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CWT Stage 3 at nearly 73: Oykel Bridge to the Cape

CWT Stage 3 at nearly 73: Oykel Bridge to the Cape


Postby westgate » Sun Oct 09, 2022 6:27 pm

Route description: Cape Wrath Trail

Date walked: 19/09/2022

Distance: 109 km

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I completed the first stage of the Cape Wrath Trail last year (May 2021) from Fort William to Strathcarron, and the second stage from Strathcarron to Oykel Bridge in May this year. You can read about these in my earlier reports. I had intended to complete the trail from Strathcarron in one go, but if you read my report on stage two you will learn my resupply parcel did not arrive at the Oykel Bridge hotel, so I had to abruptly end my trip there and then. So I returned this autumn to pick up again at Oykel Bridge and head for the Cape. I should really have waited till next year, then the titles would all have run in numerical sequence!

Day minus one: Bolton to Inverness

I caught a midday flight from Manchester to Inverness and then the airport bus into the city and stayed at the Mercure hotel. I collected my rail ticket for the next day and bought the last gas canister left on the shelf from Blacks! Phew. At the hotel I repack my rucksac. For the flight I put everything inside for safety, but for walking I like some items in the outside pockets for easy access.

Day one: Inverness to Lairg to Oykel Bridge to Glen Oykel NC 312 168. (Day fifteen overall, including the fourteen days from Fort Willian to Oykel Bridge)

I am up early to catch a 7am train. It is the day of the Queen's funeral, so an unexpected Bank Holiday. I hope the train will be running. It is, and almost completely empty all the way to Lairg, a 90 minute journey. I have booked a taxi to meet me at the station, and it is there. A friendly chap who tells me about the Jaguar cars and low-rider motorbikes he has owned. Each link in the journey introduces a slight uncertainty and raises a frisson of anxiety until I can finally get back walking on the trail. I am dropped off at Oykel Bridge at 9.15am where four months earlier my trip ended prematurely. Better luck this time I hope.

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Oykel Bridge

The walking is very comfortable along a gently uphill 4x4 track following the course of the River Oykel. It is an easy introduction to get the legs used to walking again. The weather is dull with occasional rain showers and equally occasional sunshine. I have got my pack weight down to its lightest yet at just 12kgs including five days' food, gas and a litre of water, which makes life a lot easier. The river is a popular salmon fishing spot and there are a few fishermen standing in the water in their waders. Otherwise it is deserted as I head upstream following the course of the river.

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The River Oykel

I reach Loch Ailsh and stop for some lunch. It is so still, quiet and peaceful, barely a ripple on the surface of the water.

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Loch Ailsh

At the northern end of the loch I pass Benmore Lodge then bear left across a footbridge as the 4x4 track peters out and becomes a less distinct path. But it is easy enough to follow the contours heading north, as the scenery becomes more dramatic.

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Looking down into Glen Oykel and the River Oykel

I press on as the walking is comfortable, the weather is not raining and I am keen to get ahead on my mileages as I have some tough days ahead. I arrive at a waterfall and find a small spot to pitch my tent high up above the floor of the glen. From here the path deteriorates and the gradient gets steeper as it ascends towards the bealach, so I will save that for tomorrow. A successful first day with evertything going to plan.

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My first night's camp above the River Oykel

Day two: Glen Oykel to Loch Fleodach Coire 3kms beyond Inchnadamph NC 273 248. (Day 16 overall)

I set the alarm for 6am and it is just getting light when I wake. I emerge to glorious scenery and complete tranquility, just the sound of running water down the hillside. In the Spring the sound of the cuckoo call is omnipresent, but in the autumn there are no bird calls at all. I set off heading north towards the upper end of Glen Oykel. I miss the left fork needed to head towards the bealach and waste some time returning to the correct route. Nothing serious, but irritating. The view up to the bealach is accurately described in the Guidebook as a 'v-shaped notch'.

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Bealach Tragill

From the bealach there is a dramtic view down towards Loch Assynt with Inchnadamph at its southern end. But it is a long way down with no clear path and the terrain is rough, boggy and hard going.

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Loch Assynt with the tiny hamlet of Inchnadamph at its southern tip

And to make matters worse I am pestered by hundreds of tiny flies (not midges, slightly bigger but still tiny wee beasties) and ticks which are just jumping onto me non-stop! Horrible. The midgie net comes out and long sleeves. When I finally arrive at the river just outside Inchnadamph I stop for a lunch break. I am not going into the village as I have no need and will only have to retrace my steps. I eat my main meal at lunchtime to give me energy for the afternoon and so I am not going to bed on a full stomach.

The path after the river is tricky to find. I am misled by the guidebook saying it is 'a clear track', so am looking for something more obvious. Once located it is a steady uphill climb for about three kilometres before it starts to flatten out. The weather is deteriorating with low cloud and getting colder and damper. I arrive at Loch Feodach Coire and have a choice to make: continue up the next steep section all the way to the bealach and beyond or stop here for the night and tackle it in the morning. The hill tops are shrouded in cloud, so I make a wise decision to stop for the night. The location is beautiful right by the side of the loch although the ground is quite marshy.

Day three: Loch Fleodach Coire to Glendhu bothy. (Day seventeen overall)


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Stunning early morning view from my tent

Another early start as the sun risies over the loch. I set off uphill towards the bealch which takes me 90 minutes to reach. I am glad I didn't attempt it last night. From the top of the bealch the view which greets me to the north is incredible. Just mountain top after mountain; and a sheer rock face on the far side reminding me of the Grand Canyon in all its grandeur; and an elevated loch above the rock face. I do not know what the geological formation is called, but surely it must have a name. I pause to take in the breathtaking view in complete solitude and silence.

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The view from the bealach

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The descent from the bealach on a zig-zag path is steep and difficult. On the way I meet the first person I have encountered on the trail since I started. A German lady heading north to south and hoping to do it in 15 days. I take my time going carefully to avoid injury, crossing a couple of small burns until I reach the river at the bottom. I cross with care but fortunately it is not in spate and I can manage it stepping on rocks.

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River Abhainn an Loch Bhig

The trail continues along the right hand bank of the river, but although gently downhill it is a rough, boggy and difficult path. It is slow and tiring walking. Respite is offered by the magnificent view across the glen of the waterfall Eas a Chual Aluinn.

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Eas a Chual Aluinn

The path does not improve at all until Glencoul bothy is reached. A wonderful setting in complete peace and solitude. I go inside to have a rest, a cup of coffee and eat some lunch, some six hours after setting off this morning. Bothies are wonderful sanctuaries in the midst of such wild and beautiful country. A welcome haven even when the weather is not bad; in foul weather they could be a lifesaver.

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Glencoul bothy

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A dark and glowering view along Loch Glencoul from the bothy

Having rested my legs and refreshed and refuelled my body, I set off on the next stage towards Glendhu bothy. Although only about 6kms, the path is another challenging stretch. It starts on a clear path heading uphill, affording a spectacular view back down to the bothy, showing how insignificant and tiny it looks amongst this vast landscape.

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A bird's eye view back to Glencoul bothy

But the path progressively becomes harder to follow and more difficult to walk because of boggy conditons, rocks and uneven ground. It takes me 3.5 hours to do the distance. I had hoped to press on a bit further, but when I finally arrive at Glendhu bothy I am tired, and a friendly plume of smoke from the chimney makes it an easy decision to decide to stay the night. Two chaps, Ben and Martin, are inside. walking north to south, and with plenty of long-distance walking experience betweeen them. It is good to talk to people for the first time in three days. Incredibly, there is a phone signal at the bothy, so I send a message to my wife and pick up news from home. This is the first contact since I started from Oykel Bridge. I have my own room, and the sound of wind and rain during the night reinforces the correctness of my decision to stay for the night.

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Glendhu bothy in the evening

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Evening view along Loch Gleann Dubh

Day four: Glendhu bothy to 2kms before Rhiconich NC 268 500. (Day 18 overall)

I am up early again and away by 7.30am walking along a clear, flat path by the side of the loch.

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Morning walk alongside Loch Gleann Dubh

After four kilometres the path turns sharply to the north and the ascent begins. It is on a clear 4x4 track so much easier than yesterday despite the uphill gradient. As the morning sun rises it turns into a lovely day and I pass beautiful lochans amidst wonderful scenery.

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Passing beautiful lochans on the ascent after Glendhu

However, it pays not to get complacent as heavy, squally rain showers drive in unexpectedly and then pass equally quickly. Waterproofs on and the rain cover out for the rucksack, not much used so far. After three hours, I arrive at a choice point between the main route, which heads north-west over Ben Dreavie, and the alternative, easier route which continues on the clear track and descends to the road at Achfary. I take the easier alternative. It is a comfortable downhill walk on an easy track to arrive at the A838. It is a shock to the system. For four days I have been in near total isolation, meeting just one woman on the trail and two men at the bothy. Otherwise just solitude and wide, open dramatic wilderness. To arrive at a road (albeit very quiet) with the occasional vehicle and some houses in the distance feels strange. It shows how quickly one adapts to a different pace of life. I proceed towards Achfary, a tiny but very pretty hamlet with a few houses, stables and the Estate Office. It feels like the journey is approaching its finale, having left the big mountains behind and returned to gentler countryside.

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The pretty hamlet of Achfary

After a lunch stop along the road I arrive at Lochstack Lodge and turn right on a 4x4 track. It is pleasant walking and fine weather. I decide to press on further as it is only 5pm and I am keen to make tomorrow a shorter day to give me more time in Kinlochbervie and at Sandwood Bay. This proves to be a big mistake. The path to Rhiconich after the estate 4x4 track, is described in the guidebook as 'very rough and boggy'. Too true. It is another of the ones I have come to recognise as a Cape Wrath specialty: uneven, wet, boggy, marshy and very hard work.

I make tortuous progress as dusk starts to fall and I still have to find somewhere to camp. After 3kms along this path I come to a river crossing at Garbh Allt. Again, the guidebook warns 'this is a difficult river crossing', but I feel I have no choice as it is getting dark and the ground I have been walking along is impossible for camping.

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Garbh Allt river crossing

I take my boots off and put on my water shoes, pack everything inside the waterproof liner in my sack and start to cross. I am just about to reach the far bank when my foot slips and I am in the water. Not completely submerged, but wet enough. Luckily I don't lose anything, but I now have to spend time putting my wet boots back on and getting more warm clothing on; and it is dark. It is impossible to continue, even with my head torch. It was hard enough in daylight, and after my scare in the river I do not want any further mishaps. So I just have to put my tent up wherever, for a rather uncomfortable night.

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My sad and sorry pitch for the night

Day five: Two kilometres before Rhiconich to Strathchailleach bothy. (Day 19 overall)

In the morning I get myself up and pack away my wet tent and wet clothing. Luckily, the site I ended up at was not quite as bad as some of the surrounding area, so it could have been worse (but not much!). I continue the final 2kms into Rhiconich and the path gets no easier. I would not have manged this last night in the dark, so I made the correct decision to just stay put, however uncomfortable the night.

My spirits lift as I arrive at Rhiconich. The sun is trying to shine (though there is always a sense it could suddenly turn for the worse), it is mostly road walking and I am getting close to my final destination. I dump four days accumulated rubbish in a litter bin (Leave No Trace) and set off along the road heading, as always, relentlessly north.

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Atmospheric shot across Loch Inchard close to Rhiconich

After about 4kms I pass through a tiny place called Inshegra and spy the Old School House Restaurant. I head in and enjoy a proper cooked breakfast with a large pot of tea in a lovely old building (once the school) and friendly service; and at a very reasonable price. So for anyone doing the trail, I thoroughly recommend it, and way better than anything available in Kinlochbervie. Fully revived and with my spirits restored, I set off again passing the famous London Stores and then a further kilometre along heading downhill into Kinlochbervie.

I walk into the centre (such as it is) to buy a few supplies from Spar to get me through today and tomorrow, but otherwise there is nothing to detain me in what is a rather unattractive place, dominated by an industrial fishing port and associated warehouses. The sun has emerged as I head along the final 5kms of road walking before turning off towards Sandwood Bay.

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A flock of sheep in the afternoon sunshine

I arrive at the point where the path to Sandwood Bay leaves the road. I am feeling the end is close. Even though I have another 1.5 days walking still to go (and then get myself off the Cape to Durness), inside I feel this is the end approaching.

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The beginning of the end

The path is delightfully easy and comfortable walking, a welcome relief after the last two days. It is popular with day visitors, but they are coming towards me heading homewards; I am alone in heading north. Finally, I get my first sighting of the bay. The sun has come out and it looks glorious. I head down to stand on the golden sands. I am completely alone.

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The beauty of Sandwood Bay

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Although the sun is shining brightly, there is a cold strong wind; and the weather has been changeable all day with squally rain showers. So I decide not to camp at the bay, but instead continue to Strathchailleach bothy. This means I miss out on the rite of passage of camping at the bay, but I gain time for tomorrow and improve my chances of catching the bus. Also, the bothy is a must visit spot on the trail.

It is about 2kms to the bothy from the northern end of the beach. A steep ascent from the bay is followed by rough, boggy ground (again) all the way to the bothy. As I approach, I see that I will have company. I enter to a roaring log fire and three Scottish gentlemen of around my age who are friends from their schooldays. They meet every year for a 'bothy week', and bring with them dry logs for the fire, whiskey, port and stilton. They know how to enjoy themselves. I have a pork pie bought in Kinlochbervie and a fruit scone with jam bought from the Old School House restaurant! The bothy has a fascinating history, as described in this plaque on the wall.

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The story of James McRory-Smith

Inside in my bedroom the walls are adorned with some of his original paintings.

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One of 'Sandy's' paintings

Day 6: Strathchailleach bothy to the Cape and on to Durness. (Day 20 overall)

As usual I am up early and away in the early morning light.

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Strathchailleach bothy in the early morning

I head north. There is no visible path, so it is a question of following a compass bearing and checking on the GPS every so often. It is typical Cape Wrath walking - boggy, uneven and tough. This trail tests you to the very end; and the landscape is flat, featurelss, exposed and bleak. I would not want to be here in bad weather. There is a military firing range south of the lighthouse. Originally it was listed as live firing 24 hours a day when I wanted to cross, but luckily this changed just days before my departure, so I am able to complete the final few kilometeres.

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The trackless journey across bleak terrain

I am feeling buoyant. I know I can do it now. As I walk the final uphill kilometre on the rough dirt road which links the ferry to the lighthouse, a man on a mountain bike descends and gives me a nod (more of him later) and a German overtakes me. He is at the very start of a north to south trip and heading to the lighthouse in order to begin. The lighthouse does not come into view until almost the very end, but as I walk ever further north the view ahead narrows towards the headland with only sea visible on three sides; so I know full well it is now very close.

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The narrowing headland with the lighthouse somewhere down there out of sight

And then finally, as I round a corner after 20 days and 370kms (230 miles) it is there: Cape Wrath lighthouse gleaming white in the bright sunshine. What a wonderful sight.

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My first sighting of the lighthouse

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Made it!!

I savour the moment before entering the Ozone cafe, open all year and run by John and Angela who live there and own the lighthouse. The greeting is decidedly low key: no fanfare of trumpets, no well done, no recognition that I have just completed the Cape Wrath Trail. So I order a tuna mayo sandwich and a mug of tea! The German who passed me on the way up is there, so we chat about his journey about to start, and mine finally finished. A friendly Belgian couple arrive having completed the whole trail just behind me for much of the last week, indeed saw me at a distance a couple of times, but our paths never crossed till now.

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Iris and Jonas (in Durness, not at the Cape!)

It was at this point the bad news emerged. Prior to my departure, I had contacted the bus service which runs to the lighthouse April to September, and been told it would be running both today and tomorrow, departing the lighthouse at 11.30am and possibly 2.30pm depending on demand. My plan was to try and make the morning departure, but if not the afternoon one if running, or if not to stay one more night and catch the Sunday morning bus. No problem - or so I thought. I realised I was not going to make the lighthouse in time for the 11.30am departure, but expected to see it on the dirt road heading to the ferry as I approached. But I had seen nothing. It transpired it was not running. Finished for the season. And this despite the Belgian couple having phoned just two days prior and had it confirmed it would be running on the Saturday. Indeed they had accelerated their plans to arrive a day early just to be sure of catching it. So the three of us were not best pleased.

Fortunately, it had a happy ending. John from the Ozone cafe gave all three of us a lift 11 miles along the bumpy dirt track, from where we were expecting to have to walk south before crossing the estuary on a bridge and then heading north again to Durness. A long hard slog. But as we approached the point where John would be dropping us off, he pulled his binoculars out of the glove compartment and declared he could see the ferry. It transpired the man on the mountain bike who had passed me earlier (remember him) was a Frenchman who had booked the ferry personally and was about to be picked up. So the ferry took all of us (in two trips, it is a very small boat) across the estuary, and the Frenchman offered us a lift in his motorhome to Durness. That was the last ferry until Easter 2023!! So I ended up where I had hoped, but it is a lesson for any would be walkers: have a plan B to get off the Cape, allow for an extra day and take some spare cash for extra expenses.

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The tiny ferry boat skimming across the water

I spent the Saturday night at the lovely and friendly Sango Sands campsite, highly recommended. It is right on the cliff top overlooking beautiful Durness bay. The facilites are spotless and there is a kitchen for campers which is a comfortable place to sit. The only downside was the news that the bar was not doing any food, so it was a trip to Spar to buy some supplies. That night a forecast storm blew in with 50mph winds and rain. If I had still been travelling on the Cape it would have been a very unpleasant night and who knows when I might have got home?

Postscript


Having arrived at Durness on the Saturday I had Sunday to spare (having built in an extra day for contingencies) before catching the bus on the Monday. I decided to treat myself and moved into a lovely B&B for the final night. A proper bed, warm room and hot shower. Bliss! The next morning I caught the 8am bus from Durness (together with the Belgian couple and a German father and son also staying on the campsite) for the nearly four hour trip to Invenress. Then it was a bus to the airport for a 6pm flight to Manchester and a return home.

THE END
westgate
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Posts: 23
Joined: Feb 12, 2018

Re: CWT Stage 3 at nearly 73: Oykel Bridge to the Cape

Postby folkswoodway » Thu Nov 03, 2022 11:57 pm

First things first - Congratulations, Westgate, on completing the CWT! and a big thank-you for your account which is really enjoyable and informative.
I did the CWT north-south in April/May 2022 and so your account and photos brought back a lot of memories. In case anybody reads this in their planning, I took the advice of my B&B landlady in Rhiconich (at Ardbeg House - superb hospitality) and between Rhiconich and Achfary I followed the main road south to Laxford Bridge - very quiet - and then a beautiful fishermen's path on the north side of the Laxford River to Loch Stack Lodge. It avoided potential problems with the Garbh Allt crossing and all the boggy ground and walking alongside Loch a Garbh Bhaid Mor which (I'm told) is on a steepish slope so that you need one leg longer than the other. One of the great things about the CWT is that there's no fixed ordained route and you can make your own adjustments - you're not 'cheating'!
folkswoodway
Walker
 
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Joined: Jun 16, 2021

Re: CWT Stage 3 at nearly 73: Oykel Bridge to the Cape

Postby westgate » Fri Dec 02, 2022 2:01 pm

Hi Folkswoodway. Only just spotted and read your kind comments on my post. I wish I had known about that alternative route to Richonich! It would have saved me an uncomfortable night. Still, all's well that ends well, and getting to the Cape made it all worthwhile. My next adventure is TGO challenge next May.
westgate
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Posts: 23
Joined: Feb 12, 2018

Re: CWT Stage 3 at nearly 73: Oykel Bridge to the Cape

Postby Lehen » Sun Dec 04, 2022 9:46 am

Hi,
Ist's Lena, the german you met in your second Stage of the CWT at Knockadamph Bothy . I'm so happy to hear you finished the trail this year, congratulations! Also your photos and writing ist a great way to relive the whole trail :)
Lehen
 
Posts: 1
Joined: Oct 8, 2022

Re: CWT Stage 3 at nearly 73: Oykel Bridge to the Cape

Postby baublebag » Sun Feb 12, 2023 12:28 pm

Such a shame about your resupply issue. Oykel Bridge hotel will do lunch and I'm sure they would have wrapped up a sandwich if you asked, they did me a breakfast bap and coffee when they weren't even properly open. Then Inchnadamph hostel sells some food, for supper there I ate a frozen pizza and a entire bag of frozen peas. Obviously not still frozen ;) Also they include breakfast so there's lots of bread etc lying around, you could probably cobble together a few jam sarnies. It's a long haul from there to Kinlochbervie so you'd definitely need something. I managed on my emergency Supernoodles. Great account, thanks for the memories.
John told me he'd let me doss indoors in the cafe if the weather was bad at Cape Wrath. The transport service off the cape is pretty random! ;) Definitely need a plan B, if all else fails an extra day to hike off.
baublebag
 
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Joined: Mar 14, 2017

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