of wine and whisky to spare. She also arranged an Easter egg hunt around the bothy (2 Creme Eggs and a Caramel for me, thanks).

We had a great evening, scoffing, drinking, and watching the gorgeous sunset. There was also a stand-off between two groups of stags, over a set of hinds right outside the bothy. As it got dark we got a good fire going indoors, sat drinking whisky and 'rusty nails' and finished off a terrific relaxing day in there.

Distance: 13.2 Km
Time: 5 hrs

Day 8

Shenevall to Ullapool

Up & off by 7:30am. The weather had turned overnight, with a couple of showers and low cloud shrouding An Teallach, which spoiled Claire & Co's plans a bit. I set off for Corrie Hallie, and for a change, met quite a few people coming the other way, heading for An Teallach. It wasn't the best day for it, unfortunately.

There was no actual rain in the morning, though the cloud kept it cold and driech. Not too bad for walking though, and I soon reached Corrie Hallie and had a second breakfast (a mars bar Claire kindly gave me!) There was a group of French guys there, who'd been backpacking around for the past week or so. It was their final day, and they were heading to Inverbroom to get the bus to Inverness.

It was an uneventful walk over the tops towards Loch Broom, though I met two guys who had done the Cape Wrath Trail a couple of years before, and they were full of encouragement and useful advice. On the descent, I started to get sore heels again, so I was glad that I'd planned Sunday off in Ullapool. Getting close to the road, above a small plantation, I saw a cairn marking a path leading off by the edge of the wood. DO NOT follow this path! It was blocked by fallen trees, thorn bushes and brambles, a real struggle. By the time I reached the road, I was pretty hacked off and just wanted to get to Ullapool. I stuck out my thumb and before long got a lift all the way.

At Broomfield Campsite (surely the most consistently windy site in Scotland?) I had a very welcome (for me and anyone around me...) shower, got changed and hit the town. I had lunch at the excellent 'Tea Store', a small but perfectly formed establishment which supplied a huge pot of tea, delicious soup, a fresh tuna salad roll and flapjack for just £6. I bought more food, browsed some shops, and left a bag of surplus gear (mostly warm clothes) with the outdoor shop, who kindly agreed to look after it until next weekend.

Saturday evening started at the Seaforth Fisheries, voted best chippy in Scotland, and living up to its reputation. I'd say it's as good as fish & chips can get when cooked in vegetable oil; but as any Yorkshireman will tell you, proper fish n chips are done in beef dripping. The clouds cleared just before sunset, and I got some good pictures from the campsite, looking down Loch Broom. Then on to The Ceilidh Place, a sort of cafe/bar/bookshop, which is a great way to while away an hour or so. Quite a long day, so after a hot chocolate I turned in early.

Distance: 16 Km
Time: 7 hrs

Day 9

Rest Day!

A Sunday morning lie-in, with rain and wind rattling the tent. The front was forecast to pass over by afternoon though, and then a return to dry sunny weather for the next week. I spent some time repairing my feet - I had blisters on one heel, big toe and smaller toe, not too bad but I was careful to keep them clean and covered. My knee and Achilles tendon felt fine though.

I had an excellent full Scottish breakfast at The Tea Store, and spent the morning drinking tea, reading the Sunday papers and writing postcards. Another wander around Ullapool when the rain stopped (think I've seen it all now) and then a snooze back at the tent. Cooked myself some dinner (beans and scotch pies, I sure know how to live...) and went for a pint, finished my book and had another early night.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Cape Wrath Trail, Day 4 to 6

Day 4

Shiel Bridge to Maol Buidthe (via Falls of Glomach)

A late start, after the previous day's exertions. I spoiled myself with a tin of beans and sausages from the campsite shop - yes I know, but I'm worth it. Off walking again by 9:00am, but my left knee was quite stiff and sore. I took a couple of iboprofen (Vitamin I) and fortunately it eased off as I followed the forest path towards Glomach. As on previous days, I was the only one on the trail, and didn't see anyone else until lunchtime, at the top of the Falls.

The Falls of Glomach didn't disappoint, a huge cleft in the hillside contained two spectacular cataracts, with impressive cliffs on both sides. The path down, over precipitous slopes above the gorge, wasn't immediately obvious, but trust to the map and it becomes clear. It's an excellent route down, with good view all the way. I was soon at the forest road which leads to Iron Lodge. From here it was a good landrover track over the next pass, to Maol Buidhe bothy. This turned out to be a longer walk than I thought, and my right heel started playing up towards the end, but it was worth it for the bothy. Set amongst crags and mountains, near to Loch Calavie, it's a remote and beautiful spot. The maintenance officer was there, replacing some wood panelling, and he gave me lots of useful info on the bothies ahead of me. He also advised me not to go via Achneshellach the next day, but Strathcarron, and head for the Coire Fionnaraich Bothy. Excellent advice, as it turned out...

Distance: 26 Km
Time: 8 hrs

Day 5

Maol Buidhe to Coire Fionnaraich

Up at 6:30 and away by 7:30am, but my left knee was now very stiff and sore. More vitamin I helped, but I had to consider the option of getting to Strathcarron and bailing out there, or at least resting for a day or so. I was traversing pathless boggy ground, which certainly didn't help. The iPod was invaluable, I was listening to 'A History of the World in 100 Objects', and Neil McGregor's fruity tones (is that his real accent?) kept me from dwelling on my sore knee and carried me to ancient Egypt, Babylonia, China and Peru instead. Once I found a stalkers' path down to Bendronaig Lodge, my knee felt much better, and I was able to make good time over the next bealach & down to Strathcarron. Aside from two MTBers, seen from a distance, no-one else was about.

After a tiring morning, I felt I deserved a good lunch and pint of shandy at the Strathcarron Hotel. Here I also got some more local info, and was able to avoid the road walking over to the start of the path to Glen Torridon. However my heel was playing up again, not blisters but potentially more serious, a very hot & swollen tendon. I took some more drugs, and added a padded dressing to my heel. I was able to limp up the excellent path as far as the bothy at Coire Fionnaraich, arriving at 4:30pm It was well worth the effort.

The MBA had had a work meet there just a few days before, and the place was spotless, still smelt of fresh paint. They'd installed a new stove, left some firewood, some tea, coffee and sugar, and even a box of choccy biscuits! It's in another superb location, and I was able to do some washing, had a splash about myself in the burn, cooked a good meal and dipped freely into the biscuit supply. I was the only one staying there, though a Munroist dropped in to make a brew on his way down.

Distance: 21.5
Time: 9 hrs

Day 6

Coire Fionnaraich to Loch an Fada

The weather just kept getting better. It was a bright, crisp sunny morning, and after a great night's sleep in the bothy, and another dip in the river outside, I was ready for the walk over to Torridon. Off just after 7:00am, the superb path led up easily to the bealach, great walking and the previous day's aches & pains had gone. I saw an eagle at one point, which stopped me dead in my tracks. (Spotters' guide: If you have to ask "is that an eagle?" then it's almost certainly a buzzard. If it's an eagle you just think "WHOA, EAGLE!!")

Down the other side of the pass, Liathach and Beinn Alligin came into view, against a cloudless blue sky, and I had a rush of deja vu and felt I was walking in the Alps. Unfortunately there were no bergeries serving cold beer along the way. I had to make do with the NTS centre in Torridon, who kindly refilled my water bottle.

I didn't fancy a long road walk in the hot afternoon, so I hitched a lift to Kinlochewe ("I'll Kinloch-ewe in a minute...") where ice cream was available, and I could buy a few more packets of noodles & cereal bars. There were a couple of families having lunch outside the cafe on the main road, and I puzzled over people's different ideas of a good time - why would you choose to sit by a road, letting your kids play in the car park, when there is some of the most accesible and beautiful scenery in the country a 10 minute drive away? Each to their own, I suppose...

I decided not to stick around in the dizzying metropolis of Kinlochewe, and headed off up the track to The Heights of Kinlochewe. The afternoon had turned cooler and breezy, so I didn't hang around, but pressed on to the shores of Loch an Fada for an overnight camp. From there I would be able to cross Bealach na Croise in the cool early morning, then have a leisurely walk to Shenevall Bothy for my next stop.

Once again, I was almost alone on the trail, just 4 people passed me the whole day. The last one advised me "Be quick, it's getting crowded up at the Loch!" and indeed, there was already a tent by the shore when I arrived and another turned up shortly after me. Positvely hectic. Although it was a bit misty and very windy now, I had a superb relaxing evening in the tent, brewing up and looking out over the loch as the sun set.

Distance: 25.5 Km (Not including hitching!)
Time: 8 hrs

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cape Wrath Trail: Days 1 to 3

Day 1 (16/4/11)

Glenfinnan to Glendessary

I set off before dawn on the drive north, and enjoyed clear roads all the way to Fort William. I dropped in to the local polis to let them know I'd be leaving my car at Glenfinnan for 2 weeks, so they didn't think I was lost (and could also keep an eye on it). Then up to the car park at the start of the track to Glenifnnan Lodge (free!), where I had a spot of lunch, got changed into my walking boots and locked up the car. At 1:15pm I was off up the road, mentally groaning at the weight of my pack.

It'd been a while since I'd done any serious backpacking, although I'm used to carrying heavy climbing sacks, a backpacking sack is heavier, bulkier and harder to manage. After the first mile or so I was thinking that this might be a shorter trip than planned! And much as I'd love to say it got easier through the day, truth is it didn't. But the weather was OK, cloudy and breezy but dry, perfect for walking. I plodded up through Glenfinnan, then over the pass to Glendessary. I was planning to find a camping spot somewhere in Glendessary, but it was cattle and deer farming land, not very welcoming. (I've since found out that there are 4 bothies I could have used in the glen!) It was very quiet, I didn't meet any other walkers at all, only saw two from a distance. I walked on into the evening, much further than I intended, and eventually found a damp but level spot next to a burn. I had an excellent little Hillberg Atko, borrowed from my mate Paul, which is quick to pitch and very comfy inside. Quick pan of noodles and a boil in the bag curry, hot chocolate and so to bed.

Distance: 21.5 Km
Time: 8 hours

Day 2 (17/4/11)

Glendessary to Barrisdale

Felt suprisingly good early the next morning, so got straight up, breakfasted and packed by 7:20am. It was another cool day, with low cloud and a bit of drizzle in the air. I took it slow over the pass to Sourlies, and made the bothy there at 9:45am. Had a brew and some oatcakes, and chatted to a couple who were camping next to the bothy. The sun came out, and I had a good walk around the headland and up the next glen. Then came a challenging climb, over pathless steep grass and a couple of rock steps, to gain the drovers' track over to Barrisdale. Low cloud came in again and I was in mithering drizzle over the pass. Worse came on the other side, where I managed to step into a bog up to my thighs. After much swearing I extracted myself, emptied the muddy water out of my boots and changed my socks. Squelching on, I dropped down towards Barrisdale and the rain stopped. I gained the bothy there at 4:30pm, and decided to stay in there rather than camp, to dry my boots & socks out.

I nearly changed my mind inside the bothy - there was no fire or stove, mildew on the walls and a damp driech air to it. I should point out, this is NOT an MBA bothy, but privately run! However, I was too tired to bother. I needed a good feed, not least to reduce the weight of food I was carrying. Looking at the food bag, I realised I should have planned better and taken less.

There were just two other walkers around, a couple from Bradford, camping in the field outside. After a good meal, and lots of tea, I took a walk along the loch. The weather was clearing up, and though I didn't know it at the time, that was the worst weather day of the whole trip. Not bad for a Scottish April!

Distance: 20 Km
Time: 8.5 hrs

Day 3 18/4/11

Barrisdale to Shiel Bridge

A long day, but perfect weather, sunny but still cool with a good breeze. I set off at 7:30am, and took the excellent path along Loch Hourn. This is a lovely scenic route, with one panorama after another unfolding as you go along. The loch was calm, glittering in the early morning sun, and large patches of blue sky were opening up.

I reached Kinlochhourn and the tea shop by 10:30am, and enjoyed tea and cake in warm sunshine. I then girded my loins for the next section, over to Glen Shiel. The chap at the tea shop told me this was the hardest bit of the whole trail, so I was well motivated to get it over and done with.

So in the hazy afternoon sunshine I plodded up, iPod on, suncream applied and plenty of water on board. It was straightforward up to the first ridge - hard work, but a decent path. I stopped to congratulate myself at the top, belatedly as it turned out though. As I descended, thinking "that wasn't so bad..." I missed a junction and headed off the wrong way. I realised fairly soon, but then slogging back up took twice as long, and the path I was following wasn't nearly as clear. In fact I ended up losing it in a bog, then just zigzagged up over trackless moss and grass to the next ridge. But my troubles weren't over, as I topped out at the wrong point and then had a steep and loose descent down the other side. All very wearing on the knees and nerves! After an age of sweating and swearing, I spotted a small cairn, and to my great relief, found the path down.

I reached the Glen Shiel road at 7:30pm, 12 hours after starting walking. You can imagine my state. Not suprisingly, I elected to hitch the remaining few miles to Shiel Bridge, and after a short wait two guys from an MTB company (Beach Bikes) gave me a lift to the campsite. Once again, I hadn't met anyone else on the walk, so it was good to chat to someone else! There were also three folk at the campsite who were doing the trail North-South, so I got some advance info from them. It was a lovely evening there, and I was able to relax outside, cook a huge pan of rice & sausage, have a shower and watch a spectacular sunset.

Distance: 23 Km
Time: 12 hrs

The Cape Wrath Trail

What to do with the nearly 3-week Easter holiday, when you're on a student budget?

I hadn't been backpacking for quite a while (10 years since being washed off the GR20 in Corsica by 3 days of thunderstorms); so I decided on a long distance footpath. And once I started looking, there was one obvious choice: The Cape Wrath Trail. This runs from Fort William to the furthest north-westerly point on the mainland, Cape Wrath. 200 miles of the most remote and beautiful mountains and coastline in Britain. So following, in installments, is my daily diary of the walk...