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 were not obvious when the pitch was checked out the night before. They became the bits on the soft ground that did not give way to my ample body weight as the night wore on. It was obvious that the pitch was boggy but more like warm plasticine than runny porridge, so thought it would be fine. It was tiredness that cancelled out the lumps; made them disappear from the consciousness.
Loch Beoraid: 7.30am, looking west along previous day’s route. Glorious
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 so damp you would have thought that all the vegetation would be green.
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 the anatomy that can be seen – by me. For a thorough inspection you would need to be a Heineken rubber man – able to reach the parts other mortals cannot reach.
Nearly done and dusted and ready to leave the pitch, a look west along the edge of the loch reveals at least two campers, also striking camp, popping into view at the spot that was spied on the night before. From their shapes it is not the Canadian couple, it is probably two of the ABCD boys. It looks like two blokes with one-man tents. It is just too far to make out their faces. It’s not possible to see any more in the morning light than was possible in the light of the evening before.
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. Lumped it was apt for the last night.
They tick [bloody things dominate your thoughts in this place] all the right boxes, especially with the space inside the inner. The flysheet shed a forceful wind in an exposed spot like it was water off a duck’s back. There was no rocking of the structure that accompanies less aerodynamic shapes, such as hoops. The inner is three sides of yellow nylon walls with a chikara (a lightweight but tough nylon groundsheet material) floor and the top half of the doorway is made of mosquito mesh. The wind was strong enough at one point to be breezing through the mesh and creating a light flow of air across my face. It was a pleasant contrast to the warmth of the sleeping bag. The chikara floor did not let through any damp and all in all the set-up, let’s call it the Troookstar set-up, is doing the job. The porch, in particular, and the space age shape and smoothness of the tent give it an appeal. There is work to do learning to adjust the inner, but that is all part and parcel of having a new tent.
The added bonus of the space under the Troookstar – which was held up by the walking pole with the 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 and crisps up the sleeping bag. It has been an odd 12 hours of weather. The strong wind died down to give way to cold then the sun came out to play. Weird and beautiful.
The warmth creates a natural slowness. Stood there with sunshine on the bare back is just 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, there is a feeling of being quite smug, truth be told. Cat that got the cream. Who could be arsed to leave the warm plasticine bog, with the sun doing the business in tranquility land. Mind you there should be one or two cuckoos that need waking up. There is half a mind to stick around and say hello to ABCD as and when they make their way along the path/bog/watercourse, assuming they are all together.
The mystery twosome have been and are far enough away that they do not impinge on my isolation. As and when their heads do pop up, they are blurry shapes at a distance, and not easily spotted. It would be in the spirit of the sociability of the TGO Challenge to wait and say hello, away from that nauseating fish whiff, and explain the hasty smell-inspired exit from the Lochailort Inn the day before.
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. It would be like dimming the sun; dulling the sky and darkening the water. No offence to anybody. this is a day to enjoy the wilderness alone. So that is it. Decision made. This is one exquisite morning to savour by myself. No to being sociable, it has to be onward and upward. We will say hello another day.
There are days walking on the hills or coasts that stick in your memory for years. This is one of those days. A morning that will remain forever, through thick and thin, fog and rain, brexit or no brexit. One of those days that when you are crammed into a train, London tube or Christmas shopping queue in the deepest cold of winter it will snap you from the depths of gloom.
Kit packed and campsite checked, the path, or swamp, beckons. It is time to make some mileage, well height at least.
The route along the last section of Loch Beoraid is more defined than the latter part of the trail yesterday. Heading towards the old house at Kinlochbeoraid (NM857850) there is a stone outline of a long-abandoned homestead that is basically in marsh land, where despite the heat of the day and of the past week it remains severely moist 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 Troookstar brown.
The path dances between the river and a bulk of rock covered in vegetation through the accompanying marsh/bog/crappy area. 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. But it looks angry, boarded up and uncared for like it is bitter at being left and no longer loved. Even in the blue-sky Saturday morning sunshine it exudes murkiness, and the brightness of the day makes Kinlochbeoraid feel even darker than it really is.
Somebody must have cared for it, to build a dwelling in such a perfect position for beauty and peace. 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 probably predates the house, it is sad and lost among a crown of hills.
Move on. Another quick 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. They might call it Prince Charlie’s Retreat in honour of the Jacobite pretender and his escape route through the area after defeat at the battle of Culloden.
Au revoir Kinlochbeoraid.
The path veering off behind the house is a steep climb up Ruighe Breac that ends eventually in Glen Pean. Straight ahead is Gleann Donn. Like Ruighe Breac, Gleann Donn is steep, very steep, but it is without a recognisable path. It is going to be tough walking in the heat, as it will for anybody climbing this day. Think Canadian lady. There are a few animal tracks, but they are coarse and temporary and not a proper path. It will be hard and she will sweat cobs, as will her husband as will we all.
Looking back, the north shore of Loch Beoraid leaves a good feeling. Good because it has been walked. Despite its severe moistness, there is an appeal to the route and the sunshine only adds to that allure. In hard rain and severe weather it would be even more of a squelchy, sodden, slow fag of a route. But still appetising. While to some walkers it might be unappealing because of its slowness and the swampy drag factor, there have been no hordes of walkers, which has to be a plus because the solitude adds to the feel of being in the back country.
The start of the climb up Gleann Donn is a crossing of the river at NM861849, near where two watercourses meet. It is a sharp sided riverette and is easy enough to cross in benign conditions. The challenge route vetter, in his scrutiny of my planned walk, had warned 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. The sharpness of both routes, one marked on the map, the other not, would draw in plenty of water.
On the other side of the river a long steep slog up the glen beckons. On such a beautiful dry day not having a path matters not. Pick your spot. It is slow progress across rough, tussocky and spongy ground. It is terrain that prohibits the casual walker. Is that me? Probably. The Canadian couple will find it hard going. But the walk is doable, in a very sweaty kind of way.
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. There is one eye keeping watch for the alphabet boys, but really it is the progress of the Canadian couple that is the greater curiosity; how are the Canadian couple getting on; that is if they are getting on?
The half-price lightweight Karrimor carbon poles, with snap locks bought for thirty quid actually come into their own; helping smooth the climb, propelling the push up the glen, higher and higher, slowly, so slowly, higher. The steepness of the climb saps the strength. But does anybody care on such a glorious mobile-phone signal free day? Not a Jesuit’s cassock! And to cap it all 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. The Great Outdoors Challenge? What 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.
How are the feet? – think damp squib.
Bearing left near the top to avoid a ravine and, through yet more boggy ground, the way flattens out and looks cut off in a bowl. Crossing a patch of deep brown peat hags, the route sneaks back along the side of 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 down along the glen, Beoraid is lonely, lovely and yet lost, but not in the same way as Kinlochbeoraid. Lost to the people who do not tramp up there through the wet and the bog. It would be an easier walk with rock or harder ground, but also a more populated walk.
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 are probably heading over to Glen Pean, or the Canadian couple, in particular the woman. She was tired yesterday, and for all she said nothing, she spoke volumes and is top of the agenda for thoughts for the day. Why is she praying on the mind; constantly being thought about? Who knows, but she is. She was genuinely struggling yesterday, possibly distressed and the instinct was to help her, but the protocol said “butt out beardy boy”. She stays in the mind as the walk tips over the fulcrum in Corryhully’s favour.
What is curious is that the Canadian couple are in stark contrast to a fair few of the challenge posse bashing their way across the Highlands to the east coast. They are probably younger for a start. He was roughly 70 and she was maybe in her late sixties, but looking good on it. (Hopefully they are not reading this and it turns out they are both in their fifties!) 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? There is no mobile phone signal and they did not have a map. 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? The gradient has dipped 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. It is a stone so white that it looks like it has been placed there for a reason. It looks 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 a cut-price folly? An early form of geo-caching, maybe?
It is easy enough to step into the stream and look at it. And part of its magnetism is that you have to touch it. Inspect it. Marvel at it. It is a test for flimsy footwear, but the poles help stepping into the water.
But then 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 human warmth.
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 solidified rottweiler hanging over a chihuahua. Beautiful.
On the flat area at the top, there have been heavy flows of water. Grass, pebbles and detritus from a fast running current have left a trace of where the bulging streams have been over flowing. At a rough guess the streams look to 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.
The Karripoor poles are holding up, especially the one with the designer zinc oxide tape on its fault line. The shoes/ boots/ whatever they are – slide 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. More damn bogs. More damn bloody bogs. And bogs that are untouched by the dry spell. It is wet and proud of it. But it is still beautiful. If this area is so wet after a week of sunshine and no downpour, it must be hell when it has been raining or is raining. When planning the route, a consideration for the first day was where it might be possible to pitch at the end of the first evening after walking from Lochailort – depending on what time the trek had begun. This area was a hot favourite for a wild pitch if Corryhully could not be reached. But pitch a tent here? Come on. More like drop the anchor.
Onwards and downwards.Tick, tick, tick … it was just a matter of time before the little blighters introduced themselves.
Our first encounter follows a stumble down clumps of moss and heather in an attempt to fill a bottle from the stream at roughly NM897847. Over confidence because of the walking poles, possibly, but either way this boy slips like a good ‘un into the water. It hurts. Bloody hurts. Bloody, bloody hurts. And is a good and proper dignity stripper – all it needed was for a crowd of onlookers, or the Canadian couple, to suddenly appear and gawp and say “are you alright, love?” to complete the embarrassment.
It bloody hurts even more. It is bloody hurting in a foot-stamping, humiliating painful way that just has to be endured until it subsides. Ride it, do whatever you have to do but make sure you ride it, because there is nothing else you can do.
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. It makes you worry. Unnecessarily. To put the situation into context, six months after an operation on my spine when the surgeon who carried out the renovation work was asked: “How strong is my back? What can be done and not be done with it?” he smiled that knowing smile, the smile a wiseman bestows on an imbecile. Then he laughed. And looked out of the window. We were four storeys high in the hospital block. He beckoned me to look out from a window with him. He was still laughing.
“If I push you out of here,” he said. “Any number of bones and internal organs could get broken or fail.” He draws a finger in a wide loop over my back.
“You’re back [the surgeon stabs a finger into the spine], where I have performed surgery, will be as solid as rock.”
Remembering what he said offers some comfort that the back is not damaged, just sore. Bloody sore. And it bloody hurts.
Water supped from the stream, a small bottle filled, a suitable time spent rubbing the sore area and feeling sorry for myself, and pain subsided, Corryhully is back in the sights. 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 and no cuckoos. You can move, so move on.
It is a faint itch on the left hand that starts the commotion.
A black spot.
Shit! What is that?
Then it dawns on me that the black spec is a tick nymph.
Barely visible. Yet visibly moving along my hairy arms.
This one is the university challenge starter for 10 and is flicked off.
Flicked off? Well me too actually. Another tickette 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 hopefully pushes out all bad stuff that can accompany ticks. The stack of Sterets, alcohol skin cleaners, is raided to mop over the area.
The alert is over, but just thinking about the blighters triggers another outbreak of itchy skin. The trail shoes are wet again after the slip, sopping actually. It is finally getting into my thick skull that they 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 the task. Maybe it is fail on my part in the task of the choosing shoes/ boots department. Sentimentality over commonsense in my case.
Plus they are sopping, squeezy, squidgy wet. The kind of wet that when you bend a foot, the water gushes out, pushed out from the fabric, like wringing out a dish cloth. This is when you wish for the my old-fashioned red-laced leather-all-over til it’s coming out of your ears walking boots. Heavy, but hard. Solid soled and dependable. Heavy. But waterproof.
It is day two. The only choice is to persevere with what are there. 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.
Down, down, down. 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. But it is still a charming 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 stream oblivious to me, an approaching walker. Wandering inside the bothy, it is cool but the place feels like a drinkers’ hut; a Friday night rendezvous 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. It is a little disappointing.
“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 get backpacking. 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 will be recalled a week from now.
Heather 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 heard the bloody cuckoos too as she drifted off to sleep. Her name was one of four without a signature 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. You serious? He is. Good luck on the Cape Wrath Trail.
A bird comes from the bushes to say hello as Heather chats. Wagtail? Not sure, but it does not fear humans and looks around for a few crumbs. There are plenty of them.
Mustn’t forget, the polycro groundsheet from the porch of the Troookstar needs airing to get rid of the condensation from the damp ground the previous night. One task that was forgotten in the sunshine of the glorious morning at Beoraid. It is tricky to unfold being thin material, plus it has ripped after becoming snagged on the tread of the bloody trail shoes.
And there it is. Tick, tick, tick … a flat brown body, stuck in the folds of the groundsheet. An adult tick. A female adult tick. Shudder. The bloody thing looks evil. Ticks are justifiably demonised. It is squashed and dispatched to tick heaven. The skin crawls. A quick sojourn inside the bothy is required to make a strip search for more nymph ticks because the skin again feels like it is crawling.
Bloody hell there is one in the visible parts of the nether regions (not Holland) and another has appeared on the left arm. That is 10 in total. God, please let there be none elsewhere, because a chap can see only so far. Heineken rubber man is needed again, or at least a mirror.
After a long, pleasant, lunch break of an hour and half, and the rest, it is fast approaching three o’clock. Time has flown at our mini social. It has been excellent soaking up the rays and the peace and quiet, with a faint babble of water in the background. Sadly our routes go in opposite directions, or we could have talked and walked.
Heather heads south down Glen Finnan to Harry’s viaduct. Tick-man, that is me, his phone charged, £1.20 (seven 10ps; two 20ps and two 5ps) or 62 grams – he is not counting the weight, honest – in silver deposited in the leccy honesty box, makes for the opposite direction and a track, heading eventually for Loch Arkaig, below the imposing 909-metre summit of Streap on the right side and Sgurr Thuilm on the left.
What a buzz after two days to tread on a proper track for the first time this walk. No wet feet, in so far as no water is added, 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.
It is a lovely lonely walk. It is Saturday, apparently, and not a soul in sight or sound or smell. It is just fabulous.
Just before the head of the bealach another walker comes into view. The TGO Challenge badges littering his hat are a bit of 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, I’d say “No, course not!”
This is Alan Jordan, aged 64, on his sixteenth crossing, and he is making for Corryhully, where he intends to camp. Would it be right to mention to keep an eye out for the Canadian couple, make sure the lady is okay? Drop it; beardy tick-man, you are not their parents.
Alan has walked up from where my route will take me. My route has come up from where he is going down to. He has an easy track. Telling him he has a dry wander down, seems stupid in hindsight. This guy has 15 crossings under his belt, he will probably know that already. Grandmother … suck eggs .. and all that. He very politely does not mention what is in store on the route down to Loch Arkaig.
Up ahead is a metal gate, the remnant of a long disintegrated deer fence. A sign wired to its frame says: “Please close the gate.” It has probably been attached to the fenceless gate 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. It has to be done. Actually, no, hang on, be a proper rebel, a Jacobite maybe, and climb over the bloody thing. Hope your rucksack tips you over.
Mr Jordan would have been out of earshot, fortunately for him, but it would have hastened his speed down to Corryhully had he heard the mad giggling of a northern tick-ridden beardy monkey venturing over the gate. Nobody hears the laughter. You are alone … ha, ha, ha. Don’t ask. Utter lunacy. A manic episode. Must be a lack of blood sugar. Chocolate is consumed.
The laughter comes to a halt halfway down Gleann a Chaorainn where the persistent peat terrain puts paid to the other walking pole – rendering it in two in exactly the same spot as the first pole. Suffering whatevers. This is only day two. Shoes gone to pot, poles up bog creek, come on. Consistency is good, but give us a break, Karrimor.
The groans of incredulity replace the laughter and they echo from the sides of the hill in the shape of “flicking hell; bastard poles” kind of expletives. You get the picture. The same procedure as the previous day is used to pull out the stricken pole – 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 knackered pole would stay in place for a couple of bog plunges and then split off again, the weakness of this Karrimor pole is fixed on the spot. Bang. Job done. We are not faffing about anymore.
Being in a bog – gosh, who would have thought? – the rucksack is whipped off and rested on a foot/ boot while the rucksack receives a hearty rummaging. Out with the zinc oxide tape, rucksack back in position and hey presto a matching pair of walking poles with go-faster flesh coloured zinc oxide tape. Fashion statement, dahrling? A bargain at £30? … don’t get me started at this moment. The love affair with with an old favourite is over … that is it. Karri-no-more. Sentimentality ends here. Be strong. There are plenty of other equipment makers out there. At least the back is not as sore as it was. And the cuckoos have departed.
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 are looking on. There appears to be a path on their side, but the inclination is to carry on with the route on the west side. 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.
Down here this thankfully short stretch wends its way along a six-inch wide path on a steep and tricky decline. Tiredness, sore footedness, hence wariness. A little trip, forty-five degrees on the right, bang, into the ravine. It is goodnight, Vienna. Two days until the phone in to challenge control. There is no mobile signal round here. Cuckoo.
It feels good to get through this stretch. Like you are out of the woods. The time is knocking on for 7pm. But with the sun shining it might be 3pm. There has been nobody on the trail, except the bunch of deer, since Alan at the top of the valley about two hours earlier. It is quiet, with a blue sky and a breeze. After the steep ravine section the route flattens out on its way to the river Pean and the head of Loch Arkaig, which it has been deemed by me, with 8pm approaching, to be the stop-off point for the night.
Heading past the remnants of a campfire, the path makes for the river. A boulder dance across a tributary of the Pean leads to a substantial bridge across the Pean itself. A vague outline of a path turns to the left then, it seems, right down through the forest somewhere, into a ravine and presumably onto the forest track and along.
It looks uninviting. And it is forest, and looks so gloomy. Why go left? Being non too keen on forests the decision is made to go right; well it seems a more logical route. It is open and all that can be seen is grassland. Follow the perimeter of the forest all the way along and round as it turns towards the bridge across the river Dessarry. Simples.
And the walk is, or isn’t, a walk. A zig-zag wander along the chosen route to the corner of the wood, involves dodging boggy patches with moderate success. Fine. There is abandoned camping gear, a tent inner and some kind of ground sheet and other bits and pieces. The Victor Meldrew in me kicks in and thinks “bloody litter louts”. But maybe something more serious has happened here. Maybe it is a warning. Imagine the headlines from the Loch Arkaig Informer: “Deer stalkers shoot schoolboy campers” or “Glen Pean serial killer strikes again” perhaps even “Boozed up bloke loses backpacking gear”. The last one is more like it.
The time is closing in faster on the 8pm cut-off point. Up ahead a fox darts into view and heads for the safety of the woods – like this chap is going to chase him. Probably best not to leave any food hanging about outside the tent tonight though.
The last quarter of a mile involves wading through serious and unexpected bog, peat and nasty wet stuff, at one point up to the knees, dancing from tuft of bog grass to tuft of bog grass. Man traps of lots of sinky places and few, safer areas of firmer ground. A real-life computer game hopping from safe spot to safe spot, back-tracking, prodding. Some stronger points you can stand on for longer than others. It is the worst soft ground encountered so far, yet had looked so benign. Walking poles sink in deep at some points when the terrain is tested. It goes on and on and on. This area is excessively moist and littered with the varied colours of sphagnum moss. Sometimes pink, sometimes green. This bloody stuff sucks limbs into its watery world if you are not careful
The final section up to the river is physically testing late in the day. Draining the energy. It is hairy. Legs, crappy shoes and leggings are caked in wet muddy stuff. It is such a pleasure and feels like redemption to finally reach “the bridge over the Dessarry” [strains of Colonel Bog-ey in the background] and the road. A hard surface.
Slutching round the boggy bit at the corner of the forest to the crossing, there had been spied across the way somebody in the cottage at a place marked on the map as Strathan. The person was watching my progress. A bad telly night, or a no-telly night, who is to know. Would they have come to my aid if the bog had clamped me tight like a venus flytrap? Or would they have abandoned the spectacle like viewers switch over at the end of the film the Truman Show? Scottish friendliness dictates they would have brought me a cup of tea and a shortcake … as beardy bloke slid under the mud…
Me and the walking poles are out. Repeat after me: We hate bog. We hate bog. We hate bog. Second verse: We hate ticks. We hate ticks. We hate ticks. Third verse: We hate cuckoos. We hate cuckoos. We hate cuckoos.
The area is littered with forest roads and also bitty notices about this being estate land and do not do this and do not do that; wipe your feet; wash your hands, don’t speak with your mouthful! The sign writer must live in a mansion.
My blood sugar levels are again low. Time to stop. The 8pm deadline has gone but the time has been too preoccupied with bog-land to have looked out for a campsite. The remains of the barracks buildings at Strathan are not important to look at right now, well only in the context of looking for a pitch. The camp spot searching instinct has been switched on.
The forest roads form a triangle at one point on the way to a car park above the river. There is an MSR tent lodged on a tuft of grassy verge 20ft or so above the estate road. The occupant is out of view, but the tent flaps are open. Pop up and say hello? TGO? Let them enjoy their peace. What right have you to disturb them because of my own nosiness. Plenty of time for that tomorrow, when me and the poles backtrack on the route to Kinbreak bothy. Maybe MSR person is the uber-light equipped chap that stopped off at Corryhully bothy? Move on.
There is a car park at the end of Loch Arkaig. It is late and it has cars left in it. Loads of them. About 12 can be made out. You’d think at this time of the night it would be nigh on empty. Where are all the people who have driven here?
Having decided to camp down by the loch side, it soon becomes clear where they are. And what they are – anglers. At NM988914 is a point that is out on a limb of land pushing into the loch. On the 1:25000 OS map there is a track marked. It is over emphasised, it is a bit of a less boggy area that at surrounds it, with a few stones that have become greenified over the years. There is also the outline of a dwelling on the map.
Two fishing parties have taken up residence. The right hand party has one tent and one chap sat in a chair with his rod out and a tinny of Tennants by his side. Him and his mate, Tam, have loud voices – pretty useful when there is no mobile signal in the area.
On the left hand side, near where the old building and track are indicated on the map, are a young chap and an older chap. Father and son at a guess. These two were first encountered as they looked for wood to burn on their fire, along the walk down the track to the loch side. They were scouring the bog land and scrub that beardy northern bloke was trying to avoid, between the car park and their campsite. Their fire is alight (not such a beaut of a word in this context because it means smoking) in the old hearth of the faint ruin of the dwelling and its chimney sketched on the map.
Above their tents is a tiny hillock. A good place to view up and down the loch. The route guides me towards the water’s edge between the left-hand party and the right-hand party. The older man is heading to the hearth with a scratching of firewood.
“How ya doing?”
“Nae baud.” [ie good]. He nods. “An whit aboot yersel?”
“Nae bad.” He smiles in appreciation that somebody is trying to speak the lingo. He is probably thinking that if I am a Scotsman, he is a Dutchman.
On the raised land an eye is cast about to survey the area looking for a pitch. There may be one right by the loch’s edge. Short green grass next to the water. Might be in luck. Short grass should equal no ticks. The younger chap is bumped into.
“Hello,” says beardy northern bloke. “Been a good day?” That’s a pretty plain kind of thing to say.
“Aye, it has,” he says. [Translation from Gaelic to English] “I’ve bagged a pike and a few trout, and a cupplae others.” Basically he has nabbed a load of fish that day and is very pleased with himself. And quite right too. He explains where the spots are on the loch that he made his captures.
“Let’s just see how we get on tonight, eh?”
Wow, wow, wow. Hang on. Bloody Nora. What you on about? Night fishing! That something that wasn’t reckoned with. Hopefully it’s not an activity that generates too much noise. Why would anybody drive 15 miles down a single track road for a spot of 24-hour fishing? Don’t think beardy northern bloke would. Question is though, would he walk 15 minutes back up the track to near where the MSR tent was to get away from the anglers? Another tent would squeeze into the area. 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. It will have to do.
They seem like decent, reasonable chaps. They are the kind of blokes that 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 say “nae pro-blem pal”.
The voices of the anglers from the right-hand party carry across the evening air, but are not intrusive. In fact it proves to be a pretty quiet, secluded spot to pitch.
It is a pleasing view and free from flies by virtue of a breeze. A tight fit, too, trying to avoid a hole that has been used as a dump for cigarette ends, and one peg of the Troookstar is right on the edge of the loch.
But so what. It fits. It’s flat and out of view of the anglers.
The chilli spaghetti a la pot cosy – created with the help of an instructional video by big Bob Cartwright at backpackinglight.co.uk – plus shortcake dippers and tea followed by chocolate, caps a curious day. Socks and inner soles on the internal washing line. It is looking good.
Just need to soak the pan, because there was a bit of a cock-up in the pasta cooking department; but “nae bother” it is soaking and will be easily washed in the morning.
Okay pal, as they might say in beautiful Scotland, “away to ma bed”.
Pillow pumped up. Oh yes, thank-you. That is lovely.
Just zip up the bag. No sleeper train, no cuckoos. Briwll-yant.
“Jeepers suffering H, what is that?”
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 too many Tennants.
They quickly pack it in, without the intervention of a sleepless sassenach.
It could have been worse. Imagine the headlines in the Loch Arkaig Informer: “Sleep-deprived backpacker mangles anglers’ buzzy thing – exclusive.”