Papa Smurf’s Cape Wrath Trail.
Over the last couple of decades, major anniversaries like my fortieth and fiftieth birthdays have involved physical outdoor challenges, so that was always going to be on the cards as I approached retirement in May 2014. I looked at various challenges including walking Lands End to John O Groats and went as far as buying the guidebook. In the end, I decided three months was a bit much, but had not completely ruled it out. I was reading a hill walking magazine in early 2013 which featured various trails including the Cape Wrath Trail, which was described as the toughest trail in Britain. Intrigued I read the article and as I started to make my mind up, I read anything I could get my hands on. I bought the new Cicerone guide by Iain Harper and an Ebook of the older guide; North to the Cape by Denis Brook and Phil Hinchcliffe. I scoured the internet and read various blogs including several on Walkhighlands all of which were very useful.
What was obvious was that this was a serious undertaking, worthy of a retiral curtain raiser but requiring a huge amount of planning and best of all buying lots of shiny new gear. I enjoy the planning stages of an expedition almost as much as the walk and started in my usual fashion by making lists, lots of them. I had a few practice trips and took to wearing a 13 kg pack as I walked the dog on her daily walk around the park. I slowly but surely acquired new gear and reviewed each trip analysing what worked and what didn't.
The start point was always going to be Fort William and the end Cape Wrath but what route in between ? I thought the Cona Glen start was going off in the wrong direction and also felt that I had walked extensively in the Glenfinnan, Knoydart and Kinlochhuorn areas. I then looked at the Great Glen and Caledonian Canal which looked like a gentle start, at least for the first few hours but more importantly were new to me. Cutting the corner off Glen Garry by going over the hills via Fedden, then over to Cluanie and on to the Falls of Glomach via Glen Affric and Glen Gniomhaidh was all new. Also by going this way and by-passing Shiel Bridge and Morvich, I felt I could steal a day or two and save the weight of the food.
I then decided I didn’t want to go around the back of Beinn Eighe so went for the Coulin Pass option which also meant that I included the Bhealach Bhearnais both of which were new to me. Having looked up accommodation at Inchnadamph online and finding the hostel apparently fully booked, I then looked at an alternative route which took me from Loch Ailsh away to the east via Loch Carn nan Conbhairean and on to Glencoul Bothy. This had the advantage of staying in country and not dropping down to Inchnadamph only to climb back up and so another day was saved.
I now had my route and planned to start at Fort William with six days food which should get me to Kinlochewe. My wife Shona would then meet me in our motor home with another six days food, which after a rest should take me to Rhiconich and I could re-supply for the final push at Badcall or Kinlochbervie. Game on !
Wednesday 16 April 2014.
Fort William to Fedden 31 km
I Set off from Dumbarton Central train station after getting Shona up too early as usual, to drop me off on her way to work. Arrived at Fort William at 0955 and went to shop for last minute items but forgot spare small gas cannister, which in the end I did not need.
I walked out towards Caol to the Caledonian Canal, then along the canal to Gairlochy taking a few photos at Neptunes Staircase.
I knew this bit would be difficult to get water so carried a 1 ½ litre bottle from the shops and my rucksack was a bit on the heavy side.
The canal was nice then there was a bit of road after Gairlochy up the hill then back down to a track through forest at the loch shore, nice. Another brief bit of road, then a path to St Ciarins Church which had no road to it. This lead to Achnacarry House, home of Cameron of Locheil and an important part of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. The original house was burnt to the ground after Culloden and a gable end covered by a tree is the only visible reminder. The house which looks magnificent was also used for Commando Training during WW2.
I headed up the hill past the waterfall to head for Fedden to camp. I had passed Fedden over 20 years ago whilst doing a munro and had thought it looked a good place to camp with a nice bit of grass beside the ruined house.
The weather forecast had been rain all day but it had been dry and quite sunny, though fresh enough with a breeze. Towards evening rain was threatening.
The forest had been cut down and was a nightmare. It was steep and the path consisted of slightly flattened branches. A bulldozed track appeared high up and I got to it and walking was easier. After that track finished there was little or no track to Fedden and I struggled up and down peat hags as the rain and wind started to arrive. There were no sheltered camp spots, although I saw a tent across the river in a nice bit and I was a bit jealous that they were snug and I was still struggling.
I arrived at Fedden and it was a good decision as I got good shelter behind the ruins on a nice bit of grass in the lee of the wind. I was impressed with my 20 + years old observation, never mind remembering it. I quickly set up the tent and got in and tried without success to get organised and felt I was in a wee bit of a guddle but comfy enough.
Rain lashed down all night and it was windy but got some shelter in the lee of the building.
Thursday 17 April 2014.
Fedden to GlenLoyne 30 km
Woke up at 0400 ish and went back to sleep. Up at 0630 hrs for a call of nature (shout ?) pouring rain and windy. Got organised and away by 0745 hrs. Considered missing hot coffee but persevered and felt better for it.
Initially very boggy and up and down but headed for Lochan Fhudair and crossed the very wet ground and its outflow heading north east then contoured to join the path eventually which was marked by Scottish Rights of Way poles and followed these through the forest to a junction where the sun came out. I followed the estate roads down to Greenfield and Torr na Carraidh where I crossed the bridge over Loch Garry. I passed,very gingerly,my first and as it turned out, only herd of Highland cattle just before Greenfield.
As I walked towards Tomdoun on the road my decision looked good because any streams I could see on the south side looked pretty full and a couple of them are notoriously difficult. Tomdoun Hotel was shut but I had some lunch on their grass then phoned home from a BT callbox.
I walked along the road with nice views to the west including Gairich and then followed the right of way north towards Glen Loyne and Cluanie. The path is well marked and very clear at the top but for some reason I missed it on the way up and made my way up over trackless ground. As the track split I realised I was on the east track and went north west and hit the proper path and went over into Glen Loyne. As I did, I then saw how much height I had to lose to cross the River Loyne and then re-ascend behind Creag Liathtais and at that point in the day it looked pretty tough. I decided to camp as soon as I found a spot and went down for a few minutes before I found a spot.
It was blowing quite hard so initially pitched behind a large rock but it was on a slope and could not get comfy so moved it a few metres. It was still showery at the beginning but the evening sun appeared and I got everything hung out to air and dry.
I had a relaxing night and got organised and everything found its place. A hard day but worth it.
Friday 18 April 2014. Good Friday.
Glen Loyne to Glen Affric 26 km
What a difference a day makes with an absolutely stunning start to the day. Bright sunny and warm. It had been very cold during the night and any small puddles were iced up and frost was melting from the tent. I had been toasty in bed and had slept well enough.
This is the kind of day that makes it all worthwhile. I noted in my journal that I was sitting having breakfast, a burbling stream behind me, the sun warming my right shoulder, snow capped mountains ahead and to the left and an impossibly blue sky with not a cloud in sight. Also noticeable is the ability to write up my journal, no chance yesterday which was simply survival stuff.
Started walking at 1000 hrs and walked down to the river. The climb back up still looked fierce. The river looked quite shallow but deep enough to get wet and i thought about changing into my sandals but in the end went for it in my boots. Tried to pebble hop, then as I fell off, simply ploughtered through very quickly and got across the second half, relying more on speed than Gore Tex. Amazingly my feet seemed dry.
I then took my time up the climb on a very good path and got up easily enough. As I got the top, I took a self timed photograph with me cresting the hill with Spidean Mialach and Gleouraich behind, all framed under a perfectly blue sky.
As I walked towards the Cluanie path I saw three guys climbing up towards Creag a Mhaim, the easternmost hill of the South Cluanie Ridge. A few minutes later a guy came running down and sped to the east. As I continued I saw my first lizard and I was to see many more over the walk.
Reaching the Cluanie path I bumbled along in perfect weather for walking. The weather was stunning; warm sun but a cooling breeze and not a cloud in the sky. There were snow capped mountains in every direction.
Loch Cluanie was very photogenic and I reached the Cluanie Inn where I got a signal on my mobile and made some calls and texts. There is BT box there but it was emergency calls only not even the ability to use a card.
I was a bit concerned about the 1 ½ km walk to the Glen Affric track as it was clearly a very busy road. However, reassuringly there is a very level grass verge and it was a doddle and soon I was walking up the track. The track was fine for a while then petered out and got wetter and wetter as I walked towards the bridge leading to Alltbeithe and the Youth Hostel. Not long before that I went to cross a pool of water and realised it was home to some newts. I took a photo then left them in peace to get ****. It was Friday after all ! I puzzled over the expression and later looked it up. Apparently when newts are trying to attract a mate they have a very wobbly, drunken gait. Ah !
I crossed the bridge neat the Youth Hostel, a guy standing never returned my wave. I walked along and made camp on nice grass at the bottom of the Allt Beithe Garbh.
Saturday 19 April 2014.
Glen Affric to Maol Buidhe Bothy 26 km
Another cold night and more frost. Got up at 0630 just as sun was appearing. I was feeling good with no issues but I was not getting through my food. I was unsure if I had brought too much, was not eating enough or was drinking so much water that it was filling me up.
Another beautiful day to wake up to in the heart of the mountains. I was at the intersection of four Glens. Glen Affric to the east. Gleann Gniomhaidh to the north west, Fionngleann to the south west and An Caorann Mor that I had come up the day before to the south. I was completely surrounded by mountains.
I left heading for Maol Buidhe Bothy at 0825 hrs after a bit of admin, including fixing broken pole straps with string and cable ties. These repairs lasted the whole trip. After an hour I changed into shorts and my lightest Rab t shirt as I walked along Gleann Gniomhaidh. After another hour or so I arrived at the lovely and isolated Loch a Bhealaich and traversed to the west of it through a succession of peat hags which were very hard work, up and down and round about. I was swithering about going to the Falls of Glomach, but knew in my heart they could not be missed and I would regret doing so. I was a wee bit worried about going over and down the steep track when I was on my own. Sometimes we give guidebooks and other information too much credence.
I arrived at the Falls of Glomach about 1230 hrs and filled my water bottle just as the water was cascading over the top, prior to its long drop. Looking across, the path did look scary. There was a family group enjoying the glorious weather and scenery and I had a spot of lunch then headed over the path. The views were tremendous and the drops precipitous but I need not have worried, the track was fine. A couple of feet wide with a drop to infinity to my right. Initially I did gasp at the exposure.
As I walked and scrambled along I saw that someone had pushed a mountain bike along the track. At least I assume and hope he pushed it. I cannot imagine anyone in their right mind pushing a mountain bike in this situation, far less riding it.
I made my way down and took some water from the river at the bottom after crossing the bridge. I wonder how many gallons had gone past between the two bottles. I then had a long trudge along an estate road in Strath Duileach, passing the lovely Loch na Leitreach before turning left and uphill steeply by the An Crom-allt just after Iron Lodge. I stopped to dook my feet then carried on up and over and then down to Maol Buidhe Bothy which kept its charms hidden till the very end. A very welcome sight after a fairly long tiring day. The trackless peat hags along Gleann Gaorsaic and Loch a Bhealaich were very hard. However, I suspect they were easier because of the dry weather. I also think that they could be a nightmare in summer because of insects including the dreaded midge.
I had the bothy to myself and had a lovely evening relaxing in the sun and dooking my feet in the burn. How different to night 1.
The beauty and the peace got my mind philosophising. Having been brought up in the Christian faith I’m now a confirmed atheist, although I respect anyone else‘s beliefs, whatever their creed. However, when I am in the wilds, I wonder if there is a God ? This beauty cannot have been made like this by chance can it ? from one big bang, millions of years ago ? Has there been a supreme architect ?
I watched the sun go down over Beinn Dronaig then had a wee fire in the bothy with some scraps of wood and coal. A nice end to a nice day.
Sunday 20 April 2014 Easter Sunday
Maol Buidhe Bothy to Pollan Buide 19 km
Got up just after midnight and went outside. The stars in the sky were astonishing. There were so many it was like glitter sprinkled on black velvet. I could hardly distinguish individual constellations. I saw the Plough and Auirga but struggled apart from that, as normally hidden stars filled in the gaps. I got up at 0640 hrs to bright sunshine and steam coming off Loch Cruoshie. There was a heavy frost too. I then heard an alarm ringing. It took a wee while to sink through my brain then I thought ‘alarm? Here ?‘ I then realised that it was some kind of bird singing away. It really did sound like an alarm.
All the indications were for another fabulous day as I left the bothy at 0830 hrs. I got to the river at the mouth of Loch Cruoshie and changed into my sandals for the first time to cross. It worked a treat , took no time at all and ensured dry boots and feet.
I had looked at the route suggested by the Cicerone guide which was to traverse on pathless ground underneath Beinn Dronaig but this looked hard on the ground. I therefore climbed over the east shoulder of Beinn Dronaig to pick up a path coming down which leads to Loch Calavie. This worked a treat and I was soon at Loch Calavie after another change into sandals to cross its outflow.
Loch Calavie was a perfect calm mirror reflecting the mountains above and I walked along the good track to the junction which turned left to Beinn Dronaig Lodge and bothy and where I turned right to head for the Bealach Bhearnais. Across Loch an Laoigh I could just make out Bearnais Bothy. A good stalkers path lead past Beinn Tharsuinn and Bidein a Choire Sheasgaich (cheesecake ?) but then inexplicably stopped for about 2 km towards the crest of the bealach. This was hard work but I got on with it , watched by large numbers of deer. Cresting the Bealach Bhearnais was a lovely moment and I continued my walk down another good stalkers path and dropped down to Pollan Buidhe.
At Pollan Buidhe there is a wire bridge and I took two steps before I sensibly got off and changed into sandals to cross the river. This was a good decision and I later watched a number of returning hill walkers cross the river. One guy got half way across the river on the wire before it dipped right down and he had to step off into the river. I was aiming to reach the Coulin Pass and maybe even Easan Dorcha but Pollan Buidhe was such a nice camping spot that I succumbed and had an early stop. I pitched the tent and aired all my gear and relaxed in the sun. I was feeling wonderful and it was nice to stop early for a change.
A guy heading for the hills stopped to talk. He introduced himself as Paul and he too had done the Cape Wrath Trail. As he told his version I realised it was familiar. I asked if he had posted his walk on walkhighlands forum and he had and I had read his blog, which had been very helpful in my planning. We had a lovely chat and it was clear, even by his own admission, that Paul has a strong urge to pass on his experiences to help others. He said his worst day was crossing through Inverlael to Knockdamph and I took careful note of this, as he left to camp higher up.
Thus far every day had had a hard bit, usually when crossing trackless ground through peat hags but it was all worth it. Goodness only knows what Paul’s problem bit was like as he seemed pretty fit and competent. Oh well, we’ll soon find out.
Monday 21 April 2014. Easter Monday
Pollan Buidhe to Kinlochewe 21 km
Problems. The mild stomach pains I had had for a couple of days turned into something akin to dysentery and I had a few miserable and fairly urgent visits to my latrine. I was not sure if this was as a reaction to my food or if I had taken in some dodgy water. My food was fairly nut based and was becoming very unappetising. I had a water filter but it was a bit of a faff to use when you are drinking the quantities that I was and I had stopped after day 1.
On the bright side it was another bright day although there was a cold wind and I wondered if the weatherv was changing. Oh well, a bumble along the track to Craig then up and over the Coulin Pass to Kinlochewe and hopefully my stomach would resolve itself. I checked my first aid kit for Imodium with no success. I set off around 0940 hrs and the weather stayed bright. I crossed over the Coulin Pass and headed down towards Easan Dorcha.
Around Easan Dorcha the scenery began to pick up with stunning views of Beinn Eighe. My spirits picked up as my stomach improved and I began whistling and singing including some opera. Easan Dorcha inspired me to a rendition of Nessun Dorma but none of the great opera stars have any fears. Beinn Eighe dominated the view completely and my pace slowed as I took photo after photo.
I had been dreading the walk through the forest after Loch Coulin and the climb over the shoulder looked slightly steep so I was somewhat relieved when a sign at Coulin said the bridge at Torran-Cuilinn was unsafe. I diverted as suggested, by Coulin Lodge and Loch Clair and popped out onto the road with a 5 km walk to Kinlochewe. It wasn’t the busiest of roads thankfully and I got my head down and blasted on. I sang a few songs and recited some poetry to distract my mind and legs and ate up the miles.
It felt good to enter Kinlochewe and as I passed the side of the caravan site I saw my wife setting up our motor home. I waved like a maniac but she never saw me and I trudged to the front gate and up to our pitch and had a joyful reunion with Shona and our dog Brea. My gear was all left outside and I went for one of the best showers I have ever had.
Stage one complete. Very enjoyable but hard work. Still felt the need to lose some weight in my rucksack and adjust food to be more palatable
I had two full days off, having a caravan holiday with Shona, recuperating and re-stocking my food supplies. I hadn’t been happy with my food and swapped a lot of the nut bars for chocolate and bought some freeze dried camping meals in the local shop. This was to be a crucial change that contributed to the success of my trip. I was pleasantly surprised by the freeze dried meals, both in terms of preparation and in taste. By cutting the quantity I began to get through each days ration with little left, which meant that the weight in my rucksack began to reduce daily. This was an important psychological factor. I also discarded some gear including my folding saw and heresy of heresies I ripped out the first half of the guidebook ! Sorry Iain.
Read other users walk reports for the long distance trails - and add your own.
NB. This board is for reports on multi-day long distance routes - reports on simply long walks should be added to the standard boards.
NB. This board is for reports on multi-day long distance routes - reports on simply long walks should be added to the standard boards.