Day 2 (20.6km, 897m)
SUNSHINE, wilderness, solitude. Throw in a fresh brewed cup of tea. Perfection. The morning view of the stillness across Loch Beoraid, and the deep blue of the water is compensation for a rotten night’s sleep. Blame the chorus of cuckoos and my sleeping position – stuck between two knobbly bits of grass on a drier than normal bog.
The two knobbly bits of ground were not obvious when the pitch was chosen the evening before and became the sections on the soft ground that did not give way to my ample body weight as the night wore on. While the pitch was on boggy land it had a consistency more like cool, dry plasticine rather than runny porridge, because of the lack of recent rain, so it appeared as it would hold up. Maybe because of being tired the lumps were not that obvious. The spot was odd because some of the grass at the pitch was yellow, dry and almost crisp, with shorter strands of green underneath. Being damp you would have thought that all the vegetation would be green.
Loch Beoraid: 7.30am, looking west along previous day’s route. Glorious
Loch Beoraid has a reputation for being home to plenty of ticks, but a quick inspection shows there are none visible on those parts of my anatomy that can be seen – by me. For a thorough inspection you would need to be a Heineken rubber man – able to reach parts of the body that other mortals cannot reach. [The brewing company used to have an advertising slogan of: Heineken, refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach].
The Trailstar and Oooknest inner have come through their first night of proper combat all ship shape and Bristol fashion. Pitched up on the foothills of the Chilterns in April, when you can go off home for your tea if things do not work out, is all well and good, but these babies, for the usual logistical reasons of work and family, had not had a proper test in the wilds. A test when there is no fallback if equipment fails and you have to like it or lump it when the rain leaks through.
They tick [the bloody things dominate your thoughts round here] all the right boxes, especially with the large space inside the inner. The night before the flysheet shed a forceful wind as if it was water off a duck’s back. With less aerodynamic shapes, such as hoops, while they are capable of standing up to strong winds, often there is much movement in the structure of the tent.
The inner is three sides of sinylon [a thin layer of the material impregnated using silicone] with a floor made of a stronger material called chikara [a Japanese word for power] and a door constructed of half sinylon and half mosquito mesh. The wind was strong enough to be squeezing through the mesh and creating a light flow of air across my face, which was a pleasant contrast to the warmth of the sleeping bag but strong enough to wake me up. The chikara floor did not let through any damp and all in all I am happy with the, let’s call it the Troookstar, set-up. There’s still work to do learning how to adjust the inner, but that’s all part and parcel of adapting to a new tent.
The added bonus of the space under the Troookstar – which was held up by the walking pole with the zinc oxide plaster – is being able to rig up a washing line. The socks, shoes and the inner soles have dried over night, despite a touch of frost, which the sun easily dries off from the outer skin. It has been an odd 12 hours of weather. Strong winds that die down to give way to cold and frost before the sun comes out to play. Weird and beautiful.
The warmth creates a natural slowness. Stood there with sunshine on my bare back feels simply fantastic. A couple of cereal bars are consumed; more tea downed and the rucksack has been slowly filled. But the inclination is to stand and stare round in the quiet, bright stillness. The loch is mill-pond flat, reflecting the blue sky and the heathers and the heights that litter its southern shore. Looking across the contours and the depths of the valley with a cuppa in hand, makes you feel quite smug, truth be told. Cat that got the cream. Who could be bothered to leave this cool plasticine bog. There is half a mind to stick around and say hello to ABCD as and when and if they make their way along the path/bog/watercourse, assuming they are all together.
A look west along the edge of the loch, the route walked the day before, reveals at least two people striking camp at the spot that was spied the previous night. It is probably two of the ABCD boys because from what can be made out the shapes appear to be blokes with one-man tents. It is just too far away to make out much detail and they are just blurry shapes at a distance. And they are distant enough to not spoil the tranquillity of the morning. It would be sociable, as in the spirit of the challenge, to say hello, away from that fish smell, and explain my hasty exit from Lochailort Inn.
But thinking about it, the alphabet boys, or anybody else on the trail this morning, would spoil the enjoyment of the beauty and seclusion of such a cracking day. Think dimming the sun; dulling the sky and darkening the water – this is one exquisite morning that has to be savoured alone and in silence. It’s a no to being sociable, it has to be onward and upward and we will say hello another times.
This morning is one of those occasions walking on the hills or coast that stick in your memory for years, if not forever. This is one of those days that will remain forever, through thick and thin, fog and rain, good times or bad times. One of those days that when you are crammed into a train, London tube or Christmas shopping queue in the cold of winter it will snap you from the depths of gloom.
The sleeping bag aired and packed with the rest of the kit; the campsite checked for rubbish and pegs, the path, or swamp, to the head of the loch beckons. It is time to make some mileage and height. If the weather holds this will be a glorious, thirsty, day’s walking.
The route along the last section of Loch Beoraid is more defined than the latter part of the trail the day before. Heading towards an old house at Kinlochbeoraid (NM857850) there is a stone outline of a long-abandoned homestead that is basically in marsh land and despite the heat of the day and of the past week it remains wet underfoot. What a nightmare it must have been living there. It is already a struggle to keep the trail shoes dry. The grey of the Bridgedale sock fabric mixed with the brown of the bog water produces a squelchy wishy-washy version of the brown of the Troookstar.
The path dances between the river and a bulk of rock covered in vegetation through the accompanying marsh/bog. The rock is like an entrance to another world as Kinlochbeoraid looms into view. It is a lonely, dark building, with a stone enclosure that is all set out in its own bowl at the head of the valley. It is more recently abandoned than the little stone homestead. It looks angry, boarded up and uncared for feels bitter at being left and no longer loved. Even in the bright blue sky of the morning sunshine it exudes murkiness, as if the brightness of the day makes Kinlochbeoraid more dark than it already is.
Somebody must have cared for it once, cared enough to build a dwelling in such a perfect position for beauty and peace. With the two windows in the roof it looks more home than hunting lodge. It is accessible only from the waters of the loch and then a boggy trudge along the riverside. Private and shy at the head of the loch and it would be an invasion of its sorrow to take a picture, like taking a chunk of its soul. With its tumbledown stone enclosure, that predates the house, it is sad, lonely and lost among a crown of hills. There is an attraction about old buildings in the wilds; a pull to go inside and look, take in a whiff of its history, but with Kinlochbeoraid there is none.
Another look back reveals no sign of the alphabet boys or the Canadian couple. What will the Canadian woman make of Kinlochbeoraid? Probably wish it was a hotel, and who could blame her. If it was a hotel it would be called Prince Charlie’s Retreat in honour of the Jacobite pretender and his escape route through this area after defeat at the battle of Culloden – and of course it would have to sell ale from the Rebellion Beer Company. The Prince Charlie’s Retreat Hotel would also have a campsite, because opposite the old house by the river is an ideal campsite. Flat and with a degree of short-cropped grass. If only I had walked on the night before. Ce la vie, au revoir Kinlochbeoraid.
A path veering off behind the house (NM861849) is a steep climb up Ruighe Breac that ends eventually in Glen Pean. Straight ahead, my route, is Gleann Donn. Like Ruighe Breac, Gleann Donn is steep, but unlike Ruighe Breac without a recognisable path. It is going to be tough walking in the heat, as it will for anybody climbing this day. I am thinking Canadian lady. There are a few tracks made by animals, but they are coarse and temporary and not a proper path. It will be hard and she will struggle and sweat cobs, as will her husband as will I.
Looking back, the north shore of Loch Beoraid leaves a good feeling. Good because I have walked it. Despite its severe moistness, there is an appeal to the route. Sunshine adds to that appeal. In hard rain and severe weather it would be even more of a squelchy, sodden, slow fag of a route – but still good. While to some walkers the path might be unappealing because of its slowness and swampiness, there have been no hordes of walkers, which is a plus because it adds to the solitude of the place.
The start of the climb up Gleann Donn is a crossing of the river near where two watercourses meet. It is a sharp sided riverette and is easy enough to traverse in benign conditions. The vetter, in his scrutiny of my challenge route, had warned me that the crossing would be difficult if the rivers in the area were in spate after heavy rainfall. A crossing might have to be made further up Ruighe Breac to get across to Gleann Donn. On this day it is no problem.
On the other side of the river a long steep slog up the glen is laid out before me. On such a beautiful dry day not having a path does not matter. It’s a case of pick your own spot, but the progress across rough, tussocky and spongy ground is slow and sweaty. This is the kind of terrain that prohibits the casual walker. Is that me? Probably.
A cool pool bathed in sunshine below a small waterfall begs to be swum in. A drink and a long admiring look suffice. Climbing and looking back down the valley is a strain on the sight. I have one eye out for the alphabet boys, but am more curious to know how the Canadian couple are getting on. If they are getting on. But straining to look along Loch Beoraid from my lofty position on such a clear day there is no sign of anything – man nor beast.
The half-price lightweight Karrimor carbon poles come into their own again; helping smooth the climb, propelling the push up the glen, higher and higher, slowly, so slowly. The steepness of the climb saps the strength. But do I care? Not a Jesuit’s cassock! Some faith is restored in the walking poles.
It is not possible to stress what a beautiful, beguiling day this is. It is sexy weather, tranquility and sunshine. Even the cuckoos have taken a siesta. This is supposed to be a challenge. But what is the challenge? This is heaven, drink it in. Sweat the weight off and savour the day. On the Scoville scale of enjoyment, this morning is naga chilli hot.
As for the feet, well think damp squib.
My route up to the bealach sweeps to the left of the stream round a knoll to avoid the steep sides of the ravine. Near the top the ground is a deep brown bog, drier than would be expected, but still a bog. The route flattens out and it looks as if there is no way through into the next valley. Only after crossing the peat hags, can a route be spotted sneaking alongside the stream into a flat area on the bealach where the waters gather their thoughts before dropping down the hillsides on either side. Looking back along the glen, Beoraid is lonely, lovely and yet lost, but not in the same way as Kinlochbeoraid. The loch is lost to the people who do not tramp up there through the wet and the squelch. With rock or harder ground the walk would be so much easier and so much more populated. The same applies to the route up from Beoraid.
On the cusp of treading from one valley to the next, one last glimpse confirms that there is no sign of the alphabet boys, who will probably be heading over to Glen Pean, or the Canadian couple, in particular the woman. She was tired yesterday, and I don’t know why I keep thinking about her, but I do, maybe it was because I thought she was distressed; maybe her quiet suffering resonated with me. But she never spoke, nor made eye contact, so who knows. But I do hope she will be okay.
The Canadian couple are in stark contrast to a fair few of the challenge posse bashing their way to the east coast. They are probably younger for a start. I thought he was in his seventies but he was probably about 65 and she was maybe in her early sixties. (I hope they are not reading this and it turns out they are in their fifties!) It’s hard to tell. On the final roll call for the challenge the oldest entrant was Bill Robertson, aged 83. Eighty bloody three, for crying out loud. Jean Turner, 76; David Brocklehurst, 76; his missus Margaret, 74. Then there is James Munro, aged 77, a bloke on his first crossing; John Burt, aged 77. The list of over seventies goes on. Coming up in the rear are a glut of people in their late sixties. Every man jack of them can look after themselves? But the Canadian couple? They had backpacking gear but did not have a map, which is incredible, and there is no mobile phone signal. Did they underestimate the difficulty of the route or just think that it would be waymarked as so many paths are in north America and Europe are? As the gradient dips down in favour of Corryhully over Beoraid, the concern has to end. Good luck, again.
On the flat lands at the top, under the overhang of a huge boulder in a stream roughly at Reidh Gorm (NM886847), lies a two-tone white and brown stone. The white is at the top of the stone protruding from the water, the brown underneath the white. It is a stone so white that it looks like it has been placed there for a reason. It appears man-made, out of context and at the very least curious. Has some impecunious 19th century toff painted it and put the stone there under an enormous granite cousin as a curiosity or cut-price folly? An early form of geo-caching?
It is easy enough to step into the water to be closer to the stone, and part of its attraction is that you have to touch it. Inspect it. Marvel at it. But what is it? A lure; a tempt for the unwary. If this was an Indiana Jones film, the big boulder would fall upon the unsuspecting traveller the moment the two-tone stone was touched by the warmth of a human hand. The way the stone is half white, half brown looks so odd and yet it is at home. This is where it lives, under the protection of a boulder in a stream. No tricks or traps, just a fluke of nature. A chihuahua guarded by a rottweiler. Weird and beautiful. The water tastes gorgeous and is cold enough to cause a headache because I drink too much of it too fast.
The feet are soaking again and remain so walking across the flat area at the top, where course of heavy flows of water can be traced. Grass, pebbles and detritus from a fast running current have left a boundary reached when the bulging streams have overflowed. At a guess the streams have been about three times their usual widths. What a torrent this must have been. As the water has pounded its way down the gradient, long grass has been flattened by the flow; straight and true, neat and smooth like a Teddy boy’s hair do.
After the climb the Karrimor poles are holding up, especially the one with the designer zinc oxide tape on its fault line. Meanwhile the trail shoes keep sliding down the popularity scale.
The path along Allt a Caol-Ghleann, tips off the plateau (NM889848) and sweeps down in a slow movement to Corryhully. It sounds romantic, but this is just an area that is an all-too familiar Scottish terrain of bogs. More bogs. And more damn bogs. And bogs that are barely touched by the dry spell. The land is wet and proud of it – still beautiful – but it must be hell here when it rains. During the planning of the route, one important consideration had been where it might be possible to pitch at the end of the first day of walking, depending on what time I had started from Lochailort. This area was a hot favourite for a wild pitch if Corryhully bothy could not be reached by the end of the day. But pitch a tent here though? More like drop anchor.
Onwards and downwards. Tick, tick, tick … it is just a matter of time before the little blighters introduce themselves.
Our first encounter follows a stumble down clumps of moss and heather – minus my rucksack – in an attempt to fill a bottle from the stream at roughly NM897847. Over confidence because of the walking poles, possibly, but either way I slip like a good ‘un into the water, bouncing off rocks on the sides. It hurts. Bloody hurts. And the fall is a good and proper dignity stripper – all that is needed to complete my embarrassment is for a crowd of onlookers to suddenly appear and gawp and enquire “are you alright, love?” when obviously I am not.
It is a foot-stamping, paralysing, humbling pain for which nothing can be done except to endure the torture until it subsides.
The spot that takes the force of the fall is the eight inches of lower spine that are stuck together with titanium screws and bone grafts. The area is bloody agony. Right now I am worrying that I have undone the repair work. I worry unnecessarily. To put the situation in context, six months after the operation to fix the back I ask the surgeon who carried out the work: “How strong is my back? What can I do and not do with it?”
He laughs the laugh of a wiseman bestowing knowledge on the ignorant masses. We are four storeys high in the hospital block and he beckons me over to look out from a window.
“If I push you out of here,” he said. “Any number of bones and internal organs could get broken or squashed. You’re back, where I have performed surgery, [he runs a forefinger finger down the lower spine] will be as solid as rock.”
Remembering what he said offers some comfort that my back is not damaged, just sore. Bloody sore. God it hurts.
Water is supped from the stream, a small bottle filled, and a suitable time is spent rubbing the sore area and feeling sorry for myself, until the sharpness of the pain subsides. The fact that had the rucksack been on my back it would have taken the impact of the fall is not lost on me.
Corryhully is a straight forward downhill stroll on a rough route. The sun still shines and the blue sky still beams. Uncomfortable back, yes, but nothing broken.
It is a faint itch on the left hand that starts a commotion.
A black spot.
“Bloody hell! What is that?”
Then it dawns on me that the black spec is a nymph tick.
Barely visible. Yet visibly motoring through the hairs of my exposed arms.
It is flicked off as is another that has made its home in the sweatiness under the watch. Two more are further up the left arm; three are on the right arm. Suffering hot-dogs, they are all over the shop.
Some are too small to be extricated with the tick remover and have to be squeezed out – whether they have bitten or not – in a fashion that I hope pushes out all bad stuff that can accompany ticks. The points where they have been are wiped over with Sterets, alcohol skin cleaners, grabbed from the first aid kit. The alert is over, but just thinking about the blighters triggers another outbreak of itchy skin – at least the panic has stopped me feeling sorry for myself. Crazy as it sounds, I feel violated.
The trail shoes are wet again after the slip, sopping in fact. The realisation is finally penetrating my thick skull that the trail shoes are uber useless – and being used out of sentimentality and not practicality. Comfort shoes. Like an old and ragged pair of slippers, and accompanying pipe, next to a fireside. They have served honourably over two years, but they are not up to this task. Maybe I am not up to the task of choosing shoes/ boots. Sentimentality over sense in my case.
Plus they are sopping, squeezy, squidgy wet. The kind of wet that when you bend a foot, the water spurts out, pushed from the fabric, like wringing out a dish cloth. I wish I had my old-fashioned red-laced leather-all-over til it’s coming out of your ears walking boots. Heavy, but hard. Solid soled but dependable. Dense and waterproof. And also thirty-five years old.
This is only day two of at least twelve. Miles – ie at least a day’s walk – from civilisation and even further from the nearest shop, the only choice is to persevere with the shoes. The lightweight Zuuks are not adequate replacements. On a steep hiccup heading towards the bothy, the trail shoes and their Vibram soles lose grip again. Another tumble, another black mark in their favour. And possibly more black marks on my arms – fortunately not this time.
Down, down, down. Much of the height gained in the morning heat is now lost. Glenfinnan lodge looks a magnificent retreat; high and aloof above the valley and over Corryhully. The bothy is bathed in sunshine and looks from the outside a perfect little homestead, a vision of bucolic loveliness. Studying the area via the internet, it had appeared more remote and cut off than it is. But it is still an attractive place from the outside, in an excellent spot, and no doubt welcome in a winter blizzard.
Getting nearer there is somebody moving. It is a woman. She ambles down to the River Finnan oblivious to my approach. Wandering inside the bothy, the air is cool but the place feels like a drinkers’ hut; a Friday night rendez-vous for ribald reverie; a Saturday night shelter for supping and singing. There is too much personal gear hanging from the rafters of the place, and it is too near a road, which makes it accessible to non-walkers, boozers and snorers. In fact, inside it is a dump, with little room for sleeping and its only redeeming features being an electricity point and two benches outside on which you can soak up the sunshine and dry off your boots and insoles.
“Oh! There’s somebody there. Hello?” The woman has walked back from the stream. “Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you. Thought you had seen me walking towards the bothy.”
“No … you gave me a fright.”
Stepping out of the darkness of the bothy I say hello to Heather. Heather Elston. It is lovely to chat to her. And chat we do for ages in the sunshine, outside on the benches over drinks – fresh water with added effervescent orange tablets, not gin & tonics. The talk is of ticks, routes and the glorious weather. Malvern (where Heather hails from), backpacking equipment, food, families and their attitudes to backpacking. So on.
It is the sort of conversation that is not possible with people who do not appreciate the freedom that backpacking offers. People that need clean sheets, a flushing loo and a la carte menus. Not to mention soft toilet paper. Heather is on her third crossing. “The first one is the toughest,” she says. Words that I will recall a week from now. She had started late from Lochailort the day before, having approached the village by train from the north, because the railway people cocked up the booking of her ticket, and she had camped on the ridge above Loch Beoraid. She too heard the cuckoos echoing across the valley as she drifted off to sleep. Her name was one of the four without a signature next to it on the Lochailort Inn check-out list.
A man and his son walk past as we chat and the father barely musters a hello, like he has a cob on. The son, walking five steps behind, smiles. Another chap appears from the other direction, he has travelled up from London the day before, on the sleeper. Wow, he is kitted out in some of the best lightweight equipment you have seen. He looks the part, and looks like he means business. He is the man. Knock yourself out! He is on the Cape Wrath Trail.
TGO Challenge? “What’s that?” he says. Is he serious? Has he not heard of the challenge? He hasn’t. Good luck on the Cape Wrath Trail.
A bird comes from the bushes to say hello as we talk. Wagtail? Not sure, but it does not fear humans and looks around for a few crumbs. There are plenty of them, mainly of the oatcake variety near me.
The polycro groundsheet, that rests outside the Troookstar inner, needs airing to get rid of the condensation and dampness from the previous night – something that was forgotten in the mesmerising sunshine of the morning at the loch. Polycro is a thin layer of material akin to cling film and is a very effective barrier against the damp and lightweight. Its main problem is that it is also very flimsy and tricky to unfold when wet. It ripped when it became snagged on the tread of my trail shoes – another black mark.
Finally the thin sheet is unravelled – and there stuck in the folds of the ground sheet is a flat brown body. A female adult tick. It makes me shudder because the bloody thing looks evil. Looking at the thing it is understandable why ticks are demonised. It is squashed and despatched to tick heaven. I shudder. Finding that tick reminds me to check the rest of my body for ticks after my fall. I apologise to Heather and retire inside the bothy to make a strip search of myself because my skin again feels like it is crawling.
Bloody hell, there is one in the visible parts of the groin area, or what my parents used to call the nether regions (which sounds like a European country) and another has appeared on the left arm. That is 10 in total. God, I hope there are none elsewhere, because there are only so many places that a person can see on their body. The Heineken rubber man is needed again, or at least a mirror.
Sunshine, great company has stretched a short break into a two-hour lunch stop. The time has flown by and is fast approaching three o’clock. It has been excellent soaking up the sun’s rays and enjoying the peace and quiet, with a faint babble of water in the background. Sadly our routes go in opposite directions, or we could have continued our mini social as we walked.
Heather heads south on the track down Glen Finnan to Harry Potter’s viaduct and onto Cona Glen. For me, phone charged and £1.20 or 62 grams (seven 10ps; two 20ps and two 5ps) in silver deposited in the electricity honesty box, my route lies in the opposite direction and a track, heading eventually for Loch Arkaig, below the imposing 909-metre summit of Streap, which is almost a munro, on the right and Sgurr Thuilm on the left.
What a thrill after two days to tread on a proper track for the first time this walk. No wet feet, in so far as no more water is added to the footwear, firm traction and a speed of more than a mile an hour. Great vistas and sunshine continue, as the track slowly disintegrates into a rough path.
Just before the head of the bealach another walker comes into view. The TGO badges littering his hat are a giveaway.
“I take it you are on the TGO then?” Nodding towards the hat.
He smiles. A smile that says, if I knew who you were or cared who you were, I’d say “No, of course not!”.
This is Alan Jordan, aged 64, on his sixteenth crossing, and he is making for Corryhully, where he intends to camp. It is tempting to ask him to keep an eye out for the Canadian couple, but drop it; I am not their parents.
Alan has walked up from where the area that I am going to. I have just come up from where he is going down to. He has an easy track and I tell him he has a dry wander down. But with 15 crossings under his belt, I am sure he knows that already. Grandmother … suck eggs … and all that. He very politely does not mention what I have in store.
Up ahead is a metal gate (NM942867), the remnant of a long disintegrated deer fence. A sign wired to its frame says: “Please close the gate.” It is amusing to think that the sign has been attached to the gate long after the fence has disappeared by somebody with a sense of humour. God bless ’em.
Well it has to be done. The gate has to be walked through. If it is a sign of madness to walk through this needless gate, comply with the notice and burst into laughter, then so be it. Actually, hang on, be a proper rebel, a Jacobite maybe, and climb over the gate.
Mr Jordan would have been out of earshot, fortunately for him, but it would have hastened his journey down to Corryhully had he heard the mad giggling of a northern tick-ridden monkey after clambering over the rusty gate, with the rucksack on. Nobody hears me. I am alone … ha, ha, ha. Don’t ask. Utter lunacy. A manic episode. Must be low blood sugar. Chocolate is consumed on the other side of the gate.
Any residual laughter comes to a sharp halt halfway down Gleann a Chaorainn where the persistent peat terrain puts paid to the other walking pole – sucking it in and rendering it in two at exactly the same spot as the first pole. Bloody hell fire. This is only day two. Shoes gone to pot, poles up bog creek, come on. Consistency is good, but Lord Elphus, give me a break.
The groans of exasperation that replace the laughter echo from the sides of the hills and turn into expletives. The f-word, mainly, because as beautiful as the weather is my luck today has just been ugly. To pull out the stricken pole the same procedure as the previous day is used– it is akin to returning the favour. The rescued pole now rescuing the rescuee.
But after the faffing about the day before, when the top third of the first broken pole would stay in place for a couple of bog plunges then split off again, the weakness of this Karrimor pole is going to be fixed on the spot. I am not going to faff about. It gets sorted out now.
Still on the wet land, the rucksack is whipped off and rested on the left foot while the sack receives a hearty rummaging. Out with the zinc oxide tape, three wraps round the pole and the rucksack returned to the back. Bang. Job done, and hey presto a matching pair of walking poles with go-faster flesh-coloured zinc oxide tape. If anybody asks, they will be told the tape is a fashion statement … dahrling. Karrimor poles a bargain at £30? … don’t get me started at this moment. As far as I am concerned … that is it … Karri-no-more. The one plus is that the back is not as sore as it was.
The walk continues to be a succession of peat, bog and water followed by water, bog and peat. It is horrendously slow picking out a path, made worse because of the false hope. Numerous people have walked this route and in the process have left what looks like a trail, which gives rise to the assumption that the path, trail, whatever it is they have left, is okay. It isn’t, as the shoes continue to testify. And the path becomes more hazardous the lower a walker travels.
On the other side of the river, the east side, deer stare across. There is a path on their side of the river, which is not marked on my map, but my inclination is to carry on with the route on the west side because I don’t fancy a river crossing. That is until the path comes to a point at roughly NM96790, where it dips down and round into a sharp ravine that is not noticeable on a 1:50,000 OS map and certainly not discernible on a 1:25,000 version.
This thankfully short stretch is steep and tricky after a long day in the hills. Being tired makes me wary because the path is only about eight inches wide. A little stumble and to the right is a forty-five degree slope and man and rucksack would easily tumble into the ravine at the bottom. It is goodnight, Vienna. Two days until the phone in to challenge control. There is no mobile signal round here.
It is a relief to get through this stretch. Like being out of the woods. The time is approaching 7pm. There has been nobody on the trail, except the deer, since Mr Jordan at the top of the valley two hours earlier. It is quiet, with a blue sky and a breeze. After the steep ravine the route flattens out on its way to the River Pean and the head of Loch Arkaig, which will be the stop-off for the night, with the time I estimate being about 8pm.
Heading past the remnants of a campfire – why can’t people dig a pit? – there is a dance across boulders on a tributary of the Pean and the route then leads to a substantial bridge across the river itself. A vague outline of a path turns to the left then right down through forest somewhere, into a ravine and presumably onto a forest track that will end up at a bridge at Stratham.
The forest is uninviting and gloomy. Why go left? Being non too keen on forests I go right; well it seems the more logical route. It is open and all that lays before me is grassland and the walk is a simple matter of following the perimeter of the forest all the way along and round as it turns towards the bridge across the River Dessarry near Stratham. Nothing could be simpler.
The walk is, or isn’t, a walk. It is a zig-zag of a wander along increasingly wetter ground to the corner of the wood and involves dodging boggy patches with moderate success. There is abandoned camping equipment, a tent inner and some kind of ground sheet and other bits and pieces of outdoor gear. The Victor Meldrew in me fires up and thinks “bloody litter louts”. But maybe something more serious has happened here. Maybe it is a warning. Imagine the headlines from the local newspaper, the Loch Arkaig Informer: “Deer stalkers shoot schoolboy campers” or “Glen Pean serial killer strikes again” perhaps even “Boozed-up bloke loses backpacking equipment”. The last one is more like it.
The time is closing in on the 8pm cut-off point. Up ahead a fox darts into view and dashes for the safety of the woods – as if I am going to dance through the marshland to chase him. He acts as reminder to not leave food hanging about outside the tent tonight.
Progress is slow over the last quarter of a mile because it involves wading through an unexpected bog, on what had appeared when gazing down on the approach earlier, a benign, lush, grassy expanse. The bog is the worst encountered so far, full of claggy, deep and sodden peat, really wet nasty marshland, at one point up to the knees, the walk is another dance from tuft of bog grass to tuft of bog grass; mantraps of plenty of placer to sink in and few areas of firmer ground. Navigating a way through is a real-life computer game hopping from safe spot to safe spot, back-tracking, prodding and checking. Some parts of the vegetation are thicker and more substantial than other and can be stood on for longer but not forever. The walking poles sink in deep at some points when the terrain is tested. The zinc oxide tape holds firm, thank goodness, because there would not be time to halt and haul the poles out if they were to split off again. The bog trot goes on and on and on. The area is more loch than land and, as a cottage at Strathan looms ever nearer, the place is littered with a spectrum of colours of sphagnum moss – sometimes pink, sometimes green, sometimes purple – which makes the place even creepier. The moss looks beautiful, but sucks limbs into its watery world.
The final section up to the river is physically testing and slow progress late in the day. Draining the energy and very unnerving. The legs, the crappy-shoes and the leggings are caked in mud and all sorts of dripping wet vegetation. It is such a pleasure and feels like redemption to finally reach “the bridge over the river Dessarry” [strains of Colonel Bog-ey run through my head] and a road. A firm surface. Thank god I am out.
The cottage at Stratham receives a long stare. Slutching round the boggy bit at the corner of the forest to the crossing, there had been somebody in one of the big windows watching my travails from the cottage. The person was monitoring my progress as if it was a bad night on the television, that is if they had a telly, maybe they did not and are craving excitement, a dangerous situation and here was a walker traipsing across the death bog. Was I their entertainment? Inside on the wall is probably a counter of people who have not made it through. Would the people in the cottage have come to my aid if the bog had clamped me tight in its boggy grip? Or would they have abandoned the spectacle like viewers switch over at the end of the film starring Jim Carrey, the Truman Show? Scottish friendliness dictates they would have brought me a cup of tea and a shortcake biscuit … as I was sucked under by the sphagnum moss.
Across the bridge, heading for the ruined barracks, the area is littered with forest roads and an abundance of notices about the area being estate land and do not do this and do not do that; wipe your feet; wash your hands; no petting. The sign writer must work 24 hours a day, seven days a week and live in a mansion.
The 8pm cut-off has come and gone, forgotten about in my preoccupation with the precarious crossing of the bog, but it is time to stop because my blood sugar levels are again low. The priority is to get pitched and get cooking – something substantial such as carbohydrates, not just chocolate. My target in looking for a pitch is a part of the shore of the loch that has less rough ground than the areas around it and appears to have spots of short grass, but even as I am walking and looking ahead, to my left is another possible spot – a grassy triangle between rough estate tracks. It is about fifteen foot above my head with an MSR tent bedded firmly in. The occupant is out of view, but the tent flaps are open. It is a good spot, not too far from water and a great aspect across the top end of Loch Arkaig. Another tent could fit on there no trouble, it might be a squeeze because the Troookstar does have a large footprint, but it’s ideal for another reason spot, because the route for the next day goes over the hills to Kinbreak bothy from this point.
But thinking about the situation, the occupant of the MSR tent (curiosity is killing me: is it the chap walking the Cape Wrath trail?) might not take too kindly to a person pitching right up next to them when there are hundreds of acres of land and possible pitches to choose from. Best to stick with original plan and head for the loch side.
At the car park on rough ground at the end of Loch Arkaig, where a barrier erected by the estate owners across the route marks the end of a single track road, there are plenty of cars parked, roughly a dozen, old bangers, new bangers and off-roaders. I knew about the car park, but naively thought that at this time of the evening and being so far from civilisation, that it would be nigh on empty, with everybody away to their homes for a pint and a takeaway. Where are all the people who have driven here and left their cars?
On the 1:25000 Ordnance Survey map a track is marked that heads for the loch, but the track is over emphasised, it is a rough, undulating partially-civilised bog with stones, covered in minute growths of vegetation, that have been thrown in at regular points over the years to form an unkempt track that leads to the ruins of the building outlined on the map.
Heading for the side of the loch it becomes clear where some of the car owners are, and what they are – anglers. They keep an eye on me wandering about the area, my head down, weighing up the suitability of patches of land to accommodate a tent.
The chosen pitch is either side of where two fishing parties have taken up residence (NM988914). The right-hand party has one tent and one chap sat in a chair with his rod out and a can of Tennants lager by his side. Him and his mate, Tam, have loud voices – which is pretty useful when there is no mobile signal, but not helpful if you need a good sleep.
On the left-hand side, near the old building and track, are a young chap and an older chap. Father and son at a guess. Walking down the track, between the car park and the chosen campsite, these two had been scouring the bog and scrub for wood to burn on a fire. Their fire is alight (not such a beaut of a word in this context because in this case it means it is smoking) in the old hearth and chimney of the ruin.
Above their tents is a tiny hillock, which I return to so as to make sure there are no better pitches elsewhere on the loch. The younger chap comes close to me as he heads for the hearth with another scratching of firewood.
“How ya doing?” I say.
“Nae baud.” [good]. He nods. “An whit aboot yersel?”
“Nae bad.” He smiles in appreciation at somebody trying to speak the lingo, but thinking that if I am Scottish, he is a Dutchman.
“Been a good day?” Said without a hint of Scottishness and a pretty plain kind of thing to say.
“Aye, it has,” he replies. [My translation] “I’ve bagged a pike and a few trout, and a couple of others.”
Pike! Blimey. Basically he has landed a big load of fish that day and is very pleased with himself. And quite right too. He points out the spots along the loch where he made his captures.
“Let’s see how we get on tonight, eh?”
Suddenly my pitch on the edge of the loch between the left-hand party and the right-hand party and on short grass that should be free from ticks, does not sound or appear appealing, more like appalling.
Night fishing. Who would have reckoned with that? If these lads are having a Tennants or two, night fishing could turn into an activity that generates a little too much noise for the middle of nowhere. Why would anybody drive 15 miles down a single track road for a spot of 24-hour fishing? Would I? That’s a no, but the next question facing me is whether to walk 15 minutes back up the track to near where the MSR tent is to get away from the anglers and their potentially noisy night fishing?
To hell with it. No turning back. The short-grass pitch is out of sight, but not quite out of sound, of the fishing parties, but it will have to do.
They seem like decent, reasonable chaps. If they are singing Flower Of Scotland too loud at two in the morning and a sassenach asks them “tae shut e f**k up”, they would be the kind of people that would say “nae pro-blem big man”.
The voices of the anglers from the right-hand party carry across the evening air, but are not intrusive. In fact the pitch proves to be a peaceful, secluded spot in which to enjoy the late dusk and the seclusion. It has a pleasing view, too, and free from flies by virtue of a breeze. The pitch is a tight fit, trying to avoid a hole that has been used as an ash tray and is full of cigarette ends, and one peg of the Troookstar is lodged right on the edge of the loch. But so what. The Troookstar fits. It’s flat and out of view of the anglers.
A meal of chilli spaghetti, which is left to cook inside a pot cosy to keep in the heat from the pan, plus shortcake dippers and tea followed by chunks of chocolate and digestives caps an eventful day.
The sodden socks plus inner soles are pegged out on the internal washing line. It is looking good. Just need to soak the pan, because the pasta got stuck to the bottom of it. Come the morning it will easily wash off.
Okay pal, as they might say in beautiful Scotland, “away to ma bed”. The pillow pumped up is just lovely, thank-you. Just zip up the bag, the airbed evens out any discrepancies on the ground. No sleeper train, no cuckoos, just peace and quiet. Brilliant.
“Jumpin’ Jesuits, what the bloody hell is that noise?”
That is, as is discovered upon leaving the Troookstar to investigate, some kind of automatic, buzzing, flashing, fishing float being employed by the right-hand angling crew after a few too many Tennants.
My next course of action is being weighed up. The process had got to the stage of realising that a form of written complaint to the local council might be a slow process when, as quickly as it started, the buzzing stops without the intervention of a tired sassenach.
It could have been worse. Imagine the headlines in the Loch Arkaig Informer: “Sleep-deprived backpacker mangles anglers’ buzzing float – exclusive.”