Day 5: “Scotch Mist”

Inverie to Barisdale, 13km 4hr

Day five brought my first spell of rain which dissipated by late morning. I sheepishly left the comfort of the bunkhouse, hoping it had stopped and it did by 11am. 
The warmth and sun of the previous days had made the air very humid, and the lack of strong winds meant the water vapour from the ground sat as a thick mist on top of the hills at around 420 metres elevation. With no direct sun it was a relief to be walking in cooler conditions for a change—this is the type of Scottish climate I am used to, rarely is it so dry and sunny here.

Walking the slope up past Dubh Lochain was pleasant enough, but a familiar experience as I had walked the adjoining Glen Meadhail on the way in. The detour to Inverie really is just that – requiring you to walk back on yourself on a 35 degree angle to get out onto the guidebook route. But Inverie is a remote, special place being one of the remotest villages Britain. Innately, this means the place is very calm and dreamy. If speed is not an issue it’s the perfect place for a rest stop.

Entering the mist back on the hill was like walking into a heavenly void, a very silent place with no movement apart from my own footsteps. I once got “turned around” in a dense mist on the hills of the Breacon Beacons and mist is not an easy or enjoyable to walk through. However, this was a reasonably easy walk on a clearly defined path and I encountered no navigational issues. The hardest part was getting back on my walking legs after a rest day, and doing the 600 metres or so of ascent to the mountain pass. Although the pass was 400 metres from sea level, the ground undulates up and down meaning, cumulatively, you do a lot more than you initially think by looking at the map.

It’s a steep walk for three-quarters of the walk, rising progressively after Dubh Lochain. After which, the path drops dramatically into Barisdale Bay. It’s an amazing landscape here, that is Tolkein-like. Sharp densely packed pinnacles surround the flat, fertile valley. Which, from its Viking name, suggests has been grazed for many centuries by settlers who no doubt originally would have arrived by the sea. The name is rooted in the words “barrows” meaning hills and “dale” meaning valley. Coincidentally, my own name means the same. 

The viking settlers, as well as the indigenous celts both named places here after the geography. By understanding just a few words of Gaelic and Viking you can begin to read the maps like a book.

Barisdale was an ideal rest stop. There is a private bothy here with electricity and plumbing for which there is a three pound charge. 

Here I met a couple of walkers from London that had done an ambitious walk over one of the nearby mountains. Strangely one of the fellas was dressed in a waistcoat and trilby hat. Possibly not the best attire for mountaineering.

 

Day 17: Sandwood Bay

 

Day 16: Night Hike To Strathan

I had walked from Loch Stack and it was an arduous road walk towards Kinlochbervie which I don’t care to remember.

I got to London Stores by 17:30 which is one of the very few shops on the entire route. I picked up some food and chatted to the owner. He was an elderly, stout sort of gentleman who looked like he’d lived there his whole life. He had immaculately combed white beard and hair. The shop was floor to ceiling with all sorts of things you could buy.

I asked him if there was anywhere to stay around here, I didn’t want to walk to Kinlochbervie which is just a harbour town and a big deviation off the route. He told me there was a Bothy nearby called Strathan. The track next to his shop would take me 2 miles of the way, but the final 4 miles were pathless. He told me if I had a good map, compass and torch I could make it. He reiterated that three times. He wanted to make sure.

I did have those things. I liked the old guy, and felt like he had somehow given me his blessing (and a challenge) that I could get to the Bothy okay.

I left up the peat track which indeed ended abruptly on the top of the moor. As it was now 17:45 the light was quickly dying and I checked the map. From here I would have to rely on pace counting and walking on a single bearing. After darkness there would be no landmarks whatsoever. The proposed route on the map was useless.

Fortunately, Strathan Bothy is directly North of the track end. So my bearing to keep was N0°. If it had been any other bearing I would not have decided to walk. Following a simple needle pointing Magnetic North is a fairly reasonable task.

I pace counted in the dark for an eerie 2200 metres which took me on walk like a ghost train. I was now looked down upon by a looming hill. This landscape felt completely void of anything but wet moorland, scratchy heather and trips and falls. A hill was a definite feature.

I hiked up the steep hill and then I ditched the compass which was wobbling like crazy with my momentum and magnetic interference. The contours of the hill matched those of my map so I was confident of my position and contoured up North Westerly and the North again after just 100 metres.

It was again hard to read the compass needle going down the hill. Instead, here I had a clear view of the sky and I could see all the major constellations. I found The Great Plough, or as me and my sister used to call it, “the saucepan”. If you find the handle of the saucepan, trace it along to the bowl, down and up the otherside, these final two stars will point to the North Star. It’s about two hand widths away. Sailors have been using this star to navigate for thousands of years.

I simply walked towards the star. I walked towards the left of a Lochhan that matched what I saw on the map. It’s silvery reflection was the only feature visible on this landscape. But in the far distance I could also see the sea. I also saw… the first flashes of the lighthouse at Cape Wrath. It was a tantalising reassurance that I was on the correct path.

Eventually I met a very old looking track that then ended abruptly. (It later transpired this was the other end of the peat track that I had started from, the middle had been swallowed up by moorland over time).

I encountered a gaping black river. I knew my Bothy was somewhere on the otherside of this. I just had to cross this chasm. I hesistated.

I looked up the river and something caught my eye which looked like a pole. I drifted towards it in the darkness and saw…. a silver step ladder. It was a strange sight. But I encircled it with my torch and realised it was part of a much bigger structure .

I don’t know how I had the fortune to do it, but I had navigated within 30m of a large footbridge. The bridge was marked nowhere on the map. It was a suspension-type rope bridge. Was this the Mary Celeste of bridges… a ghost bridge?

It was a spooky rope bridge made of chicken wire and old planks. I carefully tip toed across. To be honest I was a bit freaked out by now. The darkness and wet had got to me. I half expected that when I turned and looked back it will have utterly vanished.
I saw two signs of passage ahead of me and I didn’t know which one to take. I walked 50 paces down one path and it went nowhere so I went back to the bridge, which had not disappeared, and I took the other. It didn’t go anywhere either.

The feeling of hopelessness and fear at this stage had to be quickly be suppressed and turned into rational deduction. I was cold, tired and wet. I didn’t want to wander into dark and get lost. That could be disasterous.

My best bet, I handrailed along the river in complete darkness. The sound of it was really the only cue I had. The river was completely black.

I knew if I didn’t find a landmark after 200m I would simply turn back the other way and try the other direction.

I wound round in a kind of double mushroom shape of the river and I felt the curve was enough of a feature to find on the map. Indeed it matched. The map told me there would be an intersecting stream coming up that ran diagonally North East. This would lead directly to the Bothy. At least the map was making sense again. I thought back to some of the skills I had picked up doing nighttime orienteering in Epping Forest. I believe those skills helped me find safety that night.

I eventually found the diagonal stream and followed it. But then it stopped and I had no Bothy in front of me. Just a thick bed of reeds.

I shone my torch forward and I saw several pairs of wide eyes glowing back at me.

I thought it was deer at first, but it wasn’t. They looked alien-like.

Then I saw the fluffy outline of sheep. I giggled and shouted, “Hello, ewe!”. And they all ran off.

I felt that this must be a clue I was close to the Bothy. Bothies were often once shepherds houses, and generations of sheep remain hefted to the lands around them. Sheep are so habitual they will not leave the area they are reared in. (I read this in a book called “The Shepherds Life” that I had found at the Bunkhouse in Inverie). I decided it was a good enough hunch and not to give up. If there are sheep the Bothy must be around.

I checked the map again and realised I was not looking at it correctly at all. The bothy marker was actually a just a label pointing to a small black dot a little further West. This dot was the actual Bothy.
So I swept my torch West up a hill. I caught an indistinct shape of something. I took two paces and the shape transformed into the gable of a Bothy. I had found it. It was over.

I had walked two and half hours, 8km through featureless, pathless terrain looking for a needle in a haystack. It seemed unreal that I had actually managed to find it.

 

Day 18: To The Lighthouse

I left Strathchailleach Bothy fairly late. With only a few kilometres to my final destination I knew it would be an easy day.

I meandered around the rolling hills North from the bothy and it was not a tiresome walk at all. By now, my mind and body had been shaped by the landscape. After I rounded the third hill I ascended up over a moorish ridge to finally see the beginnings of the military firing range at Cape Wrath.

From my vantage point I saw the fence line and the distinct white, vertical lines of flag poles. There were no red ‘warning’ flags flying. I had checked the notices at Inchnadamph Police Station and the range was scheduled to be inactive. I felt confident. It was safe to proceed.

At the fenceline there is a river. Both of these can be breached at certain points where stiles and bridges have been installed by the MOD. Once here, you must ascent a steep couple of hills until you finally see what you are looking for. From this hilly pass I finally saw the North West Coast. The land’s end.

It was a very strange seeing the NW tip of Britain sticking out into the ocean. If you’ve ever sat staring at the maps of the West Highlands like I have, you will know the shape well, but now I was no longer seeing it in topographic form, it was three-dimensional reality.

I rounded the track closer, but felt somehow I was cheating this place. I chose instead to approach the Lighthouse across the moorland. A final, voluntary assualt over tussocks and peat hag. It seemed fitting.

I went into the walled land of the lighthouse. And there were signs of life here: smoke coming from the chimney of one of the buildings and a pickup parked outside.

I tried my luck and knocked, not once, not twice, but three times on the door.

Eventually a man appeared in bright yellow wellies and said, “I suppose you’ll be wanting a cuppa tea then!”. So, the rumours are true, there really is a man living up there in Cape Wrath Lighthouse, with a cafe that’s open 365 days a year.

The lighthouse and cafe are the only reason you’re allowed to walk through the military range at Cape Wrath. If it wasn’t for John living here, and it being publically owned land there would be no Cape Wrath Trail. Nothing.

John was a lovely man, he served me a cup coffee from the hatch and we chatted. He’s been up there on his own since October, sadly when his wife had died. There was an air of tragedy about the place. The lonely widower, living in the lighthouse. Raptured by wind, rain and lightning all year round.

Still, he had his three very happy cocker spaniels there to keep him company and I felt so much better knowing that.

We chatted for half an hour. It transpired that I was just the second person to visit Cape Wrath that year. I suppose this is one of the quieter parts of Britain in the Winter. I purchased a few supplies from John, and he kindly gave me a tin of beans included in the cost. But I politely turned it down as I didn’t have a tin opener. John then went away returned to give me rusty tin opener to take away with Kearvaig Bothy with me.

I asked about the bothy and he showed me a map there, as well as a route out to Durness (see as the ferry does not run through Winter). His OS map was covered with unusual markers and he explained that these were all unexploded bombs. There were hundreds of them, mainly on the North-facing cliffs. Thousand-pound bombs blasted in from battleships, he told me. He reassured me that the walls he lives in were three-feet thick. But even so, living near a military firing range myself in Essex, I know how loud these bombardments can be, and they rattle the windows.

I was the first Cape Wrath walker John had met that year. I don’t think John was expecting me, but I was really happy to give him some company just that brief while. I thought of John with his dogs as I walked the 7 miles down the track to Kervaig Bothy.
It was a simple track walk which apparently was tarmac’ed in 1912 to being supplies to the lighthouse. Then, the lighthouse was manned by several families. It became automated in 1991.

The track out to Kearvaig was a bleak, strange landscape. The wind was playing shove with me for the whole duration. It did have me over on my hands a couple of times, as I battled with the winds of the North Atlantic.

Eventually I reached the turning off to Kervaig Bothy. And it was a quite a sight.  The bay is enclosed by cliffs and sea. The bothy sits on lush, flat pasture and several deer had placed themselves there to graze.

Kearvaig is a beautiful, semi-detached building with, in fact two bothies. One of them has an upstairs, enough for a squad of troops, one is a single room with a fireplace. They have been fitted out beautifully by the MBA. Whatsmore it sits on its on private bay with pristine sand, and a view of a dramatic sea stack that looks akin to two hands held together in prayer. It is an awesome place in the true sense of the word.

I took the Westend Bothy, it was smaller and therefore easier to keep warm. I collected more driftwood for the rest of the afternoon before nightfall. Mainly dry heather, which burns like nothing I have ever known – faster than birch twigs – with a furious heat. It will give you a brew in five minutes. I made my cosy fire and watched it burn out and smoulder. I left a log on, and drifted off to sleep, watching the flames lick and occasionally spit out red embers. It was a calm night, and there was not a single draught in the room. Cosy, quiet, peaceful solitude.

I had made it to Cape Wrath.

 

Day 14: The Wish That Came True

It was a wet rainy morning and I woke up from my restless sleep. It was about 9:00 and I should have been up an hour ago.

The condensation inside my bivvy had made my sleeping bag wet. I was cold and wet and didn’t want to go outside to get any colder and wetter.

The bivvy is an incredibly claustrophobic thing: A waterproof tube that you slide inside with your sleeping bag and zip up over your head. It is the closest you’ll get to sleeping in a body bag – while you’re alive, anyway.

I wished I had a tent.

I just wished I had a tent instead of trying to go “ultralight” with a bivvy.

I unzipped my damp sleeping bag, hauled a waterproof shell jacket over my head and reached for my trousers that were already wet from yesterday’s struggle. It took me nearly an hour to get up and ready. I ate a cold breakfast.

The day would be a hard one: Ben More Lodge to Inchnadamph. A big ascent of 500 metres over pathless, boggy ground. The kind of day that makes you feel you are the tiniest of pebbles. trying to roll uphill. You long for good rest and comfort.

The walk was pretty ordinary. Ben More summit is 998m and Conival is 987m. A ridge joins them both. This is one of the more popular Munro ridge walks in Scotland. Climbers do it quite a bit in Winter. Except I had only half of this to do, a contour around the apron of Conival which was 500m ascent. Fairly steep but not too much bother.

I walked the 4×4 track until it turned to a scruffy footpath, then it turned into nothing. I walked the nothing for a bit more for a good view of the intended climb.

I rested here and made a quick videoI nearly forgot my camera, which I had packed into a green Exped dry bag. Luckily I picked it up.

Exped dry bags are so good that I imagined whoever would have found it in 30 years time would have found my camera inside bone dry, and they probably would have been able to turn on the camera and browse all my photographs.

I thought fording the river and attacking from the South East would have been more gradual. But the guidebook route said the South was better. Even though it seemed steeper, I trusted the guidebook.

I wasn’t too tired on this climb. It was quite a good view of the ben and the glen. I zigzagged up quite rough and hilly ground to reach the bealach (mountain pass).

The final metres of ascent were more acute which told me it would probably smooth out flat on top. It did, and so I rested here on the flat “V-shaped” notch of the pass.

I looked back at my progress and rested for a moment. Then I noticed something.

It was a small green object, about 30 metres away from the path. At first I thought it was a rock with unusual moss on it, but something about it felt man made. I almost didn’t go examine it, it was quite far away, but for some reason I chose to go look.

As I got closer to the object I saw
It was not a rock, but a bag. It was an Exped dry bag.

It was not mine, it was the same type, but much bigger.

I looked around for people and no one was there. It was a pretty large bag – no one could have dropped it by accident and not know about it.

So I lifted the bag half expecting to find someone’s old wet clothes, or maybe rubbish in it. It weighed a lot – maybe 4 kilos.

I opened the dry bag and there was a tent inside.

I looked at the tent poles. One had snapped in two places. It would appear someone had broken and dumped it.

I initially felt sad someone had dumped their rubbish here. So I considered taking it down off the hill to put in a bin. But it weighed a lot. That’s a lot of calories to burn for someone else’s responsibility.

I decided to look a bit closer. I unrolled the tent and looked at the label – it was an MSR Elixir! This was not a cheap tent. MSR make some of the best mountaineering tents you can buy. The RRP of this tent is about £250.

I unzipped the flysheet and inside were two half eaten packets of spaghetti carbonara. It was kinda gross. They’d left in a hurry.

So I packed it up, packed the rubbish separately into my own rubbish bag and decided what to do. It weighed a tonne. Someone had obviously dumped it here, trashed it, and couldn’t be bothered with carrying a broken tent down the hill.

There were no footprints of any sort. They must have been here when the hill was covered with snow, their tracks had melted away.

The amount of water in the dry bag suggested it had been covered in frost and then defrosted inside. The pole was snapped in two places. The other was bent. It was like they had didn’t know who to put it together and had been forcing the poles to fit.

I know from just a week ago that severe cold can snap tent poles like twigs – making them brittle. It had happening to me on my test camp in Snowdonia.

There was one other possibility – that this tent belonged to a couple of mountaineers that had cached it here while they went to the top of Ben More for the day. But it felt unlikely as the tent was wet – it had already been slept in. And eaten in. And it was broken.

I must have pondered for 20 minutes wondering what to do. I decided that it was rubbish and I would dispose of it in Inchnadamph.

I packed it properly and strapped it onto my back pack. I was going to
take it off the hill and put it in a bin. I felt this was the right thing to do. It weighed so much more than I thought.

Halfway down it struck me it was getting dark and that I would have to bivvy again. I didn’t really want to. The extra weight was crushing my knees.

I walked over a landscape that seemed vast. Much larger and wilder than anywhere else I had been. I saw two large groups of deer, 50 strong, each convene together like antelope and run as an enormous pack. The river rambled down the face of the hill and many smaller hills dotted the landscape. I tumbled down the hill around them. I walked beneath a refreshing waterfall about 10metres high.

I was a bit lost and decided to head North West where I could see the head of the sea loch, Inchnadamph.

Eventually I found a trail alongside another river and forded it to follow that. About 20 mins of this and I got to a tree-lined hill near the Thrailach Caves that was a perfect spot for wild camping: A small hill with a loose cluster of trees with dry ground, and a bed of bouncy pine needles. “Five star”, I thought.

Then I notionally wondered if I could use the tent somehow. Perhaps by splinting the poles I could make it work…. Most tents come with a short piece of tube just to do this. Until then I hadn’t thought about even putting it up, nor sleeping in it, just disposing of it. I don’t know why.

I set to work. I pegged out the footprint, easy enough. I used the pegs from my bivvy and a few bits of greenwood as extra ground anchors sunk behind tree roots for strength.

Then I put in one of the poles which was in good condition. I added the second pole which I splinted with my trekking pole. I wrapped some cordage around it to lash them together. It was makeshift but it kinda stayed up. The inner and the flysheet went on pretty well, but I tied these to nearby branches with a slippery half-hitch. Overall it worked and I now had a luxury tent to sleep in. Bloody hell.

I went inside and actually whimpered with happiness, like the first caveman who discovered the luxuriousness of the his first ever cave-dwelling.

It was a beauty of a geodesic tent – 3-man! A complicated design, but very spacious. I spread out my stuff inside. I cooked dinner in the vestibule and used the extra space to change my wet clothes. I had not had the luxury of doing this on my entire walk.

I felt quite happy. But I worried that I had stranded a group of mountaineers up on Ben More without a tent. I hoped that I hadn’t. But I couldn’t be sure.

I carried the enormous, luxury, 3-man tent for the remaining duration of the trip. It took my load weight to a whopping 22kg. But I had ultimate comfort, and truthfully, I didn’t regret it.

Was I right to take the tent?

 

Day 13: The Secret Bothy

I had slept about three hours in The Schoolhouse Bothy. The wind was incredibly loud and rain lashed at the windows. The wind was so strong against the West-facing wall I really thought it might blow down on me. So halfway through the night I moved to the smaller central room to sleep. It was much better.

By 9am, it was still raining heavily in showers. I was ready to go but thought I would wait for this shower to end. I have learnt some of the weather patterns here. Luckily I was correct and the rain stopped once after ten minutes. It was a bit of a grey day but not too bad.

By the time I got to Oykel Bridge the day suddenly opened up into a glorious blue skies. I actually shouted with joy. It was fantastic. This made this day really enjoyable and I slowed my pace to a moderate speed. It had been appalling weather for the past few days.

On my way past Oykel Bridge, which had some impressive stone arch bridges I went onward up the track which took me along the river. I passed a small farmstead which had a cattle shed. The cattle, like the deer and sheep seemed intrigued about my presence but cautious, I try and make friends but they soon trotted off to another part of the shed.

I was following the oykel river which is a beautiful, wide salmon river. In Autumn, the Salmon make their way up this watercourse to breed and lay eggs. This was a very popular spot with Anglers. The riverside had little fishing seats and fishing huts. Some where unlocked which means I could have slept in one if the weather was truly bad. But it wasn’t.

I actually stopped for lunch here. I hadn’t done this for the whole trip. It was nice to simply rest and eat by the river watching the water flow past. I took my boots and socks off to air. It was one of the turning points in the trip where I decided to slow down, convince myself that this was not a race and that I should savour the better weather when it came.

The Secret Bothy

My walk had turned into a stroll, and I spent the afternoon along the riverside not even looking at the map.

Eventually, I caught sight of a very pretty burn that led into the forest. I heard bird song here, and for some reason I felt enticed to enter the forest and alleviate myself from the path. I followed a little burn up.

After only a short stroll I saw the gable end of a ramshackle house tucked away in the woodland.

Excitedly, I hopped over the trickling burn and tip toed over to the house gently. I half expected someone to still live here – maybe a little old hermit. Tucked away in the woods, I was immediately transported into the storybooks of my childhood.

But I wandered quietly to the front door to find it wide open, litter strewn inside and the upstairs floor completely caved in from damp. Inside was a broken chair, a fireplace and a bed of hay, which felt like someone may have slept there at some point. It was not a Bothy anymore, barely a hovel.

Either end of the Bothy were roofless parts – possible barns or stores. It was the typical “longhouse” design of a croft. Most of the bothies around here were almost identical in their plan, possibly built by the same person.

It was an idyllic and fairy-tale spot. Quiet, with soft grass, bird song and protective trees. It’s overgrowness added to its mystery. I did find it on the map, it was marked simply as “Salachy”. It was probably once a croft. The tree plantation has since enveloped it.

It would have been built sometime after the highland clearances.

The highland clearances happened because rich Landlords decided their tenant farmers didn’t make them enough profit. Sheep farming was now the new way to make money. And so many farms and communities were raized or burnt to the ground, tenants where threatened and evicted. Entire forests were chopped down and the indigenous people of the highlands were replaced with sheep.

Many of these people sought new lives in Canada. Which was a new territory, and is directly West across the Atlantic.

The sad irony is, after all the clearances, the sheep farming industry simply flopped. It was not that profitable after all. Many landlords abandoned their estates. Some went bankrupt. And in some rare cases in the twentieth century, the communities that were once evicted returned and bought the estates using community buy-out schemes.

Many Crofts still survive as ruins from this era. They add the to drama of the landscape. Many of these places were left to ruin.

But there are some that have survived and even been restored. In the 1960s a volunteer group known as the “Mountain Bothy Association” began approaching estate owners with a simple plan: they would offer to renovate these structures for free, using volunteer work parties – in return these places can be used as refuge and enjoyment of walkers. This arrangement is still maintained. And bothies have become places of pilgrimage for many adventurers.

This wee croft was a little reminder of past times and I felt a little sad that it had both survived so long, and yet was now a hidden, abandoned place. I was excited to find it though, purely by following my curiosity.
We shared a moment and I left on to continue my journey.

Glen More

I left the riverside to pass through a large expanse of felled plantation and heavy plant vehicles. But it was only for a moment, as soon as I rounded the Glen More Loch I saw the most amazing double rainbow of my life. With bright blue skies behind me, rain in front and sunshine piercing through it, this was the effect.

I rounded the Loch to Glen More Lodge (the apparent source of the second rainbow). I spent some time here looking for a decent campsite as the path is kettled between the river and steep wooded hill. I explored the hill and to my surprise caught a fox by surprise. He was sitting atop of the mound enjoying the landscape. I stood behind him for a good two minutes before he registered my presence.

I decided, in the end, after a lengthy scout to camp in an unsheltered position next to the river. It was flat and dry, but in the morning I would be weather beaten.

 

 

Cape Wrath Trail: Food and foraging

As a general rule, you should eat around 1kg of food a day. The calorie content should be well above your normal daily intake. Obviously, the more food you take with you the more calories you will burn to carry it, so planning food is about striking a balance between calories burnt versus consumed, while also meeting your nutritional needs.

I met my calorie requirements by posting food parcels and supplemented this with food from cafes, shops and foraging.

Food supplies

I took mainly dried, long-life food with me on the Cape Wrath Trail.

As it was Winter, there were not a lot of resupply points so posting food parcels to strategic locations along the route was necessary. I posted one parcel to Knoydart Bunkhouse and another to Gerry’s Hostel. Further resupplies at Ullapool Tesco and London Stores allowed me to go on for the remainder of the trip without posting food packages. In summer you could probably do the trail without carrying much food at all, relying on shops and restaurants.

Foraging on the Cape Wrath Trail

There is plenty of foraging to do on the Cape Wrath Trail to supplement your diet. Although you may be moving too fast to dedicate much time to it. Here is a list of things to look out for.

Sea shore: Mussels,Limpets, Edible Periwinkles, Razorfish.
Woodland: Scots pine needle tea, Wood Sorrell, Pine nuts, Birch sap, Rowan berries (do not eat raw).
Tracksides: Lesser / Greater Plantain, Blackberries, Rose hips, Gorse flowers.

 

Fuel foraging

You could go stoveless on this trip if you wanted to. But you would have to rely on uncooked meals and cold water.

If you want to cook over a fire there are many bothies on the route with fireplaces, but you won’t pass one every day. Bothies are rarely near trees or woodland on this route, so you must learn about other fuels you can utilise such as peat.

If you are wildcamping, I’d recommend you choose to camp near a woodland area which will provide shelter, fuel and better drainage. But please take care to dowse your fire when leaving and to ‘leave no trace’. Peat and forest fires can be devastating to the ecology, wildlife and estates. I saw many fires on the route that had left scars on the landscape.

When it comes to fuels, take only what you need. In the case of birch fungus, some can take upto 30 years to grow.

Tinders: Birch bark, King Alfred’s cakes, birch polypore.
Kindlings: Dead bracken, Dead heather, Birch twigs, Feather sticks.
Fuels: Dried Peat, Driftwood, Birch, Pine.

 

Day 6: The Big Bealach

CWT Day 6: The Big Bealach

This day would be the highest and longest day of the Cape Wrath Trail yet with a coverage of well over 30km distance and an 800m ascent. A total of 12 hours work.

I reached a mountain shelter early at 14:00. The next stage was a challenging climb that I knew would take more than six hours. With only a few hours daylight left I had to make the call whether to sleep in what was essentially a garden shed, or make the climb.

I knew I would be caught out on the hill, and it would be a summit camp. Daylight is born at 7am and dies early. The mountain pass was south-facing which gave me an extra hour or so before darkness at 7pm. I decided to go.

I made the mountain pass perfectly, and safely, even though it was a 35 degree slope with no visible path. I countoured diagonally up at a steady angle, cutting the hill. Nine steps forward, one step up is my technique. This meant my ascension was gradual but easy going, I barely got out of breathe for all 800m of it.

Light was dying and the wind picked up as I reached the Bealach (mountain pass). I now had to camp. But it was too windy, and above just 300m windchill can be as cold as -20. Darkness was gaining but I decided to descend the North Face to a lower point. I contoured down below the scree line.

It was wetter and colder this side – the North face always being so, sheltered from sunlight, and this is why a North face is always considered a harder climb. It’s where the brand got its name.

After descending some 80m, I slipped and slid a few feet down the face. My full weight going into my trekking pole and bending it at a 90 degree angle. I was now down to three legs. Life is hard enough here with four legs, I thought.

I clambered off the face to get on flatter land and made a b-line for a spur that I had ear-marked from the bealach. This was still 300m up or so, but still as low an elevation that was possible given the light. After one fall already, a second could have a more tragic end.

I bivvied on the spur. Nowhere was flat, so my feet hung over the edge the hill. But I was resting now. I felt quite content with the day’s adventure. A navigational success over very steep ground, no path and little time to spare had surmounted into quite an exciting climb.

But it rained for six hours that night. And it rained for eight hours the following day. I didn’t care, I had grafted hard already and was ready to do the same tomorrow.

 

Day 7: Wet, Wet, Wet

Day 7: Wet, Wet, Wet

I woke up at 5am atop of the spur. It was the only place I could have camped. Truthfully, I didn’t wake up because I didn’t really sleep that night. The wind was howling around me and it was raining buckets.

The water was beginning to permeate my bivvy so I just gave up and started to get up. First light was at 7am so I did what I could to prepare for it.

When I say first “light” it’s still dark, but just less dark. I peek outside. Everything is grey. Human nightvision is in greyscale. But because of the weather, it’s all grey anyway.

The hills around me look like enormous molehills. I feel like a caterpillar in a very soggy chrysalis, looking through black blades of grass, through grey mist, to grey mound shapes, with grey on grey on grey. It’s a wet day, the first I have had on the CWT. I knew it was going to happen eventually.

I get up and pack up by 7:30. I have all my waterproofs on which made me feel slightly invincible. I haul my pack onto my back and start cutting down the hill to the glen. I walk heavy footed, forcefully. I intend not to slip. I do only a handful of times. It was fine. Get up, war cry, get going.

An hour and a half and I have walked a straight line off the hill and down to the river, which is gushing. Not only had thaw began, the rain had kicked in after a week-long dry spell. The rivers now were in full spate.

I stomped through squelchy heather and moss for another hour. Basically drawing straight lines, ploughing through obstacles, and the rain.

Anyone seeing me from a distance would probably think I was furious.

I now look ahead at my map to check for upcoming landmarks. I see I have to ford the river ahead. Great…

The river is foaming and frothing. Its white water rapids. Eight meters at the narrowest. Eighteen at its widest point. Depth unknown. This is too dangerous. I check the map again.

I see a second crossing is instructed after the ford, back over to the same side I am on already! I think how pointless that ford would have been, had I made it. And how useless these guidebooks are for instructing it. I choose to stay on my side of the river and walk the bank instead, even though it’s bog. Completely doable without needing to ford the river, and without risking anything, only wet socks, which are incidentally wet already.

This is the first major ford of the Cape Wrath Trail. A less experienced walker may not think twice and try it, I thought, and I quickly lose faith and respect to the guidebook.

End of the glen, and I am walking to Shiel Bridge petrol station. I don’t know why but I am thinking about a tin of Tenants Super. I get to the shop at 9:59am and I have to wait one minute before the cashier can sell me alcohol. I forget Scotland has an alcohol restriction before ten o’clock. It makes me feel embarrassed.

He asks me if I am doing the Cape Wrath Trail. I say yes. He shakes his head judgingly and gives me my change. I eat an entire pack of chocolate digestives on his bench outside without offering him one.

/

Skip ahead several hours and kilometres.

I am now climbing a steep hill to Falls of Glomach. This is a beautiful part of the walk. Full of water. Water everywhere. Water gushes out of every orifice of the hills around here.

When I get to the top I make the pass at the bealach with the driving wind and rain funnelling me through it. I open out into what looks like Stannedge Edge in the Peak District. a brutal moorish part of the Peak District which is perpetually covered in rain and mist. It’s just the same dismal view here. Horrible. The ground below is a puzzle of burns which are now more like rivers and paths which are all basically burns. Water runs everywhere. It’s peat bog soup.

This is the top of a hill but is basically a flat moorland for 1km, so I run most of it. I was so bored of trudging uphill I wanted to change pace. As it’s Day seven I am now feeling fit. My 12kg backpack is now basically part of my body. It’s quite fun running though puddles. Splish splosh.

I run off the end of the moorish part and then atop of a small spur overlooking what can only be described as a devastated, ravaged landscape.

Here, whatever was a path here is now spewing water. The ground I see below me is convulsing and rushing in all directions. And top it off there is a river as fast as a bullet train at the end of it. I realise this area of land is an enormous funnel, the water being pumped off into a one-hundred meter deep ravine. This is the highest waterfall in Britain, it’s incredibly remote. It looks like a warzone. The path down looks like one of those “wet n wild” funslides, except more of a cannon than a slide, and much less fun when you get to the end. I approach with caution.

I cannot fully describe how enormous and terrifying the Falls of Glomach are when the river is in full spate. A sign read “take great care”, I heed the warning but wonder why there is no path or handrail here.

I take what I think is the path, which is winding and slippery. It’s 20m down until I realise it’s a dead end to a viewing platform. I have to go back up. But before that I look at the Falls and I whince at the enormous power of it. The noise is impossibly loud. It’s like the sound Norse Gods thumping enormous anvils. The landscape is jagged and wet, pressurised water has cut directly into the rock a vertical ravine the shape of an enormous thunderbolt. There is no bottom to this thing. You can’t actually see it.

I climb shakily back up to the top to rethink the route. I am wet-through by now. Visibility is very poor. I actually pray for a sign to help me find the way out.

I search around, and it is only the smallest of cairns – just two rocks balanced upon each other – that gives me a clue to where the path is.

I add rocks to the cairn and make it several times larger so that the next walker does not make the same mistake as me.

The path edges around the ravine. When I say path, it is a 10 inch wide shelf of running water that wraps around the ravine. It is a cliff-face walk where you hang on with your toe nails.

On the otherside is a dead drop.

There are two points here where you must cross two smaller, subsidiary waterfalls. I did this on my hands and knees, trying not to skid of the rock face to my doom.

When I come down off of that shelf I relax. A nice wander down a grassy knoll. I relax too much and slip forward into a face-plant. I am now hurtling down the slick grassy hill toward the ravine, until the momentum and the weight of my pack spins my body into a second forward roll. I land on my knees, overseeing the edge of the ravine. Dripping wet, shaking. I break into tears.

I balled it. Completely broke down at the thought of sliding down that hell hole. I somehow felt as if I was crying out of shock but also joy, and exhaustion. And just because there wasn’t quite enough waterworks here already.

It was a horrible walk down, but when you do get down it gets worse. You now have to ford a river. Yes, this river is worse than the one I saw at the beginning of the day. It crashes an writhes around huge boulders, foam and whipping. I have completely broken down at this point. I am at a loss. It is getting dark, it’s just ten minutes walk to the peaceful glen, no turning back, where would I camp here anyway? I’d probably die of exposure.

I stare at the river I must now cross. No bridge, no stepping stones, just crashing foam on rock. I edge upstream to find a safer ford but there is none. I have to do it before it gets dark. I edge my bum into a large boulder and dip my toe in, feel for a floor beneath this mess of foam. The force whips my leg away and I’m pulled onto all-fours. I’m face down in a rapid, clawing though water. I grasp an enourmous rock and pull hard to get up. I am halfway there. I slide over a rock, dripping wet in cold water. I take another plunge and climb onto the boulder and the edge of the river. I am freezing wet and cold. I see no path along the river edge, just grassy cliff, so I scale that with my arms and legs. It’s a scramble, almost vertical. I have to use bouldering skills to get back down to the path. Below me is a rapid which would crack my head open and drown me in a minute.

I make it.

I actually make it. I hobble down the path to the glen, crossing two bridges. Shaking and wet from head to toe. I am sobbing.

I set up camp in the woodland. I lay out my bivvy on dry bed of pine needles. I change into slightly less damp clothes. I try to eat a hot meal. I fall asleep.

A fourteen-hour day. 31km covered.

The next day I wake up and I am warm. It has stopped raining and the birds are singing. An estate manager pulls up in his Land Rover and gives me a lift to the end of the glen. My faith in Scotland is restored. It’s another beautiful day on the Cape Wrath Trail.

 

Day 10: Shenavall Bothy

Day 10 (I think): Shenavall Bothy

Some of the wettest days have gone and now I am being shot full of hail stones with what feels like a machine gun.

Shenevall Bothy was great. I made a fire with some bog wood which must have been hundreds of years old.

There are no trees here, just half buried remains of tree stumps, the remains of the great Caledonian Forest which once covered Scotland almost entirely. Mankind since stripped the land bare. The Wilderness of Scotland is not at all a natural place, there is not a single part we have not changed here. But it is still beautiful.

Having been walking over a week you begin to see the season change. The thaw has started, meaning rivers are running high and the ground is slopping wet.

I walked just 20km today, which felt a lot due to the pain in my ankles. I have be doing 30-35km days and I think that’s why I hurt. So I chose to rest at Ullapool.

That would have been another seven mile walk from Inverlael, had I not met a shepherd who gave me a lift: I had asked for a bus to Ullapool, he said “nae bother”, he would drive me there instead. This is a perfect illustration of the kindness of the people here. They go out of their way just to help a stranger and have a friendly chat.

I got dropped at Ullapool outside a B&B which I took (it has tartan carpets), and then got fish and chips. I’m shattered. I thought it was only day 9, but it is indeed day 10. I have around 7-8 days remaining to reach the North West Point of mainland Britain.

A local asked me why I was doing this.

I don’t know why. I hope to discover why I am doing this by the time I reach that lighthouse at Cape Wrath.

But to be honest it’s nice to have a really long walk sometime in your life. If there is no other reason than that, then I will be happy.