Friday, 27 May 2016

The Cape Wrath Trail - Kirk Yeholm to Strathcarron - 27th May to 1st June

Loch Eil
After a rest day in Fort William, I left the town the following day on the small ferry across Loch Linnhe to Camusnagaul and the start of the Cape Wrath Trail as my wife waved me off from the jetty. I had expected this part of the trip to be hard, having just spent eight days hiking with her, and so it proved. My mood deteriorated throughout the day as the early sunshine degenerated into grey gloom along with my mental state. The early part of the walk in the sunshine alongside Loch Eil was very pleasant but soon the miles along the roadside became monotonous, although there was little traffic. Eventually, I reached the head of the loch and crossed the road into Glenfinnan and passed a sign stating ' Strathan 10 miles' as I headed into Gleann Fionn Lighe, which signalled the start of the walk proper. As I followed the clear wide track into the mountains, I thought of the time sixteen years earlier when I had set off on this walk with a friend. This time however, I felt very lonely without my wife walking alongside me. This mood deepened as I progressed through lovely countryside with forest to my left and a river to my right. Eventually, the surroundings became wilder as the peak of Gulvain appeared ahead like a huge sharks fin. Soon, I left the main track for a strength-sapping climb through tussocky grass and bog to the summit of the Gualann nan Osna pass, which seemed to take an age to reach. When I finally did reach it, it was with great relief and I stood staring at the mountains ahead and down into the Glen Camgharaidh as a number of red deer, disturbed at my approach, scattered down the steep slopes into the glen below. On my earlier trip with my friend, we had passed this spot and descended into the glen and turned west to set up camp on the bank of the River Camgharaidh. For some inexplicable reason, I didn't want to do this, my whole being told me to go in the opposite direction down the valley, so I did! I still don't know why I did it but as I squelched along, I suddenly spotted a potential campsite by a tree next to the river and set my tent up. Once my tent was up, my mood improved and as I ate I looked up at the near vertical slope of Gulvain and pondered what to do next. After eating, I slowly settled down for the night and studied the maps and guidebook for the onward route as rain began to fall on the tent. I wasn't quite sure exactly what I would do in the morning but I fell asleep listening to music on my MP3 player. Tomorrow would bring a solution!

Camping by the Allt Camgharaidh

Glen Camgharaidh

I awoke to a fine morning after overnight rain, although there was some cloud draped on the mountaintops. As I breakfasted, I pondered what to do and decided that I would simply climb out of the valley via the steep valley wall. I knew Loch Arkaig was on the other side and from the summit of Monadh Ceann Lochairceig, I would be able to see the lie of the land and plot a route down to Strathan. I set off and began the slow, tiring plod through more of the terrain I had endured the day before on my climb, but I knew that this would be much shorter and my attention was temporarily diverted from the climb by a group of red deer that bounded away uphill at my approach. I had a humorous moment when a frog landed on my foot and jumped away as startled as I was by the encounter. On reaching the summit, I had beautiful views of Loch Arkaig and into Glen Dessary and was relieved to see the cottage at Strathan below. The descent was steep, rough and trackless as I headed for the abandoned building at Kinlocharkaig before picking my way carefully across very boggy ground between the ridge and the banks of the River Pean. Having reached the river, I decided that it was too far to walk along the bank to the bridge so simply waded across to the track near Strathan but not before sinking up to my right knee in a bog on the opposite bank! Having extricated myself from the bog, the track into Glen Dessary was a relief and I marched along in good spirits. I well remembered this section of the walk from sixteen years earlier as I had walked it with a friend in constant rain and low spirits but today was the complete opposite. As the route became a narrow path, it also became wetter and boggier as it climbed but the sun was shining and I was feeling much happier than I had yesterday. I stopped for a rest on the banks of the River Dessary and was startled by two walkers who passed behind me and called out a greeting, the sound of their approach disguised by the sound of water rushing downhill. They were the first people I had spoken to for over twenty four hours. Continuing, I passed Lochan a' Mhaim, beautifully situated on the summit of the pass and surrounded by imposing mountains before descending as I enjoyed superb views to Loch Nevis to arrive at the isolated bothy of Sourlies on the shore of the sea loch. The tide was out so I rounded a headland at the far end of the beach and crossed a marshy area to a rickety suspension bridge over the Carnach River. The sign warning that the bridge was in a bad condition was still there even after sixteen years and I doubted that it would be there in another sixteen without some serious renovation work! I had a short conversation with three young Scottish hikers heading for the Old Forge pub at Inverie before I headed along the bank of the river and set up camp for the night by a waterfall on the riverbank in the shadow of the imposing Ben Aden. It was an idyllic setting in superb weather and I enjoyed cooking my dinner to the sight and sound of water rushing down the falls as I absorbed my glorious surroundings.

Loch Arkaig

Descending to Strathan


Strathan

Glen Dessary


 Loch a' Mhaim

Descending to Loch Nevis

As is usual when camping, I was awake and packed up early and continued walking along the river on a boggy path in the shadow of the giant peaks of Ben Aden and Luinne Bhienn. As the path progressed, the river entered a narrowing gorge before the path became intermittent and eventually petered out all altogether. A short time later, the river turned to the south east and this is where the route left it to climb the steep valley wall. I well remembered this part of the walk from sixteen years earlier as it seemed almost impossible that the way ahead could be up such a steep, pathless slope but I knew that a few hundred feet above lay the path through the Mam Unndalain pass. I began the slow, tiring trudge through the tussocky grass, trying to find the best line through. Although it seemed that I walked very slowly, I gained height quickly and fantastic views opened up of the surrounding mountains and lochs. I paused regularly, terrain this steep and difficult didn't allow anything other than slow, steady progress and as I stood surveying the ground ahead, I noticed a straight, slowly ascending line to my left and hoped that this was the path I needed. Sure enough, after more, tiring plodding up the near vertical slope, I arrived at the crossing path. Turning left onto it, I still had quite a bit of climbing to do, but it was thankfully a much easier gradient and I slowly climbed to the pass. The scenery hereabouts was magnificent as I headed between the peaks of Luinne Bhienn and Sgurr a'Choire-Bheithe, as fairly threatening, dark cloud brushed the summits. I paused and looked back down to the Carnach River, my campsite now far below, and behind to Loch Quoich. Reaching the pass, I paused for a break before descending into Glen Unndalain on a good path. As I descended, the cloud began to clear and the valley softened as bare rock became adorned with the welcome addition of trees and tumbling streams and waterfalls. As I rounded a bend, I was stopped in my tracks by the stunning view of Loch Hourn below, looking resplendent under the now sunny skies. I descended more quickly to Barisdale Bay, with the wonderful view ahead opening out as I went, and before long the few, scattered buildings that signalled my descent was nearly over appeared. I saw a walker below heading up the track to Inverie and looking up to the Mam Barisdale pass, could see others making their way over to the remote outpost. I well remembered visiting Inverie many years earlier with a friend. We had camped behind the Old Forge Inn, reputed to be 'the remotest pub in the UK' but instead of the traditional local inn I had expected, was disappointed to find a fairly commercialised establishment selling 'Britain's remotest pub T-shirts' and seafood at what I considered to be very inflated prices. 

Camping by the Carnach River 

 The River Carnach

Climbing to Mam Unndalain   


Walking along the River Carnach

I reached the Barisdale bothy where a few tents were pitched outside and continued to the Loch Hourn path. The weather by now was beautifully warm and sunny, so much so that I passed a woman sunbathing on the beach by the loch. I knew that this path would be the busiest I had walked since the West Highland Way, and so it proved as I passed numerous walkers and mountain bikers heading in the opposite direction. I came upon a group of the walkers chatting and one of them, a lone woman hiker, was heading in my direction and we set off together along the path. It was a refreshing experience to have someone to talk to after the many hours of solitude and I babbled away, conscious of my unusually garrulous behaviour. The walker didn't seem to mind however and was amazed when I told her how far I had walked. I, in turn, was impressed that she had risen at around 4.30am to climb Ladhar Bheinn, the UK's most westerly Munro before setting off back to Kinloch Hourn along the rugged, lochside path. After, a while, the walker (in that strange, British way, we never did introduce ourselves) said that she was finding my pace a bit too fast and dropped back. I reached Kinloch Hourn and headed for the farmhouse where I knew that I could get tea and cake and maybe a room for the night. A slightly dour but otherwise pleasant man served me the tea and cake but didn't have any accommodation but I wasn't worried as I knew I could pitch my tent along the road, which I did, just as a loud clap of thunder echoed around the valley. However, apart from a flash of lightening and another thunderclap, the result was only a few large spots of rain and I prepared and ate my dinner outside the tent once the sun had returned watching an eagle soaring over the mountains I would be walking through the following day.

Descending to Barisdale Bay 

Loch Hourn 

Kinloch Hourn


Leaving Kinloch Hourn

I woke a little later than usual but was still up and ready to start walking before 8am. A foreign couple in the tent next to mine were stirring but although the male half was quite friendly and approachable, his partner had appeared less than enthusiastic to socialise when they had arrived fairly exhausted the previous evening and was no more amenable as they emerged from their tent into the cool but fine morning. As I was nearly packed up and ready to go, I quickly finished up and wished them well and headed off towards the stalkers cottage once again. Soon, I was climbing through trees which gave way to a fairly broad and rocky track that climbed extremely steeply below pylons into the hills. At this early hour, this strenuous climb was a shock to the system and I paused regularly and enjoyed the view back to the campsite where I could see the foreign couple heading off to the farmhouse for breakfast. Eventually, I reached the summit of the climb and descended slightly as I veered off on another track that contoured comfortably and presented me with evermore stunning views to Loch Hourn and Ladhar Bheinn wreathed in early morning cloud. The sight of this was quite breathtaking and I stopped to take photographs as I picked out the shore-side path I had traversed yesterday afternoon, now far below. Returning to the walk, I passed a small stalkers hut below the slopes of Sgurr Na Sgine, around which I now contoured into the glen of Allt Coire Mhalagain. The climb up the pathless, rough glen to the pass below the Forcan Ridge was a tough trudge that seemed to take an age and I stopped regularly to look back down the valley and the views beyond. Arriving at the pass, I followed a rocky path to the rounded hump of Meallan Odhar from where I began my descent to the Allt a Choire Chaoil river. 

Climbing to the Forcan Ridge

Ladhar Bhienn and Loch Hourn 

Choire Reidh

The Saddle

On my previous visit, many years earlier, our guidebook had advised following the western bank of the Allt Unndalain river further down the valley and I well remember this as being a tough, uncomfortable walk on sloping, tussocky ground that proved very tiring. The new guidebook I was using indicated the presence of a path on the eastern side, which I was simultaneously delighted to find among the rough ground and amazed that the authors of the previous guidebook had not discovered it. I progressed quickly to the riverbank, and waded across and followed the river to the campsite at Shiel Bridge. Here, I diverted to the shop at the petrol station, where I resupplied with food for the next few days and sat on a bench outside in the sunshine talking to another walker who was actually doing the Cape Wrath Trail, the first I had encountered since I started walking. We chatted about the walk for a while and agreed that the crossing of Knoydart had been a tough challenge. For me, it had been a lonely, tough walk in a stunning, primeval landscape where I had felt reduced to the role of a small, vulnerable, creature creeping quietly between giants in an attempt to hopefully pass by unnoticed. I left the walker sitting in the sun enjoying his drink and walked the short distance up the busy road to the Trekkers Lodge at the Kintail Lodge Hotel, where I had a reservation for the night and was soon in my basic, but comfortable room sorting out my gear and washing out clothes before heading to the hotel bar next door where I hungrily ate a three course meal, savouring the first taste of 'real' food in four days, which was washed down with a few pints of real ale before I retired for an early night.

The Forcan Ridge 

Descending to Shiel Bridge 


Loch Duich & the Kintail Lodge Hotel

I started the day in a relaxed manner as I had booked breakfast in the hotel and as I knew I would be camping tonight, didn't see the point in rushing off. I enjoyed eating my breakfast in the hotel breakfast room looking out to Loch Duich but the moment was slightly ruined by a table of noisy Germans who sounded as though they were holding a 'who can laugh loudest' contest. After paying my bill, I set out along the main road at a leisurely pace enjoying the views across Loch Duich before turning off onto a minor road to Morvich. The weather was once again excellent with just a few fluffy, white clouds in an otherwise blue sky. I passed the campsite where I had stayed once many years earlier before I left the road on a path to the Falls of Glomach. This initially descended into a wood to cross a river by a bridge before starting to climb a track onto the hillside. I stopped for a moment and turned in a 360 degree circle to observe the mountains that now totally surrounded me. I was now in Kintail, having left Knoydart and the scenery had changed from the harsh, wild, rough and boggy ground that had characterised the previous four days, to a terrain of greener, more forested mountains and drier, more clearly defined paths. The path to the falls climbed steadily up the wall of a steep green valley and I noticed that I was feeling tired. I had now been walking for three weeks and covered around three hundred miles and felt in need of a rest. I knew that I still had many more miles of tough walking if I was to reach Cape Wrath and wondered if I had the physical and mental resolve required to complete the walk on this trip. Eventually, the path reached a pass, which it crossed before descending to the Falls of Glomach. The falls were approached by descending from the pass into a river valley, which was then followed before the river plunged over a cliff into an abyss for more than 100 metres. It was actually not possible to see the whole waterfall as it fell into a chasm, which hid much of it from view. I descended a little on a pathway, which afforded a decent view of the top section of the falls. There is a warning sign on the approach to the falls and the guidebook also warns of the tricky descent path and from my position on the edge of the chasm, the warnings seemed good advice as one slip would have resulted in a much more intimate acquaintance with the hidden, lower part of the waterfall. Leaving the falls, I picked my way carefully down the descent path into Glen Elchaig, which I didn't find too difficult and soon made my way to the prominent track running along the valley floor. Here, I had a choice. The main route headed up the valley and into remote mountains towards the Maol-bhuidhe bothy but I decided on a whim to head down the valley towards the tiny hamlet of Killilan. 

Climbing to Bealach Na Sroine 

 Descending to the Falls of Glomach

The Falls of Glomach

The scenery hereabouts was sublime and I followed the track into the valley for a number of kilometres where it turned into a single track tarmac road. As I walked, enjoying the silence and the sunshine, I heard a familiar cry in the skies above and pausing to look up was delighted to see three eagles soaring on a thermal high above. I stood enthralled for some minutes marvelling at their mastery of the air as they soared and wheeled effortlessly above the valley. Passing through the neat, tiny hamlet of Killilan, I carried on along the lane for a short distance before taking a turning to Nonach Lodge and the path into Glen Ling. I was by now feeling quite tired and consulted the map to try and identify a suitable campsite, which I found next to the River Ling, a little further along the glen. I pitched my tent and cooked my dinner, there was a cold wind blowing so I sat inside my tent porch to keep warm. Later, as I lay in my sleeping bag reading the guidebook and consulting my map, I looked at the onward route and realised I still had a great deal of rough wilderness walking to get to Cape Wrath and suddenly I felt very tired. I wondered if my impulsive last minute change of route along the valley earlier in the day had been a subconscious acceptance that I was tiring and needed to rest. I knew that the first section of the trail ended at Strathcarron where there was a railway station and decided to wait until reaching it the following day before deciding what to do next.

Glen Elchaig 

Loch na Leitreach 

Camping by the River Ling

I awoke early feeling cold and emerged from a tent dripping with condensation to my first serious encounter on the trip with the dreaded Scottish midge. I had met this pesky example of Scottish wildlife during my trip but not in any significant numbers, but as we had now passed into June, it looked as though things were changing. I donned my headnet and sprayed my legs with insect repellent and decided that I would forego my morning coffee and started packing up. I shook the tent but it was so wet that this made little difference and I was forced to pack it away saturated. I started walking and as usual, the midge problem vanished. I followed the river path for a short while before the route slowly began to climb into the hills. I knew that a short distance into the walk, I would have a decision to make as the path I was on met up with a track that I could either follow into the mountains to meet back up with the 'main' route, as described in the book, or turn in the opposite direction for a shorter route. Both routes led to Strathcarron but the shorter route involved a walk in the final couple of miles along a road, described as being 'dangerous with a number of blind bends'. I don't recall making a conscious decision but when I reached the junction, I automatically turned onto the shortest route and realised that the decision to halt my walk at Strathcarron had been made almost subconsciously. I followed the clear track through the forest and on rounding a bend was stopped in my tracks by a superb view to Loch Carron. As I descended, I became aware of construction work happening below and noticed the lower part of the track was in the process of being 'upgraded' into a road. At one point, I was forced to pause while a digger driver, whose machine was blocking the path, finished what he was doing so that I could attract his attention before continuing safely on. As I descended further, I could see numerous large construction machines and I was just bemoaning the fact that I had gone from camping in a remote glen to walking through a construction site in such a short space of time when the track suddenly swerved away from the construction work to cross a river. Once across, the track soon turned into a narrow, traffic free road to Attadale Gardens

Leaving Glen Ling 

First view of Loch Carron 

 Loch Carron


Reaching the main road, I carefully followed it to Strathcarron, dodging occasional vehicles by standing on the grass verge, before arriving at the Strathcarron Hotel and railway station, where I discovered that the next train wouldn't arrive for around three hours. I walked into the hotel in search of refreshments and witnessed an hilarious altercation with a disgruntled Australian tourist who was complaining to any member of staff within earshot about the shortcomings of the Scottish tourist industry. He sat with his pot of coffee at a table in the bar, whining like a spoilt child while the manager of the hotel tried to pacify him by pointing out that it really was a beautiful morning and we were surrounded by stunning scenery and that maybe it would be better for him if he just relaxed and enjoyed the moment. This wasn't enough to pacify him however and he continued to whine until the manager finally cracked and took his coffee pot and cup away and asked him to leave. This he did after standing up and calling the manager 'mad' and looking around for support from other customers, which wasn't forthcoming. Eventually, he shuffled off outside muttering to himself. I ordered a pot of tea and a scone and relaxed as I slowly came to the realisation that my walk was over. I thought back to the start in Kirk Yetholm all of those miles and days ago and tried in vain to put my thoughts in some sort of order. I could have carried on walking to Cape Wrath but I knew that I would be pushing myself, plodding on when I needed a rest and not really being in the right frame of mind to truly appreciate what was a magnificent trail. As I waited for the train to Inverness, I knew that this was a temporary halt on my way to Cape Wrath and that I would be back soon to continue on my way to my ultimate destination. 

Loch Carron

 Strathcarron Hotel and the end of my walk

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