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Go West, Old Man!

Go West, Old Man!


Postby davidbrownie » Wed Aug 05, 2015 3:41 pm

Route description: Affric Kintail Way

Date walked: 31/07/2015

Time taken: 3 days

Distance: 71 km

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Having driven my family from Darlington to Glasgow Airport early one morning so that they could holiday in Canada, I thought I'd get the benefit from the fuel used and my freedom, and carry on 'a bit further' to do a walk. I may have been to Scotland well over three hundred times for business and pleasure, but I still occasionally suffer an Englishman's appreciation of Scottish distances. Hence, even though the drive from Glasgow Airport to Drumnadrochit took 50% longer than the drive from Darlington to Glasgow, it was still just 'a bit further'.

A helpful member of staff at the Tourist Information office had already emailed me to say I should be able to park overnight in the large, free car park without issue as long as I was not parking a motorhome, so at 1.15pm I found one of the last spots - a respectful 10 feet from the 'no overnight parking' sign - got out, wafted away a few midges and, sheltering under the tailgate, donned all my waterproofs. It was hoying it down, but no bother. The open trail beckoned.


Day 1 - Drumnadrochit to Cannich. Wednesday, 29th July, 2015:
Drumnadrochit - 1.15pm; Bus shelter near Shenval - 4pm to 4.15pm; A831 - 4.35pm; Cannich - 6pm.

Like the Three Lochs Way, which I did last autumn, the AKW starts with a sweaty little climb. However, this one is through a misty coniferous forest reached after two beautiful redwoods, and is spoilt a little by inconsistency between the Walkhighlands route description and the signage and actual route. This added ten minutes of down and up to my walk which initially prompted me to question my own sanity. However, I later found from a number of sources on route that almost everyone goes astray before Corriemony for this reason. So you have been warned - if, like me, you pass the sign and track for Corriemony on your left, then a few yards later get to the viewpoint over Glen Urquhart on your right, you need to turn back to the Corriemony sign and take that track, rather than continuing down the steep path towards the glen.

The broad track from this point to Shenval is an easy march through rather dispiriting conifers, with just a few sporadic views down to Glen Urquhart and Loch Meikle. Quite early on, I decided to abort my experiment of using two walking poles, and ended up carrying both on my bag for the remaining 68 of the 71 kilometres. Still, at least I would make an efficient lightning conductor! I also became foster parent to an ever-increasing swarm of big flies, which seemed more interested in licking sweat off my temples than in any attempt to clamp their jaws around my flesh. I think they were the dreaded clegs, but tried to avoid eye contact with them. I was glad to have my new black waterproof baseball cap to keep the flies off my scalp and the rain off my glasses. I fancied that it possibly made me look like one of Cameron McNeish's promotional photos, ruggedly fixing a steely gaze upon some distant mountain top. In reality, it probably made me look more like that ill-advised William Hague photo op from the late nineties. The occasional breeze or drop in temperature would disperse the flies, only for them to return a few seconds later. I only met one person between Drum and Cannich - an elderly lady who seemed rather nervous to have a wild-looking man striding ardently towards her in a deserted forest. She had two lively dogs, so I slowed down in an attempt to 'donate' my cloud of flies to them, but most of the flies obviously considered me the better option.

At Shenval is a small wooden bus shelter. I decided that, flies or not, I was going to sit inside on its bench for 15 minutes, strip off some sweaty layers of clothing, eat a sandwich and chug some water (and Famous Grouse). In a rare display of fair play, the flies waited patiently outside for the duration. A mile or so after Shenval, the track turns onto a minor road over the pleasant River Errick and joins the main A831. (I'll see Corrimony Chambered Cairn some other time, if that's quite alright.) I was expecting to have to endure this section, but it is a very pleasant road walk. The verges are there when you need to step off the tarmac, which for me was infrequently because cars passed at the rate of around one every 90 seconds, I could hear them approaching well in advance, and almost all the drivers waved. In particular, the descent into Strathglass was a very relaxing end to the day. From the bridge, the River Glass is very impressive, its banks seeming to plunge away quickly to a considerable depth, but the river still being broad, fast-flowing and very 'trouty' looking. As the pods at the campsite had been full, I had booked a nice en suite room at Westward B&B. After getting up at 4.30am that day, I was too tired to check out the Slaters Arms (next time!) and had an early night.

Day 2 - Cannich to Alltbeithe (Glen Affric SYHA). Thursday, 30th July, 2015:
Cannich - 9am; Dog Falls car park - 10.35am; Viewpoint with wooden panorama marker - 11am; Junction near road end car park - 12.55 to 1pm; Strawberry Cottage - 2.40pm; Alltbeithe - 4pm.

Full marks to Mr and Mrs Mann at Westward B&B for their accommodation, breakfast and hospitality. They fully deserve to be picking up plenty of new business from the AKW. I shared the B&B with a Swiss couple, and a middle-aged lady who was getting the gillie's boat up Loch Mullardoch to tackle some of the more remote Munros - one for the future, as this part of the world has been unchartered territory on my bagging missions. Day two starts with another sharp climb, but this time up the pleasant road towards Loch Mullardoch, past a monument to the Chisholm clan, before turning left onto a broad forest track, which is followed for over an hour. The woods here are a little more mixed than those outside Drumnadrochit, so slightly less dispiriting, but still a little oppressive. I did see a hawk zooming from one stand of trees to another, screeching loudly and terrorising the forest. I also passed the pile of felled logs marked AM, ready to be brought into the glen and made into Mr Mann's forthcoming camping huts - nice to see the local community gearing up for AKW walkers in such a sustainable manner. After a few glimpses through clearings to Strathglass and with no passers-by, the 7km of forest track was left as the way zigzags down through trees and bracken, past a gated off tunnel to the Glen Affric road and Dog Falls car park and toilet block.

At Dog Falls car park, the new metal bridge, built to replace one which was washed away a few months previously, sturdily spans a beautiful, fast-flowing stretch of the River Affric. I had driven here less than four months previously on holiday with my wife, kids and mother-in-law, so it was a time to be slightly wistful, but also to relish the next section. I have a poster-sized photo looking up Glen Affric on my wall at home, and it was this glen which had really attracted me to the AKW. The way resumes by climbing a forest track for half an hour to a stupendous viewpoint west with a carved wooden viewfinder. The Munros on the northern side of the glen, and particularly Sgurr na Lapaich with its beautiful southeastern corrie, begin to dominate the scenery. "Ah, this is more like it!", I thought. But then, a slight anti-climax. Although the forest was getting more mixed all the time, the track sandier and the tree cover thinner, there were precious few views down towards to the lochs for the next few miles as they were obscured by the trees. However, after the junction of tracks just up from the road end car park, things improved immeasurably. The track got sandier still, the trees by now seemed totally indigenous and as nature intended, and the broad views across and up Glen Affric opened out with the promise of real wild country looming ahead.

This next section up to Strawberry Cottage is surely one of the finest hikes in Scotland. It was also a little busier but far from crowded. Having only encountered two mountain bikers and a lost middle-aged German couple (inadvertently dismantling national stereotypes) between Dog Falls and the track junction, there would now be a passer-by or two every mile or so, and the sun came out too. It was slightly surprising to see a few patches of lingering snow on south-facing aspects of the Glen Affric Munros in late July. A couple of people drove slowly past me going up the track and parked just before the descent to Strawberry Cottage, where a few other vehicles were parked - I hope vehicular access up this track never becomes commonplace. A couple of Forestry Commission vehicles with metal trailers rattled past going east. At the head of Loch Affric, a dozen people had arrived at the small beach on outboard boats and were having a barbecue by a wind shelter and a tent in an idyllic setting. I looked down at them from the path, wondering what was on the menu. A little further on past meanders and marshland, the way passes above a waterfall on the pretty River Affric, before crossing it at Strawberry Cottage and taking an ascending line across the increasingly wild moors above it as far as the SYHA at Alltbeithe.

The youth hostel was a highlight of the trip. I arrived reassuringly early at 4pm to find the warden, a Danish lady called Hanne, sawing firewood. She showed me around, made me tea and spent a good half hour talking about the area and the hostel. This was her third season as permanent warden here, working three weeks on and one week off for the summer season in what must be the most isolated hostel in Scotland. And if ever you wish to see a warden and a hostel made for each other, then it is Hanne and Alltbeithe. I relaxed into the cosy kitchen-dining area by a warm fire. After about four mugs of tea I made a slight tactical error in cooking double portions of pasta-and-cheese-sauce mix to replenish lost calories. Getting halfway through and reaching saturation point, I remembered that cooked food cannot be discarded here (as it attracts badgers and other creatures), so I had a choice of bagging it up to carry out or persevering until it was finished, which I did through gritted teeth. The reed-bed toilet is absolutely fine, and I was quite surprised to find that there is a shower here with hot water - although by this point of the walk I had opted to dispense with personal hygiene, considering it decadent and against the spirit of the wild. As for electricity, as long as the meter on the wall is reading 26 volts or more, there is ample to use from the wind turbine. All mod cons!

The first guest to join me was one of two young German ladies who had been given a lift from Cannich to Dog Falls by the Swiss couple at last night's B&B, and were making their way with 70lbs of kit via an extended stay at Alltbeithe to Morvich. Confident, charming and more than a little photogenic, she recounted the story of a kind driver who had picked them both up near Glasgow, decided that his business in Perth was not too urgent, taken them up to Inverness, then waited for them to do some shopping before driving them to Drumnadrochit. Yes, I could certainly understand that! Her friend joined us, then a German couple staying in the private room, and then a gentleman who had recently retired early to Roy Bridge and taken the opportunity to get through over 70 Munros since the turn of the year. A long-standing member of the famous Creagh Dhu Climbing Club, he had just been on the three Munros behind Alltbeithe for the previous 9 hours and was looking footsore but enthused. We were later joined by a mother and daughter exploring the hills. The mother turned out to be Angela Oakley, author of "Ski Touring in Scotland". Many fireside tales of legendary Creagh Dhu members ensued. A couple more walkers joined us very late at night, looking tired, hungry and emotionally tested. They seemed to be camping further west. What a great atmosphere there was in the little kitchen that evening - everyone thrown together by the pleasures and the hardships of wild Highland country.

Day 3 - Alltbeithe (Glen Affric SYHA) to Morvich. Friday, 31st July, 2015.
Alltbeithe - 7.25am; Final view back to SYHA - 7.55am; Camban Bothy - 8.10am; Watershed - 8.25 to 8.30am; Waterfalls - 9.05 to 9.10am; Glenlicht House - 9.45am; Minor road near Morvich - 10.50 to 11am; Morvich Mountain Ranger Post (end of AKW) - 11.10am; Jac-O-Bite Café at Ault a' Chruinn (A87) - 11.30am.

A good night's sleep in the dorm, followed by Spam sandwiches for breakfast - and with a packed lunch of Spam sandwiches. Hanne was up at 7am to make tea, and a little later I said goodbye and set off into the damp. This next section was very wild, though the path is distinct and conveys the walker very well through the drumlins and rocks of the landscape, and is dotted with many pretty alpine flowers. I must admit, when walking alone and especially in deserted areas, I'm often afflicted by "Brown Girl in the Ring" syndrome - that annoying mental state told with dark humour by Joe Simpson in "Touching the Void" when you cannot shake a tune from your head. Luckily, I usually get befriended by tunes which I quite like, but unfortunately these are often not particularly uplifting or motivational. As the path got more and more barren, I moved from Simon & Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair" firmly onto Leonard Cohen's "The Partisan" - and there it stayed until the end. It was only a Radio One Ibiza Mix on the seven hour drive south from Drumnadrochit which managed to dislodge it. Anyway, keeping a hundred feet or so above the infant river, the main watershed of Scotland (although not the top of the path's climb) is met after an hour, passing the inhabited Camban Bothy and its chimney smoke on route. In the early morning rain, and with cloud just skirting the mountain tops, I got a true sense of the remoteness of Alltbeithe, Camban and the country passed here, but a little over half an hour after the watershed, the path drops steeply to the stunning gorge of the Allt Grannda, with its three waterfalls, one of which is crossed halfway down by the path on a narrow ledge. Such scenic treats are a relief after the desolation of the bealach and signal the home straight. The path quickly drops to the glen floor at Glenlicht House, which was being renovated by two men in a bulldozer. From here it is a lengthy but straightforward walk out along a track to the minor road at the end and the termination of the AKW at Morvich's Mountain Rescue Post, where I fortuitously met someone staying at the Caravan Club site to take my photo at the finish board (although he struggled to take my photo whilst holding his lively dog on a lead so it did not run at the horse peering over the fence). The extra mile and a half along the minor road to its junction with the A87 at Ault a' Chruinn's Jac-O-Bite café was necessitated by catching the CityLink bus back to Drumnadrochit, but is a pleasant saunter past estuarine marshland at the head of Loch Duich, with its herons and bobbing seals.

This was a fantastic walk of light and shade and a sense of progression. Upper Glen Affric (from near the road end) fully lived up to expectations, the Allt Grannda exceeded them, and the hospitality and comradeship encountered along the way was superb. On balance, even though the eastern half lacks the scenic grandeur and botanical interest of the western half, I would still recommend doing the entire walk, as it gives a pleasant passage from the Great Glen to the West Coast and a feeling of having experienced many contrasts in the landscape. (I have loads of good photos, but was expecting the Facebook-type system here with which I am familiar. Oh well, maybe some day I'll register on flickr and upload some for this post.)
Last edited by davidbrownie on Tue Aug 25, 2015 8:08 pm, edited 3 times in total.
davidbrownie
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Re: Go West, Old Man!

Postby Mal Grey » Wed Aug 05, 2015 4:04 pm

What an excellent report, your words really telling the story of the trip, and helping us form the pictures in our minds. By all means load up some pictures to go with it, but you've portrayed the wonderful Glen Affric so well, we don't really need them.
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Mal Grey
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Re: Go West, Old Man!

Postby basscadet » Wed Aug 05, 2015 4:30 pm

Brilliant report - totally brightened up my afternoon :D

Had thought about doing some of this walk myself.. Despite many adventures, I still haven't really explored Glen Affric properly for some reason :?
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Re: Go West, Old Man!

Postby davidbrownie » Wed Aug 05, 2015 7:15 pm

Thankyou very much, Mal Grey and basscadet.

For a pretty strenuous but unforgettable day out, you could do the circuit of Loch Affric from the road end - probably clockwise for the best views - although be warned that the footbridge next to Affric Lodge is gated and not open to non-estate personnel.

Also, if you like Glen Affric, check out the old episode of "Weir's Way" on YouTube where Tom meets forestry workers and gillies up here in the depths of a 1970s winter. Perfect television, and something we never got on tv south of the border.
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Re: Go West, Old Man!

Postby CrampyChris » Wed Aug 12, 2015 11:29 pm

Cracking report, you described it so very well - it sounds a right treat to have stayed at Alltbeithe. Cheers too for the tip on the Weir's way episode!
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Re: Go West, Old Man!

Postby petert847 » Mon Sep 14, 2015 10:58 am

Really helpful report - fun to read too.
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