Twenty miles is twenty miles, but the route out of Ullapool eases us in gently, tracing the northern shore of Loch Achall on a wide, even path. The tranquil loch creates pristine reflections of the trees that line its banks and the sun shines benevolently.
Ahhh. All is well – for at least seven miles. But as woodland gives way to farmland, where cows roam free, we grow slightly nervous.
Out of the blue, a herd of cattle rounds a bend on the path ahead, heading straight for us at a light canter. We clamber up the steep and muddy bank to get out of the way, and to our alarm, a few of the beasts do the same thing, as if they really are in pursuit. We’re still slipping around on the muddy slope – Jeff clinging on to Morris, me flailing my trekking poles – when a couple of walkers with a border collie appear, revealing the reason for the herd’s panicked flight. ‘Morning,’ we say brightly, as if we have a good reason to be up here and are not, in fact, terrified of cows.
We continue along the glen and then begin to climb. It’s not super steep, but it is a long, stony ascent. I curse Iain Harper (the guidebook’s author) because this is meant to be a day of ‘easy walking’. The climb is followed by a descent on a path so wet it could easily be mistaken for a stream. At the bottom, our feet get still wetter fording the River Einig before picking up a path that undulates through pine forest on its route to Oykel Bridge, where, the guidebook informs us, there is not only a hotel but also a POSTBOX! Requiring neither, and since the light is still good, we carry on (first pausing for a quick game of Pooh sticks on the beautiful stone bridge). But it isn’t long before the night starts to draw in and we have a slight panic finding somewhere to camp before it’s too dark to see. We end up on the mosquito-infested grassy verge of a logging road – not our most picturesque stop – but we’re relieved nonetheless.
We’re up early the following day, and have the tent packed away by the time the first trucks trundle along the road. There’s a reason for our eagerness to get going; we have a booking at the hostel in Inchnadamph (the one and only place we pre-booked before we set off) and owing to what must be a miscalculation of mileage per day on our schedule, we are due there tonight. Stiff but resolute, we set off.
We make good progress along the River Oykel – one of Scotland’s best salmon rivers. It’s beautiful; water tumbling over copper-coloured rocks, gnarled trees teetering on its banks. We stop for a strict 15-minute break and for the first time all trip, I pop a couple of painkillers; the skin on the edge of my heel has hardened into a ridge, which every step pushes painfully into the softer skin surrounding it.
By early afternoon, as we pick our way across increasingly high pathless ground amid rocks, heather, moss and peat bog, the easy walking of the morning feels like a distant memory. It’s like footstep Russian roulette: sink, trip or slip? We’re heading for a ‘V’ on the horizon, a mountain pass (a bealach) squeezed between Conival and a ridge to the west.
We’re both tired yet still intent on getting to Inchnadamph, so we stop to brew coffee shortly before we reach the pass and begin the tricky descent that follows. Somehow, Jeff knocks the almost-boiled water off the stove and, unlike last time, I erupt in tantrum and insist we start again.
Though slightly ashamed, I’m glad of the caffeine boost once we start the descent from the pass – it’s narrow, rocky and precariously close to the edge, and it takes an age to reach ground level, 450m below.
Even when we do, things don’t get much easier. My legs are like jelly, my heel is throbbing and the marshy terrain makes every step arduous. Our customary 5.30pm break-time slips by – we’re so anxious to get to the hostel that we press on. Finally, at almost 7pm, our feet hit tarmac and we walk along a short stretch of road to reach the lodge.
When I give the receptionist our name, he looks at me blankly. ‘Did you book?’ ‘Yes, weeks ago,’ I say in a tight voice. He scans his sheet again and then gets up and goes into the office behind him. Jeff and I look at each other, horrified, as we await his return. ‘Ah, found you,’ says the man. ‘Actually, you’re booked in for tomorrow, not tonight, but that’s fine, the room is free.’ I have to restrain myself from hugging him – even more so when he tells us that breakfast is included and tea and coffee are freely available in the kitchen. Bedraggled, exhausted and pathetically grateful, we climb the stairs to our room.