walkhighlands

Solo in September: The Cape Wrath Trail

Date walked: 13/09/2020

Time taken: 14 days

Distance: 380km

Ascent: 11000m

Explanation

During lockdown I have enjoyed a busy and exciting role with the Scottish Government, particularly during the opening salvos of the pandemic, but the long, lonely weekends were saturated with jealousy of those living with partners and friends, regrets about the past, and an acute sense that the best part of my life had ended.

I managed to take the edge off this by running, owning teenagers in COD Warzone, and watching my new hedge spring into life. However, the real redemption came from planning future walking trips, one of which was the Cape Wrath Trail – for me, the ultimate expression of a love for walking in the Scottish Highlands. This rather committed me to doing it once restrictions were eased even though a further two weeks of isolation seemed an unlikely antidote to the woes of the previous months.

Preparation

Fortunate in my well-paid and COVID secure job, I was able to splurge huge amounts of what had been taxpayers money on high quality gear that would accompany me to the Cape. In addition, I set up a series of Podcasts, audiobooks and Music playlists in case I found the isolation too hard to bear.

I was also about as fit as I ever have been, sporting an ill-defined two pack and stretch marks on my quads as well as having largely recovered from a dislocated shoulder suffered in June. Two weeks prior to my Cape Wrath attempt I completed a three-day West Highland Way to test my gear and find my constraining factor – my left Achilles tendon, it turns out.

With the looks, physique and vulnerabilities of a Greek Hero, I knew I was ready.

Part 1: Lochaber to Kintail

I took the usual train from the central belt to the quaint Highland town of Fort William, what with its McDonalds, Morrisons and dual carriageway. With the forecast looking gloomy, I made a full-blooded assault on the bakery section of said supermarket before returning to my guest house. The velux window above my bed tortured me through the night - the rain was thwacking off it.

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Corran Ferry


Setting out from Corran - the ferry to Casmusnagaul does not run on a Sunday - I knew that some sort of penance must be paid for so blatantly shortening the route. That my first river crossing of the trip occurred a mere kilometre after the ferry, a knee deep affair where the river was flowing over the top of the road, felt deserved. My Dad had suggested wearing a waterproof Tilley hat on days like this - probably a good idea coming from a fellow bespectacled walker. However, I still retain a semblance of self-respect.

I was soon headed up Cona Glen, negotiating waist deep flooding on the track and bypassing sections where the river had burst its banks by heading up into the fields above. One particularly tense moment came when I heard a great splish-splash-splosh behind me - can a human outrun a Highland Cow, both parties semi submerged?

I was also possessed by a deep anxiety that I had ended up in the wrong Glen. The adrenaline rush from starting the trail had mutated into a paranoia that, having messed up my map folding, I couldn't break. I was relieved when I recognised a bothy further up the Glen, promptly setting about the baked goods in celebration.

I continued up and over the pass towards Glenfinnan, encountering my first major problem - a small stream had transformed into a waist deep torrent. Below the ford was a fallen tree and waterfall, providing two potential causes of death should I slip. I couldn't find an alternative, so I unclipped my bag and edged gingerly across, using the poles as you might an ice axe on a steep slope in the winter.

The board walks into Glenfinnan were also flooded out along with the car park at the visitor centre. As I headed up towards my planned campsite near Corryhully bothy, Alastair, a helpful gentleman running the estate, warned me of flooding further up the Glen. Rather bewildered by the horrors already experienced, I responded with a cavalier grin and powered onward. As I passed below the great expanse of the concrete viaduct, I then came across an eccentrically dressed woman who seemed to have no regard whatsoever for the weather. Bizarrely, she rapped me on the temple with a short stick: Obliviate!

As suggested, the Glen was flooded with the river barely contained by its banks. Further beyond, the outflow from a hydro scheme had destroyed the land rover track and prevented further progress. Resigned to failure, and a breach of this website's rules (my apologies and regards to our hosts here on Walkhighlands), I found myself seeking shelter in the bothy. Inside, two walkers also heading to Cape Wrath, Ben and Matt, had already made a home here and offered their welcome. (Day one - 38km, 820m)

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Drying off


Almost everything in my bag was now saturated. Despondent, I tried to dry my sleeping bag over the back of two chairs, watching on as the stone-flag floor collected the drips. Any movement during the night was accompanied by the squelch of synthetic insulation while my wool hat soaked up the moisture in the head of the bag. As we picked ourselves up in the morning, Alastair reappeared and reprimanded us in fair but firm terms, pointedly discussing the upkeep costs of the bothy, the risks of COVID transmission, and the donation box. I remain grateful to him and the estate.

Ben and Matt had taken three weeks off work to complete the trail, so I was surprised at the rapid rate of ascent they set as we headed to Glen Dessary - the prior days efforts were felt in my hamstrings. The moisture in the air made the initial part of the walk deeply atmospheric - see Fassbender’s Macbeth for something similar - as we negotiated a tricky river crossing and spied other backpackers setting out in the improving conditions. I’d celebrated my birthday here last year, bagging the remote Sgurr Mor and Sgurr an Fhuarain in glorious spring weather.

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Alongside my excellent companions I trudged along the wooded track to the bothy at A’Chuil, negotiating a landslip caused by the deluge. After this, the track deteriorated, waterlogged , slippery and steep , leading us into the rocky mess of Knoydart, great sea lochs reaching finger-like into the heart of the Highlands. Here my heart began to sing a little - this is why I had set out on this adventure. At Sourlies we hung our clothes out to dry once more and I went for a swim before retiring to my tent, bats feeding over the shingle beach, heron crossing low over the loch. (Day two - 26km, 940m)

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Sourlies


Knoydart had been busy and I was able to walk out briefly with Charlie and Tim who were doing what sounded like a wonderful circuit of the peninsula from Kinloch Hourn, though they expressed some trepidation over the hospitality they might receive at the Old Forge. Soon I was alone, heading into what felt the first seriously remote part of the walk.

Following the River Carnach East and then North, bog made way for an exceptionally narrow glen, waterfalls and pools - wild swimmers take note - aplenty. The sun made an appearance, highlighting the Common Hawker (bottle-green), Common Blue Damselfly (the vivid hue of a Lightsaber) and Red-breasted Merganser commuting back and forth. Eventually, I reached an upland meadow reminiscent of the grand upper reaches of Glen Nevis.

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Deepest, darkest Knoydart


Here, the route turned sour. A steep, wet and direct ascent to the bealach and I was soon a sweaty mess. Exacerbating this travail, I had to claw at my forearms, neck and hair as deer keds shed their wings and began searching for blood. I’m glad for the visit to the barber before the trip - those of you with longer hair would have been driven even closer to insanity than I was. It was with great relief that I found the track and then the summit of the pass, the cooling breeze a respite.

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Barisdale view


The descent to Barisdale is on a superb track - I simply swept along. The views were glorious and at arrival at the campsite I was delighted to find the toilets open, making a small donation in gratitude. The sun still shining, I walked with a broad smile on my face as I enjoyed the shimmering loch framed by darkening clouds in the south.

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Barisdale


Alas, that smile did not persist. I was soon met with an undulating, roller - coaster of a track that runs east down the loch. The keds had returned and my legs began to fill with lead - the effect was felt more pronounced by the stream of walkers coming in the other direction, barely containing their excitement as they headed into the wonderful wilderness I had just left. So draining was this experience that a historic eye twitch returned, something that had first emerged as a result of the stress of auditing a FTSE 100 bank. If you are graduating from university please avoid a Big 4 firm as diligently as you might wind slab on a north facing slope.

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Towards Kinloch Hourn


I finally arrived in Kinloch Hourn as dusk fell, finding a family group also camping by the river. They mentioned that there was, to my astonishment, a girl walking the trail barefoot several days ahead of me and that it would be likely that I would catch her. We couldn’t regale each other with further tales of outdoor adventure due to the arrival of swarms of midges - in September! A mob of Shetland Ponies, eager for a nose rub, were much more welcome, but I slept badly given the bites and having been unable to wash off after a very sweaty day. (Day three, 27km, 1140m)

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Morning company


When I woke for breakfast I was horrified to find the ground around my feet tremble - I’d only ever felt something like this during an Earthquake while travelling in Peru. The source of this soon came apparent and I had to dart around the back of my tent to avoid an excitable horse, snorting at me haughtily. He proceeded to try and push the Shetland Ponies over before spotting a Stag further downriver - I was grateful that this gained his full attention, the deer being promptly being pursued into a series of gorse bushes.

The excitement of the morning over, I began the steep ascent up into a curious part of the Highlands, sandwiched between the back of the Glenelg peninsula and the South Glen Shiel ridge. The landrover tracks gave way to bog and bouldery ground as I approached the steep bealach between the Saddle and Sgurr na Sgine. Back into serious mountain country, the view across to the Five Sisters of Kintail was obscured by clag but the precipitous edges of the Forcan ridge rose impressively above. Here, finally, I picked up phone reception for the first time since Glenfinnan. The texts from my parents betrayed a growing anxiety and I was glad to assure them that I was safe.

The route down was unusually rough, particularly given the popularity of the area, but the trail has this valuable trait of taking you off the beaten track even in the more walked parts of the Highlands. Among the Alder and the Willow of the lower glen, I approached the civilisation of Shiel Bridge with anticipation. I arrived at the hotel just after they had stopped taking orders for lunch and was faced with the prospect of sitting on the steps outside for three hours while waiting for them to open up again. I had taken two Clif bars to use only in the direst of circumstances and wolfed down the first of these such was my despondency. Five minutes later they let me in.

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Loch Duich


On arrival my phone, picking up the wifi, provided a reminder of the struggles of lockdown as it buzzed with notifications from various dating apps. At this point, swiping right is akin to an enfeebled mouse desperately blowing on a single ember below a funeral pyre, the corpse of my love life perched spreadeagle atop. (Day four, 18km, 930m)

Part 2: Kintail to Torridon

However, my passion for food is undimmed and I was delighted to find that the window in my room at the hotel was adjacent and downwind to the outlet from the fan in the kitchen. Showered and repose on the bed, I inhaled the greasy fumes as readily as a White House staffer might ingest COVID-19. The staff were excellent, the beer potent, the food quantiful and Mike, a hugely experienced long distance walker whom I met at the bar, great company. He mentioned that there was a EUMC or EUHWC member walking the trail coming in from Glen Affric - alas, I never met this mystery walker (please get in touch if you know who it was!).

The next day I set out barely containing the energy provided by litres of orange juice, coffee and an enormous cooked breakfast. I have fond memories here of a grand day walking out on Ben Fhada but soon I was walking in unfamiliar territory, unexpectedly finding a wide plateau above the Falls of Glomach. At first, the track is hard to find (head higher up the slope) and soon become treacherous - a slip here would find your body tossed into the pools over one hundred metres below. It was the first time on the trail I found the need to stow my walking poles so as to down-scramble the steeper sections.

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Loch na Leitrach


Having caught up with Mike and having a great conversation with a couple touring the Highlands on a tandem bicycle, we couldn't help but excitedly debate which part of the Lake District Loch na Leitreach most resembled. In soaring heat we passed by Iron Lodge, observing yet more landslides on the flanks of the hills.

As the landscape opened up a track that I expected to be exceptionally boggy turned out to be reasonably dry - we approached Maol Bhuidhe bothy enjoying a stunning sunset, the last of the rays illuminating Lurg Mhor high above. This spot was a favourite on the Cape Wrath trail - comfortable with plenty of places to pitch a tent, a great river for a wash, pristine bothy and a handy deer fence for drying your kit. John, a paramedic, and his Collie provided further amiable company. (Day five, 27km, 1110m)

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Maol Bhuidhe


In the morning I had to decide at what end of Loch Cruoshie I would attempt a river crossing. I’d heard that a German walker had nearly come unstuck here during the rain storm the prior weekend, being swept down river into the loch before swimming to the shore. They were in such shock at this near-miss that they were unable to eat till the next day. I soon found out why they had found themselves in such difficulties; the river at the east end of the loch will find you out of your depth and so you need to proceed to the edge of the loch to cross, thigh-deep, upon the sandy bottom.

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Loch crossing


I was delighted to have kept dry but beyond this comes an almost impenetrable peat-bog, a Dead Marshes type obstacle. All my efforts were for nothing as I misjudged the vegetation and ended up face down in the mud, soaked up to my neck. The sun was as hot as the prior day so I dried off quickly before picking up a landrover track heading west. Loch Calavie was reflecting the sun like a mirror; with the edge of the loch meeting the horizon almost perfectly, the scene had an unearthly feel, a sort of solar eclipse of the landscape.

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Loch Calavie


My Dad and I had cycled in from Achintee to bag the remote Lurg Mhor and Bidein a'Choire Cheesecake using this track several years ago and I missed the mountain bikes here. However, I later stepped off into the moor to follow a fence line and stalkers path over to Strathcarron, meeting two walkers doing the trail North to South and sharing advice for our respective onward journeys. At the village I stopped by for Macaroni Cheese and chips, enjoying the expressions of my fellow diners when I unveiled my feet which now resembled Arsenal’s 2020-21 Away Kit.

I followed the river to Coulags and headed up the path familiar to all of us who have bagged Maol Chean Dearg, deciding to push on further than the bothy and camping on the south shore of Loch Coire Fionnaraich after taking an age to find a decent spot to pitch. (Day six, 28km, 660m)

I set out in the morning, bouncing along at the prospect of a good bed and resupply in the evening, enjoying a light pack now almost completely bereft of food. My smile broadened as I came up and over the stalkers path to the north east of the loch and was met with the most magnificent view - the great Beinn Eighe and Liathach almost thrumming with energy in the morning sun. I will admit that some tears came to my eye - I’m now sure this was the single most rewarding experience of my whole time walking in the hills , beating anything that Snowdonia, the Lake District, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Poland’s Tatras, the fjords of Norway, the Swiss Alps, or even Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks have to offer. Scotland.

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Torridon


Trundling happily along I came across two aged individuals wearing some deeply embarrassing headwear and wholly inappropriate cotton t-shirts. My parents had walked up from the car park to meet me on the descent and had to put up with me excitedly describing the vista of the morning. At the car, my Mum unveiled the fruits of her labour in the kitchen and also, to my huge delight, a trip to an M&S Foodhall. Together we headed round the side of Liathach (a simply brilliant mountain which I had yet another wonderful day out on a few years ago) to Coire Mhic Fhearchair for lunch.

I happily recalled spending time here with some friends who I had met during my fun career in Audit (the very slimmest of silver linings). One of them, a sort of humanoid daddy-long-legs, had run through this part of Torridon while completing the Celtman, a triathlon for the deranged. So exhausted by this effort he clearly failed to notice the glory of his surrounds given he has just moved back to London. I grudgingly admit his achievement was a source of energy for me on the longer days of the trail.

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Just before it got really rough


My Dad and I set out to the north while Mum, wisely, headed back to the car. Here commenced an utter hell. I immediately made a large navigational error by climbing away from the Loch towards the flank of Ruadh-stac Mor, resulting in an exceptionally steep descent to the 400m contour line. After this, there was barely any improvement as the bouldery ground was a nightmare of pitfalls and vegetation. Dad, previously helicoptered from the Drumochters after breaking an ankle, expressed some concern and confidently declared it the roughest walking he had ever done. For me, this was payback for him making my first Munro Mullach Clach a’Bhlair.

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Finally picking up the path


His desperation was made apparent at a river crossing - I had grown accustomed to doing everything within my power to keep my boots dry, but Dad had no such qualms and a flash in my periphery announced lift-off - he didn’t quite make it. Much later than expected we found the path, a stream of shimmering quartzite through the autumnal heather. I was very footsore indeed on the descent to Kinlochewe and Dad’s conversation had rather dried up. Mum picked us up from the roadside and delivered us to the B&B.

This accommodation came recommended by many who have walked the trail and my hosts immediately made me welcome, supplying an enormous mug of tea, offering Dad a shower (even though my parents were staying elsewhere), and washing all my clothes. We exchanged stories of living in the Outer Hebrides before we began to discuss my experience on the trail so far, with a barrage of hints and tips coming my way for the remaining half. My feet, by this point, were in a desperate state and soon a committee had formed to fix the issue (largely in my absence as I had discovered a complimentary coffee cake and was making significant inroads into it).

My Parents had put an extraordinary amount of effort into the resupply, the bags of food, gas cans and toiletries almost a compeed pinata. Later, we headed to the hotel for a superb three course meal (though they had run out of venison casserole!), the staff doing a great job with the COVID precautions. (Day seven, 30km, 1,050m)

Part 3: Torridon to Assynt

I met my parents again in the morning and we headed up to the Heights of Kinlochewe, discussing the former Gamekeeper here who used to deposit the bikes of walkers, left behind as they headed into the Fisherfields, into the Loch. I had last walked here back in 2014, splitting off from my parents to join a group of Glaswegians to do several more Munros, furiously debating the merits of Scottish Independence throughout. Returning to the car park by bike at 11pm, I was glad I didn’t have to do the drive back to Moray that evening.

We ate lunch (complemented by more M&S biscuits) at Lochan Fada, an impressive location framed by Slioch, a mountain that looks completely different from this perspective. Saying goodbye to my parents here was an odd experience - I had enjoyed the human company and setting out alone into what is called the Great Wilderness left me feeling a little empty. Navigating my way towards Loch an Nid, I kept giving the extraordinary, cascading rock to the West admiring glances.

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At Lochan Fada


I decided to avoid Shenavall, which is often completely overcrowded (particularly on weekends), and headed further towards Dundonnell, marching along the well maintained track and camping by the river below Loch Choire Chaorachain, struggling to find a patch of clean ground between the cow pats.

The whole day had been made more pleasant as my feet, as a result of the new laces system, were completely pain free. I never normally develop blisters and until now they had detracted from my enjoyment of the trail - once you feel the burn you can’t help but focus on it. If you are worried about suffering the same problem, I would suggest putting on your choice of footwear and socks and heading to your local pond, walking 40km back and forth in the shallows, inspecting your feet thereafter. (Day eight, 30.6km, 960m)

During the night I had realised that I had pitched far too close to the track, regularly being woken by the flash of head torches as walkers headed towards Shenavall - my prediction that it would be busy proved accurate. In the morning I headed down to Dundonnell House before climbing up the Coffin Road, the route taken by pall bearers to the Kirk at Clachan. This was yet another section of the walk that was surprising in its grandeur, a real sense of height and space is felt as you look across to the Beinn Dearg group of Munros and down Loch Broom.

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Coffin road


Dropping into Inverlael I passed through the elegant estate roads before walking along the deeply unpleasant A835, dodging the lorries from Stornoway charging towards Inverness. On the tarmac I was unable to use my walking poles, holding them parallel to the ground like Saruman shortly before he yeets Gandalf into the ceiling of Orthanc.

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Moor


To those of you planning a resupply in Ullapool I strongly advise booking a taxi or arranging a lift from a B&B - the danger here is worth avoiding. A dull section of forestry follows before you arrive in what I felt was a truly wild section of the trail. The moor here is desolate and there is no track to follow; the ruined crofts of Glen Douchary lonely. The river, however, is a fabulous marble run of waterfalls and pools and provides some distraction from the rough terrain until you meet the track at Loch an Daimh. Here, the first precipitation since Glenfinnan threatened to soak me through so I decided to pitch my tent next to the bothy. (Day nine, 35.1km, 1,210m)

Camping here is not pleasant - it feels very exposed with the lack of trees or other cover. In the morning, I set off down the landrover track before struggling to cross the ford. I soon found myself at the delightful Schoolhouse bothy, recalling a visit here the prior year when I bagged Seana Braigh. I had been avoiding bothies in order to keep within the COVID guidance but here I took liberty to review the blackboard and the messages left by others walking the trail in the bothy book.

Spotify was needed for the next section which was rather slower going compared with when I had sped along in my lovely Skoda Fabia on my previous visit. I usually scoff at those who rely on headphones on longer walks (an Icelandic friend of mine a particular culprit) but they were becoming more useful as the trail went on. At Oykel Bridge I was denied food due to the restrictions much to the amusement of the lesser aristocracy inside enjoying their pre-angling breakfasts. Their merriment gained momentum when I attempted to refold my map - a persistent and irritating challenge throughout the trail and something that should be prescribed to dementia patients given the mental capacity needed to be successful.

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Boring


Forestry persisted for the next few hours and I desperately downloaded as many podcasts as possible while I retained reception. Indeed, the day was so boring I will simply skip to the disaster at the end.

I had reviewed my map and had come to the conclusion that there must be a host of places to camp beyond Loch Ailsh. However, as I climbed over the flank of Meall an Aonaich, vicious squalls began to crash down across Loch Carn nan Conbhairean. I was soon soaked through and a particularly powerful gust knocked me off the top of a peat hag into the bog. Almost unable to stand, I had to decide whether to return to Loch Ailsh or continue in the hope of finding shelter. I will admit that panic set in here and I became completely irrational, concluding that the only course of action would be to walk to the bothy at Glencoul.

Inevitably, this idea was soon abandoned when I came across Allt a’ Chnaip Ghiubhais in full spate. I consumed my second Clif bar and tried to warm up, my teeth chattering in the cold, telling myself to Buckle up, ****! Most of the ground was completely awash so I was forced to pitch my tent on a rocky, lumpy hillock, having to lie prostrate on the flysheet to prevent losing it to the moor. (Day ten, 41.0km, 880m)

I did not manage to sleep at all, listening to the audiobook of Wolf Hall for nine hours in an attempt to drown out the clapping of the tent. As the weather improved in the morning, I stumbled out and dusted myself down. The inner of my tent had filled with water during the night but miraculously my sleeping bag had remained dry, perched atop my mat. Having been unable to use my stove the prior evening I took the opportunity to eat the leftover rations before I set out. I was tired, but also elated, with the sun rising across Assynt, the dark clouds becoming translucent. The atmosphere felt like one you would find in a Turner painting.

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The back of Assynt


At Loch Bealach a’Mhadaidh I realised that I was quite unwell. Attempting to cross the river at the Loch’s edge, I quickly lost control of my bodily functions and had to seek shelter at short notice. A persistent need to urinate - and a sharp pain when I did - indicated something was up. I was relieved that at least part of my digestive system quickly settled down, but the remainder of the trip was plagued with this irritance. Feeling distinctly wobbly and unable to cross the river, I headed down to Gorm Loch Mor, finding the pebbly crossing here much easier.

Again, I depended on my music collection to help me through this part of Assynt as I crossed the moor towards Loch an Eircill. I was relieved to find the excellent track and the views that met me below the Stack of Glencoul were fabulous. The minute bothy here was well maintained and I considered taking an early break given my condition, but continued up and over the headland to the north instead - I had set myself a target and these, as demonstrated so ably by Matt Hancock, always lead to success.

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Glencoul


This is a unique landscape, sandwiched between the two sea lochs, and the view back to Eas a’Chual Aluinn outstanding. Passing through the birch forest and the great boulders at the coast, I finally paused at Glendubh Bothy. For the second time on the trip I broke the rules on bothy use. I still wasn’t feeling one hundred per cent and my tent was soaking wet; I concluded it was in the local Mountain Rescue team’s best interest that I get a good night's sleep and reassess in the morning. (Day eleven, 26.4km, 765m)

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Glendubh


Part 4: Assynt to the Far North

Feeling much better (despite the midnight arrival of another backpacker - he was only in the bothy six hours before he set off again), I set off towards Kylesku, marvelling at the stillness of the loch and watching the Guillemots dive into its depths. The views across to Quinag were special indeed and I felt new energy coursing through my body, particularly after pausing the hotel and getting through a breakfast roll and coffee (both superb) and a scone (terrible). Sat outside - having been advised that the two metre rule wasn’t quite sufficient for the stench I was producing - I informed my parents of my medical woes and subsequently ignored their plea to take a break.

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Quinag


Across the Reay Forest I sped, enjoying the expansive views as I left Assynt and arrived in the Far North. Ben Stack towered above and I was reminded of Robin Cook’s memorable resignation speech in the Commons - worth a watch even today. That statement is a lofty standard for those of us writing here on Walkhighlands and elsewhere. Even loftier were two White-tailed Eagles circling above Ben Dreavie, their enormous wingspans square against the sky.

At the summit, I looked North and with shock recognised that the tiny white speck on the horizon was the Lighthouse at Cape Wrath. Shortly afterwards, a skein of pink-footed geese crossed low over me, its members cackling with excitement having nearly concluded their long flight from Greenland. It was a memorable experience but did not prepare me for the second act - I noticed another skein much higher, and above it one of the Eagles from before. It dived towards the Geese and they formed a close formation like a murmuration of Starlings, swerving from their southern course and diving for the moor. The racket was immense in their panic but the Eagle soared away, unsuccessful. It was the most extraordinary thing I have ever witnessed in nature; even the Elephants and Lions of Namibia could not match the sheer drama of this hunt.

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Happy Geese


Across rough ground I came to Stack Lodge and then onwards to the base of Arkle. After such a special day out on the hill, it was frustrating to leave the track and head towards Loch a’ Garbh-bhaid Mor. The side of the loch is a mess of heather-root and peat bog and concludes at the tricky river crossing of Garbh Allt, thigh deep. Happily, the track improves thereafter and you arrive in Rhiconich sooner than expected. (Day twelve, 42.7km, 1190m)

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Rhiconich


I had camped on the hill just above the hotel and had a cold night, relying on my sleeping bag liner, silk socks and woolen hat to keep me warm. In the morning, I set out on the road to Kinlochbervie, dodging the endless stream of campervans, before stopping at the exquisite London Stores. The gentleman running this emporium was full of tales of the West Coast and I found myself gathering ever more items from his shelves, including pies from Murdoch’s, a butcher from the fine market town of Forres. The pie was as handsome, tasteful and accomplished as the alumni of the settlement's excellent Academy.

At the harbour at Kinlochbervie I decided to do another shop at the Coop having already eaten all the pies. With my parents arrival imminent, I decided to show my appreciation for all their help by buying them some beer and cider. However, as I tried to fit all the food in my rucksack, one of the bottles shattered in my hand, giving me a deep cut on my palm. My trousers were doused in a mix of cider and blood and I couldn't stop the bleeding enough to avoid soaking my toiletries bag and food as I rummaged for my first aid kit.

Having not washed for six days, I was now producing a rather distinct, sickly smell when my parents finally overtook me as I left Kinlochbervie. I was glad for their company as we walked to Blairmore. Here, my walk to Cape Wrath was interrupted. (Day thirteen, 14.1km, 304m)

A break from the trail - Arkle

The MOD was using Cape Wrath as a live firing range on all days except Sundays, so I was forced to come up with an alternative plan while I waited for permission to walk there - an unusual experience given Scotland’s world leading access rights. We enjoyed the beach at Am Meallan before driving north to explore Balnakeil near Durness. My parents were staying at the hotel in Tongue so we returned there for the long-awaited shower. For the first time since I had left home I caught sight of my body in the mirror and was amazed at how much weight I had lost - my rib cage was much more distinct than usual. Perhaps peanuts were not effective trail food given how quickly I had grown bored of them.

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Am Meallan


I did my best to rectify this by eating a three course meal before pitching my tent at the campsite just down the road - nearly plunging my parents car into a dyke in the process as I tried to help my Dad reverse through the campervans. The next day we set out back towards Rhiconich, admiring the views from the road before parking at the foot of Arkle.

This, on my “rest day”, was a hugely rewarding climb. We met the historian Dan Snow on the land rover track before ascending to the sharp ridge and airy summit - from here it feels as though the whole of the North West Highlands are at your feet, the Beinn Eighe-like Foinaven to the north and the shapely Ben Stack to the south. On the way back to Kinlochbervie we passed several groups of backpackers on the road - I thought they must be also heading to Cape Wrath, but were unlikely to make enough progress to reach the finish the next day. (18.4km, 1,028m)

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Ben Stack from Arkle


Back on the trail

We returned to Kinlochbervie, picking up some Fish and Chips at the Old Schoolhouse, and set out to Sandwood Bay by moonlight. My parents wished me well as I pitched the tent just before the dunes and I settled in for my last night on the trail, listening to the booming of the surf. (Day fourteen, 6.4km, 77m)

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On the approach to Sandwood Bay


The morning was glorious, the sun catching the sea stack to the south and the spray from the breakers crashing onto the beach. Other campers, clad in their pyjamas, enjoyed the sunrise as I began the journey North. Soon I had climbed to the moor , crossing bog, streams and fences before meeting the boundary of the firing range at the Bay of Keisgaig. I jumped the fence, crossed the river, and proceeded up the steep slope ahead of me.

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Looking back to Sandwood


Turning to admire the view, I suddenly realised that the red flags (which you may not pass in any circumstance) were raised. My heart sank like a stone.

Drawing on my professional training, I quickly conducted an options appraisal and determined that the risk of being bombed by the Royal Air Force, or worse a premature end to a burgeoning career as a civil servant having broken the law, would be offset by the triumph of reaching the end of the walk. The alternative, sheepishly returning to my parents in Kinlochbervie, was certainly worse.

I made exceptionally quick progress over the last part of the moor, the clap of the breakers on the enormous cliffs sounding like a 4.5-inch Mark 8 Naval Gun. I nearly had a heart attack when a helicopter rose menacingly up over the edge of the cliff - happily, it was merely lifting supplies from the offshore NLV Pharos to resupply the lighthouse. With the moment rather interrupted by the thrum of helicopter blades, I finally finished the Cape Wrath Trail! (Day fifteen, 14.4km, 550m)

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Arrival


I was surprised to find the cafe open, hosting a number of cycle tourers, and the woman who served me confidently informed me that the MOD had just not bothered to drop the flags. What *****. With coffee, macaroni and cake replacing the butterflies in my stomach, I set off towards the Keoldale ferry having been informed this would only take two hours. Three and half hours later I clambered aboard, sailed across the Kyle, and tumbled into the back seat of my parents car, ready for the journey back to Moray. (17.9km, 280m)

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The ferry


A note in conclusion

I alluded to the difficulties that lockdown has caused me at the beginning of this report and my return to the central belt and the grim monotony of my solitary existence, working from home in a tiny flat, has been hard to bear. I miss the great expanses of sky, mountain and sea.

Under a veneer of good humour I have always suffered from a vice that sometimes tightens around my mind, crushing my imagination, verve and ambition. It turns me into someone I dislike and feels completely immovable. I’ve found that Hillwalking gives me a chance to spring it loose - the cloth you might use to open a jar of jam. Lockdown, therefore, afforded me a particular problem.

Wrath comes from the Norse for turning point, the Cape's position indicating the swing South to the Hebrides. I have my time walking the trail to thank for reminding me that, besides COVID, there is no obstacle that might prevent me from having many more extraordinary experiences both here and overseas; no reason why I shouldn't find someone to share these adventures with. I hope that others walking the Cape Wrath Trail will find it similarly revelatory.

As we approach winter, I'm sure my memories of walking the trail will continue to remind me of the prospects for the future. Indeed, I count myself fortunate to have managed the trail at all, lucky in the timings of lockdown, the weather and in my new found fitness. I have four remaining Munros to bag and if I’m successful in that endeavour 2020 may yet end up more memorable for that achievement than anything else.

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Happy

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Comments: 1



The West Highland Way in three long days

Date walked: 28/08/2020
Comments: 2
Views: 1273

durham94


Activity: Mountaineer
Mountain: The Saddle
Place: North Uist
Gear: Gaiters

Munros: 282
Corbetts: 45
Grahams: 10
Donalds: 2
Wainwrights: 22
Hewitts: 14
Sub 2000: 5
Islands: 31
Long Distance routes: West Highland Way    Cape Wrath Trail   



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Statistics

2020

Trips: 2
Distance: 380 km
Ascent: 11000m


Joined: Jun 21, 2012
Last visited: Jun 23, 2021
Total posts: 6 | Search posts