From two legs to four wheels

Autumn’s turned since we finished the Cape Wrath Trail. I’m wide-eyed at the colours nature is concocting. Vivid green tussocks of grass are streaked with red. Silver birch trees shudder in the wood, launching a confetti of yellow and rust leaves into the air. The bracken leaves have curled and turned copper, while the heather remains resolutely mauve. It’s all breathtakingly beautiful.

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Autumn’s turned since we finished the Cape Wrath Trail. I’m wide-eyed at the colours nature is concocting. Vivid green tussocks of grass are streaked with red. Silver birch trees shudder in the wood, launching a confetti of yellow and rust leaves into the air. The bracken leaves have curled and turned copper, while the heather remains resolutely mauve. It’s all breathtakingly beautiful.

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IMG_3922img_3859.jpgIt’s colder now, too. But we’re travelling by van – not on foot – so we have the luxury of being able to carry more camping gear. When we pitch up I’m grateful for the foam roll mat under my Thermarest and the blanket on top of my sleeping bag – not to mention real milk from the cool box for our hot drinks!

But camping is now a choice, not a necessity. And while that might sound like a positive thing (if it’s a little chilly, why not treat ourselves to a hotel?), the element of decision-making it presents is unwelcome. It’s an illustration of the difference between the hiking life, where your focus is narrowed to a single task, and ‘real’ life, where your attention and desires are pulled in many directions at once, creating conflict that saps your energy.

We drive to Achiltibuie on the remote and sparsely populated Coigach peninsula 20 miles north of Ullapool. It’s a moorland-dominated landscape strewn with lochs and mountains, including the spectacular Stac Pollaidh (pronounced Polly), whose tall jagged peaks are etched against the sky.

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We climb it on a day so windy that I am literally blown off my feet more than once (which doesn’t bode well for the next day’s local half marathon, which we’ve both signed up for). Morris looks otter-like, his ears flattened to his head.

The view from the top is awe-inspiring so we’re glad we went up but I mentally add tired quads to my list of excuses (pre-race sleep in a tent, 40mph wind, post-trail fatigue, fearsome hills) for any forthcoming poor performance in the race!IMG_3879IMG_3876

Jeff needs no such list of excuses, winning the race comfortably in 1hr 19 mins. I hate him. I love him. I run 1.47 – which I think is my second-worst half marathon time ever.

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But I console myself with my list of excuses and a generous share of the selection of sandwiches and cakes being doled out in Achiltibuie village hall. In true Scottish style, the race celebrations also include an evening ceilidh – surprisingly good for loosening up post-race muscles. After Stripping the Willow with vigour (while Morris hides under the table in embarrassment) we’re relieved when we get back to the campsite to find the tent hasn’t blown away. However, there’s much talk of Hurricane Ophelia winging its way towards this part of the west coast and the next stage of our adventure involves a ferry crossing…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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…

Who knew earwigs still existed?

There are a lot of good things about #tentlife. It strips life back to the essentials. Everything has its place (usually in a crate) and there’s none of the detritus that surrounds you at home. There’s no opportunity to cook elaborate recipes (no fridge, oven or indeed electricity), no self-inflicted obligation to blowdry your hair or iron your clothes, no TV with its spirit-sapping stream of bad news, no need to organise the sock drawer or alphabeticize the herbs and spices (oh, just me then…)

We are fortunate to find a gem of a campsite – Dogwood – tucked away at the end of a gravel lane amid rolling farmland and pockets of woodland in Brede, East Sussex.

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It’s small and offers modest facilities (one shower, two toilets, one outdoor sink) – which seems to attract mostly outdoorsy people who are quiet and self-sufficient. The site is run by Katy and Phil, who agree to host us because the idea of The Crazy Thing resonates with them. (Unsurprisingly, when you learn that they themselves ended up as the site’s owners after holidaying there from London and noticing it was up for sale.)

But tent life has its downsides too. I find earwigs lurking under everything I pick up. The first time I see one (in my shower cap, FYI) I’m surprised they still exist. Their strange little prehistoric bodies with those menacing rear pincers are a blast from my seventies childhood.

And then there’s the constant search for power sources. I lug my laptop around, along with a host of camping gadgets and chargers to plug in wherever I spy vacant plug sockets – the physio’s office, the library, a friend’s house, the pub.

But perhaps the most stressful thing about living on a campsite is that you never know who your neighbours will be from day to day. With jobs to go to (working out our three-month notice periods), we were gone by 7am and back at 7pm each day – with every homecoming presenting us with the question: who’ll be camped next to us? How close will they be? And more importantly, how long will they be there? We found people’s definition of personal space varied wildly. Some would pen themselves in with windbreaks and talk in low voices. Others would practically have a game of frisbee across your dinner table without a second thought.

Eventually though, the sun goes down, the fresh air takes its toll and people drift off to bed. You look around, nursing an enamel mug of tea, and see the flicker of campfire flames and a domed starlit sky and you know it’s all good.