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.

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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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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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