walkhighlands

Excitement, Adventure and Really Wild Things - Part 2

Date walked: 05/09/2019

Time taken: 4 days

Walking the CWT with Martyn Wells, stage 4 cancer patient

For part one of this report, see here

(sorry it's taken so long to finish part 2!)


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We had survived the worst that Knoydart could throw at us. But we were well behind schedule and in serious need of restocking. So we took advantage of a lift and a taxi ride to Kinlochewe, where food parcels awaited us, there were shops and a pub, we could check the latest weather forecasts and see what of the remainder of the Trail we might reasonably accomplish, given the limitations of Martyn’s physical abilities (I had no illusion that, mentally, Martyn could easily walk the rest of the CWT, but we all knew that he wasn’t going to manage the long 20+ mile days originally planned). Here, we also hoped to meet a very good friend – whom none of us had ever even spoken to before let alone met: Andy Jackson.

Facebook gets much criticism these days, much of it probably deservedly so. Most of us who use it probably have quite a few “friends” whom we have never met. Certainly I know I do. One of them was Andy. We “knew” each other solely because we both posted in a weather discussion group. But had never met. I had contacted him a few weeks before, because he lived in Kinlochewe and I thought it’d be nice to meet him briefly as we passed through. Andy’s immediate response was to announce he’d provide us a slap up meal at his house, and he followed that up with organising accommodation for us in the bunkhouse and a breakfast at the petrol station cafe, all provided, through Andy’s innate charm (although he’s only lived there a couple of years, it seems this young Yorkshireman is well regarded locally) free of charge. All for a group of complete strangers …..

The afternoon was spend relaxing in the bar, having a few beers, chatting to holidaymakers. In the evening we set off for Andy’s house, a hundred yards up the road in a village of 60 people. And got lost ….. But we found it in the end.

If you ever get the chance, do try sitka deer. It’s much sweeter, more tender, than red deer; less gamey. It’s absolutely delicious. Especially when cooked by Andy! I did draw the line at the roast parsnips though: devil’s food ….. Just about the only thing I won’t eat! We washed the meal down with a few bottles of wine and chatted long into the night. When we walked back to the hostel it was raining ….

And next morning it was raining again. But the cloud began to break as we enjoyed our complementary breakfast provided by the friendly cafe (recommended) at the petrol station, during which time Martyn spoke to Adrian Chiles on BBC Radio 2.

Setting off from the Heights of Kinlochewe I promptly took us down the wrong road. Again. How can you get lost twice in a village this size? Checking the map might have helped, I suppose ….. Anyway, we soon found the correct track and Paris and Josh joined us to do some filming, with occasional views of Beinn Eighe in all its glory forming the background.

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On the track to the Heights of Kinlochewe


As we set off once more into the wilds, up Gleann na Muice, Paris and Josh said fair well, promising to meet us again tomorrow when we gained the road beyond Loch a Bhraoin. The path up to Lochan Fada had been much improved since my last visit and provided easy going. Unfortunately, Slioch, my favourite hill, remained largely hidden behind cloud, along with A’ Mhaighdean and the other peaks of the Fisherfield Forest. A shame, as the view up from the end of Lochan Fada is one of the finest anywhere in the Highlands, and not often seen being so far off the normal beaten track. We had a few showers on the way, but there was a final burst of sunshine as we lunched by a ruined bothy. Soon after the rain returned in force.

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Lunch break, approaching Lochan Fada


From the shores of Lochan Fada I spotted another poor, boggy, path heading north and led us up it before realising that it was going the wrong way: it was the Munro-bagger’s path leading to Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair. With the cloud low the hills flanking the Bealach na Croise were hidden, and I’d once again made the fundamental error of not checking map and compass before we set off. Will I ever learn? Some moor plodding however got us back on track – though here there is no track. This is one of the parts of the CWT where you are truly on your own, though the occasional small cairn and footprint in the peat showed others had come before us and we were, probably, now heading the right way.

As the rain continued, I began to worry about the the Allt Coire Mhic Fhearchair. In the past I had never had problems crossing this stream; but I remembered it as flowing over steeply sloping rocks – lethal when wet or, as was now likely the case, in spate.

Reaching the stream was another of those “oh f*ck” moments. This was if anything deeper and faster than those we had tackled in Knoydart. After some time looking for a crossing point I had more or less made up my mind that the only safe option was to detour a mile or two downstream, where the river was bigger, but crossed flatter ground and might just be safer.

However, Martyn had spotted a place that might just be possible and we decided to give it ago. Rob crossed safely. Phew! Martyn followed ….. and as he neared the far side, slipped on a rock, plunging waist-deep into the surging peat-stained water, almost losing his one remaining trekking pole, and indeed, himself ….. A close call, but with Rob’s help he clamboured out the far side and I followed without incident.

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Crossing the torrent


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Oops!


Someone later asked me why we crossed these streams individually rather than together? To be honest, it never really occurred to me to do so at the time, and despite the speed of the water and, in place, indeterminate depth, much of it was boulder hopping, with just a few steps into deeper water. It would probably have been more difficult as a group linked together. But possibly we should have. And without walking poles it would have been a different matter.

Martyn was clearly a bit shaken and took a few minutes to pour water from his boots and regain his composure. This was, I think, the closest we came to a real disaster. Had Martyn been in mid stream when he slipped, it could have been far more serious. As it was, he was only wet. But by now, we were all just as wet.

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Martyn recovers as the burn surges


The rain came down harder.

Having crossed this pass numerous times in the past, I had in mind that it was quite straightforward. But after so much rain in the preceding days, rain that continued to fall, it proved longer, harder, boggier and much slower than I remembered. In short, not at all pleasant. Even as we came over the summit of the pass, and could see the path that wended round from Strath na Sealga to Loch Braoin, it seemed to take forever to get anywhere.

It took an hour, maybe two, more than it should have. But finally we reached the low ruins of Feinasheen and were finally on a proper path again, albeit one still boggy and running with water in places. And it had stopped raining at last. For once my promise that it was now only a couple of miles to the bothy proved correct. As we approached Lochivraon we saw a large herd of deer across the river: unusual to see so many down low at this time of year when they are more typically grazing the high corries. But even they were getting fed up with the incessant rain!

When I was last here, the byre at the back was a ruin and the main building left unlocked as a de facto bothy. I celebrated my 23rd birthday in the bothy, all alone, many, many, years ago. Now the cottage is locked but the Estate have renovated the byre and made a quite useful bothy; it even has an indoor toilet and a sink (although the plumbing is a bit dodgy) . Tonight it was very welcome shelter, albeit cold. Even though there was wood and coal and I quickly got a fire going in the stove, the building never warmed up. But dry is dry.

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Lochivroan - cold but welcome shelter


Something strange happened overnight. It stopped raining.

Though still, overcast, it was a dry walk out next morning to Loch a Bhraoin. Martyn, for a change, led the way on easier ground: determined to show that yesterday’s experience hadn’t affected him.

By the boathouse at the end of the loch we took our first fully relaxed break of the whole walk. We were dry. There was no sign of rain incoming. We were just a short walk from the road. There was no hurry.

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Relaxing by the boathouse


By the time we reached the road, the sun was out. An Teallach peered across in the distance. A golden eagle soared overhead. And Paris and Josh rang to say they were on their way to pick us up.

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An Teallach


Getting a lift from here really did seem like cheating: we could easily have walked on to our intended overnight stop at Inverlael. However, from there we’d have needed to arrange transport on towards Kinlochbervie as the original plan of crossing to Oykel Bridge and then round the back of Ben More Assynt to Glencoul was very obviously not going to be possible in the time we had left. Instead, Paris and Josh suggested they take us up to Inchnadamph to camp for the night, and then on to KLB next day. This meant we could have fish & chips in Ullapool for lunch, and stop for a bit of filming in the sun, with the backdrop of stunning Assynt hills, en route.

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Beinn Mor Coigach


Martyn and Rob were keen on camping on the lawn of the Inchnadamph hostel. Convenient, but hardly wilderness camping – and we’d not as yet had our tents out of their bags. Besides, the owners, rightly, wouldn’t let us as they didn’t want to set a precedent. Instead, we were told of a good spot a quarter a mile up the track and perfect it proved, nesting above the Allt Poll an Droighinn, with the silvery slopes of Cnoc an Droighinn as backdrop. Here we finally pitched our tents for the first time. A few midges came round to see what was happening. And then we enjoyed sandwiches and a beer or two in the evening sun.

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Camping at Inchnadamph


The sun set. A half moon rose. The midges went to sleep. As did Martyn and Rob. And I sat at the entrance to my tent, smoking my pipe, slowly taking in the silence, before turning in for what proved a very comfortable night myself.

After a shower at the hostel next morning, Paris drove us up to Kinlochbervie, where we’d finally commence the final section of the walk. We could have started at Rhiconnich, but as it was all road to KLB that made little sense. At KLB I had intended checking the ferry and minibus – but there was no phone reception. There was also no electricity – the whole area was in the midst of a power cut. So no cup of tea in the cafe, or pint in the pub either. Everywhere was closed. Instead, we just shouldered our rucksacks for a pleasant walk along a surprisingly busy road to the start of the path to Sandwood Bay, en route to which Rob finally achieved his greatest ambition of all: to see a Highland cow close up! One we then helped the owner get back into the field where it belonged.

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Rob spots a Heiland Coo!


The weather remained dry, though cloudy, as we waited by the toilet block at the Sandwood Bay car park fro Paris and Josh. Once they arrived, we set off again. The path down to Sandwood Bay is easy for day trippers; a doddle for us experienced in real wilderness walking. I took it easy. Perhaps I was getting a bit tired now myself, but I found myself bringing up the rear, taking my time, enjoying the views. Relaxed. I caught up with the others though for the final decent to the bay, seeing it myself properly for the first time: My only previous visit had been walking in from Strathan bothy and then turning straight north across the moors to Kearvaig, so I’d not properly walked through the dunes onto the pristine (pleasantly devoid of plastic flotsam and jetsam) beach before.
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Approaching Sandwood Bay


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Whale vertebrate and the Sandwood shepherd


After checking out the famous whale vertebrate sticking out from the beach, we found a spot amongst the dunes to pitch our tents and then cook dinner. Our last meal of dried food. As darkness descended, I watched the lights of a boat, far out in the Minch, and then, on the far headland, on came the lights of the lighthouse, shining in the night. The end was in sight. We lit a small campfire with kindling I’d carried in and a few bits of driftwood and enjoyed a few cans of cider and beer.

After a dry night, a light smir of rain set in at daybreak, and it was a midgy morning for packing what were now wet, sandy, tents. We hoped we’d not need to get them out of our packs again, so didn’t worry too much. Paris and Josh set off back to their car, to drive found to the ferry and get the minibus to the lighthouse. They promised to give is a call on the satellite phone to confirm when they were there. Martyn, Rob and I set off for our final walk.

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Sand and rock


Though not deep, the mouth of the Sandwood river was wide and we took our time crossing, before climbing up a faint path. Sea mist lapped around the cliffs and the rain became heavier, more persistent. Well, would could we expect? We were back on trackless moor so of course the weather was worsening ….

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See mist climbing the cliffs of the Parph


We found a faint path in places, and this was more distinct along the edge of the cliffs. But with the mist down, and not being overly keen on heights and exposure, I kept us a little further inland from the edge. We really didn’t want a fall here!

Eventually a fence came into view: the start of the MoD firing range. Fortunately there was a stile to cross it. The ground on the MoD side was no drier.

As we rested in the pouring rain behind the walls of the rough stone shelter perched high above the gorge of the Keisgaig River the satellite phone rang. It was Paris. They were now crossing the Kyle and would be heading shortly up to the Lighthouse ….. on the only minibus of the day. To catch it on its return, we HAD to be there in 2 hours. With the weather due to worsen tomorrow, failure could mean a couple of nights there, at least. before we could get to Durness. Not an option. We had to make it.

Two hours? By my estimation that should be just do-able for Rob and I; but with Martyn’s slower progress on steep and pathless ground, I knew that even three hours would be pushing it. And we still had to find a way down to the river, across it, and up the steep far side. It wasn’t going to be possible, was it? No words were necessary; I think we all thought the same, and knew what had to be done.

A wet, sliddery descent down to the river ensued on the bare traces of a path, one I was none too comfortable with; a slip could be fatal. Once again though, a spot that would be quite fun and enjoyable in different weather, different circumstances. At the bottom, the surging mass of rain-swollen, peat-stained, wine-coloured, water divided us from the final stage. There was no time to pussy-foot around looking for somewhere safe to cross. It was deep; thigh deep; and fairly fast flowing. But we had crossed worse. Without giving the others time to consider a better spot, I ploughed through and safely up the far bank. And then, for the first time, set my camera on to video mode to film Martyn and Rob.

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Descent to the Keisgaig River


A steep climb now awaited us with no easy path. But even as I put my camera away, Martyn found fresh impetous and surged ahead, leading the way up. “Which way now?” he asked “follow the stream” I replied: the stream being what ordinarily would have been the path. I still don’t know where he got the strength from, but for the first time we all three climbed in unison, steadily, surely and fast. And once on the top, with fairly flatish moorland stretching away into the mists, we just, maybe, had a chance?

Some speak in hush tones of the 2nd Parachute Regiment, marching to Goose Green; others marvel at Aragorn, Legolas and Gimil, chasing the Uruk-hai horde across the plains of Rohan; but in all the annals of man, few have rivalled what followed by two fat men and a bloke with no stomach and hardly any lungs. We yomped like no-one had yomped before.

There was no stopping now; not even to check the map. Which almost became our downfall. I was sure the path from here was relatively level; but now another deep cut appeared before us. And I realised we’d tracked too far west. We were heading for another steep descent, river crossing and climb up crags on the far side. This wasn’t on the plan!

Martyn spied a deer track wending up the crags opposite, “we can get up there! ” But I wasn’t sure, and besides, I was certain this was not the right way. So I signalled for us to turn right, head up the valley and descend further upstream, where the slopes on either side were less steep, less high. The river itself was, for us hardened veterans of such things, no problem at all: we just waded straight through without a thought. Up the other side, and into a mine field of peat hags; one step forward, two steps back. We were losing time ….. But we got around them and now had, perhaps just minutes to reach the road. As we negotiated the last of the peat hags Martyn told Rob and I not to wait for him – just go! The ground was fairly safe now and so long as just one of us was at the road before the minibus passed, we would all be safe. So I pushed on again, almost racing, and then, at last, the road!

The minibus had not yet passed. I collapsed on a bank by the roadside. My job was done. We had made it.

After a welcome rest we picked up our packs and started up the road towards the lighthouse and minutes later the minibus appeared. Was that a cheer we heard? The bus stopped, we piled on board, squeezing between a large group of daytrippers who, having been appraised of what we’d been doing were all quite happy for to have their trip back to the ferry and their cars delayed whilst Andy, the driver, took us quickly back to the lighthouse and the end of our journey.

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At the lighthouse!


As we stood at the foot of the lighthouse, I could see Martyn overcome with emotion. But myself, I felt nothing. I had, of course, been here before. I was more worried about us holding up the other mini bus passengers …. Photos and filming finished, we climbed back on board for the bumpy ride across the Parph, and to the Durness ferry.

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On the Durness ferry: Paris, Josh, Rob, Martyn and myself


The rain, fortunately, had eased by the time we got onto the boat for the short ride across the Kyle. A couple of the other passengers offered us a lift into Durness, but Andy had more space in his converted ambulance and gave us a ride instead, dropping us off at the Spar shop; the hub of this disparate settlement. All we had to do now was find somewhere for 3 cold, wet, bedraggled walkers to stay for the night.

Trudging around from B&B to B&B, greeted each time by no vacancy signs, was a little disheartening, especially after all we had been through. We headed east and stopped at the friendly Mather’s general store, where the shopkeeper and her friend wracked their brains to think of someone who might have accommodation. Our only hope, it seemed, was Smoo Cave hotel where, if nothing else, we’d be able to get in the warm and dry and have a pint. Another local in the shop overhead our conversation and offered us a lift there.

Initial enquiries at reception though revealed they too were full. We sat down with a delicious pint of beer and thought through our options. Could we get a taxi somewhere else? Let’s ask …… Now, the landlady was at the bar and on our latest enquiry exclaimed, “but why don’t you stay here?” Turned out that they did have accommodation after all, not in the hotel itself, but in a self catering cottage they owned a couple of hundred yards away ….. And so so our final night was saved. The cottage was amazing and is thoroughly recommended, and after good showers and a change into our (long hoarded) dry clothes we could finally relax and enjoy a delicious meal in the restaurant.

Later that night, I woke and went to stand for a minute outside. The stars were shining, the milky way etched across the zenith; Orion rising on the horizon. It was over. We had done it.

But what had we done? We hadn’t walked the CWT in 10 days. But I was now quite sure that even with perfect weather that would not have been possible in anything like the time-frame we had allotted for it, given Martyn’s physical limitations. We had, however, done all that we could. And what Martyn achieved was truly remarkable. An inspiration to all. Zaphod Beebbrox would have been impressed; Marvin the Paranoid Android perhaps less so.

We had proven that excitement, adventure and really wild things can be had by all; that cancer, pneumonia and sepsis are not a barrier to living. But they might just be a reason for living even more.


Footnote: we have now raised nearly £45,000 for Macmillan, but, if you found this story inspirational, donations may still be made on Martyn's Just Giving page. Thank you.

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Essan


User avatar
Location: Evesham, Worcs
Interests: Photography, bothies, weather, history, geology, paleoclimatology
Pub: The nearest bothy
Mountain: Drium Fiaclach
Place: Essan
Gear: Camera and pipe
Member: Newsletter Editor, Mountain Bothies Association
Camera: Lumix TZ100

Munros: 98
Corbetts: 52
Grahams: 7
Donalds: 2
Wainwrights: 24
Hewitts: 88
Sub 2000: 4
Islands: 5
Long Distance routes: Cape Wrath Trail   

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