There are so many excellent walk reports and stunning photographs it seemed futile to add to them.
Instead I made a video log - which runs for about 30 minutes, essentially a day-by-day log - (warms up after day 2). I did it mainly to show my kids what I did for the 22 days I disappeared from their lives, emboldened by my eldest son's - Matthew - uber relaxed - one-take, wave the camera around approach to making videos.
WHY DO THE TRAIL?
I was 50 in March and lacking a midlife crisis decided to create one. I only started walking in Scotland three years ago - having spent years walking in northern wales and Crete. I love camping on mountains or in open country and hate crossing stiles, roads and farmers fields - so the Western Highlands score top points.
Each year, blessed with an understanding wife, I go away for around 10 days walking by myself - to allow my antisocial essence recovery time from the enjoyable but full-on experience of having three children under 13.
This year I had gone both super-part time and freelance, so could create the space of the 22 days I thought I needed to travel up, and back and give my self a chance of doing the whole trail in one go.
I travelled up on 20th May, and back down on the 9th June. 19 days on the trail including two rest days - and the last two days pretty short at 6 and 10 miles respectively.
Tues 20 : London-Fort William : 0 miles
Wed 21 : Fortwilliam - Glenfinnan - wild camped by river near Glenfinnan : 20 miles
Thu 22 : Glenfinnan - River Pean - wild camped by river before the forest : 11 miles
Fri 23 : River Pean - Sourlies - wild camped round the headland beyond : 10 miles
Sat 24: Sourlies - short of Kinlochhourn - wild camped on spit of land : 14 miles
Sun 25: Kinlochhourn - Shiel Bridge - camped at Shiel Bridge campsite : 16 miles
Mon 26: Shiel Bridge - Morvich - camped at Morvich [rest day] : 2 miles
Tue 27: Morvich - Maol Bothy - wild camped near bothy : 16 miles
Wed 28: Maol Bothy - Strathcarron - Strathcarron Hotel : 9 miles
Thu 29: Strathcarron-Glen Torridon - wild camped just north of A896 : 12 miles
Fri 30: Glen Torridon - Lochan Fada : 18 miles
Sat 31: Lochan Fada - Inverael (Ullapool) - Ullapool campsite : 21.5 miles
Sun 1: Ullapool - rest day - Ferry Boat Inn : 0 miles
Mon 2: Ullapool - Oykel Bridge - Oykel Bridge Hotel : 19.5 miles
Tue 3: Oykel - beyond Loch Ailsh - wild camped : 11.5 miles
Wed 4: River Oykel - Glencoul - Glencoul Bothy : 15.5 miles
Thu 5: Glencoul - Loch Stack - wild camped just before turnoff to lodge : 15.5 miles
Fri 6 : Loch Stack - Kinlochbervie - Kinlochbervie Hotel : 11.5 miles
Sat 7: Kinlochbervie - Sandwood - wild camped : 6 miles
Sun 8: Sandwood - Cape Wrath - Durness - Durness campsite : 10 miles
Mon 9: Durness - inverness : 0 miles
Tue 10: Inverness - London : 0 miles
Note total mileage of 245 (ish) a bit longer because of the odd variation and wrong turn.
THE BEST BITS
There is not a duff day on the whole trail. Once you get into Cona Glen on day 1 its just fantastic thereafter. Unlike the dull and grim bits of the west highlands way - especially around loch Lomond - or walking for whole days through dark, dull managed homogenous forests (day 3 of the kintyre way).
Waking up on the mountains or in the glens was consistently brilliant. The most glorious (amongst many) stretches for me were (a function of good weather as well no doubt) stretches from:
- Sourlies to Barrisdale;
Glen Torridon to Kinlochewe - I could not believe how staggeringly primeval the landscape was as you approach Beinn eighe. I sat there for ages just drinking it all in.
Lochan Fada - and up over the pass to Loch an Nid.
Strath na Sealga is a glen of total perfection.
Approaching Sandwood Bay. Just a stunning beach and of course your first distant glimpse of cape wrath lighthouse if the weather is good.
FACTS, THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS
And few facts, thoughts and reflections which may or may not be helpful to others.
How fit and experienced do you have to be?
I run 2 or 3 days a week to work - usually around 15 miles a week so have pretty good general level of fitness especially the feet and legs. I'm a bit overweight for my height (13.5 stone and 5-8) - but my lack of knee/back etc. niggles is a tribute to a lazy teenage life that was sport and therefore injury free. I never get blisters and had not had foot problems in the past.
By the end of the trail I avoided any trips, falls, sprains etc. - however there was an unexpected accumulated soreness on the front underneath of both feet - that increasingly throbbed overnight. It didn't start to accumulate until around day 10 - but manageable with ibuprofen. After the walk - these became somewhat numb, as did the tips of most of my toes - and this last about three months - fairly common so it seems on searching for these symptoms. It did stop me running for a few weeks after I go back.
This was the first time I had used walking poles - and I think I might well have had to stop, or fall short without them as they must have significantly mitigated the pressure on my feet. I Would have taken extra sets of gels for inserting into the boots - and looked to see if I could find anything more industrial than the ones I had (the front of foot suffered most).
Your mental resilience on moments of disorientation, hunger, tiredness and crap weather is probably as important as anything. I don’t care if I don’t speak to anyone for days (its partly why I do these walks) but I guess that might also be a factor for some. That said when I started walking after getting the cute ferry boat to the other side of the loch from Fort William realizing this was it for 20 days I did have a bit of a 'what the ****' moment.
I found rest days invaluable and motivating - every 5 days or so. Along with some morale boosting nights in a hotel. Decent food at lunch or dinner if passing a hotel/bar was also a real pick me up.
When to go - what about the midges?
I went in mid May until early June. I didn't want to have a significant chance of ice and snow.
Midges were a factor in when I chose to go, I would have gone a bit later otherwise - but this turned out to be pointless in practice as the little buggers had a great winter and were out early anyway. I think it is pointless worrying about them. You just need to think differently about your day and routine than you would in midge free settings.
There was very very little wind throughout my whole trip which meant many locations where it would probably have been alright - were midgy, despite the frequent bright sunshine. Mornings were usually reasonable wrt midges, evenings very variable. So I ended up doing most of my dawdling and enjoying the scenery during the day - having longer lunch/breaks - knowing that the prospect of a lovely relaxing evening outside the tent without swarms of midges was unlikely.
But so long as you are moving its fine in the evening - so ended up doing quite a lot of walking into the early evening which is a really nice time to walk. The latest I walked was around 11.15pm when it was getting a bit marginal but still manageable. Walking till 9pm makes total sense when the days are long. Obviously if you are staying in bothies or hotels it doesn't matter.
I liked the top tip from elsewhere in the forum of having your main meal at lunchtime/early afternoon so you don't have to mess around amongst midges cooking in the evening - when you are really tired anyway.
On reflection - the length of days is the most important factor in planning your trip - it gives you so many more options as you work out how much distance you can travel over different terrain. Distance alone is a poor guide to how I found the days.
Planning and safety
I used the Iain Harper Cape Wrath trail guide. It was excellent - with plenty of options. But I read the walk accounts here, and explored the wonderful world of lightweight walking, with brilliant guidance on backpackinglight's website including gear videos and links to other really helpful stuff as well. The customer care and personal attention you get from them is off the scale good for online shopping. I can’t recommend them enough.
Iain's website and forum had great videos and links on some of the trickier things like crossing rivers, avoiding battery drain on iPhones etc.
Taking walking poles was in part a safety measure and river crossing aid - but they turned out to be a brilliant godsend in all sorts of ways - I wouldn't walk without them now despite having previously always thought they were a pointless fashion accessory for Californians.
The iPhone was my other key safety option really - GPS location and UK Maps (see below). Could often but not always get enough signal to text on passes and high points. But there were stretches of 3 or 4 days where I couldn't get a signal for a phone call - especially in the early part of the trail (I was on Vodafone).
And because I always carried shelter and food for 4 or 5 days - I could always just stop if the weather was horrific, or I picked up an injury - which is reassuring.
Maps and route-finding.
I like 1-25,000 maps so bought the lot and cut them up to reduce the weight to something fairly minor. I’m a reasonable fair-weather map reader, but have a history of some bad wrong turns, or convincing my self I’m going the right way when I’m not. However the best thing I did was to get the UK Map app - for £8 you get unlimited downloads of as much of the UK as you want (subject to the capacity of your phones memory.
And the recent revelation that you don’t need a phone signal to locate yourself by GPS is hugely helpful! However bad the phone signal (and it is truly hopeless for much of the trail) I always got a pretty rapid and very accurate fix of my location on the same map (usually + or - 5m) I had a hard copy of. That little blue dot on my IPhone was very reassuring. And there were probably 7 or 8 moments when I was about to make a bad call on direction, or got a bit confused by not concentrating or triangulating my location carefully enough - when it was as life saver - and meant I didn't have to plough across open country for hours to re-find the route. Can't recommend it highly enough. Mind you the navigation tips on the walk highlands site were also an invaluable part of making sure I was as well equipped as I could be with my slightly variable map-reading capability. I wouldn’t have wished to be without a hard copy map. And I remain luddite on the whole GPS route thing.
Way finding - the bits I found worst were:
- The final stretch getting down to the Glencoul bothy - scramble down to cross the river once the seemingly excellent path vaporizes, cross over rand stay on the right - but don’t expect a decent path to ever emerge. It is beautiful though, sunset was dreamy.
Getting to Gleann dubh and then down to inchnadamph - deciding how to get into and across the quite deep gully took quite a bit of scouting around - but I think I had not taken the best route. And this is just after a very boggy stretch - again there is probably a better line than I took.
Coming towards Rhiconich once you leave the footpath and reach the loch - the initial stretch of the route to the right of the final loch is constantly teasing you with promising paths that peter out - basically stay low if in doubt.
Of course I had NO days at all when the clouds descended and I couldn't see for 20 yards etc - it would all have become very different then.
But on all of these - if you read Iain Harper carefully in conjunction with your map you will make the best choice.
Accommodation, hotels, hitching
I generally wild camped because I prefer it even if near a bothy. I stayed one night in a bothy because I knew it would rain and it was a long day. I stayed in hotels for four nights - but had pre-booked none of them.
The hotels were all great, friendly and had space. Ullapool was the only place I couldn’t get a room - but that would generally be the case on Friday and Saturdays I suppose. I should mention that Rhiconich Hotel looked grim - seems to be closed - aggressive, unhelpful signs abounded, I couldn't find anyone to ask if it was open, closed or just crap. If they aren't closed they will soon be. The hotel in Kinlochbervie is nice so why stop.
- Strathcarron Hotel - very friendly, great value and lovely food. £60 b&b. Nice bar and goo breakfast. Cheese board off the scale good - from the dairy across the loch. Especially welcome after the tough (but short) flog from Maol Bothy.
Ferry boat Inn, Ullapool. Nice cozy rooms above the pub - great view onto the sea.
Oykel Bridge Hotel - transformed from the hotel that had so many horrific reports on trip advisor - now under new management. I turned up looking unkempt at 6.30 pm and they couldn't have been friendlier even though walkers are not their core trade (but deservedly increasing). At first you think £100 is quite a lot for a night. But the 6 course dinner, delicious breakfast - and best of all - make your packed lunch spread with endless cold cuts, biscuits, cakes, etc. was awesome and kept me going for lunch and dinner that day. I was somewhat underdressed compared to the other guests (mainly 3 generations of posh fisher folk) but no-one cared or looked down their nose at me.
Kinlochbervie Hotel - looks a bit unprepossessing from the outside - but glorious location, comfortable, lovely bright sunny dining room and lounge, reasonable food. £45 makes it the best value for b&b on the whole trip.
I was phenomenally lucky with the weather - almost no rain, and pretty much windless the whole way. It would have been a very different proposition in different weather, and I guess I would have made more use of bothies.
I stayed on serviced campsites when they were there to use showers, dryers etc.:
- Shiel Bridge was good - excellent shops with loads of stuff.
Morvich - fine, friendly if a bit over-organized as usual with Camping Club - it had a useful games room/lounge (bit austere but midge free).
Ullapool was fine and friendly - and as it seems to be the clubbing/party capital of the highlands - your only hope of accommodation on a Friday and Saturday night.
Durness - fine, friendly - really good bar/restaurant on site - godsend if he weather is rubbish. Restaurant surprisingly busy.
Finding wild camping spots was generally OK - a few places where it was hard:
- Top half of Cona glen had no spots I fancied on day 1 - they were too early. So ended up going over the pass and most of the way to Glenfinnan - by the midge heavy river just before you enter the forest.
Beyond the headland past Sourlies Bothy - it was a bit of a zoo as I came up to Sourlies bothy intending to camp there - a bloke was smoking outside and said to walk a bit further round, it's lovely and you'll have it to yourself (quick because the tide was out). He was right - and it was lovely. I saw him next morning and he said it was a hideous night in the bothy - crap peat fire and super noisy (it was a bank holiday weekend).
Between Barrisdale and Kinlochhourn there really is little to give you hope early on - but eventually there are a couple of grassy spits of land by streams which were lovely places right by the loch - but probably 2/3rds of the way to Kinlochhourn, which is quite tiring (though not as bad as the book suggests) if it's at the end of the day.
Some good spots near (just past) Maol Bothy.
Glen Torridon - just north of the road by the abandoned cottage - again near the road - but a lovely spot - and nothing much before then for half a day.
By Lochan Fada. Beautiful spot - sunset and waking up there were some of the most special moments. But you need to look hard for a spot to camp - I camped on a hillock to avoid the boggy ground - as someone else was camped nearer the lake. You need V pegs for this - the needle like lightweight ones are hopeless.
Beyond Loch Ailsh - plenty of nice spots in this lovely glen. Not much in the early stretches of river Oykel where all the fishing spots were.
Loch Stack - there was nothing at all until just before the turnoff to the Lodge - quite a nice spot by the abandoned cottage, if a bit near the road.
Sandwood beach was another camping highlight- of course you know this anyway - but its a stunning place. I actually camped on the cape wrath side of the river (which is a bit fiddly to cross) and that is a lovely spot and saves messing around the next morning.
Hitching seems so 1970's - but the highlands were remarkable. I took the wrong glen near Beinn eighe - so entranced the stunning beauty of the place. So ended up with the prospect of 8 or 9 km of dull fast road. At my age and looks I am not high value hitchhiker - and look pretty grubby/beardy. But I stuck my thumb out the the first person stopped (local woman) and took me to Kinlochewe. And when I really needed a lift after a long and very tiring day reaching Inverael I just put my thumb out, and again first car that passed stopped - again some one from near there (but working in Glasgow) picked me and took me to Ullapool - what a civilized country.
I became a bit obsessed as you will see if you watch the VLOG. I am lucky (or not) in having a very low metabolism so I don't need that much food (also carry significant spare supplies on my body!) and don't really get blood sugar lows etc. So 1500/1800 calories a day is fine - and I know this from experience - obviously not recommended for those who have a metabolism more active than that of a goldfish. Even then I only lost about a stone... perfect constitution for a shipwreck.
But even I started dreaming of food. And what became my standard aim - when I knew I would pass by a hotel/bar around lunchtime was to make sure I had a good meal - only managed this four or five times - but it was fantastic.
My top food experiences (excluding hotels covered above):
- Kinlochhourn had a very old school front room style cafe as you first enter the village from the coast path. Nice scrambled eggs and toast. Will make up takeaway sandwiches for you.
Kintail Lodge Hotel - good honest pub food - fish and chips was great.
Kinlochewe - the Whistle Stop Cafe is really, really good as most of the reviews say - and unusually is serving all afternoon (rather than the annoying places which stop serving lunch very early at 2.00 or even 1.30).
Ullapool - Frigate Inn - best place for breakfast by a mile - American pancakes alongside the usual suspects, good coffee. I also had dinner their - great mussels, and tasty starters.
Trail food - I find the pre-packed supermarket type rolls will last up to 10 days in desperation so long as you don't squash them too badly in your rucksack. And I use laughing cow cheese that is indestructible. I have that for breakfast and the odd snack. Could only get bread in Fort William, Shiel Bridge, Kinlochewe and Ullapool. Coffee is vital for me too.
Otherwise its standard supermarket packets of pasta and risotto. On balance the pasta ones are least dull and awful - but none get your heart racing. I also have bags of nuts and nuts and raisins which is what I most feel like when walking. Others would need plenty more calories than me so I would not begin to suggest this would work for others.
Lunch or dinners in hotels/bars was a bit of a lifesaver.
Electricity, phones and charging
I just took an IPhone 4S - as my camera, GPS backup and video. I managed to reduce battery drain by looking at some brilliant (and worrying) tips on how to switch of all the crap that Ios7 in particular stuffs on your phone and buries deep in the settings.
Even so - I switched it off properly most of the time. I carried a hyper juice battery pack (the smaller one) which once charged up will provide 12-14 full charges of an iPhone. And of course when in bar or hotel I would re-charge - I still had about 6 or 7 charges left in it when I got back. And not too heavy.
Crossing rivers and general bogginess
I was bit apprehensive about these - good video tips and links in Iain Harper's website. I was lucky in that there was very little rain during the entire trip. The only rivers that were really a bit tricky - were the crossing before you get to Rhiconich, and the crossing on the last day just past Sandy's bothy. They were fast even when there had been little rain.
But even for those I used my trusty rubble sacks - which were a bit leaky by then - but prevented soaking boots/feet.
I used Rubble sacks (and Velcro straps to keep them done up) over gaiters - tip from other walking account - really useful - wish I'd taken more than 2, and also some duct tape or similar to do running repairs - but they were quick, and resisted all but the deepest/longest crossing. A second pair of Velcro straps to make it tighter between the gaiters and the top of the boots might have also helped avoid what little water got in. Need to be a bit careful to avoid the sharpest rocks too. Walking poles essential.
As for bogginess - generally no worse than the worst bits of north wales - gaiters and boots (re-waxed every night) did the job well enough - some days - I wish I had thought to use the Velcro straps I had to firm up the top of boots and gaiter connection. Probably worst bit was when you plot the wrong course across open land and end up amongst peat hollocks and dark black mud.
- Going up towards the pass from Lochan Fada - take the route Harper suggests - left and higher than the assorted paths that emerge take you. It is stunning up here which offset the bit of bog scrambling for me.
Going down to find Gleinn Dubh off the pass beyond Loch Ailsh is pretty boggy even in a dry month -
Last day is generally boggy and wet underfoot - not sure any line will change that much - but who cares - its the last day.
Lightweight backpacking - fad or lifesaver?
The biggest impact on being able to finish was my decision to go light weight.
Last year when I walked the kintyre way (with some abysmal weather) even though the maximum altitude is about 5 metres just my back pack alone weighed 3.5kg empty! And I just thought you had to walk all day with your shoulders really aching and endlessly readjusting the straps to try to keep weight of sore shoulders. I think I was carrying around 20-22kg.
This year the total weight excluding food and water was around 8.5kg. there is a list of key items that show how I got to that. It hugely changed the nature of walking and made it much more enjoyable in the moment. Obviously there is some cost involved - but I was at the point of upgrading most of my kit anyway. And of course in Scotland you cant go for the lightest of everything as its a tradeoff between resilience to dreadful weather and weight. The previous year in kintyre my wet weather gear was badly exposed, so I was careful to get something much more robust this year.
The fact that my tent, rucksack, sleeping bag and mat together weighed 800g less than my empty rucksack last year tells its own story.
Key bits of kit:
Tent: Vango Helium carbon 100 : 920g : Great, resilient, no condensation
Rucksack : Gossamer gear - Mariposa : 765g : Brilliant, comfortable and flexible
Sleeping bag : Rab Neutrino 400 men’s : 805g : Seemed fine - not really tested in lower temps.
Sleeping mat: Thermarest - Neolite Xlite regular : 350g : Super-comfortable tough
Best of the other kit:
- Rucksack - it really is as good as all the reviews say. Putting damp tent and rain gear on the outside, along with food etc. you need for the day - in all the outside pockets made life and packing so much simpler.
Walking poles - revelation.
DIY Pot cozy/windshield - cheap simple, effective, and saved a lot of fuel I am sure, and keeps your food hot.
Travel tap water filter. Whilst I had some reservations about the rather poor, slightly leaky fit of the tap onto the bottle (couldn’t they fix that?) - its is brilliant - quick, absolutely clean tasting water immediately - from the endless water sources. So I was never really carrying more than about half a litre of water. takes a little while to get used to the need to squeeze as you drink and the fact it doesn’t gush out - but probably healthier way to drink anyway. Towards the end of the day I would fill up my other water carriers so that I had enough for the night if I had to camp somewhere where it wasn’t easy to access water.
Tent pegs: my excellent tent came with teeny little lightweight pegs - I replaced their weedy little pegs with a variety of more robust titanium V pegs (I took 6 of these) and longer thicker titanium pegs. V pegs brilliant for lousy camping spots (eg on heather tussocks). I don't think the pegs supplied would of handled bad weather and dodgy ground. For the sake of a couple of hundred grams I was really pleased I did this.