Sunday, May 27, 2012


I was prepared for the final part of my journey to be quite difficult. My guidebook talks about rivers that are difficult to cross and an absence of defined paths. As it turns out, I find myself in the middle of a heat wave. The streams are almost dry, there isn't a cloud in the sky and the sea is still and glittering in the sunlight.

For the last six days I have passed through a landscape that seems literally timeless. Huge mountains, crowned with shattered rock - pale and still in the sunlight. Every hollow in between holding a loch - some large, others tiny. And everywhere a warm breeze fragrant with the smells of the slowly drying vegetation. The black peat mud is cracked and baked to the consistency of chocolate brownie and takes my weight. The sphagnum moss - normally sodden with water - dried to a crackly pale grey. The stones I choose to anchor my guy ropes are heavy, coarse and crystalline, sparkling with minerals.

At night it never gets quite dark. As I lie in my tent watching the sun sliding at a shallow angle behind the mountains I momentarily forget where I am. This feels like a world that might have existed millions of years ago, when our ancestors moved across a similar landscape - maybe even marking the way with piles of stones. I make a new pile myself - careful to check it indicates the correct route. I wonder how long it will last and whether people will add further stones of their own.

Right now though I am 'back in civilisation', staying at the Kinlochbervie hotel for the sake of a shower and to wash my clothes. I'm just two short days from the end of my journey and I'm experiencing a mixture of extreme tiredness and an emotion somewhere between elation and horror at the distance I have come. I'll be home soon and that's exactly where I intend staying for quite some time. But first there's Sandwood Bay - one of my favourite places. I'll camp there tomorrow night and do the short walk to Cape Wrath the next morning.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A storm in the mountains

It was towards the end of the first day after leaving Fort William on the Cape Wrath Trail that I found myself walking alone along a forest track.  Up till this point, the whole journey had been reassuringly within reach of human habitation but now I was entering a different kind of landscape - one that was unfamiliar to me and unquestionably more remote.  I had decided to stay at the bothy at the end of the forest and I found myself wondering whether I would prefer to find it empty or whether it would be nicer to have company. Of course there was always the chance that the 'company' might turn out to be a lone, enthusiastic weirdo who would likely claim me as his best friend within an hour or two of first meeting - giving rise to anxiety, fear of being murdered later in the night in my sleeping bag and so on.  As it turned out, I arrived to find two other perfectly sane walkers preparing a meal.

The weather had taken a distinct turn for the worse and over the course of the evening other walkers arrived until there were 11 of us crammed into two tiny rooms. A fire was lit - if not very expertly. It consisted of one end of a thick, 4ft pine log, thrust into the small fireplace and licked by the flames from a few twigs which needed to be constantly replenished. The unspoken, general view appeared to value the psychological element over any warming effect.  With each new arrival came an accompanying intrusion of extreme wetness, barely registering with those already there. A space would be made round the 'fire' and introductions gone through.  The conversation, which lasted well into the evening, centred on an exchange of the latest intelligence on obscure routes through the mountains, on richly-embroidered tales of hairs-breadth river crossings, nights spent on open mountainsides, the relative merits of various bothies and the eccentricities of semi-legendary walkers and bothy-trolls.

Having been one of the first to arrive, I slept that night on a wooden platform. Others had to settle for the  stone floor. I slept well and got up early, just as three of my companions from the previous evening were leaving. Two were heading 'out' to the relative safety of the long, 23-mile track heading east whilst the third was going west, towards higher ground and into the weather (This was the direction that I planned taking later). Standing within the shelter of the doorway, I watched him as he  made his way across the boggy landscape.  There were ragged clouds around the mountaintops and huge, slow-moving curtains of rain sweeping from the west. To my inexperienced eye, they looked quite graceful and not particularly threatening but the mountainsides were already running with the thick, white braids of swollen streams. By the time I left the streams had turned to torrents, the paths to streams and everywhere else into a sodden, spongy mass.

Just 3 miles into the walk I came across a stream that was impossible to cross. What, in normal circumstances, would have been a gurgling brook had turned into a frightening torrent. Looking higher up the hillside, in search of an alternative crossing point, all I could see was white water interspersed with peacock-tail fans of spray bursting over the bigger boulders.  I decided that maybe it would be possible to cross the stream lower down in the wood, where it joined the main river and, after a long detour, I reached the spot I had in mind. But here, though the stream was broader and less turbulent, the speed of the current was alarming and there was the risk that, if I missed my footing I could be carried into the main river that was rushing by at a frightening speed.  Reluctantly I decided to return to the bothy and either wait until the water levels were lower or follow the other walkers down the track.  I'd not been at the bothy for more than 5 minutes when a woman arrived together with her dog, which was wearing a muzzle. Given the remoteness of out situation, this surprised me.

"Don't touch him; he'll go for you. He doesn't like men." were her first words.

We discussed the weather. She was a Mountain Rescue volunteer - not on a mission, on this occasion, but on the way back from a few days' recreational trip. She had diverted to the bothy simply in order to have somewhere dry to have a cup of coffee from a thermos. Her car was parked at the head of the long road (about 4 miles away) and she offered me a lift out 'if it wouldn't spoil my trip'. After weighing the alternatives, I decided it was probably the best option.

On the way to her car the weather got worse. The wind came in gusts that threatened to blow us off our feet. I can best describe it as being in a combination of a car-wash and a wind-tunnel. Krissie - for that was the woman's name - was in her element. It appeared she'd waded, knee-deep across the lower, faster stream - the one I had been too timid to cross. But then she was more experienced than I am and younger too. What's more she was on her way 'out' and knew there was safety ahead whereas I had been heading into the unknown.

The long drive back down the track seemed unending. At one point I had to get out of the car to drag a fallen tree to one side.  Eventually though I got dropped off at Spean Bridge which seemed depressingly suburban after the grandeur of the mountains. I checked into a hotel where I peeled off my clothes and unpacked my rucksack. Everything was wet through. It appears that water has a way of getting everywhere in those conditions.

All in all I felt vaguely depressed and defeated. I had made virtually no progress and found myself questioning whether trying to do the Cape Wrath Trail was a huge, self-delusory conceit.  Next day however I began the slow business of getting back on track and was astounded to encounter seven of my companions from the bothy (in four separate places). All of them had their own hair-raising stories from the previous day. One had found himself trapped between two streams in spate and had tried to set up his tent, but the frame had broken in the wind and, after a desperate flounder across the stream, he eventually made it back to the bothy, soaked to the skin.  Piecing together this picture it became clear that the weather had been quite exceptional - 3 to 4 inches of rain in the space of 24 hours. And here I was thinking this was just Scottish weather and I better get used to it.

I fully recovered my spirits a few days later sitting by a huge log fire in Gerry's hostel in Craig where I sat up late leafing through a pile of old mountaineering magazines and reading accounts of freak weather conditions in the Cairngorms in the depths of winter, 170 mph winds and suchlike, with people having to take refuge in snow holes - all of which had the combined effect of putting my own somewhat modest experience into perspective whilst stimulating my appetite for adventure.

I'm back on track now and the weather is set to be fine for the next few days. All things considered, on the adventure scale, I think this is probably just about right for me.