Walking the second leg of the CWT, from Ullapool to the Cape Wrath lighthouse, began in early May 2013 and this time it was with a friend, Geoff. Again, we followed the course set out in Brook and Hinchcliffe’s ageing North to the Cape although without the benefit of actually bringing the book with us. That, and Geoff’s shiny copy of Iain Harper’s new Cicerone guide to the CWT, were both forgotten and left at home in the morning car-loading session. But although we’d had the OS maps marked with the route, I think we could have probably done without those for at least the first three days of the second leg, which is mostly made up of walks on estate roads. Indeed, I will say here that, in comparison with the first leg – Fort William to Ullapool – the second bit of the CWT is, in general, easier in terms of terrain and route-finding. There are some magnificently dramatic moments: upper Glen Oykel and Ben More slowly revealing themselves as the early morning mist disperses in the sun; the big open views of lochs and mountains from the high path between Kylesku and Achfary; the first view of Sandwood Bay. Then there are three steep passes to get over, narrow gorges to descend and more than enough bog plodging to satisfy even the most ardent fans of sphagnum moss. But, even so, the terrain on the ground – as opposed to the views – seems less varied than the ground covered in the tougher trek up to Ullapool. The daily distances seemed shorter, the walking not quite so arduous. Many will disagree. May be I was just more acclimatised to the demands of the western Highlands this time around. Even so, I wonder if those souls who do the walk all in one go, within 15 or 16 days, would regard the first three days of estate road walking – from Ullapool to Ben More Lodge – as rest days in comparison with the harder walking of previous stages. Nevertheless, this second leg retains an incomparable sting in its final stage as you are forced to traverse miles of trackless bog and hillside to reach the Cape Wrath lighthouse itself. And if you want to catch the return bus to Durness, to get home, you’re committed to an early start. We started at seven and did it in three hours. Then again, may be we were helped along by Sandy’s ghost, who seemed to be making a hell of a racket around the bothy the night before…
Day One: Ullapool to Knockdamph bothy (11 miles). As B&H remark: “the route is navigationally simple, but on a well-made track which makes the ground work rather uninteresting.” If your previous experience of the CWT was the trek over from Kinlochewe to Corrie Hallie, then you may well find this stage very easy, if not actually a bit dull. As you plod along the track from Ullapool, past Loch Achall and then Loch an Daimh, you suddenly seem to be a long way out of the mountain country you’ve been used to. Yet, in compensation, there are fine mountain views in most directions and there is a certain appealing bleakness to the lines of spindly wind-blown trees along the shores of the lochs. Anticipating a good fire at the bothy that night we began picking up bits of dead wood from these trees, using Geoff’s gaiters like buckets to carry them along the broad track. Finally, after a plod enlivened by the sight of deer on the hillside and a brief conversation with a young French woman who was working on a farm, the bothy hove into view. We were there by 3pm and wondering what to with ourselves. We lit the fire. Soon a party of Duke of Edinburgh award kids and their teachers and guides arrived. The former camped out while the latter gathered around the fire with whisky, warning us about obstacles ahead – river crossings, boggy paths – as the darkness grew and rain beat on the windows. We sagely nodded our heads in agreement that it was important to know how to navigate with maps and compasses rather than rely on those GPS things. While nodding I quietly tried to remember where I was supposed to turn the N arrow on my compass dial in the event of getting lost.
Day Two: Knockdamph to Oykel Bridge (approx 10 miles). Waving goodbye to the school party, who were bound for Ullapool, we donned our monstrous rucksacks for another easy plod along a wide track through a landscape that seemed to be mainly painted in shades of brown. We had chosen early May to walk this time in order to avoid the midges which had so plagued me in 2012. This early start and the non-existent spring this year meant that this part of the Highlands had yet to take on any colour. But we weren’t the only people walking the CWT at this early stage. One of the school party guides told us that the midge issue meant that walkers – like any sensible holiday-maker in the NW Highlands – were tending to tackle the trail in April or May or in the autumn. What this seems to mean is that, in these high-use windows of opportunity, you are likely to meet, leapfrog ahead of, be leapfrogged by or even just constantly hear about walkers who are heading in the same direction as you are. These unseen trekkers can soon take on a semi-mythic, even ghost-like status. You hear about them, but never seem to see them. One such figure in our case was the ‘elderly Swedish man with the huge pack’ who called in at a lodge ahead one rainy night and begged to be allowed to sleep in the drying room. Another was a Polish bloke who had a GPS gadget but who, we were told, didn’t know how to use it and was incapable of changing his walk itinerary. We never saw the Polish bloke – or was it actually him outside the shop at Blairmore? – but I did finally see the elderly Swede at Cape Wrath, and he was worth the wait. Today it didn’t take long to reach a river called the Abhainn Poiblidh which B&H described as a possible tactical problem. Well, it wasn’t. We dutifully took off our boots, put on our river-walking shoes and safely waded over in water that came no higher than just below the knee. So much for the warnings from the night before.
Up ahead we crossed Duag Bridge and had lunch in the little bothy called the School House. A small, thin bloke from Bilbao whom we had met at Knockdamph the day before had carried on walking to sleep here and had now quite obviously cleared off on his way north. We kept hearing about him in the days ahead as well. ‘Did you meet the Spanish bloke?’ ‘Yes, he’s thin isn’t he?’ Ahead, the sun came out for a blazing afternoon as we plodded along a dry forest road above the River Einig. The landscape was greener now, more giving. Nearer Oykel Bridge we got down by the river and played around like kids on the rocks above the fast-flowing water. Should we stay at Oykel Bridge? It’s a natural stopping point but we had been told the night before that the hotel there was closed. This turned out to be wrong. The hotel was open, but devoid of life, allowing us to wander around set tables and coffee tables piled with country lifestyle magazines like we were in a scene from The Shining. We decided to carry on and find a camping spot further north beside the River Oykel. Locating a good spot was harder than we expected and we were tired by the time a farmer told us we could camp on flat ground beside a fishing hut up ahead. It was raining by the time we got the tents out. But there was fresh clean water gurgling right beside us. And there were no midges.
Day Three: Oykel Bridge to beyond Benmore Lodge (approx eight miles). Until Oykel Bridge the trail had been leading us gently north west. Crossing the river the afternoon before by the old Oykel stone bridge we had turned firmly to the north and now, with another grey, dampish morning ahead, we marched off with the deep salmon river on our left and plantation forestry on the right. There was nobody else in sight and it felt like we were now immersed in Scotland profonde; the kind of terrain that many people imagine the Highlands looks like; a land of grey fast-flowing water and green conifers. But we weren’t really that far from anywhere. There was a track under our feet broad enough for a car; a line of marker posts for the absent anglers; and up ahead a well-appointed fishing hut where we had a break. Somewhere near here you may also see the upright supports for a bridge that was removed in 2011 because it had become dangerous. In fact, in reaching the fishing hut we had already come too far and missed the right-turn we needed to reach the higher estate road that ran all the way to Loch Ailsh and Benmore Lodge. This is the only tricky part of the stage and we missed the turn because I thought the broken down stone walls that came down to the track couldn’t be the solid walls that were marked on the map. The estate track along the river also runs further north up the bank than is shown by OS. So, on reaching the broad tributary that flows into the Oykel from the west, we turned around and doubled back to the strange ruins of Salachy that mark the pathless link between the two estate tracks. Before pushing uphill through the fallen trees and dense undergrowth (‘a very awkward section of about half-a-kilometre rising over rough ground,’ B&H observe correctly) I went to look at Salachy’s slightly eerie abandoned buildings. I wouldn’t want to have to spend a night there.
When we reached the higher track , this one an even broader gravelled affair, we turned left towards Loch Ailsh and then stopped to have lunch. Geoff brewed up miso soup. The gravelled road led down to a scene of deforested devastation at the foot of Loch Ailsh. A pickup cruised past going in the opposite direction. Benmore Lodge at the head of the loch was quiet and since there seemed nowhere to camp we pushed on parallel to the Oykel, through the estate gate and finally set up camp on a triangle of land between the Oykel and a tributary, the Allt Sail an Ruathair,, which emerged from acres of bog hiding the bleached dead wood of ancient Caledonian forests.
Day Four: Loch Ailsh to Inchnadamph (approx nine miles). First light brought dampness, grey and mist. Yet even as we packed up the tents the sun had started to do strange things to the mist, illuminating it from the inside and colouring it with a never-seen-before shade of light blue. Better was to come in a hard day’s walking that more than compensated for the comfortable but mostly unspectacular hours we’d put in since Ullapool. B&H call this section ‘majestic’ and ‘one of the best’ and it was soon easy to see why. As the sun rose higher, burning the mist off the hills to both sides of the Oykel, the glen also straightened and yawned wider, allowing an unforgettable clear view ahead to the Ben More massif, still wearing patches of snow. Through the centre of the glen wound the friendly clear shimmering waters of the Oykel, heading, as it were, back to its source in a corrie high up on the east side at the end of the valley. In truth, we couldn’t get enough of the view. This was why we were here and we now regretted not having camped on one of the many flat areas near the river the night before.
As Geoff went ahead I took advantage of the good weather to wash some clothes in the river. By the time he was back in sight the good path we’d been following on the east side the river had run out and it was a matter of trying to following the usual old vehicle tracks in the damp glen bottom. There is a rough path higher up the glen side which should keep your boots drier, but even so you still have to ford a few tumbling burns. One of these fords, which I think is the one B&H describe as ‘difficult’, is wider than the rest and is lined with stone slabs. A vertical drop a few feet away is the reason they urge caution. As we approached the head of the glen I wondered exactly where we had to cross the river to access the bealach on the other side. This had been a source of mild concern but, as usual, the landscape’s gradual unfolding showed where to go. And as Geoff pointed out, there is also a big obvious W-shaped twist in the Oykel just before the ascent to the pass. Next comes the crossing of the Oykel (there is no bridge but there are plenty of narrow sections) and then the ascent to the bealach. This is pathless, rough and steep but not as steep and rough as the ascent up to the Forcan Ridge on the Kinloch Hourn-Shiel Bridge stage. And near the top here there is the reward of the freshest water you’ll ever taste – all tumbling from the ground and then gurgling away in subterranean gullies and channels you can hear but not see. We were up to the bealach in 15-20 minutes. It was now approaching lunchtime, the sun was blazing and we were on the shoulder of Conival, drinking the best water in creation. So far we had not seen another soul. B&H describe the bealach over the top as a narrow gorge, which makes it sound more forbidding than it is (at least in good weather). The far side of the pass offers a big wide view of your next destination, Loch Assynt and it was with this scene before us, and with waterfalls tumbling nearby, that we had lunch.
The next section, which basically calls for a descent of the burn coming down from the bealach, was trickier than I’d anticipated. I’d done the gorge-walking bit above Sourlies but the descent towards Inchnadamph, invisible several miles ahead, is steeper, longer, the gorge walls are higher and the path is even less distinct. To hell with it, there is no path. In fact, you don’t even have to come this way since B&H say is ‘difficult’ but ‘try it if you wish.’ They somehow avoided the gully and headed towards the River Tralgill below but when we were here the route down the gorge seemed to be the natural way down. Since my feet had already been damp for days by now, in lightweight boots that were almost the end of their life, I often crossed from side to side of the burn by plunging into the water. Geoff, with two walking poles, managed to keep his feet mostly dry. When we emerged at the far end he said, ‘that was arduous.’ Back at home, weeks later, I bought a worn copy of F. Reid Corson’s Beyond the Great Glen, first published in 1934, which provides an interesting guide to old paths and tracks in north west Scotland including the track beside the Oykel we had been following all day. It states the distance from the Benmore Lodge to Ben More as seven miles. But the book also tells a story about a clan tragedy which occurred at the gorge of a burn somewhere behind Inchnadamph. The story goes that an outcast and embittered Macleod offered to help a group of MacKays attack a Macleod village by guiding them along a secret track at night. At the gorge it was necessary to leap to a rock in the middle of the burn, change direction and then jump to the far bank. The Macleod jumped first in the dark but didn’t tell the MacKays about the change of direction with the result that they all jumped to their deaths in the burn. I’m sure most walkers in Scotland have had several of those ‘which way do I jump?’ moments when crossing rivers. There were quite a few in the gorge we came down. Mostly a bad decision – poor grip, wobbly rock – means the differences between wet and dry socks. But sometimes you can see that a slip will lead to a broken leg or being swept downstream with a rucksack weighing you down. Avoiding such accidents is the only reason I carry walking poles and even then I usually can’t be bothered to get them out. But watching people making their river crossings can be surprisingly interesting. The way that different people choose different routes to get across. The way they can pause to achieve the right balance, and required amount of ‘spring’, before leaping to the next rock. Making a quick series of calculations and judgements about distance, the angle and texture of rock surfaces, depth and speed of water. And usually these judgements are correct and you get across safely. Is that surprising or not? On this trip I heard about a bloke who made a bad decision about a river. He was on the wrong side of the river above Sourlies (before the gorge) and got wet getting to the other side. By the time he get to the bothy he was so cold and unwell that he had to drop out of the walk for a few days. Fortunately, I’ve only fallen over in a river once – in the Esk in the Lake District – and I floated on my back for a few seconds without getting very wet. That risk was all behind us for now. Indeed, as we plodded down the safer and flatter sides of the burn towards Inchnadamph, we realised that the water was actually drying up. There were empty channels where there should have been a nice Scottish stream. Meanwhile, away to the right, across what seemed like hectares of up-and-down rough ground, was a small plantation where we should have been. Somehow, following the burn had taken us in the wrong direction. The River Tralgill and the ‘defined path’ were over there. We were over here. Off we plodded in the afternoon sun, trying to pick up a track that would take us over there.
A few steep river banks later we hit the path and also found one of the big caves that pepper this limestone country. Geoff stripped off and jumped in a deep pool. He was soon out again. An hour later we were at the wonderful Inchnadamph Lodge. This is where we first heard about the elderly Swede with the huge pack who had begged to be allowed to sleep in the drying room because he had been rained on all day. I checked out the drying room later on. It is big and warm. I could see the attraction.
Day Five: Inchnadamph to Kylesku (11 miles or so). The hardest day so far began with a reluctant departure from Inchnadamph Lodge and a conversation with the Assynt binmen. ‘Keep to the path out there,’ they laughed. ‘And don’t talk to strangers.’ In fact there were no strangers to talk to today since we saw not another human being between here and the road to Kylesku many hours later. And as for the path: we went wrong almost immediately as we tramped back up the hill away from Loch Assynt, looking for the junction that would take us NW into the Assynt back country No fear, this gave us a chance to examine the remains of some of the many ancient burial chambers that are marked here on the OS map.
Retracing our steps again we found the obscure junction (or ‘bifurcation’ as B&H archaically call splits in paths) and began the slow steady climb north that ultimately leads across the strange stoney bealach at Glas Bhein. I had often read, and digested, B&H’s passage about this part of the walk and it had always left me with a slight sense of unease about route-finding. ‘The route…becomes tortuous, convoluted, dotted with lochans and must, in theory, be magical,’ they write. ‘when we were there we were navigating on compass through cloud and rain.’ Well, we certainly had good weather, and could see the lochans, but had we been in a rain cloud I can’t see how anyone with a decent map could get so lost out here that you would feel the need for a compass. The track is clear all the way until you get to the river crossing at Loch Fleodach Choire from where, as B&H suggest, a line of cairns help guide you up rough boggy ground below the bealach. Having read the book, and crossed the ground they describe, it seems that this issue of having to use map and compass is another of those moment when B&H indulge in a bit of minor drama (but I am sure somebody will tell me how wrong I am about this). As for the river crossing: the broken slatted bridge which they say ‘can be used with care’ was completely unusable. We got across the usual way.
The pass ahead, Bealach na h-Uidhe, proved to be a lonely, windy place, covered with stones and rocks and high enough that there were still patches of snow nearby. And it was at this point that the day’s walk changed character. Until now we had enjoyed sun and calm, the water in the lochans an inviting blue. Once over the pass the water in the lochans turned black, the sky turned grey, the wind blew with a vengeance and the stoney terrain felt ungiving and hostile.
Again, route-finding wasn’t a problem here. Despite the rocks and undulations, the path itself is easy to follow, pursuing as it does a great loop over another pass, Bealach a’Bhuir-ich, and back down to the main road. It was the dull hostility of the terrain and weather that made me not want to linger. I was also concerned that we would miss the split in the path which marks one of the points of separation between B&H’s route and that promoted by Iain Harper’s new CWT guidebook, which suggests turning NE to the Glencoul bothy and then walking a long loop around Loch Glendu. We had discussed taking this route but for several reasons we now decided we would get back to the main road today. The split in the path is not very clear but is found just above two unnamed lochans and it was here that we had lunch. The position gave us a good view ahead to Britain’s highest waterfall, Eas a Chual Aluinn, just a mile away. The rock face it pours down had been visible from the top of the bealach at Glas Bhein and from this point there was also a good long view of the rocky terrain stepped up above it in which Loch nan Caorach seemed to be positioned like a long narrow bathtub of blue water. It was an unusual perspective. Once past the junction of the paths we were on the long return leg but, passing along the path high above Loch Bealach a Bhuirich, Geoff finally admitted that he was in agony. One of his shins was hot and swollen, giving great pain every time he put weight on that foot. His other knee suffered from a chronic problem. Both feet had multiple blisters. By the time we finally reached the main road to Kylesku, having followed a slow and very boggy track which had sent me tumbling head over heels, Geoff said he wasn’t enjoying himself, to say the least. Since there was still another few miles of road walking ahead, hitching seemed like a bright idea. The first vehicle to appear, a work truck driven by a cheery Glaswegian working on a nearby hydro-electric scheme, stopped for us. We hauled our rucksacks into the back of the truck and enjoyed the ride all the way to Kylesku. You’ve got to like a place where hitchhiking is this easy.
Day Six: Kylesku to beyond Achfary (approx 9.5 miles). Geoff had decided it was best for him to drop out to get some medical advice about his leg. So, after coffee in the Kylesku Hotel, and having packed up our gear in the little copse nearby where we had camped the night before, we parted ways for two days: he to see a doctor (care of the nice old lady who runs the Kylesku Post Office from the shed in her garden) and I across the hills to Achfary. It was a blazing hot day, perfect for a track which B&H rightly describe as offering ‘stupendous panoramas’ of the mighty Quinag and the linked lochs of Glencoul, Glendhu and a Chairn Bhain below. The passage of water connecting them is spanned by the utilitarian concrete lines of Kylesku Bridge, which opened in 1984 and replaced the old car ferry which, by all accounts, played a small role in sabotaging the economic development of the northern Highlands. To reach the Achfary track you have to cross the bridge, walk up the road a bit (there is no pavement) and then hit a track on the right leading into a plantation. This track was closed when I was there, but there was a signposted lower diversion which required a steep ascent to get back to the original track, which runs east to Achfary. As the track climbed higher, offering ever more dazzling panoramas of the landscape to the south, I noticed the colours of the rocks and pebbles on the path. They were pink (Lewisian gneiss?), green and sparkling blue. I picked some up as souvenirs and stuffed them into a bulging side pocket of my rucksack. Below lay the waters where the crews of an X-Craft midget submarine flotilla had trained during the Second World War. It was from here that six X-Craft set off to attack the Tirpitz in Norway in 1943. With this in mind I dwelled not on how blue and sparkling the lochs looked, but how dark, cold and deep it must be. A memorial cairn dedicated to the men of the XIIth submarine flotilla is located on the road just north of Kylesku and there is also a display in the Kylesku Hotel.
So far it seemed that I would have another day to myself. But, after several miles, I heard the distinctive chug of an engine and soon a little open-topped unimog came bumping down the track. The driver stopped and we exchanged a few sentences. He was working on the Maldie hydro-electric scheme on the loch below. Soon a row of posts in the ground, all indicating nearby cables of a vast and dangerous voltage, came into view. Then shelters, generators and earth-moving equipment. The track was now a flat dusty road fit for caterpillar tracks. The little burns going down to the loch had all been interfered with where they crossed under and exited the track. It was like this all the way down to Achfary, where deforestation added to the general sense of destruction. Another unimog appeared. The driver, in a hard hat, looked a bit uncertain as I rested a hand on his vehicle. How big was the hydro scheme? He fished in the glove compartment, looked at some papers and said 4.5MW. How much energy was that compared with a wind turbine? He didn’t know but said, ‘the hydro scheme will generate £7,000 of electricity every day – think of that.’ Later on, construction workers took long looks at me out of the back of their pickups as I tramped down to Achfary, where the new electricity substation was being built to channel enough electrons to power the equivalent of 2,500 homes. At the bottom of the hill, where the trees had been lopped down, a sign at the site entrance warned that only construction workers were allowed. I had come from the wrong direction for this to matter. Tidy little Achfary, owned by the Duke of Westminster, was almost silent under a big blue sky. The community notice board advertised nothing of great drama. The road through the hamlet stretched for miles to somewhere in both directions. Again, the sense of Scotland profonde. Only later did I find out that the black and white phone box standing proud near the road was a well-known feature of the community. Yet what I needed at this point, after several hours walking in the sun and being stared at by digger drivers, was ice cream from an ice cream van with Goofy on the side. Without this and with nowhere obvious to camp I decided to make in-roads into the next stage of the journey, which looked like a long one.
Turning back to the west again I picked up the wide trail through Reay Forest, the river Achadh Faraidh just visible through the trees down a steep bank to the left. Fifteen minutes later, and for the first time since leaving Ullapool, I realised I wasn’t feeling well. I was hungry and dehydrated from the long walk in the sun. The problem was fixed with a litre of water, one of Geoff’s miso soup mixes and the melted coagulated mass of my last chocolate peanuts, purchased weeks before in a Pound Shop hundreds of miles away. Now feeling on top of the world, I marched off to locate a camping spot as the forest petered out in Strath Stack, at the foot of Ben Stack. There was nobody else around and the entire little glen became my playground for the evening. Tracks in the trees leading down to the river suggested that the only visitors I might receive would be deer.
Day seven: Strath Stack to Rhionich (11 miles or so). A fine clear morning heralded what was to prove another of the CWT’s best if most taxing days. Breakfast as usual was coffee and two packets of porridge laced with syrup taste. Last night dinner had been…well, I forget, but it must have been one of these fine dining solutions: pasta, rice with soya mince, rice with curry, couscous with soya mince, couscous with soya bolognese, and flatbread. Sometimes there were soya sausages or falafel. Dessert was more coffee and a chewy nut bar. Later, hot chocolate. The food was distributed all over my rucksack and I always brought two or three days’ more than I thought I would need. This made for a heavy load at the start but I preferred the feeling of carrying everything I would need, and feeling the bag getting lighter over time, rather than relying on visits to shops every two or three days. Sandy, who I was to finish the CWT with, went for the resupply philosophy. I long ago gave up buying overpriced specialised ‘outdoor food’; instead almost everything is bought at high street shops and sometimes repacked into smaller quantities (e.g. rice and couscous). This keeps the costs down which, in its own small way, helps reclaim long-distance walking from being the expensive technical brouhaha it has become. Because how did it happen that what should be one of the cheapest, natural and most democratic ways to enjoy yourself has ended up costing so much? I think of Wainwright, wandering over the fells in his tweed suit, responding to the approach of bad weather by turning his pipe upside down; or Hugh Munro who would undertake multi-day wilderness walks alone, and sometimes at night, in a kilt, cape and bonnet. Then I check if my phone has a signal and make sure my £100 waterproof trousers are stored the top of my rucksack.
In Strath Stack the increasingly vague track led north west for a mile or so before turning sharp right where an estate fence comes in above Loch na h-Ath. The well-made path then headed north east, ascending gently across the lower shoulder of Ben Stack on the right while an inviting landscape of blue lochs and lochans unwound on the left. You can’t get lost here; and the walking is pure pleasure. There is a steep winding descent to the A838 – the same road that went through Achfary – and from this height you should, on a clear day, see your next goal below: Lochstack Lodge and the tidy wooden bridge which takes you over the River Laxford at Loch Stack. Once past the lodge you’re back in rocky, heathery rough country with the 758m bulk of Arkle looming ahead. The map shows the path taking a sharp left turn at the foot of the mountain and for some reason I was curious to see whether the turn was as clear and decisive on the ground as it looked on paper. It was. If it was a road there would be a left-turn arrow and a sign pointing forwards stating ‘do not ascend here.’ Now heading north again, you round a more gentle corner before you start looking for the best place to cross the next trackless section towards Loch a’ Garbh-bhaid Mor, which points straight towards Rhiconich. This reminded me a little of the section above Kinlochewe where a compass was needed to find a lochan to find the right pass…and certainly, you might want to use a compass here if there was mist.
But on a clear day the map and common sense should get you to the tip of the loch. B&H recommend turning north after crossing the Alltan Riabhach, which tumbles down from Arkle. I’d already gone well past it before realising I’d missed it, backtracked a little and then began looking for my own driest route to the loch. ‘Very rough ground. No path, rocky and wet,’ say B&H. Although you can use rocky outcrops to get across this section it must be a swamp after heavy rain. The long, narrow loch comes into view shortly and it was at the tip that I sat down for an hour for lunch and soaked up the scene of wind blowing on lonely blue water. Again, apart from one figure who I’d seen coming up the Strath Stack path just as I left, I hadn’t seen another human being today. The next stretch is difficult. B&H describe the path along the east side of the loch and the next one as ‘rough’ but in truth there is no path to speak of for some distance. You may spot a very ill-defined fishing track towards the side of the loch, but it’s by turns boggy and rocky and then usually disappears. Progress will be slow and after a while you will probably accept that this section simply has to be endured to get on your way. The path also hangs over the loch in places and I worried that I would trip and fall in. But there is a flat section between the first loch and the second, Loch a Garbh-bhaid Beag, where the terrain opens up to give inspiring ‘big sky’ views of a country that is as much water as it is land. And there are swans on the lochs. The broad Garbh Allt must also be forded here, an occasion which allowed me to inspect the new hole in the sole of my fading lightweight boots.
On the other side of the river a party of German walkers, all in orange tee-shirts and floppy hats, were heading in the opposite direction; they were doing the trail north to south, having started at Cape Wrath. The lochside path they’d come down eventually emerged at the hamlet of Rhiconich where Geoff was waiting with the car he’d picked up at Ullapool. B&H’s route to the next stopping point, Blairmore, is a seven mile trek up the road so I didn’t feel I was missing much by chucking my stuff in Geoff’s van again for a drive up to the Kinlochbervie Hotel for coffee and a phone recharge. We then drove further up on narrow grey lanes past crofts and Blairemore to camp on one of the small beaches around there. Geoff had bought some veggie sausages. It had been a good day.
Day Eight: Blairemore to Strathchailleach bothy (six miles?): The doc had told Geoff that he had an infection in his shin which he had probably picked up through one of his blisters. He’d been given antibiotics but was told to lay off the walking. Despite the medicine, he’d felt lousy the night before on the beach. The situation wasn’t helped by heavy rain which settled in all night and stopped us getting another fire lit. After we’d sat in his van, listening to Ricky Ross’s excellent Radio Scotland show, Geoff decided he would sleep in the back instead of his tent. He still felt lousy the next morning but brightened up with the weather and we were soon clambering over the big sea cliffs around the beach, looking over the Minch to the tip of Lewis and talking about the importance of having journeys to make. Just up the coast, unseen, was Cape Wrath. Its closeness surprised me. It felt premature. I felt it should be further away, that a few more days’ more walking should be required to get there. I wasn’t sure how I’d got this far.
But first there was Sandwood Bay, a promised highlight which I’d first heard about in Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, a book which I’d wanted to both hug and throw out of the window when I’d read it. And despite the doc’s orders, Geoff decided he would also walk the four miles to the bay. So off we went back in the van, first to The London Stores at Kinlochbervie – was that the Polish walker with the GPS issue standing outside? – and then to get parked up for the straight hike north over the moor along the clear path.
I’d had a vague idea of camping at the bay (which is owned by the John Muir Trust) but Geoff said he wanted to press on to a bothy further on for a better start to the Cape the next day. B&H compress the trek from Blairmore to the Cape into one final stage but this, to me, seems like indecent haste given the opportunity to soak up the unforgettable natural perfection of Sandwood Bay. I mean, when are you going to be here next? But after lunch, with a hot sun above, it was time to find Strathchailleach bothy which lay a couple of miles north beyond the rim of steep hills surrounding the bay and its freshwater loch. The walk over the moor was wet and we did not locate a path; nor is one shown on the map although Geoff said he found one, slanting south across the moor from the bothy, the next day. This must have been the rough route back to the village used by old James McRory Smith (AKA Sandy), former occupier of the bothy, who lived there without mains water, gas or electricity until a few years before his death in 1999. I’m not going to spoil the story about Sandy and his three-roomed hovel; you can read about it at the bothy itself, where Sandy’s unique form of interior decor can still be seen. By the time we got to the front door there were already two walkers there, Liz and Sandy, both Scots, with whom I would reach the Cape the next day. We hadn’t seen Liz since Inchnadamph but had just followed Sandy’s footsteps for the last mile over the moor to the bothy. He wore an old Berghaus jacket, carried a frame rucksack and had seemed to know exactly where he was going. But later he said, ‘I’m not that good at navigation; I was following my GPS.’
Geoff slept in the kitchen that night; I was in the room with the open peat fire while Sandy and Liz were on the raised boards of the ‘bedroom.’ Early in the morning, as it was getting light, I heard some noises I couldn’t explain – a repetitive clanging that sometimes ended with an echo-ey reverb and sometimes terminated with an abrupt silence. It went on for quite some time. Was it coming from inside or outside? I decided it wasn’t a peculiar echo of snoring in the kitchen. But nor was the wind blowing strongly enough outside to make something clang like that. Once I was up I took a walk around the cottage and couldn’t see anything that would make such a noise. I explained it all over breakfast at 6.30am. “Sandy’s ghost,” said the (living) Sandy immediately as he drank his tea and I thought about making one last trip with the spade. But where to? Because, never mind Sandy’s ghost lurking on the moor, nature had called once again. Like most bothies, Sandy’s old hovel lacked an indoor toilet – and an outdoor one. To deal with this matter, the mountain bothy association always places a big spade beside the front door. A prominent sign also asks you to bury your human waste well away from the bothy and fresh water. Of course. But digging a nice big hole on Scottish moorland is no easy matter. The matted roots of the grass make lifting the soil difficult, a point I’d appreciated at Knockdamph bothy on the first night when I’d slipped out of lively company during a blowy rainstorm and then slipped all over the wet moor while managing to excavate no more than an undulation. Thank God the night was pitch black. When I had a good look around that same bothy the next morning I saw that there was a suspiciously large amount of upturned earth in the big shed at the back of the building. Hah! So much for crapping well away from the bothy. There must have been enough shit buried in there to grow prize-winning crops.
Day nine: Strathchailleach bothy to Cape Wrath (seven miles). We’d decided to make an early bid for the Cape so were away at 7am on a fine clear morning. There were two good reasons for the early start. One was that Sandy had learned that the last bus from the Cape to Durness – our bus home, effectively – was leaving at 12.30pm. The other reason was that the Cape area was due to be bombed and attacked in a combined forces training assault at some point the following day. Naval gunfire, helicopter assault and ‘air bombardment’ were to be involved, which sound exciting to watch but meant we had to get the final stage over and done with today. So, we were packed and picking our way across the fast-flowing burn in front of the bothy as soon as we’d packed the breakfast gear away. Geoff, meanwhile, had decided he wouldn’t attempt this last stage owing to the continuing effects of the infection in his leg. He walked back to Blairmore to get the van (and then to get the bus to the lighthouse from Durness) while Liz, Sandy and I began the trek – sometimes plodge – towards our unseen destination seven miles away.
B&H call this stage “very rough” with possible difficult river conditions and no optimal route. Yet, in theory, you can’t really get lost or come seriously unstuck on this last section. Just keep the sea at a distance on your left and, whether you go over or around the hills, you will eventually hit the road that runs up to the lighthouse. Now that we were faced with the reality of miles of trackless bog, we had more or less separately agreed to first head north west towards the first big loch, Loch a Geodha Ruaidh, and then make a decision about the next section from there. We made a good pace uphill to the loch and from its side it made sense to descend gently north east with Loch Keisgaig on our right.
Despite the very wet conditions we maintained the solid pace and were soon aiming for a course between two hummocks of a big brown hill which was, as it turned out, the last major obstacle before the Cape. The MoD barbed wire fence and warning signs ran across the bottom of the hill and were raised to sufficient height to cause discomfort. It is not mined.
From the stoney top of the hill the terrain dipped north down to the sea and the journey’s end. While the lighthouse was still hidden from view we could see the grey streak of the road sweeping across in the distance and when we got there were surprised to find the morning’s walk had only taken three hours. Finally, just a bit further and around the corner – and just like that nice drawing in B&H’s guidebook titled ‘Nearly There’, but without the rain – the lighthouse and the gates came into the view and we were nearly there. Then we were there and shook hands. We sat and drank tea and coffee in the lighthouse O-Zone cafe for a while, wandered around the grounds and stared out to sea. Finally, the settling in that this was the end and there was no more walking to be planned or done. But how, I asked the cafe owner, did anybody actually know that the Vikings used the Cape as a navigation point by which to steer their ships home to Scandinavia? “Oh, I think that was just made up,” he said. “I never believed that bit.” Then, shortly before the Durness bus arrived, a man with a blue coat and a big rucksack wandered in to the cafe. It was the ‘elderly Swedish man’ and he had been camping behind a wall at the light house since the day before. Now his journey was also finished and he happily and unselfconciously chatted in broken English to all around him, smiling all the time while holding a gas canister he had no further use for. I never got his name but when the bus to Durness pulled away he waved out of the window and said in good English ‘goodbye my dream!’ I was glad to finally meet this ghost of the Cape Wrath Trail and felt respect for one who had relentlessly pursued his dream, and alone. May the great walks of the world continue to be made and used by such dreamers. The journey is all. On the way to Durness the bus driver picked up an elderly American couple who’d been staying at the Kearvaig bothy near the lighthouse. They were very chatty but were surprised to hear that the Cape was actually owned by the MoD. “Oh, well that must be why we saw a silver object with fins sticking out of the ground,” said the woman. “I said to Bill, ‘well, that isn’t something you see every day!”ENDS
All photos on this blog were taken, for better or worse, with an HTC Sensation XE (with Beats Audio! – which has gone mono).