A cabin in the woods

We’re sitting on the balcony of our log cabin, Silver Birch, surveying what will be our view for the next month. There’s an expanse of trees set among heathland, with snow-dusted hills beyond. This will do nicely.

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The cluster of dwellings that make up the hamlet of Ault-na-Goire lies on the south side of mighty Loch Ness, which carves a path so deep through the Great Glen that the body of fresh water it contains is greater than all of the lakes in England and Wales combined. The south is considered the ‘quiet’ side of the loch – and being 600 feet above sea level  means we’re even further off the beaten track of hikers and tourists.

Behind the cabin, bracken-covered moorland slopes steeply down to a burn, beyond which there are acres of forest to explore. It’s dark and quiet among the trees – there’s little birdsong and the carpet of pine needles softens our footfalls enough to surprise Sika deer, which bound away emitting short high-pitched barks that send Morris into a frenzy of excitement.

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With few distinguishing features on the various trails through the trees, I find it hard to get a sense of where I am on our first few walks and runs, or how one trail links up with another. To compound the issue, many of the trails lead on to rough roads created for logging, and these all look the same. So it’s no surprise that on a long run one Sunday, I get truly lost. I’ve already been out for more than two hours when I emerge onto a 4×4 track and have no idea which way to go. I turn left and go for around a mile before deciding it doesn’t feel right. As I make my way back, I see a man heading my way. Thank God, I think, I can ask him where I am. Not only does he know where I am, he knows where I am going, too; it’s Alex, husband of Janet, who rented us Silver Birch, and who lives next door. He just so happens to be the Scottish cross-country and 5K champion in his age group. He ‘runs’ me home (the opposite direction to which I was going, oops), and although he’s nearing 70, I struggle to keep up with the fleet-footed veteran. To add irony to insult and injury, Jeff’s been away all day on a course learning how to teach navigation…

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I discover a new method of finding my way around the area shortly after, on a walk with Morris. Spotting a piece of bright orange tape hanging from a tree, I walk towards it; from there, I can see another, and then another. The tapes take me down a previously undiscovered-by-us trail that is all but grown-over in places. It passes through a magical dingly dell, which wouldn’t look out of place on a Tolkien film set. I keep expecting Bilbo Baggins to come bumbling down the path with a reel of orange tape, but it turns out that it’s Alex we have to thank – he puts the tapes out to mark his trickier running routes.

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Our days take on a similar shape at Silver Birch as on Luing. The only difference is that packing in two good walks, creative hour and a run or cycle before the daylight runs out is a race against time. December evenings set in at four o’clock. After so much time on our own, it’s nice to have the occasional company of Alex and Janet. Whenever we pop over to theirs to ask a question or pick up fresh bed linen, we end up sitting beside their Aga, chatting over tea and cake. It’s a bit like having a surrogate mum and dad to look after you.

The cabin itself is small but perfectly formed. There’s one main living area with a cathedral ceiling and windows on three sides – then a bedroom just big enough for a double bed, a single room, in which we keep all our stuff, and a tiny bathroom. It’s warm and cosy (it was imported from Finland, Janet tells us), which is just as well, because a week and a half into our stay we wake up to snow.

It’s dry and powdery – issuing faint squeaks when compressed by our feet and coating everything like elaborate icing. It looks beautiful and, in such an isolated place, remains unsullied for days. On most tracks, our footprints are the only ones, save for those of deer and pheasants (and occasionally, our landlord).

As on Luing, we don’t have a shop or pub on our doorstep up here in Ault-na-Goire – the closest is four miles away, in the village of Foyers. We stay put for a couple of days when the snow comes, but when we do venture down to Foyers for supplies, we’re amazed to find it snow-free at the lower altitude. But on the way home, the now-hard-packed snow and steep gradient prove too much for the van, and we end up stuck in a ditch – blocking the single-track road. We trudge home and sheepishly knock on Alex and Janet’s door. They inform the police and local council that the road is impassable and help us organise a rescue truck for the following day. ‘Don’t worry,’ says Janet, pouring more tea. ‘We once had a lady staying at the cabin who got her car stuck in a ditch twice in a week!’ I’ve had more than my fill of the white stuff after all this. And frankly it isn’t doing my running any favours – my forward progress hampered by my battle to stay upright.

Once the snow melts away, we’re rewarded with some unseasonably warm weather (read: 5 degrees instead of -2). We manage to get in a couple of bike rides – the roads are great for cycling; smooth tarmac, sweeping vistas and barely any traffic.

While Silver Birch is a match for Luing when it comes to setting and views, there hasn’t been much in the way of bird life. But, one morning I look out the window and see a large bird of prey soaring above the heathland. I’m resigned to it being a buzzard (the ‘default’ bird of prey) until I notice the forked tail. Grabbing the binoculars, I can clearly see the rusty underside and long-fingered wings that define the much-rarer red kite. I watch its aerobatics with awe. The only other birds we have a close encounter with are Alex and Janet’s chickens. They go away for the weekend, leaving us in charge of the brood; a responsibility we take very seriously. I’m constantly terrified that a marauding pine marten will get in and leave a blood bath but thankfully there are still seven birds when they return on the Sunday.

On the night of the full moon in December, we take the tent out to the forest and camp overnight. We get a fire going, cook on the stove and drink whisky and hot chocolate. Before bed, we walk out into a clearing and marvel at the giant, gleaming moon. It’s the kind of evening when you say to yourself ‘remember this.’

After a week’s respite, the snow returns and this time, it means business, laying six inches through the night, with no sign of stopping. There’s no chance of getting the van down the hill in this, so when we need groceries, we wrap up warm and hike down to Foyers, treating ourselves to coffee and cake at the Cameron Tea Rooms.

It’s really hard work walking in such deep snow (nine inches now, in places) not least if your legs are barely longer than six inches each. But the wonderland the snow has created is well worth witnessing.

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Given that we don’t have a Christmas tree to decorate at home this year, we decide to dress one of the thousands of trees in the forest and use a photograph of it as our Christmas card. The end result looks good, but the process isn’t as fun and romantic as you might imagine: we bicker in an un-festive manner about which tree to pick and Jeff manages to step in a deep, icy hole while trying to administer the tinsel. Snigger.

 

When it’s time to leave Silver Birch, shortly before Christmas, I’ve finished writing my story (it’s too short to be described as a novel) and learned to run a little better on snow. But I still haven’t got my guitar out of its case, nor read half a dozen of the books I brought away. The end of the year is fast approaching, sending me into a panic about how much I’ve yet to explore, experience and learn and reminding me how precious this time is. We’re going to see our families in Edinburgh and London over the Christmas period and, given that our tenants move out at the end of the year, we debate whether we should call The Crazy Thing a day, and head home to start the New Year. But, we decide – not yet.

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Notes from a (very) small island

We’re at the North Cuan ferry port, waiting to make the crossing to the isle of Luing. The wind is blowing and the dark blue Atlantic swirls and bubbles, but there’s no chance of getting sea sick: the channel of water we’re about to cross is so narrow that we can see the ferryman chatting to locals on the far side. If it were calmer, we could get the kayaks off the roof rack and paddle there. Only we’re laden with shopping – seven days’ worth of food and drink – to save us having to make the 19-mile trip to the nearest supermarket during our first week of island life – and leave more time for exploring.

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The crossing to the ‘mainland’

Luing is part of the Hebrides – famed for their remoteness – but it is one of the innermost Inner Hebrides. Just 280 metres divide it from the North Cuan ferry port on Seil (technically another island, but joined to the mainland by the 225-year old graceful arch of Clachan Bridge, dubbed the ‘Bridge over the Atlantic’).

 

However, as we are soon to learn, remote and isolated are not the same thing. Despite its proximity to the mainland, Luing feels remarkably cut off. The small island – 5.5 miles square, though long and narrow in shape – has just one shop and no pub or hotel or, indeed, any facilities at all from doctors to hairdressers, playing fields to petrol stations. Electricity only arrived in 1956. The ferry operates every half-hour, but outside summer, it stops at 6pm, ruling out evening excursions in search of booze, conversation and other such entertainment.

A single road travels north to south with a spur to the west, where the island’s main village of Cullipool faces the Atlantic Ocean – and one to the east, to the more sheltered coastal village of Toberonochy. This is where we’ll be living for the next month.

 

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The isle of Mull from our local beach

Filling the trolley in the supermarket in Oban earlier today, I’d felt a sudden weariness for life on the road. The idea of actually unpacking our belongings, cooking fresh food and sleeping in the same place every night for a few weeks fills me with glee.

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Our cottage is a traditional island dwelling – long and single-storied with thick, whitewashed walls and a woodburner to keep us cosy. The garden backs directly on to a quiet inlet. At night you can hear the gentle lapping of the water and the occasional honk of goose or squawk of heron. There’s another sound, too: a distant pulsing; a thudding whir. It takes me a while to work out that it’s the nearby wind turbines stirring the night air.

We quickly impose a rhythm on our days on Luing – days that, ostensibly, are free to do what we want with. It’s strange how routine is one of the things so many of us – me included – yearn to escape, yet without it, we can feel a little lost.

After a few lie-ins, we begin setting the alarm clock to wake up earlier – and are rewarded with sunrises that turn the sky pink and orange, below which the dark shapes of other islands loom out of the sea.

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Sunrise from the back garden

Although we’re not hiking anymore we still walk miles every day. It feels necessary, not least for Morris, who looks disappointed with anything less than a couple of hours at a time. At first, we thought the island limited in its opportunities for exploration, but each day we discover new trails, including one that traces a high ridge, like the backbone of a sleeping dinosaur, all the way back to the ferry port.

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Cullipool to the west

There’s a lot to be said for a small island. Before long, we’ve scaled all Luing’s peaks, circumnavigated it on foot, decided on our favourite paths, views and beaches and even discovered a secret quarry. With this familiarity, it feels like one giant playground. As soon as I come in from walking, I want to get back out there running, or kayaking, or cycling. If I’ve been in the hills, I want to walk on the shore, poring over the rockpools and scouting for otters.

We soon get to know the comings and goings of the locals – human and otherwise. Sometimes, people greet us with such enthusiasm when we pass each other along the road, or in the shop doorway, that we aren’t sure whether we’ve met them before or they’re just this friendly to everyone. We even get to know a friendly seal; he comes to watch us from a safe distance when we kayak in the firth.

Bird names have been coming back to me, the way the lyrics of old songs you’d thought you’d forgotten do. Treecreeper, reed bunting, curlew, cormorant… I haven’t watched birds in decades but the island and surrounding water is teeming with them, and it inspires me to buy a pair of binoculars. There’s a fence post just beyond the village where a male hen harrier routinely perches at dusk to watch for rodents. I’ve never seen one so close up. The local gang of crows harass him, cawing and flying at him. These are hooded crows, with grey backs and shoulders as if they’re wearing little boleros.

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Each day after our morning walk, we have ‘creative hour’ (a misnomer, because it’s actually two hours). This is my writing time – I wanted to carve out a non-negotiable daily period for writing, mainly out of fear that having said I wanted to ‘do some writing’ while I was away I’d go home having not written a single word. So now I’ve written over 30,000 of the buggers, though whether they will ever be readable is yet to be determined. Jeff has been using the time to draw (animals, mostly), and very good he is too.

After creative hour, we go running – setting off together, though we usually go our separate ways. Frequently, the island’s weather isn’t what you’d call conducive to running: if it isn’t raining then it’s blowing a gale, or flinging hailstones at us. But all of it – good and bad – passes quickly and we learn that it makes little difference what it’s like when you set off, as it will probably be very different by the time you turn for home.

When we’re back from running, we have lunch, go online for an hour or so, or visit the village shop (too exciting for such a brief mention!) before doing our daily core workout. Then we get Morris out for another walk before darkness sets in, which by late October, is frighteningly early. It makes the evenings long, but we resist the temptation to slump in front of the TV. We haven’t had a telly or a radio since we left home for the campsite at the start of July, and we’re reluctant to let the outside doom-mongering media into our tranquil bubble. We save the TV for special occasions, and instead we read, talk, cook, eat and indulge in our new obsession, Scrabble!

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One night, there is to be a film shown in the village hall – the start of a new monthly ‘cinema’ night. We learn about it the way everyone on Luing learns about everything: the village noticeboard. We’re not talking online (the island’s Facebook page is rather out of date) but a physical structure. We can actually see it from our front window, and there’s often someone either looking at it, or opening the glass front to put a new notice in it. The film is Whisky Galore – a fitting tale of Scottish island life and the lengths the residents will go to ensure its whisky supply doesn’t run dry. We go to see it, of course. We even take Morris with us, who watches the first few minutes intently before going to sleep on Jeff’s lap.

I said that everyone stays in the loop thanks to the noticeboard, but I’m forgetting the local shop. Here too, you can find out who is doing what, when and why. The shop manager, who is also the postmaster, is the font of all knowledge and, having quizzed us about our extended stay, probably spends much of his time explaining to locals who the weird couple in the bobble hats are who seem to be out running, walking and cycling in all weathers.

Kayaking is more weather-dependent. If the conditions are right, it takes precedence over everything else. We three don our lifejackets at the first signs of a calm sea and paddle along Luing’s shoreline.

We haven’t ventured to any other islands because the tides and currents can be fierce around here – it’s within a stone’s throw of the famous Corryveckan whirlpool, where George Orwell nearly drowned and which has taken the lives of a few less fortunate. Morris – still finding his sea legs – topples in on our first few outings (he’s attached to Jeff with a bungee lead) but on our final paddle before we leave the island, he managed to stay in the boat the whole time. Go Morris!

The history of Luing lies in slate – it was a thriving quarry centre at one time, and now the beaches are lined with fine black sand and sea-smoothed pieces of slate, the hinterland punctuated by huge water-filled quarries and abandoned stone buildings, some containing giant rusted machinery.

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The domed grassy hills are clipped short by roaming sheep and cattle – the island has its own breed: the rust-coloured long-haired Luing cow. They give a good stare but they’re the most placid cows we’ve ever encountered. Between the hills, there are swathes of marsh and tough long grass, alive with ground-nesting birds, frogs, roe deer and hares, which we inadvertently send fleeing with our off-road explorations.

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A couple of days before we leave, in mid-November, I see my first otter. I’ve been looking every day and I am finally rewarded when I catch a small movement in the sea and track it with my binoculars. A small, neat head appears above the waterline for a few moments, before the graceful narrow body arches and dives under, its tail the last thing to disappear.

Leaving Luing feels like a wrench. I’ve been wondering if we could make a life here. Live in this cottage – or one like it – and spend our days doing…. what? There are just 195 people living here – the majority are retired and many of those that aren’t have to travel off the island daily for work. I can’t see much scope for a town planner and a journalist, nor a running club. Anyway, it’s time to move on. This was never meant to be the real thing, it’s The Crazy Thing.

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To the lighthouse

We start our 18th day on the trail with no inkling of the decision that lies ahead.

Leaving our plum camping spot, we find ourselves almost instantly on tough pathless terrain alongside Loch Stack. Progress is slow, so it feels as if we’ve hardly got anywhere when two hours is up and it’s time for our morning break. After that, we hit a lovely 4×4 track, which I’m just getting used to when Jeff announces we have to step off it and make our way across 1km of bog to the head of the next loch, Loch a Garbh-bhaid Mor. My boots fill with water within minutes. Even when we reach the loch, it doesn’t get easier; the path along its east bank is faint and rough.

After 2km we have to cross a river that flows in to the loch. It’s too fierce to cross where we are, so we have to trudge half a mile upstream to find a better place. Jeff makes it across holding Morris, using half-submerged rocks as stepping stones, but the bank on the other side is too steep for him to get up, so he has to come back. Meanwhile, I’m halfway across and have to make a tricky reverse manoeuvre! A bit further along, we manage to cross without mishap and walk back down to the loch to resume our slog along the shore, muttering to ourselves that ‘if the whole CWT was like this, we’d have given up and gone home’.

Fortunately, it isn’t. Gradually, the ground gets drier and firmer, the path more defined and the scenery gentler, with the river Rhiconich taking pride of place. I see a huge salmon leaping out of the water only minutes before a chap coming the other way asks ‘Have you seen any salmon leaping?’

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It’s mid afternoon by the time we reach the remote hamlet of Rhiconich, and we’re more than ready for a drink at the hotel before looking for somewhere to pitch the tent. But the hotel door is locked and there’s no one in sight. Nor does it appear that there’s anywhere remotely suitable to camp. It’s all bit of a blow – the last few days have taken their toll and we’re craving beer, fish and chips and some friendly banter. What to do?

We decide to carry on a further four miles to Kinlochbervie, a fishing port with more amenities, and try our luck there. But along the way, a little cafe The Old Schoolhouse appears like a mirage at the roadside, offering cakes, teas and sandwiches. When I go inside to order (we sit outside because of Morris), I bump into our fellow CWTer, Daniel. He comes out to join us and we eagerly swap stories of our trail experiences since we last met.

We also learn from Daniel that two giant spanners have been thrown into the works of our progress to the end of the trail. The first is the tail end of Hurricane Lee, predicted to cause havoc across the north-west of Scotland over the next couple of days, bringing gale-force winds and torrential rain. And second, the military (who own much of the land around Cape Wrath) are starting ops on Monday (this being Saturday), rendering part of the territory we have to cross a no-go area. Daniel has decided to wait it out but we’re not keen to follow suit, and wonder whether we can use the remaining window of good weather to make it the whole way to the lighthouse. It’ll mean cramming two days’ walking in to one, so we’ll have to start early, but we’re up for it.

Jeff makes various phone calls to see whether our plan is feasible. He calls John Ure, the chap who lives at Cape Wrath and looks after visitors (a CWT legend) as well as the man who drives the bus from the ferry to the relative civilisation of Durness. It all seems doable – John says he’ll feed us when we get there and that we can stay overnight on the floor of the cafe and we’ll be able to get off the Cape the day after, either by ferry or on foot.

Suddenly, it feels as if our journey is rushing towards its conclusion. We bid Daniel farewell and continue on our way to Kinlochbervie, the evening sun casting a beautiful light on the lochs and mountains.

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It’s dark when we reach Kinlochbervie, and we walk around for some time trying to find the heart of the village. (We later decide it doesn’t have one.) We find the hotel and go in to the bar, which is full of drunk and slightly hostile locals. The unfriendly bartender says we can’t get food because we’re not hotel residents. We have a desultory drink and a packet of crisps before heaving our packs out into the night to find somewhere to camp. The best we can do is a field just off the road that climbs out of the village. There are lots of cow pats – we just have to hope they aren’t recent ones.

Dehydrated meals have been invaluable on this trip – but tonight, I can barely stomach yet another dinner of chilli con carne with rice. We go straight to bed after eating – exhausted after a tough 15-mile day – and I sleep fitfully, dreaming of marauding cows and drunken locals searching us out.

The longest day

The alarm wakes us early. Not only do we have a long way to go – we’re also in a race against the weather. The rain is forecast to begin at 10am, with high winds to follow. I crawl out of the tent to an incredible sunrise.

IMG_3758We don’t bother with breakfast, planning to stop once we’ve got a few miles under our belt. The first section is all on road, winding up and down between treeless hills dotted with solitary houses. Then we get on to the track signposted to Sandwood Bay, one of north-west Scotland’s most famous beaches and something of an institution on the Cape Wrath Trail.

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The track is wide and well made, if a little featureless, so we get a good few miles in the bag with ease. By 10am we are brewing tea at Sandwood Bay, sheltered by the dunes that back the beach. Just as we take our first sips, it begins to rain – right on cue – so we don’t linger for long. We have to make our way along the beach to pick up a path at the northern end; the pearly-white sand is strewn with amazing rocks and pebbles but we have to concentrate on leaping over the many fast-flowing rivulets (we don’t want to get our feet wet this early in the day, even though we know they’ll eventually be sodden). We climb up and away from the beach on a rocky path; at the top there’s nothing but a vast expanse of low-hilled green and rust bogland that we need to find our way across to the next ‘landmark’ – Strathchailleach bothy.

IMG_3799Jeff takes a bearing and we set off into the pouring rain. Herds of deer huddle in the mist, scarpering at our approach. When we reach the bothy, 90 minutes later, we go inside for some respite from the weather. I’m feeling a bit spaced-out and Jeff is worried that I won’t make it. I devour a tin of sardines and an oatcake while rain beats down on the metal roof; then we head out to continue across the same trackless and deceptively hilly terrain, that seems to go on for infinity. Every step is an effort and I feel as if I’m running on empty, being buffeted around like a rag doll.

The barbed wire fence of the military zone comes into view. Red flags are flying even though the military operations are not meant to start until tomorrow. It’s disconcerting, but we climb over anyway and press on. I keep thinking I can hear helicopters, but it’s just the sound of water gurgling under the bog, mingled with the wind. After reaching the top of another hill, we finally see the road in the distance – it’s the only road on the entire Cape so we know it’s the one to the lighthouse. It’s still a way off but it’s heartening nonetheless.

I’m tottering and slipping and dragging myself up what seems to be an endless uphill gradient in the wind, rain and mud, wondering if we’ll ever get to that bloody road, when Jeff and Morris, 25m ahead of me, are suddenly standing on flat ground. It looks like a magic trick. But then I’m there too, and there is a mere 1.5km (uphill of course) along this pot-holed track between us and the lighthouse.

We don’t see the Cape Wrath lighthouse until we’re almost upon it. It’s partly the weather, but also a quirk of the way the land lies that it only comes into view at the last moment. There are steep drops on both sides of the final approach to the lighthouse lined by crumbling drystone walls – or nothing at all – and copious signs warn ‘UNSAFE’ (which doesn’t seem to deter the sheep from grazing dangerously close to the edge). The Cape is indeed a wild and desolate place, and arriving here in such extreme weather feels fitting.

The dilapidated buildings next to the lighthouse have an abandoned feel, and it’s difficult (fanciful even) to imagine that someone is going to be standing behind the counter of a cafe awaiting our arrival. At first this does appear to be the case; all the doors we try are locked and there doesn’t seem to be anyone around. Does John Ure really exist, or is it all a practical joke played on CWTers, we wonder? But then we push another door,  and find ourselves inside the Ozone cafe. It’s deserted, but we ring the bell, as instructed by the sign, and wait.

Nothing happens. We stand there, shivering and dripping in our wet clothes. Our elation at reaching the Cape is gradually replaced by anxiety that we are the only ones here – we have no food left, limited water and there’s neither a phone signal nor electricity. We change in to dry clothing and are just considering crawling into our sleeping bags to get warm when we hear voices and dogs barking outside. It’s John, thank God!

He brings us a gas-operated heater and a clothes horse for us to hang up our sodden gear and invites us to come in to his house next door when we’re ready, for some hot soup and to warm ourselves by the fire. I feel like crying with gratitude.

When we turn up there, a few minutes later, he opens the door to the living room and we go in, assuming we’re alone. We are stunned to find it crowded with bizarrely-dressed and high-spirited men in a cloud of smoke. The source of their high spirits – beer and whisky – is spread out on the table and we’re poured drinks before the introductions are even done. This – it turns out – is the annual general meeting of the splendidly quirky Kearvaig Pipe Club, whose dress code for the year’s event is Crap Suits.

Slightly shell-shocked, after almost three weeks in splendid isolation, we join in with the banter as we thaw out, and before we know it, the evening light is fading and it’s time to retreat to our mattresses, which John has put down for us in the cafe. It’s only then that I realise Jeff has drunk more than his fair share of wee drams (not to mention smoking a pipe) and is, in fact, monumentally pissed.

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I, however, am in no mood for nursing him. My guts are in turmoil and I’m having to run out with the cat shovel to duck behind the precarious drystone walls at regular intervals – I must have drunk some contaminated water earlier. My woes continue through the night, and we both wake up the next morning feeling terrible in our own ways.

The bad news is there’s no ferry, so the only way off the Cape is on foot. The good news is that John is giving his friends from the Pipe Club a ride to a place that will make the journey shorter (though it’s still 6-7 miles of walking). Fortunately, they are regulars here and know the way across the pathless bog that leads to the road to Durness, so we can tag along.

Jeff and I both force down a fried breakfast (we’ve not eaten a proper meal since that dehydrated chilli in Kinlochbervie) and pack our stuff. At around 11am, we crowd into the minibus and set off along the bumpy road. The views are stupendous, though my insides are still too miserable to allow me to appreciate it properly.

IMG_3811John stops the bus next to a steep, rocky slope that water is trickling down. It’s the path, apparently. We say our thanks and goodbyes and set off,  quickly spreading out as we labour up the hill in a new deluge of rain and wind strong enough to blow us off our feet. At the top, a vast expanse of moorland unfolds, swathed in uneven tussocks, bog moss and heather. We slip and slide our way across it (me having to stop for emergency toilet breaks at frequent intervals).

There’s a river to cross – sometimes it’s gentle enough to wade across but at the moment it’s a raging torrent and in a replay of yesterday’s rigmarole, we have to walk upstream for half a mile to find the bridge, and then all the way back down on the other side to continue towards Durness. I feel as weak as a kitten and thoroughly miserable.

At last, though, we start to see the odd car or lorry speeding along on the horizon – the road, the road! When we reach it, one of the Pipe Club members kindly squeezes us into his car and takes us the final few miles into the village of Durness. He drops us off outside the local shop and bids us farewell. Jeff enquires about accommodation in the area for the night while I buy Imodium, shampoo and new toothbrushes. Less than half an hour later, with the utmost gratitude and relief, we are opening the door to a warm, clean room with ensuite bathroom at the Wild Orchid guesthouse. 

We’ve made it.

Epilogue

We walked the Cape Wrath Trail in September and October 2017. (John Ure reckons that fewer than 1000 people have completed it.) The blog had to come later, since we had no mobile phone reception or wifi access almost the whole way. The blog entries are based on the diary and notes I kept during the hike, and the photos are all taken on my iPhone. I’ve continued keeping a diary and taking photos for The Crazy Thing since we finished The Cape Wrath Trail – so stay tuned for the next stage of our Scottish adventures.

Mr & Mrs

Even though Jeff and I have been married seven years, it is a new experience to be together 24 hours a day – much of it in just a few square metres of space.

The mundane intimacies of hiking à deux become our new normal. We know each other’s cat shovel habits, we inhale each other’s unwashed skin when we undress, check each other for ticks like a pair of grooming monkeys – we even share a toothbrush.

img_3786.jpgIt’s not just the being together that is novel, it’s the absence of anyone else. Some days, we walk in virtual silence for hours, lost in our own worlds; but it never feels awkward (unless one of us is sulking). Other days we talk incessantly or we play games, like Mr & Mrs, Who am I? or The A to Z of… fruit/sports brands/songwriters/positive adjectives (the options, as Jeff will attest, are endless).

We learn a lot about each other, and some of what we thought we knew before the trip is challenged. Jeff is a surprisingly good motivator (‘we’ve broken the back of it now, Sam’ ‘Just over this hill and it’ll get easier…’). The more I wane, the greater use he makes of his Mr Motivator act. But he’s also more of a worrier than I expected – and I learn early on that he operates best with a firm plan and goal for the day (or any given time period). Being the sole competent navigator, he feels a weight of responsibility for us out here. My tendency to vaguely hope for the best in a non-committal fashion drives him nuts.

He also finds me stubborn (especially when it comes to the consumption of caffeinated drinks) but is surprised by my resilience and my ability to cope with situations that I know in advance I’ll find difficult (see Pride comes before The Falls for an example).

One of the more challenging things is being under each other’s constant observation. It’s not intentional, but when you only have each other for company, you become hyper observant of every nuance of the other’s mood, every aspect of their behaviour. ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘You’re in a funny mood…’ ‘Why are you doing that?’ we say to each other.

Morris is our saviour, because he gives us a different – external – focus and, quite frequently, makes us laugh our socks off. All three of us have become closer on the trail. I just wonder how we’re going to wean him off crawling under the bed covers when we get home…

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Get up? No chance, mum

 

Feeling on top of the world

We cannot resist a rest day at Inchnadamph – what with luxuries like fresh milk, wifi,  a washing machine, drying room and bath on offer (even Morris gets one). It’s well timed, because the following day we embark on what’s deemed to be ‘one of the hardest, but finest’ stages of the trail. It goes up almost immediately; not too sharply at first but then gradually getting steeper and tougher. Plenty of times, we think we’ve reached the top, only to find it’s just a lip on to a brief plateau, leading to the next false summit. But, oh, the views: an other-worldly 360-degree panorama of green-grey mountains and cobalt lochs with not a single shred of human presence. If a pterodactyl flew over, I don’t think I’d be all that surprised.

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Once again, we’re heading for the ‘V’ of a mountain pass. This one sits at around 600m, between Benn Uidhe and Glas Bheinn and it takes well over two hours of relentless climbing to reach it. Then we have to come down – which I’ve been dreading – but this time, there are no steep drops or rock steps to negotiate. We zig-zag down on steep, rubbly terrain until we finally reach the river at the bottom of the glen, about 4km south of Glencoul bothy, where we are planning to spend the night.

Following the river north we pass the huge Eas a Chual Aluinn waterfall before reaching Loch Beag, a sea loch, where we spot seals lounging among the seaweed.

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IMG_3719When we reach Glencoul, two men – Barry and Dave – are doing some repairs and maintenance work on the bothy, but they are happy to make room for us and even get us to help with the planting of a rowan tree in the garden.

The bothy is one of the nicest we’ve seen – two rooms, one with a hearth, comfy chairs and bookshelves. Later, they get a fire roaring and we sit and chat over mugs of tea before retiring to our newly-constructed sleeping platform. It turns out that Barry has just had a book published about the human fascination with islands, so he’s excited to hear that we’re planning to go to Luing, one of the tiniest Hebridean islands, after we finish the CWT.

A vicious wind whips up during the night, hammering on the door and window frames. When we get up the next morning, we’re not sure whether our planned route up and around the Aird da Loch peninsula – jutting out over the sea loch like the prow of a ship – will be safe. We decide we’ll give it a try and retreat to the bothy if it gets too hairy. The path zig-zags up the hill and soon my heart is racing both from the climb and the drop below. It’s blowy, but it doesn’t feel windy enough to be hazardous. When we reach where the captain’s cabin would be on our giant prow, there’s a large boggy plateau strewn with boulders, where we stop for our first break. I feel especially tired today and seem to keep tripping over. Jeff says that every time I do, I spin round and give the offending rock or root a dirty look, which tickles him. He thinks it’s hilarious the next time he trips to turn around and shake his fist at the ground in mock anger.

After negotiating the plateau, we drop down the wooded slope on the far side of the prow on a narrow, slippy path. It’s a great relief to finally reach loch level and rest on the shore.

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But we still have a lot of ground to cover so after extra sweet rations, we continue. When will I learn that ‘alongside the loch’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the path will be flat, like the water itself? We slog along the bank for a while – eyed by the occasional seal – and then, once again, find ourselves climbing. By the time we stop for lunch, I feel so whacked I have to have a lie-down before I can eat anything. Both the nap and the food help, which is just as well as we still have a long way to go. Fortunately, the dramatic scenery continues – pink granite cliffs, wind-sculpted trees and rocky promontories amid the hills and lochs.

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We stop to make coffee at an old shieling (shielings were temporary stone dwellings built on the hills for womenfolk to stay in while tending the cattle, brought up high for the better pasture. Apparently, the local men found many a ‘reason’ to drop by these houses full of young lasses…)

IMG_3738There is a route choice to make here – our mutual fatigue leads us to opt for the easier route to Loch Stack via Achfary, rather than up and over Ben Dreavie. As a result, the remainder of the day sees us on 4 x4 tracks and quiet roads, with the dark, cleaved peak of Ben Arkle looming in the distance. North of the hamlet of Achfary, a tweed-clad estate worker (this whole area is part of the Grosvenor Estate, owned by the Duke of Westminster) stops us to ask where we’re heading, as there is a deer-stalking party going out the next day on the slopes of Ben Arkle. He also recommends a camping spot a mile or so further on, which turns out to be one of our best yet; a level grassy pitch with mountain views, a tumbling river and roaring stags. Bundled up in our sleeping bags, we look at the map and it’s quite a shock to see how close we’re getting to the final push to the lighthouse. It’s exciting, of course, but I also feel a reluctance for the hike to end because I’ve come to love the rhythm of our days on the trail. I’m not quite ready for this chapter of The Crazy Thing to end yet…

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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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