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Cape Wrath Trail: Stage 2 at 72 Strathcarron to Oykel Bridge

Cape Wrath Trail: Stage 2 at 72 Strathcarron to Oykel Bridge


Postby westgate » Sun Oct 02, 2022 2:37 pm

Route description: Cape Wrath Trail

Date walked: 05/05/2022

Time taken: 12 days

Distance: 251 km

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I completed the first stage of the Cape Wrath Trail last year (May 2021) from Fort William to Strathcarron. You can read about it in my report: ‘Cape Wrath Trail: Stage one at 71’. I subsequently returned in May 2022 hoping to complete the trail from Strathcarron to the Cape. However, if you read on, you will discover it was not quite that simple. Here is my report.

Day one: Bolton to Inverness to Strathcarron to Coire Fionnaraich bothy. (Day nine overall, including the eight days from Fort William to Strathcarron)

I flew from Manchester to Inverness, took the bus into the city, bought a gas canister (not allowed on planes) and had some lunch. At the train station before departing, I reorganise my rucksack. For the flight, I carried my sleeping bag and mat as hand luggage in a plastic supermarket bag (subsequently jettisoned) so I could transfer everything in the outside pockets to inside, to avoid the risk of items getting lost in transit. But this means my pack has to be rearranged before starting walking, with the plastic bag dumped in a waste bin at the station.

The train journey takes a couple of hours, and is surprisingly busy. It passes through beautiful countryside and arrives at Strathcarron station, where I departed 12 months ago. It is raining, chilly and not a welcoming start to my trip.

The trail departs Strathcarron along an easy and pleasant path beside the River Carron before joining the road for a kilometre and then heading north along Glen Fionnaraich. Easy walking, but the rain is getting heavier and the wind stronger, not what I want for my first night.

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A damp and overcast start to the walk

I arrive at Coire Fionnaraich bothy and think I will look in and maybe decide to stay, as I am only a couple of kilometres short of my planned first night stop.

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Coire Fionnaraich bothy

Inside a log fire is roaring, and three friendly men welcome me. It is an easy decision to decide to stay, my first time in a bothy. They immediately offer me a brew, and later hot water for my evening meal. I start to understand the camaraderie of bothy life. There is an American couple also there, from Phoenix Arizona, and later a German woman arrives, and at about 9pm two more men. So nine of us altogether. I have put my sleeping bag in an empty room upstairs, but am sure I will be sharing once the two late arrivals turn up. But no, they choose to sleep in the downstairs room with the fire, sharing with the German woman, so I have a room all to myself. A successful first day.

Day two: Coire Fionnaraich bothy to Kinlochewe (Day 10 overall)

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A glowering morning view of the bothy

It was windy during the night, and wet, so the decision to stay at the bothy seemed a good one. I am hopeful the weather might clear up during the day, but in the event my hopes are not fulfilled. I set off northwards following the River Fionnabhainn and arrive, after a couple of kilometres, at my original planned overnight spot by Loch Coire Fionnaraich. In fact there are few places where a camp would have been possible because of rough, uneven ground and water levels. So again, I am glad I stopped overnight at the bothy.

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A soggy Loch Coire an Fionnaraich

From here on the path gets steeper and harder as it ascends to Bealach Ban.

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At the top at the bealach on a wet and windy day

It is very windy on top, so I do not linger, but continue as the faint path skirts along the contours before heading north again on no discernible path. The main route continues down to the Ling hut in Glen Torridon, then on up the other side of the glen. But the guidebook advises ‘the going is very rough and not to be underestimated, so think carefully and consider the options’. So I did. The simplest option would have been to descend to the Ling hut in the glen and then turn east along the road which leads all the way to Kinlochewe. But this would have involved about 10kms of road walking, not an attractive proposition.

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A misty view down towards Glen Torridon and Ling hut

So instead I take a path north east shown on the Harvey map as a dotted line which means no visible path. This usually signifies the terrain is so rough or difficult that no path has been established. And it is indeed extremely tough and slow going for about 4kms. I begin to wish I had taken the Ling Hut and road option, but I am committed now. At one point my foot slips into a gap in the rocks and I fall backwards, pulled down by the weight of my rucksack. I am trapped, lying on my back, unable to free my foot. With difficulty, I manage to manoeuvre onto my front and free my foot. A close call. It could so easily have been a broken ankle.

Slowly a path of sorts appears, but it is still slow going as it heads down to Loch Coulin, past Coulin Lodge and into forestry commission land. I get slightly confused on this section and retrace my steps unnecessarily, but finally get to where my path joins the alternative route for Stage Six coming from the south, and I turn north towards Kinlochewe. I meet up with another person on the Trail (recognisable as are all on the Trail by a large rucksack) who tells me he is from Silesia! I have now discovered that Silesia is a historical region of Central Europe that lies mostly within Poland, with small parts in Czechia and Germany. He tells me it has changed hands over the years, and he has a German passport, but clearly considers himself to be a Silesian.

Because of my slow progress earlier, I am now pressed for time as I have a 7pm booking at the Kinlochewe hotel for dinner. The walking is boring along a wide forestry commission track with little to recommend it. I press on with urgency some 5kms to Kinlochewe. The final couple of kilometres are along a road, and I again wish I had simply taken the Ling hut route and walked along beautiful Glen Torridon.

I am staying at Kinlochewe campsite and arrive there at 6.45pm. I have booked ahead, as it only has pitches for about 10 tents. It is a Caravan and Camping club site, so mainly full of motorhomes. But the lady who greets me is very friendly and the site is immaculate with excellent facilities. But I have no time to linger. I rapidly put up my tent, stuff my unpacked rucksack inside and hurry to the hotel, getting there just after my booked time of 7pm. But on arrival I am told my booking was for 6pm and they have let my table go!!. Fortunately, I have the confirmation email on my phone, and I was correct, it was indeed 7pm, so a table is made available for me.

I have a large pot of tea to slake my thirst, followed by a pint and a hearty meal. It is good to relax, as the last couple of hours were a real route march at speed. After eating, I return to the campsite, and the long days mean it is still light, so I can see to unpack my gear and sort out the tent. I then head along to the drying room, to hang up some clothing, but mainly to plug in my SatMap to recharge and write up my diary.

A fellow walker comes into the room, and it transpires he knows me from my Walk Highlands report on the first stage of my walk. Indeed, he posted a message and I had replied. So we had a good chat, and you will hear more of Bill later. I retire to bed to restore my energies.

Day three: Kinlochewe to Loch Nid (Day eleven overall)

It was cold in the night and I ended up wearing three layers, including my Patagonia insulated jacket. But I wake to a glorious sunny morning to lift my spirits. I have decided to wait for the post office to open at 9am, so have a leisurely start to the day. I have a hot shower and wash a t-shirt and socks in the shower. They should dry in this warm weather. I have breakfast of tea and a porridge bar before packing away the tent, which is very wet on the outside from early morning dew after the cold night.

I head to the post office to buy postcards for my two granddaughters. An unfriendly man just points when I ask if he has any postcards, I am not sure if I have done something wrong. Is it because I am not wearing a Covid mask, but it is no longer required? I buy some chocolate and energy bars, but get the same monosyllabic response. Shame, as the campsite and hotel were both friendly and welcoming. By the time I have written my cards and posted them, it is 9.30am, so a late start.

It is a truly glorious morning, with the trail heading east following the river on a broad and easy path.

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A beautiful morning following the river out of Kinlochewe

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Fellow Cape Wrath Trailers on the broad path

The scenery is magnificent and I am in good spirits on such a lovely morning after a rather miserable day yesterday. At the Heights of Kinlochewe (which are not high at all!) the path bends northwards and starts to ascend towards Lochs Gleann na Muice, an Sgeireach and Fada. I stop for a lunch break and to recover after a long climb up.

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Heading north along Glen na Muice on a glorious day

At Loch Fada there is a sharp turn north east, which is hard to locate, and from here on the going gets a lot tougher, slower and more difficult.

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Loch Fada

It is another path shown on the map as just red dots, meaning no visible path. Navigation is tricky and the route is hard to follow. but eventually after a long slog up it reaches the Bealach. But there is still no visible path as the long descent to Loch Nid commences which is hard to walk and to navigate. Fortunately, I pick up a stalker's path mentioned in the guide book, and this makes walking (and navigating) considerably easier. After a long walk down, Loch Nid comes into view.

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Loch Nid comes into view

It is a beautiful setting. I have met only two people all day on the Trail, but there are two ladies camped at the southern tip of Loch Nid. I stop for a chat (and will see them again tomorrow) before heading a bit further along the Loch to an idyllic camping spot for the night. It is my first wild camp of the trip (the first night being spent in the bothy and last night at a campsite) and it feels good to be properly out alone. This is what it is all about. I eat my meal and settle for the night.

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My spot for the night at the southern end of Loch Nid

Day four: Loch Nid to Loch an Tiompain (Day twelve overall)

I set the alarm for 6am to get an early start. There are two big ascents today. After breakfast, I set off north alongside the Loch and then follow the river flowing from it heading gently downhill. As I walk the sun emerges, and it turns into a beautiful day walking through stunning scenery. Perfect.

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A lovely beach at the northern end of Loch Nid

After about five kilometres, I arrive at a choice point. I can continue straight ahead on a direct route, or divert westwards to visit Shenavall bothy, a dog leg. I decide to take the dog leg to enjoy the scenery along the course of the river; and to visit the bothy and have a coffee and some lunch to set me up for the rigours of the day still to come.

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Shenavall bothy

After 3kms, I arrive at the bothy and struggle to open the door. I eventually discover it is a push to the right, but a misaligned bolt means it is extremely stiff. I draw an arrow on the door to help future visitors. It is a typical bothy, basic but welcoming. I make a coffee and boil water to rehydrate my lunch. It is tempting to linger, but I still have a hard day of walking ahead of me. Straight behind the bothy it is a steep ascent which continues uphill (though progressively less steep) for some 4kms.

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Looking down the steep ascent behind the bothy

I see more people on this stretch than I have on the whole trip so far. It must be a popular walking circuit, as they are not on the Cape Wrath trail. A lovely couple catch up with me and walk with me for a way, which is a good morale boost. He walked the CWT last year so knows it well. We get to talking about food and supplies and they kindly give me energy bars and oat biscuits as I am running low on snacks. So a big shout out to Adam and Jessica (I think). Apologies if the names are wrong, but they know who they are.

Eventually the uphill path meets a 4x4 track heading downhill to Corrie Hallie. It is fast walking, and a relief to be heading downhill, but I can see the hill heading up on the opposite side and know I have to go all the way back up again once I get to the bottom. There is nothing at Corrie Hallie, so I follow the road a short distance before turning right, crossing a bridge and passing through a gate into a field.

The path ascends diagonally uphill across the field into woodland, and the walking is a nightmare. It is very steep and extremely slippery and muddy. At times it is difficult to get enough traction to make any progress. There is no proper path, and the way is obstructed by vegetation and fallen trees. I am relieved to finally emerge onto more open land and a clear uphill path which leads to a waterfall where I fill my water bottles.

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Above Corrie Hallie

After about 5kms of uphill walking I arrive at Loch Tiompain, the highest point before the path descends to Inverael, and my planned stop for the night. I am feeling exhausted. The guide book says there is nowhere suitable for camping between Corrie Hallie and Inverael as it is too rough and boggy; but I find a good spot right by the loch. The grass is a bit rough and coarse, and the ground a bit soft, but I have camped in much worse; and just look at the setting, it will do for me after a tough day.

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Camping by Loch Tiompain

I settle for the night, but conscious that the guide book warns tomorrow will be even tougher.

Day five: Loch an Tiompain to Knochdamph bothy (Day thirteen overall)

I feel stiff, achy and tired this morning, and am beginning to worry I may not be up to this. Luckily, it is downhill to Inverael, past Loch an Fhiona just a kilometre further on, and another likely looking place to camp. On the way down, I meet another walker coming up with a large rucksack. He is walking from Lands End to John O’Groats, so we stop for a chat. It makes my efforts seem trivial compared to his.

As I approach Inverael, the guidebook did not seem to make sense. I cross a field on a diagonal path as instructed, but the book says then turn left (north), when in fact it is head east at a crossroads. This took a while to sort out, but I finally head into Inverael, fill my water bottles and walk a kilometre north on the road before turning into a forestry plantation and beginning to ascend.

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Broom in flower as I ascend through the forestry plantation

I take a wrong turning in the forestry so waste some time and energy, and decide to stop for lunch before starting the serious ascent. It turned out this was fortuitous. After lunch, I have just left the forest and started a steep and lengthy ascent, when a tiny eight wheel, all-wheel drive off-road vehicle stops and offers me a lift.

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My 'lifesaver' transport

It was a conservation worker, who was working on a project to restore the peat hags and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He drove me in this noisy vehicle which seemed like something from the second world war, right up onto the hill and dropped me off at the cairn near the highest point.

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The cairn above Inverael

What a godsend, as the path was steep and had been surfaced in loose shale so the diggers and excavators could ascend, but it looked most unpleasant for walking. So I have saved myself some considerable time and effort.

Nevertheless, the route is by no means easy from here. It is another of these red dotted routes on the map, meaning no visible path, for about 10kms. It is a question of skirting the contours, descending to cross a river, and then following the river downstream entering Glen Douchary. I make more errors, following the wrong river for a short way, and then getting onto the wrong bank of the river heading north along the glen. I think fatigue was starting to lead to mistakes and costing me time.

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On the wrong bank of the river as I walk along Glen Douchary

Because I am on the wrong bank of the river I have to find a spot to descend into the canyon, cross the river in a precarious manoeuvre and ascend the opposite steep bank. A foolish error which saps my spirits and energy. It is no easier from here on. Another steep descent into a ravine, then ascent with no visible path to follow until finally reaching the southern tip of Lochan Daimh.

I have decided to make for the bothy, which is further than my original plan, but with the lift up the hill in the off-road vehicle I decide to go for it. However, the path does not lead along the shore of the loch (even though that is where I need to go), but instead rises uphill before picking up a higher level path above the loch. It is then a 3kms brisk walk to finally arrive at the bothy. It is 9.15pm having set off at 8am this morning. I am tired and exhausted.

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Knochdamph bothy

I enter the bothy and two other Cape Wrath trailers are already there. Leena, a doctor from Germany taking a year out before starting work; and Bill the chap I had previously met at Kinlochewe campsite in the drying room. I just needed to get my rucksack off my back, have some tea to drink and food to eat. I was done in. Once I had recovered, it was good to talk to the others, who cheered my spirits, before I retired to bed upstairs.

Day six: Kinlochdamph bothy to Oykel Bridge (Day fourteen overall)

I am up at 6am to get a prompt start. Talking to Bill I have realised the path to Oykel Bridge and then onwards, is straightforward, unlike the past two days, so should be much easier walking and navigating, allowing me to make up time and get ahead of my planned timetable. Also, I know the Oykel Bridge hotel only serves bar food from 12 to 2pm, so I want to get there in time to eat. I estimate four hours to Oykel Bridge, gently downhill all the way, so plan to be away at 8am. I will also be picking up my resupply parcel there (or so I think).

It is a pleasant day, the path is easy walking, and I am striding out at a good pace, feeling much better than yesterday evening, when I really doubted I would make it all the way to the Cape within my timetable. But I make a foolish and careless error, probably due to undue haste.

The path to Oykel Bridge is pretty well downhill all the way, but after two hours I came to a short uphill section, so decided to have a break for a snack and a drink, and to take some pictures. When I set off again, I proceed downhill (thinking subconsciously it is downhill all the way), in completely the wrong direction, heading back towards the bothy. There are no obvious landmarks so I am oblivious to my mistake until I meet Bill from the bothy (who left after me) heading towards me. We are both equally surprised until he points out my error. How could I be so silly and careless? I have lost an hour and walked an extra 4kms. There is nothing for it but to turn around and retrace my steps.

I pass the Old School House bothy, which is not an attractive building and situated right by a large 4x4 track with two vehicles parked there, so not nearly as attractive or remote as last night.

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The Old School House bothy

My error has spurred me on to make up for it by walking more quickly and determined to stick to my plan to press on from Oykel Bridge and get ahead of my timetable. It seems a long slog on the final approach to Oykel Bridge, and an age before the white building of the hotel comes into view. It is 1pm, so still in time for bar food, and in reality although it was an idiotic mistake, it has not made a great difference in the overall timescale.

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Oykel Bridge

But now for the really bad news. I enter the hotel, which is busy with salmon fishermen, ghillies, cyclists, and three other Cape Wrath trailers. A friendly lady welcomes me and I give my name and say I am picking up a resupply parcel. Her face drops, and she says: ‘I have some bad news. Your wife has just phoned to say the Post Office will not be delivering your parcel’. I was dumbfounded. I had included a spare gas canister together with all my food, unaware that this counts as a prohibited item.

I later discovered that the letter to my home address advising that the parcel would not be delivered had only just arrived before I got to the hotel, and my wife had phoned immediately. So without my silly navigational error, I would have been an hour earlier and had no idea why my parcel was not there. At least I knew why. I retire to the bar to a pot of tea and fish and chips, whilst I mull over this bombshell.

For a brief while I ponder how I can carry on, but with no food, no gas and no way of sourcing any alternative supplies, the realisation quickly dawns on me that it is over. There was no way I could continue. The hotel manager was very helpful and looked up train times (only two a day) from Lairg station and called a taxi for me. So at 2.45pm I am sitting on Lairg station feeling sorry for myself. I phone the Premier Inn in Inverness and move my reservation from next week to tonight. I will stay there and be catching the train home tomorrow.

Postscript

The journey to Inverness was uneventful. I couldn’t transfer my train ticket so had to buy another (but did get a refund for my original one, minus £10). I went out for a meal in the evening, but it all felt flat as I should not have been there for another week.

The following day I caught the train back to Manchester and returned home to receive commiserations from my wife. But I vow to return in the autumn to pick the Trail up again at Oykel Bridge and continue, hopefully all the way this time to the Cape.

On reflection, it may have been a blessing in disguise. I was finding the distances tough going on days four and five, and with tiredness and urgency had made some careless errors. So the enforced break will allow me to regroup and return with renewed energy.

You can read all about this final stage, and discover if I was successful, in my post: 'Cape Wrath Stage 3'.
westgate
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