Date walked: 24/07/2017
Time taken: 21 days
Day 15: Ullapool to Schoolhouse Bothy. 25km
After 3 nights in Ullapool I reckoned I'd seen about all it had to offer me and I was excited to meet Claire off the bus from Inverness so we could start our week of adventure together. She arrived around 9 and we were soon organising a food package to send on to Inchnadamph Hotel where we'd be in 3 days time. We enjoyed a nice breakfast in The Ceilidh Place and after short stroll along the road out of town we were headed down the track along Loch Achall. The route today was the most straightforward of the whole trek with a flat 25km which would bring us to the Schoolhouse Bothy. The walking was along excellent tracks for the whole way which made for a gentle introduction to the trail for Claire.
After 18km we reached the Knockdamph Bothy where we stopped for a bite of lunch. We didn't spot many fellow hikers along the route but there were plenty of mountain bikers to greet us. After lunch we descended gently towards our first river crossing river. The water level was low and any other day on the trail I would have walked right through but as this had been the first day since day 1 where I actually had a chance of finishing the day with dry shoes and socks I decided to remove them and cross barefoot. Unfortunately the section just after the river was a bit marshy and having just put my shoes and socks back on they were wet straight away!
After another few kms along the track we pitched up in a pleasant spot just short of the Schoolhouse bothy. This was our first night in the tent together - 2 of us squeezed into a 1 person tent. I had considered bringing along a 2 person tent instead of the Akto but I didn't fancy lugging around the extra weight by myself for the first 2 weeks. A few days before I started out on the trail we set up the tent in a park to test it out with two of us and after about 6 seconds it was declared just about workable.
Thankfully neither of us take up too much space and the Akto is pretty roomy for a 1 person tent so we were able to manage ok when it came to the sleeping arrangements (Claire might give you a different version of this!)
Day 16: Schoolhouse Bothy to Benmore Lodge. 22km
We had a bit of a later start than usual as we had planned a lunch in the Oykel Bridge Hotel which was only 7km away. It would be a day prettty similar to yesterday with about 25km along good mostly flat paths. It was a leisurely stroll towards Oykel bridge. Despite the presence of the track it all felt pretty remote and it was hard to fathom that we'd be happening upon a hotel around the next few bends. But sure enough the hamlet of Oykel Bridge appeared and the hotel owner opened up the bar for us for lunch. John and David showed up shortly after us and we spent the time swapping stories about the past few days. They'd been trapped in the Coire Fionnreach Bothy for a day during the snow storm and they showed us a video of their trudge the next day over the pass in knee deep snow. Looks like I'd narrowly avoided an epic! Claire and I left them in the bar and followed the River Oykel for several easy kilometres. With a strong wind at our backs we made good time towards Ben More Lodge. This is a private estate with a privileged location overlooking Loch Ailsh. We continued on a short distance from the lodge and found an attractive pitch in a little glade next to the woods. Claire's legs were getting pretty stiff so she braved the icy water of the River Oykel to try and refresh them. The view from the door of the tent over Conival and Ben More Assynt was magical and I couldn't wait to get in among them tomorrow.
Day 17: Benmore Lodge to Inchnadamph. 16km
A shorter, sharper day today as the trail brought us up and over the bealach below Conival. We reluctantly packed up the tent and left our campsite behind and hiked further down Glen Oykel where the path quickly deteriorated
into a very boggy affair - a sharp contrast to the surfaces of the past 2 days - but hey, the CWT bogs couldn't be avoided for too long eh? The weather was gorgeous and the views were among the best I'd witnessed on the trail.
We climbed high into the corrie below Ben More Assynt before a steep and bouldery climb up to the pass where we were greeted by a howling headwind funneling through the narrow gap between the hills. We hurried through to the other side and began the long descent towards Inchnadamph.
Claire's feet were in ribbons by this point so we stopped while she applied the latest round of blister pads. Another easy pathless section led towards the main path from Inchnadamph to the summit of Conival. Claire nearly lost her shoe in the bog when her leg suddenly disappeared into the ground but she clung on admirably!
The path down to Inchnadamh hugs the burn for a while and we stopped here for nice lunch and took in the surroundings. It's worth taking a short detour here to one of the many caves in the area. The path led us easily down to the Inchnadamph hotel where we were booked in for the night. A good scrub was in order for ourselves and our clothes before the obligatory trip to the bar. The hotel overlooks Loch Assynt but it's the view of Quinag which really captures the attention. We enjoyed a hearty dinner of fish and chips and watched the sun set on another glorious day. Amazingly the forecast promised a mini heatwave for the next week or so! As if the weather hadn't been kind enough already! Many pints later, the bar was flooded with a large group of geology students who were staying in the nearby hostel and shortly afterwards we called it a night.
Day 18: Inchnadamph to Glendhu. 20km
We were expecting our food parcel from Ullapool today but the hotel owner advised us the post doesn't usually arrive until around 1pm. He kindly offered to
track down the post woman - which he did- but the package wasn't to be found! Claire and I debated our options- we could take a rest day and wait for the parcel which would hopefully arrive the following day or get a taxi to Ullapool and back to restock again. Mid-debate the owner appeared and informed us there was a pile of food that hadn't been collected from previous hikers which we were free to pilfer from. And pilfer we did!
We managed to get everything needed for another 3 days should we need it and I guess our parcel just got added to the pile when it arrived. We were on our way around 11am, happy that we didn't hang around until 1pm to await a parcel that wasn't there anyway.The sun was blazing but there was a
strong breeze as we started the long climb up to Bealach na h-Uidhe. Indeed we met a walker coming down from the pass, an wild old German man who spoke frantically and about the wind at the bealach and declared it the worst he'd ever experienced in the many years he's been walking these hills. At least that's about all I could make out anyway.
We carefully teetered across stepping stones at the outflow of Loch Fleodach Corrie and began
the last steep climb to the pass. Thankfully the wind seemed to have completely died and all we were met with at the top were far reaching views of the land further north, its wild ruggedness softened by a gentle haze. A pleasant path led us zig-zagging down to a lochan-studded moorland where we had a relaxing lunch break. Shortly after we descended steep pathless ground beside a burn which deposited us in another glen. There was no path worth talking about through the glen and progress was slow and trying. but we were spurred on by the thought of Eas A Chuil Anie, Britain's highest waterfall which would shortly be coming into view on our left, tumbling down 200m from the plateau we were up on a while ago.
I have to admit that when it did appear I was left a little underwhelmed - maybe it was the fact it hadn't rained for several days or that we weren't particularly close to it but in comparison to the thundering Falls of Glomach from earlier in the trail it seemed a mere trickle - although at over 3 times higher than Niagra, quite a big trickle! We stumbled onwards down the rough glen which tested our patience before emerging at Loch Coul and the
This truly was a beautiful place and it would have been great to stay a night here but we were anxious to push on over and around the headland to Glendhu, which would take us another 3 hours.
A track led steeply upward from the loch with breathtaking views back over Glencoul and became more indistinct as we rounded the headland and started our long descent to Glendhu. By this stage we were both quite weary and Glendhu bothy in the distance never seemed to get any closer. With relief we arrived after 8pm and pitched up next to a stone wall on the shore of Loch Glendhu. Claire went for her usual leg dip while I contemplated the day ahead which would hopefully take us all the way to Rhiconich. This would involve a 30km hike, 10km more than today and over some rough ground too. We tucked into our food taken from the Inchnadamph hotel and soon passed out exhausted.
Day 19: Glendhu to Rhiconich. 32km
Another tough day lay in store for us if we were going to reach Rhiconich in one go. With Claire's feet bandaged up like an Egyptian mummy e marched down the track from Glendhu in glorious sunshine and made quick progress to the turnoff northeastwards after about 4 km. We climbed up past Loch an leathaid Bhuain, the heat of the day sapping our energy.
Continuing upwards we crossed a col beneath Meall Diamhain where we descended towards Achfary, choosing the easier road variation instead of the rougher way over Ben Dreavie. The 6km along the road were pleasant enough, not much passing traffic and nice surroundings. We pulled up for some lunch on a tiny beach at the head of Loch Stack, with the distinctive peaks of Ben Stack and Arkle rising on either side of us. Turning off the road a 4x4 track took us NE then North around the base of Arkle to a point where we struck off across a pathless bog for a kilometre to reach Loch a Garbh Bhaid Mhor.
This 2km stretch along the loch seemed interminable . We first stuck to the path right along the east shore which was very slow going and left us at risk of toppling into the loch at a couple of points. We then tried a slightly higher path about 20-30 metres away from the shore but this was full of little ups and downs that were exhausting after having already covered 25km today. The sun was baking hot. We were mightily relieved to reach the end of the loch where the guidebook promised easier walking from here on. I resorted to dipping my head in the Rhiconich River to cool off. The crossing of the Garbh Aillt can prove a major obstacle in wet weather and indeed crossing may be impossible at times but today we splashed across in ankle deep water, glad to be cooling our feet. The hotel at Rhiconich was only about 40 mins away and we continued merrily along another smaller loch on a nice path, pleased with our progress for the day. The path followed the Rhiconich river for a short stretch and suddenly spat us out at the road beside the Rhiconich hotel. We stopped in for a drink in the bar and called to make an inquiry about any military activity at Cape Wrath over the coming days. Thankfully there was none planned for the next 4 days. We set up camp just down from the police station here - not the wildest of camps but it did have an enviable view out over the sea loch. The hardest work of the Cape Wrath Trail was now all behind us, we had 2 easier days to go, one final wild camp at Sandwood bay and a forecast to die for. Happy days!
Day 20: Rhiconich to Sandwood Bay. 19km
We could afford another later start today so I took a short morning stroll over a couple of the hillocks overlooking Rhiconich, excited at the prospect of returning to Sandwood Bay after spending an amazing 24 hrs there a couple of years ago with Claire. We left Rhiconich after 11am following the road towards Kinlochbervie, with a stop for an al-fresco lunch in the Schoolhouse Restaurant on the way. We also called into London Stores in Badcall - what's been described as an Aladdin's cave of a shop. If you want it , this place has it - all stuffed in somewhere into the tiny space. We passed through the fishing village of Kinlochbervie and followed the many ups and downs of the quiet road to the stunning beach of Oldshoremore. One last drag took us to Blairmore where we turned off the road onto a track which in about 6-7 km would bring us to Sandwood Bay. The track was busy, but with most people thankfully heading back to the road, it meant we wouldn't have to share the beach with too many. A little way along the track
we caught a glimpse for the first time of the Cape Wrath Lighthouse. There it was far, far in the distance. A white blob. A singularity. Infinitely small and contained within it the culmination of every experience of the past 3 weeks: every sight, every sound, every smell, every step, every slip, every anxious moment, every contented smile, every morsel of rehydrated food, every drop of rain and every square inch of squelchy bog. It seemed unreachable,
farther away than it ever appeared to be on any map I'd pored over and couldn't fathom how I'd be able to walk there in just a few hours.
Turning a corner the vista of Sandwood Bay opened up to us: pristine golden sand and solitude awaited.
We descended the last bit of path and found a suitable patch for the tent in amongst the dunes. There was a strong, insistent wind and putting up the tent without having it blow away was a bit of a struggle. As we grappled with the canvas I was glad Claire was here and I remarked how lucky I'd been that I hadn't had to pitch the Akto alone in any kind of windy conditions or in full on rain. With the tent all sent up we strolled through the dunes and down onto the beach itself, marvelling at the expansive sweep of sand, the cloudless blue skies above and the beach's stoic watchman - the sea stack of Am Buachaille off to our left as we gazed out to sea - next stop Iceland 1000km away. We walked along the sand enjoying the solitude before returning to our tent for some grub.
As it was our last night on the Trail we decided to forgo the usual boil in the bag/dehydrated meals and treat ourselves to some bacon rolls prepared on the Trangia's frying pan. Unbeknownst to Claire I had another treat in store.
Our fine cuisine eagerly devoured we popped down the the beach to watch the sunset. The wind had completely dropped by now and the light was magical. With Claire's back turned watching the sun dip below the horizon I hastily scrawled "Marry Me?" in the sand, dropped to one knee and popped the question when she turned around. She answered with a slightly disbelieving "yes" and we sat in the sand and watched the last of the suns rays disappear into the Atlantic waves. Would've made for an awkward walk the next day if she'd said no eh?
I'd been unable to acquire/unwilling to carry a bottle of Champagne so we had to make do with some celebratory cupcakes, which I'm pleased to report did the job just as well as any bubbly.
Day 21: Sandwood Bay to Cape Wrath. 13km
So this was it. The final day on the Cape Wrath Trail. Only 13km lying between ourselves and the lighthouse and the inevitable return to civilization on the other side. Walking along Sandwood Bay, the two of us once again bathed in an embarrassment of early morning sun, is a moment I won't easily forget. I was however quite anxious about the terrain ahead which had been described almost everywhere I read as some of the roughest on the whole trail and I was terrified of missing the bus which takes passengers from the lighthouse along the
16km of dilapidated "road" to the Kyle of Durness where the ferry awaits. As such I drove a relentless pace up and over the hills that fringe the coastline, determined to make the lighthouse in time. Sorry Claire! As it turned out the ground underfoot, while quite boggy was mostly bone dry as a result of the dry weather and my fears were unfounded. We bounced along, keeping the cliffs nearby to our left and the lighthouse popping in and out of view in the distance, teasing us. As we approached the steep descent to the Keisgaig river Claire called out "What's that red flag over there?" I turned my head and saw a line of red flags stretching away into the distance - flags warning of military activity at the Cape. We'd heard that the flags are often left flying even when there is no activity going on so we climbed the fence with only a little trepidation and continued, crossing over the river and climbing the savagely steep grassy slope on the far side. The moorland rolled gently onwards for another few kilometers, and soon we could see the road leading to the lighthouse not far off in the distance. A leap over a burn and a short pull up the slope and we were back on terra firma with only a couple of kilometres between us and the lighthouse.
With a spring in our steps we turned a final corner and there was the lighthouse rearing up to greet us. It certainly makes for a dramatic end to the Cape Wrath Trail with the lighthouse and its cluster of buildings perched on what feels like the edge of the world, almost daring Mother Nature to batter it into submission and send it crumbling into the roiling sea.
There is something elemental about all lighthouses and this one was no different. What was different about the Cape Wrath lighthouse is that is has it's own cafe - The Ozone Cafe run by the lighthouse operator and his wife. Claire and I gorged on sandwiches, crisps and buns in the company of a few other walkers who like us, had taken the scenic route to get here. Within minutes the complex was completely enveloped in a thick swirling cloud,
conditions which we had almost forgotten are quite normal for Scotland. I went outside for a look around and couldn't even see the lighthouse although is was only 50m away! After a while the bus arrived with its payload of tourists. Unfortunately the bus was full for the return journey but the lighthouse keeper John offerred to take us halfway down the road and dropped us off at what must have been the most remote bus stop in Britain and we waited for the minibus to return for us. It did, and we rattled along to the end of the road where we were ferried across the sound of Durness and we were suddenly dumped back to reality again, and the wilderness was our habitat no longer. We spent a fun night at Sango Sands campsite in Durness (always a favourite), savouring the inner satisfaction of personal accomplishment and ringing in the engagement in style!
Thoughts on the Cape Wrath Trail:
I'm well aware that my experience of the Cape Wrath Trail is anathema to most people's. I was given a very easy ride by the elements and I count myself extremely lucky that I didn't endure any days on the Trail with constant rain - I don't think it rained for more than 2 hours at any one time and on the rare occasions it did rain it was usually little more than a drizzle. This was partly due to keeping a close eye on the forecast, keeping going when the going was good, and using my rest days (4 in total) wisely. Mostly it was due to the calm, settled weather I was granted for 3 weeks. I counted only 4 days where I had to walk in some kind of precipitation and another 4 days with any kind of wind. The whole last week was almost exclusively unbroken sunshine and it didn't rain once. This all made for easy river crossings, easy nav, easy tent pitching, easy walking, easy decision making and it did wonders for the morale (as does the prospect of an engagement by the way!) I was kind of hoping for a truly brutal day or two, the kind where you find out what you're really made of and not just what you THINK you're made of.
Having said that the trail is not to be underestimated and prospective walkers should be prepared for long days, most of mine taking about 8 hrs and a couple over 9 hrs.
The Cape Wrath Trail delivers on every promise and more and in years to come I'll look back on that first day being ferried across Loch Linnhe as the beginning of the adventure of a lifetime.
70l Tiso Backpack with pack cover - big enough to hold everything I needed. Held together with duct tape but did just fine!
Hilleberg Akto tent - nice and spacious, reasonably light and easy to pitch. Highly recommended.
Vango Ultralite sleeping bag
Sleeping bag liner
Mammut inflatable pillow
Mini Trangia + methylated spirits
X-Bowl + spork
North Face hiking trousers
1 Short sleeve and 2 Long sleeved Helly Hansen base layers
Berghaus Gore-Tex pro shell jacket
Sealskinz hiking socks - not exactly waterproof or cheap but they do make a difference when it gets very wet (which it will!)
Hilly trail running socks
Bridgedale warm hiking socks - mostly used for sleeping in
Craghoppers waterproof trousers - worn most days for the first 2 weeks if not for the rain then for the bogs
Mountain equipment gaiters - worn almost every day, keeping the trousers dry
Gore-tex mitts - useful for cold morning starts and when the snow falls!
3 Dry bags
Salomon Fellraisers running shoes - I'm a big fan of light shoes over heavy boots: much more comfortable for me and once you get used to having wet feet all the time it's not a problem
My normal street trainers - used for the end of the day around the tent
2 Walking poles - couldn't imagine doing the trip without these
Beanie hat -hardly used
Buff - never used
Suncream - overused
Small travel towel
Midge net - thankfully too early for the wee buggers!
1 litre foldable water bottle - never used
Headtorch + spare batteries
2 Harvey Cape Wrath Trail Waterproof Maps
Waterproof notebook + pen
Battery pack with 4/5 full phone charges
Hipflask with whisky of choice - absolutely essential. I thought I'd lost it at one point and was depressed for 2 days until I found it buried in my bag!
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