On footstep roulette, cantering cows and being unfashionably early

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.

 

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IMG_3653Ahhh. 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.

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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.

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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.

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Our room has a porthole window

 

 

Steep hills and flat whites

We are sitting in the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool, sipping excellent flat whites while attractive waiting staff dressed in black dart between the tables, which are busy with the Sunday brunch crowd. While I’m feeling gratified – Ullapool marks the CWT’s unofficial halfway point  –  I also feel mightily self-conscious, having not washed for four days and having walked in the same clothes for so long that I wouldn’t be surprised if they could stand up on their own. Feral Sam doesn’t quite fit in here, among the glossy-haired people in chunky jumpers and jeans. Still, we enjoy the vibe, the warmth and the sweetcorn fritters while we can, and soon we’re back in our damp-and-dirty comfort zone, surveying the local campsite for a suitable spot to pitch the trusty tent.

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Today’s walk has been a real quad trasher; we’ve descended 400m twice – and in between, we regained every metre of the height we’d lost with a steep hack up to a flat expanse of moor. Luckily, the views over Loch Broom and the mountains to the north compensated for my knees being on fire.

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After setting up camp on the shores of Loch Broom, we had an exciting excursion to make: the local Tesco superstore! Our supplies of instant porridge, powdered milk, hot chocolate and on-the-road snacks lasted just about long enough to get us here but now, we’re out of almost everything. Food shopping has rarely been performed with such joy…

Reaching Ullapool does feel like a cause for celebration – it seemed such a distant place when we set out from Fort William, and it gives us confidence that one day soon we’ll be walking up to that lighthouse at Cape Wrath.

The next day, however, when we repack our rucksacks ready to hit the road again, it’s sobering to realise just how light we’ve been travelling recently. I’d assumed I was getting fitter and stronger, but now I wonder if it’s simply that my bag was getting emptier. With the Tesco bounty, plus a new batch of dehydrated meals and dog food (which we’d sent to ourselves to collect at Ullapool post office), we are fully loaded. And we have a 20-mile day to kick off the second half of our journey…

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Monarchs of the glen

RAAAARRRGGHHH!! Then silence. RAAAARRRGGHHH!!

Back home in East Sussex, I’m occasionally kept awake by a vixen screaming – or woken early by pigeons cooing sweet nothings at each other on the windowsill – but I’ve never had my sleep interrupted by a beast as large as this one.

It’s a red deer, and, it being rutting season, he’s strutting his stuff along the high cliffs of the glen in which we’ve pitched our tent, his primal roar issuing forth at regular intervals. If you haven’t heard a stag roar, imagine a yawn combined with a deep bellow and you’ll be somewhat in the picture. I lie in the darkness and listen, enthralled by this living, breathing force of nature.

It’s a reminder that we’re back in the wild after the big city lights of Kinlochewe (population: 60). Our next brush with civilisation will be Ullapool, where our restock package – plus an outdoors shop and a supermarket – awaits.

We left Kinlochewe on easy, well-made tracks – but we knew from the guidebook that it wouldn’t be all be plain sailing. ‘Enjoy the steady going while it lasts,’ it advised. ‘It gets tougher from here.’ And it does.

IMG_3600We climb a hillside that rises to a plateau surrounded by peaks from which, in the distance, we can see Loch an Nid, which we need to walk the length of. Despite our relentless forward progress, the loch never seems to get any nearer. We’ve been on the move for eight hours by the time we reach its far end and by then the wind is blowing hard, ripping tears from my eyes.

We pitch the tent below the loch, where it drops down to a river, hoping for some shelter – but we still need to use every guy rope, and weigh the pegs down with rocks. And it takes ages to get the hot water to boil for dinner…

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I wake early the next day and get up, hoping to catch a glimpse of the stag, whose roar is once again echoing around the glen. We’re not in any great hurry as we plan to spend the next night at the bothy at Shenavall, which is only six miles away. We’ve not managed a bothy stay yet, and this one is meant to be splendidly situated, beside a waterfall.

It’s a promising start as we make our way along the river, where an abundance of trees makes me realise that there’s been a distinct lack of them over the last few days – I’ve missed them.

IMG_3612But we can’t help also noticing an abundance of bright dots of colour on the path ahead and on converging tracks; the oranges and reds of waterproof jackets and rucksacks of other hikers. It’s Saturday, we realise – and Scotland has come out for a walk in the hills.

When we reach Shenavall, the bothy is already crowded and messy – people’s gear strewn around and food lying on the counter, just under the sign saying ‘Don’t leave food out, it attracts mice.’ Both the sleeping areas already have mats and sleeping bags in them. This isn’t the mountain bothy idyll we had in mind at all. We brew some tea outside in the sun and make the decision to carry on. Shortly after, we pass a contingent of young lads heading that way with a cargo of vodka, coke and bags of logs.

We make good progress on the trail before finding a particularly lovely riverbank on which to pitch the tent. The party at the bothy is probably only just getting started by the time we’ve eaten dinner beside our (very first) campfire and are thinking about going to bed to listen to our very own stag night.

 

 

 

Drenched and dog-tired

Our first really wet day on the trail serves to remind us how lucky we’ve been with the weather so far. Considerately, the rain waits until we’ve broken camp and donned our waterproofs before it lets rip. Then it settles in for the day; low cloud hanging in the glen and obscuring the mountain tops. The absence of views makes me realise how important they are to my enjoyment of the trail.

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To add to the joy, we have to walk a stretch along a tarmac road (with no verges to escape the traffic) followed by the worst track we’ve encountered the whole trip, which rises at a ludicrously steep angle through felled forest that is now more of a quagmire. At the top, we join a new road, freshly hewn through the vanishing forest to transport the timber. We stop briefly to make coffee to warm ourselves up – Morris is shivering so much, Jeff puts him inside his jacket. As we trudge on, soaked through, my heel, unaccustomed to so much hard-surface walking, starts to hurt.

The idea of taking a rest day lodges stubbornly in my brain. We have not had a day off on this hike yet, and temptingly, we’re just a few miles from the village of Kinlochewe, whose modest facilities might not sound much to you – a shop, a cafe, a hotel/bar, a B&B! – but are certainly enough to get excited about on the CWT. It sounds like the perfect place for some R&R, Jeff and I agree.

When we’re welcomed into the Whistlestop Cafe – dripping rucksacks, drenched dog and all – we know we’ve made the right decision. While we tuck into some hot food, the owner even calls the B&B for us, to see if they have space. They can’t take us tonight, but the campsite wardens are at the next table and they assure us we can camp with them tonight and then check in to the B&B tomorrow. It feels as if everyone is on our side. And then to top it all, Morris gets brought a sausage on a plate!

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When we’ve pitched the tent, we wash and tumble-dry practically everything we own while our boots and rucksacks hang in the drying room (Morris is in wonderment that such places exist and is very reluctant to leave). We head to the pub in a strange concoction of available clothing.

The next day, we leave the campsite with everything bone dry. It’s a rare treat, but an even bigger one is yet to come at the B&B: in a hot shower, with a fresh towel waiting, I wash my hair. It feels wondrous.

Taking a rest day now seems so necessary and obvious that I can hardly believe we hadn’t thought of it before. While making full use of the room’s hospitality tray, we pore over the map, with the luxury of plenty of space and light to review our route. Then (perhaps a little weirdly) we go for a walk.

IMG_20170921_170847322_HDRAt the hotel bar that night (where I can’t help flicking around my clean, shiny hair like someone from a Pantene advert) the landlord informs us that one of his guests is walking the CWT – would it be OK if he introduces us?

We are delighted to meet our first fellow CWTer. Daniel, an American, is equally pleased and we compare notes and routes, adventures and misadventures before bidding farewell and strolling back to the B&B, full of fresh enthusiasm and energy, and ever-so-slightly pissed.

 

 

 

 

 

Splendid isolation

I’m bundled up in my sleeping bag, listening to the river tumbling along its rocky bed. The sound of running water has become my nightly lullaby on this trip – it shushes, tinkles, burbles and roars. Beneath its music, I occasionally catch another sound so like the faint murmur of voices that it makes me understand why brooks are said to babble.

 

It’s been a long day – eleven hours of walking – and, despite wall-to-wall sunshine, the hardest yet. We’ve toiled across miles of pathless territory, first traversing the slopes of lofty Beinn Dronaig and later, (after some respite along a clear, if soulless, forestry track) picking our way through disorientating boulder fields. Lucky I married a former British Orienteering champion who, with map and compass in hand, took it all in his stride.

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We stopped to cook dinner in a sheltered spot among the boulders while the last of the sun lingered, realising that by the time we made our descent to the river where we planned to camp it would be getting dark. We were starving, as usual, so Brownie points to me for not throwing a huge tantrum when Jeff KNOCKED THE PAN OFF THE STOVE, and our Mexican chilli ended up on the ground (Morris quickly moving in to hoover up).

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You’d have done the same…

We salvaged what we could, and after we’d negotiated the horrible stony descent and pitched the tent in fading light, compensated for the calorie deficit with huge mugs of hot chocolate.

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As I lie on my now-mended sleeping mat, enjoying the feeling of being horizontal – and straining my ears to make out those watery voices – I reflect on how stripped back and simple (simple, not easy) life is on the trail. Our entire focus each day is to get from A to B successfully, to be fed and watered and to get shelter and rest. We have no connection – virtual or actual – with the outside world and therefore no distraction. It’s remarkably liberating – and, I reckon, good for your mental health; like having a holiday from your usual self. The craving for news, the fomo, that habitual drive to share everything on social media – it all fades into the background when the big issues of the day concern dry socks, hot drinks and whether you’ve got any Pepperami left. Luckily for Jeff, I have…

Pride comes before The Falls

Ever since I first read about The Falls of Glomach in the Cape Wrath Trail guide, I’ve been worrying about this day. It’s one of the highest waterfalls in Britain, with a ‘single leap’ drop of 113m – and we need make our way from the top to the bottom. I’m not great with heights – or descents  – and the guide says: ‘the path can be quite tricky as it hangs onto the west side of the gorge and goes over several awkward rock steps.’ Then: ‘the path takes you down the ravine, precariously over several narrow and rocky sections – take great care, a slip could be dangerous.’ These words have haunted me (I’d somehow even switched the word ‘dangerous’ to ‘fatal’ in my mind) so I’m feeling anxious and yet also relieved the waiting is over as we hike out of Morvich on another beautiful morning. It’s an easy start along a river path before we start to climb up through forest that opens out onto open moorland.

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We hear the thundering water of the Falls long before we see them, and stop for a rest and a snack before beginning the descent. It might only be cheese and salami, but it feels like The Last Supper.

The path starts off only mildly alarming – and strangely, heads slightly upwards rather than down as it traverses the side of the ravine. Then we start to descend steeply, with big drops to our right that I dare not look at. The rock steps are the worst bits: here, the narrow path gives way to a series of slick, slippery sheets of rock that we have to clamber over. I can’t imagine ever finding it easy but doing it with my rucksack on is simply terrifying. Once Jeff realises the extent of my fear he is heroic in helping me down, instructing me exactly where to put my feet and relieving me of the walking poles, which are helpful on the path but a hindrance over the rock steps.

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Then all of a sudden, we’re on flat ground, beside a river. I insist we celebrate with a brew and we sit in a lovely sunny spot while I congratulate myself on surviving the descent and declare it wasn’t that bad after all.

But oh, what a mistake I’ve made… Within minutes of setting off from the nice, flat riverside, we find ourselves back at the edge of the ravine on a path that teeters on the edge of the long, steep drop. When we hit the first of a new set of rock steps, I start crying at the injustice of it all and with all my adrenaline spent, progress into a full-scale panic attack. My fear turns me so far away from the edge that I’m actually facing inwards on the path, making futile grabs at clumps of moss and blades of grass growing on the rock for support, which come away in my hand and make me cry harder.

It’s a long and hard ordeal (for both of us!) but finally the path bottoms out at the foot of the gorge and we slog through deep mud alongside the Elchaig river before picking up a wide, easy track.

I’m quiet as we walk along, turning the experience over in my head. I’m disappointed in myself for losing control – and for being ‘tricked’ that we’d made it when we barely halfway – but on the other hand, it was as bad as I’d ever imagined it and I did at least make it down alive – carrying my own rucksack the whole way. I allow myself a small pat on the back.

A couple of miles along the track, we find ourselves in such an idyllic setting (near Carnach, east of Loch na Leitreach for any potential CWTers) that we decide to pitch up for the night. We’ve just put our gear down when Morris detects movement in the long grass and pounces, emerging with a shrew in his mouth that he proceeds to devour in about four mouthfuls. So much for idylls.

 

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Day 3: where the wow-ing starts

The first two days on the trail have been pleasantly scenic but today we keep saying ‘wow’ as we walk along and look around us.

It’s a day of many firsts, in fact: first fall in the boggy terrain (me, though that’s just a technicality since Jeff’s leg disappeared up to the knee); first proper ascent – a steep, rocky climb up to the Mam na Selig pass at 500m. And first taste of wildness in the starkly beautiful Glen Loyne, which – as if it wasn’t impressive enough – adorns itself with a gigantic rainbow for our arrival.

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Glen Loyne was once part of the native Caledonian Forest that covered 6000 square miles of the Scottish Highlands – only one per cent of it remains, including some of the ancient, gnarled trees that stand on this barren hillside against a backdrop of triangular peaks.

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We breathe ‘wow,’ and find a stream to sit beside where we brew coffee and eat our snacks surrounded by nothing but wilderness.

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Then there’s another first: a river crossing. The CWT is riddled with them, and with Scotland’s heavy rainfall, they can throw a big spanner in the works. (We read about one guy who had to camp for five days waiting for a river he needed to cross to abate so he could get back from the Cape.)

The River Loyne is fairly wide and fast flowing, but only calf deep where we’ve met it. Jeff just sloshes right across, Morris under his arm, but I’m a bit more hesitant, using my virgin walking poles to test water depth, strength of current and slipperiness of rocks.

On the other side, more rocky, boggy terrain unfolds – and another lung-busting climb back up to 400m. But this one emerges on to a 4 x 4 track, which, we know from the map, is going to meet the road after 6km – next to The Cluanie Inn!

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I’m not sure if it’s the excellent surface underfoot or the prospect of a toasty pub serving hot meals, but we seem to pick up the pace quite markedly. Jeff even thinks he can smell pub food, despite the fact that we’re still more than a mile away. I start worrying that we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment: it might be shut for the season; it might have closed down; it might have stopped serving food – or be fully booked…

Thankfully it is none of the above, and soon we are clinking glasses and tucking into hearty meals, only slightly self-conscious about our unwashed and bedraggled appearance. It’s dark when we come out, which makes pitching the tent a bit tricky – but we’re too full of beer and sticky toffee pudding to let it bother us.