Hunger, midges and the ‘vicar walk’

There are two ways to start the Cape Wrath Trail: you can catch a ferry from Fort William across to the immediately wild and remote Ardgour peninsula, or you can ease yourself in by following the Great Glen Way (a 79-mile national trail) for a couple of days, which travels along the Caledonian Canal (ie. pancake flat!) before encountering more challenging terrain. The two routes converge a few days’ north.

After much consideration during the planning stage (will people think we’re lightweights? Will we miss some of the best bits?), we opted for the Great Glen route, and just hours into day one, we are glad we did. Simply carrying 15-20kg for the best part of a working day is enough of a challenge for two inexperienced hikers.

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We have to keep adjusting our rucksacks: cinching in the waist a bit more, loosening or tightening the chest strap… and we sometimes find we don’t know what to do with our hands. We catch each other doing the ‘vicar walk,’ with hands clasped at chest height. And then there’s the dance of the waterproofs: stopping to fish out our jackets and step into our trousers as the first few spots of rain appear and then becoming unbearably hot not 15 minutes later when it’s stopped and the sky has brightened.

While Morris seems to have no problem coping with seven-hour walkies,  me and Jeff are ready to call it a day when we reach the banks of the imaginatively named Loch Lochy, where the guidebook assures us we’ll find a good wild camping spot. We’ve covered 14-15 miles. We pitch our two-man tent just off the trail, crawl inside to wait out a sudden shower and fall sound asleep. It’s not even 5pm.

Luckily, there’s just enough light left to cook dinner by when we wake up, and time to wash up and refill our water bottles from a nearby stream, which we can hear tumbling down the hillside all night.

I wake up on day 2 feeling stiff – and ravenous. We have porridge with dried fruit and nuts and get packed up, which, despite our best intentions, takes ages again.

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We’ve devised a routine that involves two-hourly stops. The morning and afternoon stops are shorter than the lunch break but we still take off our packs, sit down and dig into the snacks. Our haul includes Pepperami, Babybel cheese, salted peanuts (protein and sodium) along with mini Soreen loaves, oatcakes and Haribo Tang-Fastics (carbs). All of them become utterly delicious in our perpetually-hungry state – but are strictly rationed, as we have to carry enough food with us to last five days, which is when we’ll next encounter a shop.

It’s only just after our morning break on day 2 when we come across a moored boat on the canal called the Eagle Barge. ‘Tea, coffee, sandwiches, soup, cakes’ reads the signboard on the towpath, and – oh joy! – a little sign hangs in the window saying ‘open.’ We don’t even debate whether or not we should stop – we make a beeline for one of the tables on deck and soon we’re drinking mugs of coffee and eating doorstep sandwiches.

Up to this point, we’ve still been following the reassuring blue waymarkers for the Great Glen Way but the unexpected feast gives us enough energy to press on past Invergarry, where the CWT veers off and where we’d thought we’d be making camp.

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We climb up a good track through a forest of spindly pine trees – and emerge into much more open, less peopled surroundings. Farewell, flat, gravelly trail! Hello, small, slightly boggy, undulating path. My bag – not to mention my legs – are feeling heavy by early evening and with the light fading, we search anxiously for a non-marshy spot in the long grass beside Loch Garry. Finally, we find a place to pitch beside a slightly eerie burned-out ruin of a house. As soon as we stop and start unloading our gear, we find ourselves in a cloud of midges and have to put up the tent and cook dinner wearing our midge hoods. We look like bank robbers. But after nine hours and around 20 miles of walking, we’re far too tired to contemplate a life of crime and have an(other) early night.

And we’re off! The Cape Wrath Trail begins

We leave Edinburgh for Fort William (the start of the Cape Wrath Trail, from now on referred to as the CWT) on September 12th, after what seems like weeks of planning and waiting for the adventure to start. I’ve been eating with abandon the last few days – telling myself it won’t matter because I’ll be burning so much energy on the trail, so I’m actually looking forward to the discipline of rations!

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The last leg of the train journey west is spectacular – a panorama of lochs, rivers, forests and hills rushes by (well, trundles by – it’s not a very fast train) the window. Morris, as you can see, is transfixed.

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It’s 4.15pm when we arrive in Fort William, and by 4.19pm it’s raining heavily. We were heading for the campsite, but we retreat to a pub for dinner and a drink instead, in the hope of avoiding having to put the tent up in pouring rain on our first night. It works! By the time we pitch the tent, it’s nearly dusk and we go straight to bed in preparation for the big day.

It takes an astonishing 90 minutes to ‘break camp’ the following morning. I’d imagined it would be a simple matter of whipping up a quick bowl of porridge and tea, taking down and packing up the tent and getting going but I discover there are considerably more tasks to do: deflate the inflatable pillows, roll up the sleep mats, squeeze the sleeping bags back in their stuff sacks, feed Morris, prepare accessible snacks/lunch for the day, fill up water bottles, wash up the breakfast things and finally, repack the rucksacks in the right order.

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It’s a slightly embarrassing 9.30 by the time we take our first steps on the CWT. But it’s a relief to be on the move, on foot, on the trail and heading north. I take the photograph below of Jeff, because I suspect it’s a sight I’m going to see a lot of over the coming weeks!

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Hillwalking for dummies

A friend of ours, Shane, is a qualified mountain leader. On hearing about our Cape Wrath Trail plans, he offered to give us some tips on hillwalking and wild camping. Even better, he invited us to his woodland for a practice run.

It was invaluable: we learned  how to lay and light a fire, how to choose where to pitch the tent and how to pack our rucksacks in a way that allows everything to be accessible in the right order and remain dry. Even though we only needed enough supplies for a single night in the woods, it was enough to reveal that my rucksack, a trusty but admittedly ancient Lowe Alpine 45L affair, was unlikely to be big enough for everything we’d need to take with us for a 3-4 week trip that offered few opportunities for re-stocking.

Thanks to Shane, we also learned how to register our mobile phones with the Emergency SMS service, which is advisable if you’re hiking in remote areas.

All starting to feel quite real now! The Cape Wrath Trail guidebook is my new bedtime reading…

 

Planning a Highland fling

In my job at Runner’s World, I frequently interviewed people who had achieved incredible feats within running. Aleks Kashefi ran the length of Europe from above the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of Spain. Wayne Russell ran around the entire coastline of Britain. Rob Pope followed in Forrest Gump’s fictitious footsteps, crossing America and then turning around and running back again. We considered a running feat of our own but with Morris (that’s him below) in tow, we decided that a long-distance walk would be more achievable.

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With a love for Scotland, our search started there and after dismissing the Great Glen Way and West Highland Way as too brief, we happened upon the Cape Wrath Trail, a 230-mile trek from Fort William to the most northwesterly tip of Scotland (and the British Isles). It’s considered to be the toughest long-distance trail in Britain. Some reasons why:

  1. It isn’t an ‘official’ national trail and is therefore not waymarked.
  2. Much of it is extremely remote, with few options for accommodation other than wild camping or mountain bothies.
  3. It requires good navigation skills.
  4. It crosses trackless, rough and boggy terrain and features many river crossings.
  5. Travelling through the far north west of Scotland, the weather is unpredictable and often wild.

The guidebook warns that this is not a trail to be taken on without extensive hillwalking experience and knowledge of the area. What could possibly go wrong for two southern-dwelling softies with zero walking experience but a few decades’ worth of running fitness? We decided to find out…