Day 0: Camusnagaul ferry in Fort William at 16h30 to go camping in Cona Glen
Day 1: Cona Glen to Corryhully bothy (just past Glenfinnan)
Day 2: Corryhully bothy – A’Chuil bothy
Day 3: A’Chuil bothy – Barrisdale Bothy
Day 4: Barrisdale Bothy – Alt A’Coire (river crossing after Kinloch Hourn)
Day 5: Alt A’Coire – Morvich (Ratagan to be accurate)
Day 6: Hitchike to Strathcarron and walk towards Craig
Day 7: Craig – Kinlochewe
Day 8: Kinlochewe – Shenavall
Day 9: Shenavall – Inverlael – Ullapool
Day 10: Ullapool – The Schoolhouse bothy
Day 11: The Schoolhouse bothy – Just past Benmore Lodge (near Loch Ailsh)
Day 12: Just past Benmore Lodge (near Loch Ailsh) – Ichnadamph
Day 13: Ichnadamph – Glencoul bothy
Day 14: Glencoul bothy – Just past Loch Stack
Day 15: Just past Loch Stack – Sandwood Bay
Day 16: Sandwood Bay – Cape Wrath
A Cape Wrath Tale: The travelling stone
Shaped by wind, rain, water and shimmering light, I lay here. Cona Glen (near Fort William, Scotland) has been my home for centuries. Days, weeks, months and years have gone by. My edges became a little softer. My size a little smaller. Hidden away between my friends, I saw her coming my way. A woman in bright yellow trousers and a navy blue raincoat. Her hair still slightly wet from the last rain shower, but smiling with the sun caressing her face. I did not expect her to notice me. A tiny white stone. Till then overlooked and disregarded along the Cape Wrath Trail. However, I was wrong. Out of nowhere she picked me up. She polished me with her sleeve and put me away in her side pocket. Walking along she called towards her companion: “I’ve found it, I’ve found my travelling stone”. Little did I know that this was the beginning of an adventure that would carry me all the way North to Cape Wrath and then back home to her place in Belgium where I would sit next to her at her desk.
It felt warm and cosy inside the side pocket of her backpack. It felt good to feel safe and sheltered after such a long time. She continued her journey across the stone clattered path and down the muddy slopes towards Glenfinnan. After having tea at the Glenfinnan Monument visitor centre and watching the steam train making its way across the famous Harry Potter bridge, the last few steps towards Corryhully bothy were taken. The first 40 kilometres of the journey towards Cape Wrath were a fact. 338 kilometres to go! Now all she had left to do for the evening was have dinner, wash up in the river and remove all the ticks she had collected while camping in Cona Glen. She had already removed a whole lot throughout the day, but she had not yet gotten rid of them, nor had her sleeping bag and mat. When the time came to go to sleep, she stuffed away everything that could attract mice in a little cupboard and placed me and her backpack at her feet in an effort to scare away the more courageous little fellows. It was a stormy night, but for the first time since my existence I experienced the joy of listening to the rain and wind with a roof over my head. Never could I have imagined how peaceful yet exciting it could be!
Although I was nicely tucked away in a little pocket, it was clear to me that the next day started dreary and wet. Thankfully, not long after leaving the bothy, the sun broke through. A 4x4 track slowly turned into a little path and eventually disappeared while zigzagging uphill, jumping across a little burn. When reaching the lonely rusty fence at the top, my carrier lady and her companion knew that they entered some of the most unforgiving Scottish terrains while moving towards Knoydart, also known as "the Rough Bounds" or “Britain's last wilderness".
Walking past the fence and steeply descending into the valley, the terrain became more boggy and unforgiving. All went well at first. They decided to cross the river early, as recommended by the estate owner who had visited them at Corryhully bothy. Soon it became clear that his advice would probably only be useful when the river is in full spate. The going became tough. The sun was shining, but the mud became deep and the little heaps of grass in between made progress slow. While my carrier lady in her now bright orangy trousers got weary and tired, the tension between her and her partner started to grow. They had made a wrong decision. They should have gone back, but instead they continued. The terrain was too boggy to stop for lunch. Slowly, the grumpiness of hungry people made its entrance. Deciding they should do something, they went back down to the river to cross back to the other side. Annoyed and hungry, her partner tried to make his way across the water, hopping from one stone to the next. Suddenly, the hop turned into a slither with his hiking boots and feet making their way down to the river bedding. The sound of cursing could be heard echoing across the valley. With a lot of splattering, wet feet and soaked boots, he made his way across, threw down his backpack and took off his shoes. They had only started and one of the worst things had happened: his hiking boots were soaked and wouldn’t simply dry. Together with water pouring out of his shoes, anger and frustration made its way across his face. With the sound of cursing in the background, my carrier lady took off her shoes and socks, rolled up her trousers and got ready to carry me safely across. She was terrified and I might have seen a tear roll down her cheek. I didn’t get it, the river wasn’t too deep and the force of the water seemed to be limited. What was happening to her? Then she told me. Or maybe she just realised it for herself. This was her first deeper river crossing since the storm up in Knoydart 3 years ago when she got washed away and had to be pulled out of the water with a rope. Apparently that experience had left its mark. A mark unnoticeable for most, but very present at times like these. A mark of fear she would have to face many times throughout this journey. I knew it, she knew it, but we carried on.
Having crossed the river safely, they stayed put to have lunch. A not so tasty energy bar sprinkled with anger and annoyance. Nothing better to soothe the frustration before trotting on! Another few kilometres of mud and water. Tough. Even tougher because of their mental state. After reaching a bridge, a path appeared. At first a deeply muddy path leading into the woods, but it quickly turned into an easy going 4x4 for the last leg of the journey. When reaching the 4x4 track, her companion kicked off his shoes and replaced them with sandals to let his feet dry, revealing already hugely blistered feet. After a final hour of slogging they reached their hidden destination: A’Chuil bothy. They arrived early and the sun was still out. Time to place the wet hiking boots on top of the hiking poles and let them bathe in the last rays of warmth. The evening routine could begin. Filtering water. Boiling water for a cup of tea. Boiling water again to prepare the dehydrated meals. Making the beds. And then back again to the last point of the day, removing the newly found ticks before going to bed. Softly hearing my carrier lady shuffle about, I started to realise that I was forever moving away from what I had always called home.
With the morning mist lingering about and the mountain shadows still lying long across the valley, the day came to an early start. A good day. A sunny day. A day closer to where last time my carrier lady was swept off her feet by a raging river. While hiking along, I could hear her say that she was a little stressed about crossing the mountain pass the next day. She knew it was irrational, but that isn’t how fear works. They walked on, reminiscing and laughing about how last time they had been soaked to their underwear by this stage. The walking was easy and the river crossings were smooth. Steadily they made their way to Sourlies bothy at the shores of Loch Nevis. By 2pm they had reached their destination. Being so early, an idea started to brew. Should they continue for another 15 kilometres? Get the mountain pass over with where everything went wrong last time? While eating a cheese string and a sausage, an important decision was made. I was picked back up and one foot started to be placed in front of the other. Along the shore, up the hills, across the marshes towards the bridge, along the rocky track, across a few streams and into the wildernesses of Knoydart. A steady pace. Sunshine above. Positive energy within and a long way ahead. The pathless climb surely couldn’t be as bad as they remembered it from last time? Right? Well, from what I heard them say it definitely wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t good either. First a path that made us wonder how many had dangerously fallen towards the river by one humble misstep. Then an endless climb. 200 metres straight up to find the path indicated on the map! Nope. Another 200 metres clambering across long grass and rocks. Still no path. And so the journey upwards continued, draining all the energy they had left after walking for 10 hours. When they started to feel completely lost, the path suddenly appeared in front of them. A little further upwards and then it was straight down to Barrisdale bothy. Ahhh, that would have been too easy! Heavy rain started pouring down. Together with the downpour, the light in the eyes of my happy carrier lady was replaced by fear with hints of panic. Not much further was the river that swept her away last time. In the blink of an eye everything was covered by a layer of water. For the sake of honesty I need to tell you that, by now, I was safely tucked away in a tiny plastic bag to keep me dry. At least that was my interpretation. Maybe she had put me there to keep me from running off down the slopes. The rain stopped as abruptly as it had started and made way for darkening skies. My two hiking friends had started to make their way downhill, soon reaching the river that last time caused so much havoc. Now it was reduced to a mere wide burn that could be crossed without taking off their hiking boots. She couldn’t fathom that this little river, peacefully clattering downhill, was the same river that last time had tried to consume her. However, there was no time to give this much thought. Night was making its entrance and they were eager to reach the bothy before the sky turned pitch-black. An empty hope. Soon they had to take out their headlights to walk the last few kilometres to Barrisdale bothy. Exhaustion and desperation took hold of my carrier lady’s partner. His legs were shaking. Tired and weary, every step was a fight against his own body. He followed in my carrier lady’s footsteps while she tried to guide him along. ‘Be careful of that sharp rock’; ‘Keep left, that part is less slippery’; ‘You can do it, we are nearly there!’. Carefully they persevered until the bothy came into sight. At 9:30pm, nearly 13 hours after they had left in the morning, they arrived. Exhausted, I was thrown to the floor together with her backpack. She took care of her shattered companion and wanted to start cooking. Sadly, also this became a challenge when she discovered that their stove for the methylated spirit no longer wanted to open. She whipped up some cold chocolate mousse and sat her companion down to eat. Asking around in the bothy if someone else could manage to open the stove, it soon became clear that this wasn’t something to be solved that evening. As luck would have it, they could use the stove from other people staying at the bothy. While sharing the cold chocolate mousse, water was brought to a boil, serving them a hot meal and a soothing cup of tea. Too tired to check for ticks, they went straight to bed. Little did she know what an awful night of sleep was awaiting her.
The morning came early. It was clear that she was in pain. Her legs had been aching and burning all night. If you ask me, she slightly overdid it the previous day. But hey, that’s just my opinion. Distraught, she told her companion how she felt and how scared she was that this might be the end of the hike. Fortunately, things got better once she started to move about in the bothy. A tribute to her companion. He knew exactly what she needed. A cup of steaming hot tea to soothe her worries and pain away. With some help from the people maintaining the area around the bothy, the stove for the methylated spirit was forced to open using a bench vice. The hike could start anew.
Leaving Barrisdale bothy rather late, they started to walk towards Kinloch Hourn. Carrying me along they walked up and down along the loch. Rambling around in the side pocket of her backpack, I tried to catch as much of the view as possible. It was a good day. A sunny day. I would say an easy day, but walking along a loch is never easy. It’s up and down. It’s boggy. It’s endless.
In the early afternoon, reaching the end of the loch, they were invited for a drink and a bite by a Belgian couple travelling around in a little campervan. It became clear from their happiness that never before a beer, a cup of tea and a snickers bar had tasted so good! Ohh, and all that while sitting on a chair! I still lay on the ground, but it remained an upgrade from where she picked me up in Cona glen.
Saying goodbye, they continued their journey. Leaving Kinloch Hourn behind, the path went up. Well, calling it a path might give the wrong impression. Rather, it was an uphill boulder field. I was praying that she would not drop me during this section! If that happened I would be pulverised to dust between the larger stones, never to be found again. After a few breathers and one hell of a climb, we reached the top. Now just a few more kilometres of 4x4 track till the Alt A’Coire river. Up and down. Nowhere, yet surrounded by everything. The water in the river was low so they took me across before pitching their tent for the night. The tent was hardly upright when the wind dropped and the midges came out. Not a few, not a few hundreds, but thousands at a time. Those tiny little bastards can’t bother me, but my carrier lady and her companion went into a covering up frenzy. Trousers in socks, head nets, smidge on hands, pullovers in trousers, jackets above as an extra layer of protection. What a battle! Ahh, never before did I realise the luxuries of being a little white stone!
Leaving me outside, my carrier lady dove into the tent to make up the beds for the nights while her companion boiled water to prepare dinner. His hate towards the tiny beasts (~ midges) was obvious from his annoyed movements and sudden cursing. Luckily, it didn’t take long before dinner was ready to be taken into the tent for consumption. They had barely started eating when faint raindrops started falling onto my head. Little could I do to warn them, but after a short while they realised that one of them had to come out to place everything in the tents’ front porch before the rain got too bad. She popped her feet out, put her sandals on and started her battle with the midges. Their shoes had caught some rain, but it wasn’t too bad yet. In a hurry she put everything together, managed to place me with all the rest of the stuff in the front porch of the tent and dove back into safety.
Following an incredibly windy and rainy night, it was time to take the last few steps towards civilisation. Well, civilisation. More like a sea loch with some houses around, a few B&B’s, a tiny store and most importantly: a pub! Oh yes, you read that correctly. A pub to have a proper meal and a drink. Oh, and a proper bed. Yes! Then again, I’m running ahead of myself. First a little more hiking. Or, for me, hitching a ride in the side pocket of my young lady's backpack.
We left our home for the night when the sun started to peak above the mountain tops. A little more 4x4 and then a pathless climb towards The Saddle. With perfect weather and limited rain the past few days, the climb was easy. Aim between the two peaks and just keep climbing till you get there. While my carrier lady had to drag her heavy backpack uphill, life for me was easy. Look out towards the infinite valley, enjoy the warm sunshine and stay as still as possible to not make the climbing task harder for my carrier lady. I can do that, right?
Reaching the top, they took their lunch break, thinking it would be easy going from there onwards. Whoops, wrong again! The section just after crossing The Saddle was properly tough. Or, like someone passing by nicely said: “It’s quite an iffy bit”. Rather than walking, they scrambled along, using both hands and feet to stay upright. I was tossed around. Fortunately, after an hour, the going got easier. The trail turned into a proper path instead of a wall with stones balancing on top of one another, some ready to slither downhill when given proper motivation. Their pace increased. Downhill, into the valley, across the river and on towards civilisation along an easy going path that only a few times turned into a river. By the early afternoon they reached their goal: Kintail lodge! Or, for my carrier lady and her companion, burgers and cider! Finding a B&B with availabilities was a challenge. I will not bother you with the details, but I can tell you that after an abundance of internet searches and telephone calls, they finally found a place to stay at The Fisherbeck B&B in Ratagan. My first ever experience staying indoors! No wind, no rain, no midges. Nice and cosy. Nothing else to do than listen to my favourite couple in the whole world chat away while enjoying a hot shower.
After a day’s rest, the initial idea was to continue to Maol-bhuidhe bothy and then along to Craig, the same route they had taken three years ago. Still, it was clear to me that there were some doubts. Should they go via Strathcarron instead? On paper the route to Strathcarron seemed pretty boring after passing along the Falls of Glomach (all 4x4 and road walking). However, in the end it was a scary story from the owners of the B&B that helped them decide. They had overheard my carrier lady and her companion talk about the next section and came with a rather odd request: “Could you please send us a message when you have cell reception again after this section?”. Sure, why? There came the story. Some time ago a young German couple had stayed with them before continuing to Maol-bhuidhe. A while later they had been found dead. The owners of the B&B had been the last ones to see them alive. Apparently, the girl had slipped and, while trying to hold on to her, the guy had also fallen. Rather a coincidence that this came up just after my carrier lady and her partner had been chatting to some English guys about whether people had already died along the Cape Wrath Trail. As it turns out, it is more comfortable when such a question remains unanswered! Nonetheless, and albeit driven by an irrational feeling of fear, the decision was made to go to Strathcarron and then walk to Craig along Loch Dughaill. Adding on to the scary stories, a guy in a jeep stopped along the 4x4 track heading towards the loch. He quickly rolled down his window and asked if my couple had a map and water with them. Taken aback by such a question, my carrier couple confirmed that of course they had. Their confused faces made the guy in the jeep tell his story. Not so long ago a man had gotten lost in this area and eventually died. Additionally, a while back, he had met a guy who was looking for help along the road. His girlfriend had been so exhausted that she was no longer able to walk. A little walk from the road she had fallen down and was no longer able to get up. The guy needed help to carry her out of the woods and into civilisation where she could recover. Seriously, did my hiker couple need any more stories about things going wrong along this trail?
Now, back to walking to Craig along Loch Dughaill. When I used the term walking here, I actually meant, walking to the loch and then endlessly scramble and tumble along a very faint to non-existing path. Fortunately, their luck turned. The water in River Carron was so low that they managed to make their way across. Given, without shoes and trousers, but hell, that’s worth saving all those kilometres, isn’t it? And to be honest, in hindsight, they might have been able to keep their trousers on, but why take the risk? Essence of the story, they got across with ease. And, most importantly, don’t try this if it has been raining the past few days!
With evening approaching, they crossed the train line at Achnashellach train station and started making their way towards Kinlochewe. They set up camp along the track with a magnificent view across the valley. A view I could fully enjoy while they prepared for yet another battle with the midges, the true summer rulers of Scotland! The evening routine could begin. Same as the last hiking day and the day before that. Filtering water. Boiling water for a cup of tea. Boiling water again to prepare the dehydrated meals. Making the beds. In truth, there was no water to be found, so the filtering portion of the evening had to be postponed. The other things went as usual. Dinner and tea in the tent to avoid contact with the midges while I kept guard outside. Then, to end this celebratory evening, the unavoidable tick removal before bed. I really started to know these guys! Such a different life. So many stories and so much chitchat!
The next day started early with clouds lingering below in the valley and the sun hiding away behind the mountain tops. A black cloud of midges haunted my beloved carrier couple while camp was broken up with a speed worth an Olympic sport. Although breakfast was postponed to a stop along the way, it turned into a memorable one. Breakfast cereal and tea were consumed while pacing back and forth to avoid collision with yet another army of midges. Then it was time to filter water and wash the dishes. Finishing up, everything was stowed away in a hurry that comes naturally when being bitten all over by the most frustrating little insects. As luck would have it, in their hurry they forgot something. Their mugs were still standing proud along the water. I tried to warn them! I tried to make them listen! But alas, it is hard to get a message across as a little white stone. They continued their journey without being aware of the recent events. The sun guiding their way, they reached Kinlochewe just after noon. Early enough to have lunch at the campsite. For once it was a peaceful lunch with a little breeze to keep the midges at bay. It was an easy afternoon. A typical Sunday if you will. While I lay about, enjoying the peace and quiet, they strolled around, took a shower and went for dinner in a proper restaurant. How I wish I could have joined them! Afterwards they could not stop talking about how delicious the food had been! Adding on to the glitches of this otherwise seemingly perfect day, my carrier lady discovered that a seam at the heel of her hiking boot had torn right open. This had to be fixed! Luckily, they would be in Ullapool in two hiking days to get this solved.
After a sunny day, followed a rainy night. Even the floor of the tent front porch, where I lay, became a little boggy. Thankfully, the camping had the most amazing drying room! While they went out for breakfast and supplies, everything got some time to dry. Around noon we hit the road again. Only a few kilometres to go up to Lochan Fada where we would spend the night. Sadly, the dry spell from the morning did not last. While moving towards the lochan, the rain caught up with us. Not just a drizzle, not just a short downfall. No, a relentless monsoon-like downpour. It was so cold and windy that even I wasn’t feeling nice and snug, even though I was still safely tucked away in a little bag in the side pocket of her backpack. Funny weather. Cold, incredibly wet and yet, while water was still attacking us from above, patches of blue sky appeared. Reaching the shores of the lochan, the sky shortly closed its water gates, but it was too late. The area around the lochan had turned into a labyrinth of little, fast flowing waterways. Reaching the pebble beach where they had planned to camp, looked like a daunting task. Did they really want to risk getting stranded on the beach when the rain started falling down again? There was a place where they could pitch their tent, but it was adjacent to a waterway that had already crossed its banks. It didn’t seem like the smartest way to go. Another tough decision was made. We would continue for 20 more kilometres to Shenavall bothy. It was already early afternoon. It would be a long day, but that’s life on the road. Sometimes, the unexpected leads to undesired decisions for the best.
While continuing uphill, I heard my carrier lady becoming sadder with every step she took. She loved this place! She had dreamt of camping here since they had passed by three years ago. She had dreamt of drinking tea at the side of the lochan and of opening up her tent in the morning to look over the rippling water and the vast mountain surroundings. Not this time. No. Instead it was an uphill battle with torrential rain and blasting winds. Tears running down her cheeks were washed away. We kept going. While the sky cleared, we made our way across pathless, boggy terrain following heaps of stones placed along the way by caring hikers who had passed before us. Through a surprisingly deep little river and into the valley towards another river crossing. Along Loch an Nid towards a short section of 4x4 and a clear path for the last four kilometres of the day. The clouds were hanging low and night was falling. My carrier lady somehow found another burst of energy and started to shoot along the path. Waving her walking poles alongside her, she kind of looked like a madwoman. She wanted to get there before the next shower started pouring down. Alas, she did not succeed. For the third time that day the skies opened up. Rain poured down as if to remove all human traces from this remote place and give it back to nature in all its beauty. Once again completely soaked, they reached the bothy. What a place! For a bothy it’s an enormous building. Yet, between the rugged peaks surrounding it, it’s a mere little speck. What a day! So much wilderness it makes you want to hold your breath, simply not to disturb the splendour. Sometimes it is hard to believe that so much beauty still exists, despite the efforts of so many to destroy it. Maybe it is as Richard E. Byrd wrote in his book ‘Alone’:
After gazing at the sky for some time, I came to the conclusion that such beauty had been reserved for remote and dangerous places, and that nature has good reasons for demanding special sacrifices from those who dare to contemplate it. - Richard E. Byrd
Being a day ahead of schedule, they decided to take a rest day at this magnificent place. After having breakfast, my carrier lady came upstairs to snuggle back into her sleeping bag next to me. She had slept really bad and thought this to be the perfect opportunity to catch up on some sleep. It was peaceful to watch over her while she closed her eyes and lay her head on her companion's pillow while cuddling her jumper. Silently she lay there for an hour or two. She woke up with a smile on her face and happily decided that today would be a pyjama day. For those not yet familiar with hiking life, rather than real pyjamas, this meant a merino woollen legging and a long sleeved merino top instead of hiking trousers and a not-completely-clean t-shirt. Leaving me behind, she made her way downstairs with her feet in thick woollen socks and sandals. Not the most sexy combination, but it definitely matched her twinkling eyes. I heard some chit chat from below, a little laughter and then the front door opened and closed. Silence. Were they going to leave me behind? I was thoroughly hoping that this wasn’t the case. I had really started to enjoy their company. Apart from the wind whistling through the roof, it remained silent for a long time. The moment I really started to worry, I suddenly heard their voices echoing from outside. In hindsight I shouldn’t have been worried, but rather full of joy. From the fragments of conversation that caught my ear, it became clear that they had gotten engaged along the river in the valley. When they left the bothy, my carrier lady had expected it to be for a mere little walk to enjoy the sunshine that had broken through the clouds. It was while taking photos with one of her favourite mountains in the background (Beinn Dearg Mor) that he went down on one knee and took the rings out of his pocket. It had been an incredibly tough year for my carrier lady. She had been faced with an endless recovery from an ankle injury alongside finishing her PhD, but suddenly, with this simple question, the doors opened to a new chapter of her life. With a big smile on her face and a tear rolling down her cheek, she said yes without a doubt in her mind. The location and the weather couldn’t have been any better. The rings couldn’t have been more beautiful. For her this was the perfect version of love. A love with only vast wilderness as its witness.
As a celebration, they ate the little snacks they had acquired in Kinlochewe and had a warm lunch. A little bag of salty crisps, rehydrated Chilli Con Carne and an amazing ‘Ben Nevis cake’ with a cup of tea. The perfect meal in a perfect setting. The rest of the day passed by gently. A little reading, another cup of tea, some more chit chat and a visitor coming by followed by people arriving at the bothy to spend the night. It was a cosy and relaxing evening followed by a good night's sleep.
The next hiking day was an easy one: to Inverlael and then on to Ullapool. It was a cloudy morning with a few showers, but the short climb upwards from Shenavall bothy is one not to be missed. In no time the bothy seemed no bigger than a big rock with a roof on top. From above it again became clear how truly vast and magnificent the valley is. The clouds dancing around the mountaintops created a sense of mystery and forgotten dreaminess. I heard my carrier lady and her partner say it before and I have to agree with them, Scotland’s splendour is not despite the many clouds, but exactly because of them. Leaving such beauty behind is never easy, but if there is one thing that I’m sure of, it is that it will always be waiting here for us to return one day.
On to my first city we go! Ullapool, the city with its rows of white houses along the coast. Three full days we stayed there. Three days of pouring rain, yet, having a place to sit inside made the rain rather enjoyable. Instead of consuming us and soaking everything it could reach, it sang us to sleep, it soothed us and helped us enjoy the inside warmth even more.
Remember that I told you about that torn seam of my carrier lady’s hiking boot? Well, as it turns out, cobblers are not very common in Scotland, and especially not with the guarantee that they can sew leather back together without damaging the shoe. The only sensible solution was for her to buy new hiking boots and send the broken ones to a B&B in Inverness where they would stay before going back home. For a split second I feared that she was going to send me away as well, but she did no such thing, giving me the opportunity to continue my journey North.
As this always goes when on the road, the day arrived to leave behind the ease of indoor life. Let the final leg of the journey towards Cape Wrath commence!
If you are tired of reading about my adventures, take a short break, but don’t put me aside for long. We’re not there yet and the beauty ahead is not one you want to miss out on! Admittedly, the first two hiking days after Ullapool weren’t the most beautiful ones, but they were easy going which made it possible to take in the intricate details of the landscape surrounding us. The most amazing little camping spots along Loch Achall, a mountain that seemed to have been split in two by a river and the funniest looking sheep. Some standing on top of a rock as if they believed themselves to be guard dogs protecting the flock. The rain making its way across the valley, a waterfall rumbling in the distance and dots of heather holding on to their bright purple colour. We reached Knockdamph bothy in the early afternoon. It’s the most peculiar bothy I have seen. It’s enormous, but the upstairs beds with old and ragged mattresses make it look as if the building had just escaped from a horror movie.
After a quick snack, the journey continued along a 4x4 towards The Schoolhouse bothy. With the bothy at their fingertips, the inevitable river crossing decided to slow them down. Wrapped in her raincoat with shoes dangling around her neck and me by her side, my carrier lady went into the water. Barefoot, walking poles guiding the way. The water was freezing cold, but I bet that doesn’t come as a surprise to you. Relentless she went on till she reached the other side. Her companion followed in her footsteps. His hate for cold feet shot from his eyes. When he also had made his way across, they both dried off their feet and placed them back inside their nice and cosy hiking boots. All while fighting off the smallest monsters alive (midges)! It was still early and the last stretch towards the little Schoolhouse bothy was an easy one, allowing plenty of time for a pleasant indoor evening. Yes, I liked it there. The bothy was spotless and still looked as if the schoolchildren could arrive at any moment. The downside of the bothy became painfully clear later that night. Although in all honesty, it wasn’t the bothy that was to blame. Rather it was its less remote location. By the time everyone was ready to turn in for the night, a group of six arrived on mountain bikes. They were told that the bothy was fully occupied, but that didn’t withhold them from moving other people’s stuff around to make room for their own. No greetings, no eye contact. Instead of respecting people going to sleep, they took out their bottles of whiskey. My carrier lady and her companion decided to have a look if they could somehow fit into the much smaller room across the hallway, in theory already fully occupied by other hikers. The little room, that was meant to sleep two, was turned into a room for five, me not included. My carrier lady and her companion curled up together onto one bench, another guy on the other bench and two people on the floor. Crowded. Or nice and snug, depending on how you look at it. This seemingly perfect solution soon turned into a nightmare. Two of the friendly guys sharing the room, snored like nothing I had ever heard before. Mercifully, the guys had a long day ahead and left around four in the morning, leaving us a few hours of peace before hitting the road. Thankfully, the day ahead was an easy one. Around eight kilometres downhill along 4x4 tracks to Oykel Bridge. A slight uphill 4x4 leaving Oykel Bridge. Then on and on along a track with views over Oykel river bathing in the morning sunlight. A few fishermen dotted along the water, trying their luck for the day. A steep climb into the forest and then on again along a 4x4 track till we reached Loch Ailsh. Surprisingly, the 4x4 track suddenly turned into a proper road up and till Benmore lodge. If you feel like calling it a day around this time, there are quite a few camping spots along the river just past Benmore Lodge with magnificent mountain views, promising a beautiful hiking day towards Ichnadamph. As usual throughout this journey, the wind dropped and the midges came out to join for dinner. Again an early night. Not that going to bed early ever hurts when hiking long days. It was funny though to hear my carrier lady struggle to keep the midges away from her behind while trying to go to the toilet. It’s an unexpected challenge only Scotland can teach you about!
My hiking friends started to realise that this time they might just make it all the way to Cape Wrath. Although they did not dare hope too much. On such a hike things can take a turn for the worst at any time. A storm coming in when high up in the mountains, a stupid stumble or an impassable river. Nonetheless, hope is a fickle beast. Even when you’re not sure to hang on to it, it lurks around the corner. Also I started to hope. The most North Westerly point of Scotland! Nothing between me and the North pole apart from an endless sea of water. Sandwood Bay. Cape Wrath. All names I had heard before from hikers passing through Cona Glen. Never did I dare imagine that I would make it there one day!
The next day came early with a swift departure as the midges had not yet subsided. Hurry, hurry! Eat breakfast while walking around. Drink tea like your life depends on it. Put the midge nets back on. A rather funny situation for me as midges have no appetite for a little white rock, but even I started to realise that these tiny monsters were becoming a little much. Throughout the next few kilometres the path got rougher till it eventually turned into a muddy single track. The sun caressed the mountains at the other side of the valley. A far away promise that today was going to be a beautiful day. One little tree standing strong between the rocky edges, bathing in sunlight. The river twisting and turning along the valley. After two rather easy walking days, this was the perfect change of scenery. Back to the realm of mother nature. Around the mountain and across the river. The river was moving fast, rushing its way downhill. The sudden fear that had taken hold of my carrier lady during the first river crossing of the trip emerged once again. Traces of doubt appeared in her movements. Should she cross here? Or should she go down to the valley where the river was wide and moved slow as if taking its time to enjoy the scenery? She and her loving companion had a look around and decided that they found a safe place to cross. I had full confidence in their decision. She took of her shoes and trousers, picked me up with her backpack, placed her shoes around her neck, took hold of her hiking poles and took her first steps towards the water. Her partner checked if she was sure that she wanted to go first. She was sure. She wanted to get it over with. Her toes entered the water. The river bedding was green and slippery. The water was cold. One foot after the next, hiking poles providing the extra support to get across. He followed in her footsteps. Hop, shoes back on and uphill. No path for this section, but the overall direction was clear. Aim for the little dent in between the peaks. A passage towards a world of wonders! The endless waters of Loch Assynt with mountains scattered along its shore. The sea hiding at the horizon. We were still very high up and it was hard to believe that Ichnadamph was just a mere few kilometres away. Not surprisingly, the descent was steep. After another pathless section winding in between islands of peat, an amazing path was spotted in a gorge like valley. Getting in the valley required quite the clamber, but once the river was crossed they were assured of a safe and easy passage towards Ichnadamph. As my lovely carrier lady said, this path is probably the best single track path of the whole Cape Wrath trail!
Around 2pm they arrived at the youth hostel where they decided to spend the night and take their last shower before Cape Wrath. After dropping me and their backpacks off in the dormitory I didn’t see them much. The longest they came into view was when they brought a heap of snacks into the room to feed them throughout the coming days. The smiles on their faces however said it all. We were ready for the last leg of the journey!
The day ahead was one for the fairy tales. If you haven’t hiked from Ichnadamph to Glencoul, you have missed something on your bucket list. Going up towards Glas Bheinn and Bheinn Uidhe the path was easy. Yes, it was uphill, but compared to what I’ve seen my carrier lady and her companion hike so far, it was a piece of cake. The only thing slowing them down was the time required to take in the endless views. Having said goodbye to the vast beauty at this side of the mountain pass, they started their rocky climb to the highest point of the day. A curiosity started to rise, would the views at the other side manage to beat the ones here? Probably not. It can’t get much better, right? They turned out to be incomprehensibly wrong! Crossing the pass between Glas Bheinn and Bheinn Uidhe, a world of wonder opened up in front of them. Vast mountains, soothing lochs and tumbling waterfalls as far as the eye could see. Slight mist lingering about and sunlight playing with the drops of water decorating the sky. The wind was harsh and cut into their faces, but nonetheless they decided to sit down at the top of the pass to have a snack and drink some water. Not because they were very hungry or thirsty, but because the views were worth every bit of cold. With the wind roaring around them they hid away in their jackets, but even hidden below their hoods, there was no mistaking the joyful twinkle in their eyes. They took in the surroundings as if their life depended on it. Moments like these don’t come along often in life.
As the cold became a little much, they continued their journey. Zigzagging along a steep, rocky path they made their way downhill. Leaving such a magical place behind is always hard. Although this place made the world look perfect, they knew that they wouldn’t be returning any day soon. That’s life on the road. Even when you instantly fall in love with a place, the journey goes on. The rocky path turned into a downhill mud slide towards the penultimate potentially difficult river crossing of the trip. Luckily, the water was forgiving and kind, making the river crossing fast and easy. Now all that was left to do was follow the river downstream towards Loch Beag. Sounds easy, right? Well, wrong again. Walking along lochs and rivers never comes easy. Rather than walking, it felt like moving from one bog to the next. In all this remoteness we did however get to see Britain’s highest waterfall, Eas a'Chual Aluinn. My dear carrier lady kept saying that once they reached the loch there should be a path, but this wasn’t the case. Or at least not along Loch Beach. Only for the last leg of the journey, towards Glencoul bothy, a grassy 4x4 track appeared, starting from nothing and ending in nothing the next day.
Glencoul bothy was no more special than other bothies along the trail, but the location makes it one of the best bothies along the route (together with Maol-bhuidhe and Shenavall). At the far end of the loch we could see the civilised world, but it felt more like a surreal observation than a reality. Golden eagles soaring up high, sheep frolicking around and little waves rolling onto the shores. This place could have been mistaken for what some people call heaven.
A group of kayakers led by Will from ‘Kayak Summer Isles’ came by for the night. Although they made my dear carrier lady and her partner mightily jealous of their tasty looking food and grand three-course dinner, they also offered amazing stories with a cup of wine. To top things off, they were offered fresh avocados and a proper Bialetti coffee in the morning. What’s better than fresh vegetables and proper coffee when on a long hike without them!
Like so many nights before, my carrier lady went to bed with me and her backpack at her side, just in case a herd of wild mice would have a party that night. I could say that it was a quiet night, but I would be lying. Throughout the night the wind picked up until the dark was transformed into a storm with rain hitting onto the roof and wind dragging the front door wide open. My carrier lady and her partner woke up, not sure of what was going on, but soon realised that they had to exit their cosy beds to stop the door from flapping about. Mercifully, the next morning was calm and peaceful. The air was cold, but the sun announced yet another beautiful day. Climbing out of the valley towards Glendhu, the views were breathtaking. The sun broke through the clouds and lit up the distant Eas a'Chual Aluinn waterfall as if a million tiny diamonds were dancing their way downhill. The golden eagles soared above, screeching their endless song and the beaches of Loch Glencoul coloured mighty orange with seaweed lining its shores. The water sparkled in the sun and the mountains basked in a cloudy embrace.
The path slowly became rougher, turning indistinct at places. The rocks were slippery and the going was slow. Reaching Glendhu bothy, the heavens opened up. My carrier lady had left me inside the bothy with her partner while she went looking for the perfect bathroom spot. Returning after a while, she was soaked to her underwear. Together with her body temperature, her energy levels plummeted. Although the next section was an easy 4x4 track along Loch Gleann Dubh, her face had a grumpy expression. Too cold, too warm, hungry, thirsty and tired. Although the surroundings were as beautiful as ever, she mumbled and grumbled along. Luckily she had her partner to lean on. He took over her carrying poles and her two litre water bottle to lift her spirits. It helped. After another few kilometres a smile started to reappear on her face. A tired smile, but a smile nonetheless.
They decided to take the easy alternative along the 4x4 track through Achfary Forest and down to the road. Maybe it was nature’s plan to punish them for taking the easy route or maybe it was pure bad luck, but while making their way downhill, they were attacked by an enormous swarm of deer ked, better described as flying deer ticks. They leached onto my hiking companions and shed their wings. They hid away in their hair as if trying to bury themselves in the fur of an animal. We soon left behind the swarm of ticks, but getting rid of them entirely took a whole lot longer.
Reaching the road, they ate their first ever Tunnocks caramel wafer and instantly fell in love. Having recharged their energy with biscuits and water, they started to walk along the road. Hope lingered that they might find a hitch that would take them to the far end of Loch Stack near Lochstack lodge, but with hardly any traffic passing by, their hope soon diminished. Suddenly hearing a vehicle approaching, my carrier lady put out her thumb, hoping for the best. Much to her surprise it was a bus who decided to stop and give them a ride. The driver told them they would have to pay the minimum fee, but by the time they reached the end of the loch he had changed his mind. A free ride after all!
Happy as could be, my lovely carrier couple started to walk along the 4x4 track, leaving the main road behind. They decided to continue for a few more kilometres and then stop for the night. As ever so often, the plan turned out to be harder than it sounds. There were hardly any places to pitch the tent along the track and the fatigue that had come over my dear carrier lady soon returned. Noticing her energy levels dropping, her partner in crime said that he would continue a little further along the track to look for a camping spot. She could stay back with the backpacks. Waiting for him to return, she lay down and turned both backpacks into a bed. Before closing her eyes she saw a tick crawling around her trousers, but being used to that by now she didn’t give it much thought after squishing it to death. She listened to the wind picking up its pace and let her thoughts drift off. By the time her partner returned, she had nearly made her entrance into the world of dreams and wonder. There were no good camping spots ahead. Turning back to a place they had spotted a while back was their only option. The tent was erected, the meals prepared and water filtered. Preparing for an early night, my carrier lady already put on her pyjamas when putting out the sleeping mats and sleeping bags. Also similar to previous nights, the wind dropped and the tiny flesh eating monsters came alive again. Yet another in-tent dinner! By the time the meals were nearly finished, my dear carrier lady noticed that her merino woollen legging was covered in ticks silently looking for a way towards her skin. She joined me and the little flesh eating monsters back outside and tried to remove as much of them as possible. Feeling extremely frustrated, she cursed herself for once again having used the ladies’ room of nature in the middle of a ticks nest. Annoying little insects truly seem to be the curse of their Cape Wrath adventure! After a long time plucking at her legs while her partner created a miniature version of a battlefield inside the tent, there was nothing more left to do than hope that they had gotten rid of most ticks before going to sleep. The early night turned into a late one, but the next day made up for that. Energy levels were soaring, with the promise of reaching Sandwood bay lingering in the air. The morning rush was a short one, with breakfast inside the tent as the midgies were still out and about. After a well-practiced clean-up, they hit the road. Along the 4x4 track and then left at the heap of stones into the trackless muddiness towards Loch a’ Garbh-bhaid Mòr. Along the loch in its now very accepted, yet annoyingly fashion of grubby up-and-down till reaching the river Garbh Allt. Even when not in spate, this river turned out to be a cold and rather unpleasant experience. Too deep to cross with trousers on, the common river crossing dress code was applied: Underpants, raincoat, shoes dangling around the neck and walking poles guiding the way.
Leaving the Garbh Allt river behind there was no clear direction to follow apart from straight ahead towards Loch a’ Garbh-bhaid Beag. Once reaching the loch, the path suddenly became a walk in the park. Logs to cross the muddy bits, little bridges and sometimes even short gravely sections to mix it up.
Moving swiftly, they reached Rhiconich just in time to rush into the public restrooms. Having emptied their intestines and filled up their water bottles, they started to move along the road towards Kinlochbervie. Still no fans of road walking, they decided to try their luck again at hitchhiking. Sadly it wasn't long before the skies opened up and, as I was told that day, being soaked significantly reduces the chance of hitching a ride. Surprisingly enough, a kind young woman stopped along the road to pick up my soaked carrier couple and I. She dropped us a few kilometres before Kinlochbervie where they continued to ‘Worth a look’ restaurant for lunch and the one and only local Spar supermarket to buy some evening treats.
Now Sandwood Bay was truly within reach. The end was near. With every step the sparkle in their eyes grew stronger. My beloved carrier lady kept pointing towards houses where she would like to live one day. Wouldn’t it be nice to settle in Oldshoremore? What about that cosy white house with its two cute chimneys? Or the one hidden away between the rocky hills? Or maybe the one with the red door? A red door makes everything a little happier, right? All remote places, yet with the necessary amenities at hand. After quite a bit of road walking, they turned right, on to the final track towards Sandwood Bay. Dashes of rain had been pouring down, but that did not affect their optimism. The walk from the road to Sandwood Bay couldn’t have been easier and yet it was incredibly beautiful. Nothing compared to reaching the beach itself, but if you are not a long-distance hiker, this is definitely a short walk you should consider one day.
When we caught the first glimpses of Sandwood Bay it was hard to fathom such beauty. Remember that I told you that Glencoul was heaven-like? Well, this place belongs to that same type of world you would imagine to only exist in stories. Dunes covered with marram grass waving in the wind, a vast sand beach, waves rolling onto the shore and endless emptiness. Not a soul around. No sounds apart from the wind and water intermittently interrupted by laughter from my carrier lady and her companion and the screech of a seagull, although even the latter seemed to consider this place too special to break the silence. The pouring rain was replaced by the sun and a sky exploding into sunset. While I took shelter in the tent from the cold and wind, my carrier couple made its way to the beach for dinner. Having the whole beach to themselves, they started off with a celebratory can of cider, some crisps and a piece of cheddar while watching out over the sea. Nothing apart from water between them and the north pole. Celebrations were topped off with a boiling cup of tea and the indispensable carrot cake. By the time they finished, the sun with all its colours was hiding behind the horizon and even their hats and gloves could no longer protect them from the cold. They came back to me, brushed their teeth, watched the Cape Wrath lighthouse flash in the distance and crawled into their orange shelter. Tomorrow was THE day!
They woke up at 6am. Because of the cold they decided to have breakfast in the tent one last time. By 8pm they had packed up their gear and headed across the beach towards the cliffs between them and their final destination, the Cape Wrath lighthouse they had been watching last night. The outflow of Sandwood loch was wider and deeper than expected, but with the necessary care and balancing skills it could be crossed without too much ado. Together we went upwards, towards a magnificent view well worth the climb. For those few who might read this before completing the trail, there are quite some splendid camping spots after this first climb. You might get company from the little white ewe wandering about, but that’s just one of many Scottish perks.
The next step on this last adventurous day was crossing the Strath Cailleach river. Although this river wasn’t as straightforward to cross as my carrier couple had expected it to be, with some walking back and forth they found the perfect spot to hop across. The hopping included quite a serious risk of getting wet hiking boots, but it was the last hiking day so they didn’t mind it too much. Fortunately, they got across dry-footed and marched on. They decided to follow the inland route that passes along Loch a’Gheodha Ruaidh before reaching the barbed wire indicating the military training range. No red flags dangling about to create any doubt about the information on the MOD website. My couple had been expecting a little ladder or stall to cross the fence, but this was not the case. A kind person had however wrapped some rope and cloth around the wire which pulled it down a little and significantly reduced the risk of ripped trousers. Those who think that the last obstacle has been faced after crossing this fence are mistaken. The slither and tumble down to Keisaig River was a quick reminder that the adventure continued. Climbing back out of the gully, orientation became a little tougher. To further distract us from proper orientation, sea eagles started soaring above. Exactly as Will from ‘Kayak Summer Isles’ had described, the wings of these enormous birds looked like two ironing boards carrying them higher and higher towards the sun. Suddenly, in between the getting lost and the distraction, they spotted the road lying ahead. It wasn’t close, but it wasn’t far away either. My carrier lady could no longer control the giggles bursting from inside. This time she had made it. There was nothing that could change that. Reaching the gorge holding the Allt na Clais Leobairnich river they decided to follow the gorge inland till it mellowed out and became easier to cross. By this time there was definite proof of the road. We weren’t able to see the road itself, but chances were pretty slim that someone could so easily ride a bicycle across the heathery mushy terrain we were still making our way across. Having crossed the river, it was just one last push upwards towards the road. Even then the lighthouse remained hidden. It was tantalisingly close, yet it was only within the last kilometre that the tiny white tower came into sight.
Before I get carried away in finishing this story, let me tell you this. Me, my carrier couple and I strongly agree that although Cape Wrath is the official ending of the trail, it is Sandwood Bay that makes it all worth it. It is reaching Sandwood Bay that is filled with emotions. Happiness. Disbelief. Gratitude. Following this cocktail of feelings, Cape Wrath felt like a mere box ticked off on the places to-reach checklist. Anyhow, we made it and my carrier lady could not stop smiling.
The surprise awaiting her at the lighthouse quickly wiped that smug smile off her face. Even though they had called just two days ago to check if the shuttle and ferry were still running to get them off the peninsula, this was no longer the case. When the owner of the lighthouse told her this, she refused to believe the words coming from his mouth. Several times she asked him if he was joking, but as it turned out, he wasn’t. No shuttle. No ferry. They were not the only Cape Wrath finishers stranded at the lighthouse. There was another lad waiting who had booked the ferry a few days ago.
Maybe because of the disbelief on my carrier lady’s face, maybe because he just wanted the best for this bunch of stranded hikers, but even so, the owner of the lighthouse promised to come up with a solution. A solution costing each hiker 25 pounds, but a solution nonetheless. I could join them for free. Yet another good day to be a little white rock!
He would drive them to where the ferry normally crosses the Kyle of Durness. From there onwards they were on their own. They would have to move across wild country along Beinn an Amair, head towards the end of the Kyle of Durness to find the bridge across Grudie river. From then onwards they would have to make their way east across the little peninsula to reach a few buildings and yet another bridge across river Dionard. Having crossed this second and last river of the trail, they would be able to take a bus or hitch a ride to Durness. There it would be possible to wait out the storm that was announced to hit the shores of Scotland the next day.
Their luck turned. Nearly reaching the Kyle of Durness, the owner of the lighthouse started to take out his binoculars. He kept staring towards the water. Was he really having a closer look at the seals lying on the sand isles dotted across the bay? As it turns out, he was not. He had spotted the owner of the ferry with his boat at the far end of the water. The owner of the ferry had apparently agreed to bring a French guy and his bicycle across with the promise to pick him back up around 2:30pm. Our timing couldn’t have been better! We arrived exactly at the time that the tiny ferry was on its way to pick up the guy with his bicycle, the guy we had spotted earlier just before reaching the road.
All the coincidences along the way suddenly came together! If they hadn’t reached Glenfinnan in one day, if they hadn’t hiked from A’Chuil to Barrisdale Bothy on the same day, if they hadn’t stayed at Shenavall to get engaged, if they hadn’t taken three resting days in Ullapool, if they hadn’t hiked from Loch Stack to Sandwood Bay in one day and if they hadn’t gotten up early that morning, this wouldn’t have happened. They would have ended up stuck in a storm without any means of getting out.
Life is not a story that can be planned. It goes on, hours by hour and day by day. A decision that seemed to be the right one may be a disaster and a thoughtless decision may turn into a blessing. We’re mere players along the way, waiting for destiny to roll its dice. Hoping for the best and always preparing for yet another adventure.