Day 1: Strathcarron to Bendronaig Lodge
Damn the trains. A late sleeper to Inverness delays the start of the walk from Strathcarron – a two-hour trip by rail from Inverness – until three thirty on Friday May 12. Even then it is touch and go whether the walk starts after the owner of the Strathcarron hotel suggests that I pitch up nearby, enjoy Friday night in the bar and start first thing on Saturday morning.
Sat there in the bar it is tempting, so tempting, especially after a sleepless night on the train and knowing that there are a few extra bob in the kitty because my fare will be refunded. With food and maps bought in Inverness, the middle of a scorching day has been spent kicking my heels, wandering round equipment shops, killing time waiting for the next train and so it has taken me 21 hours to travel from the south of England to the west coast – walking and sleeping in the wild is what I am here to do. By half past four the climb heading for the Attadale Forest, with fellow challenger Andre, is steady with the sun replaced by cloud, and the pint of cider quaffed at the hotel quickly sweated off. Strathcarron dips out of view behind a brow; and after five kilometres Andre stops for a rest. Alone above Lochan Fuara (grid ref: NG980388) at 400 metres, the wind blows and the weather closes in, with dabs of moisture pock-marking my face.
The track is thin, and while there are the imprints of boot soles in mud on occasion, there is nobody about. It feels lip-smackingly good being alone in barren country after the workout from the walk and climb. I feel a touch self-satisfied. The valley in which Bendronaig Lodge sits is the nearest practical area to camp, but any ideas of being alone are scotched when the lodge drifts into view. The valley is a construction site, with great white lines carved into the contours like scars on the skin after surgery. New-built roads wedged full of heavy plant, Portakabins, giant water pipes and workmen in fluorescent green jackets with white hard hats – all this late on a Friday evening. The area is a mess and not the kind of wild pitch I was expecting. I refuse to walk on the white stone and dust of the roads so cut across country along the river Black Water, past an Akto where a leather hat atop a walking pole stands outside, criss-crossing from bank to bank. It’s lucky the river level is low.
At half past seven on a wide flat rocky spot half a mile short of the lodge, with 10 kilometres walked and 450 metres climbed, the tent pegs bend and strain as they are forced into the earth, so that the door to the Trailstar points in the direction of Loch Calavie and the shame of the hydro-electric construction works in the other direction cannot be seen. Andre tramps past, hundreds of yards away, on the new white road at 9pm, half an hour before the wind direction swings round by 180 degrees and delivers torrential rain, forcing me to untie the guyline of the Trailstar door from a walking pole, bring the material in on itself and peg it down on what was the floorspace. The new arrangement vastly reduces the area of the porch, but there is still enough room to cook and brew tea while the rains hammer down – making up for the drought of the past weeks. Top marks to the Trailstar.
Day 2 – Bendronaig Lodge to Glen Strathfarrar
If going to sleep in the wilds is good, then waking up there is better – even if it is raining. After a lie in until 7.30am, tea is supped and the rucksack packed under cover while the clouds make up their minds whether they will stop raining or not. The walk up to Loch Calavie will put the construction works behind me, but not before a short walk along a white track past the last people leave Bendronaig Lodge – which is more a home than a bothy with its kitchen and loo. They head north on the Cape Wrath Trail.
The construction work means an old ramshackle stalkers’ bridge, made of wire with bits of its wooden platform missing here and there, has a neighbour in a concrete structure that serves the traffic for the building works. The area is a desecrated wilderness. Gone are the ruts of Land Rover tracks separated by central fingers of green – an acknowledged part of the Scottish scene. This area is full-on roads along which workmen have been driving since the early hours – after the shift the previous night finished at 9pm. This is Saturday, so there is no rest for the wicked. Loch Calavie, after two miles a climb of 700ft, is sanctuary, with its backdrop or swirling clouds that quickly let in the sun then shut it out again. From here to Pait Lodge the route tingles with wide, wide open views across a tapestry of browns and yellows on the ground and greys, whites and blues in the sky and nowhere is there an escape from the wind, which keeps up the pace all day. It’s boggy, even after the dry spell in Scotland, but there are no roads, not even Land Rover tracks after the loch. Up ahead somebody is asleep in the heather, dull blue clothes in stark contrast to the vegetation on which they lie. It is Andre again.
He slept in the bothy and had an early start – whether he wanted it or not I suspect. While we talk we are joined by a man in a familiar leather hat – the guy from the Akto, his name is Chris. As a trio we float across bogs and rough ground, sweeping down to the lodge and Loch Monar with its pelmet of grey rocks on the shore – an area that is usually underwater. The walk is fabulous compensation for the ruination of Bendronaig. In a mini-picnic on the trimmed lawns of the lodge a treat to myself is the extra super-duper mature cheddar (my comfort food) bought in and carried from Inverness plus oatcakes and a brew. Top lunch, blinding scenery and good company – what more could a chap want? A pint of Fuller’s Pride with the cheese sounds ideal. The couple who service the lodge come to check out the rabble on the lawn and an older couple of walkers chat and say hello and later it dawns on me that they were Marion and Mike Parsons – he of Karrimor fame.
The theme of human interference takes on a new aspect outside the lodge where a fenced-off hole dug in the bog and filled with deep brown water is a sailor’s grave for empty bottles of wine, whisky and champagne – the detritus from the partying at the lodge. So much for bring it in, take it out, leave no trace. Moving off the moral high ground our route heads up and over to the head of Glen Strathfarrar. Andre is all for pitching in the heather on the hillside – he is shattered – but there is no practicable place to pitch. He sits down again but we urge him on and contour round the boggy lower reaches of Meallan Buidhe (NH137376) instead of going over the summit. The map shows an area of water near the summit, which – had I been sticking to my original start time, might have made a better pitch than the one I had earmarked next to an old shieling by the river.
The sun has gone for the day and the cloud enters stage left. Opposite us, Sgurr na Lapaich stands majestic, before the mist envelops its heights and the rain hits home. The orange raincover is brought into action, which is an indication of how bad the rain is. A pitch at NH178378, which commands wide views down the glen and is the flattest area roundabouts, is ideal. Chris says his farewells as he ventures further down the valley. Andre and me cook, eat and natter outside before the rain, which had stopped, moves in again and confines us to barracks for the night.
Day 3: Glen Strathfarrar to Glen Cannich
A mile further down the valley from the campsite, Strathfarrar bears witness to an earlier blot on the landscape in the form of a pipe that crosses from one side of the landscape to another as bold as brass, with no attempt to hide it (NH183380). The pipe feeds into a power station, a bland functional building with a car park and no disguise. On the ground are signs that the land has been reshaped in the course of building work, and the scars disguised by a scratch of vegetation.
The service road remains through – the fate for the land round Bendronaig, perhaps. On the track to the head of the dam at Loch Monar the emptiness because of the lack of water is stark making it look more like a flooded quarry than a reservoir. I have altered my route to head over to Cannich with Andre and not turn left on a ridge walk to Struy. But Andre is struggling and in the bealach at NH252364 he sits down again. “I’ll catch you up.” But, I don’t see him again and learn later that he retires from the challenge that day.
Descending into Glen Cannich more new roads and more construction is in conflict with what is shown on my map. The chosen route was a path through woods, but the way is lost in the haze of new routes and it is an easier option to walk down on the new track. The rain clouds disappear, the sun comes out and the back road following the river into Cannich is a stroll through lovely countryside. A couple of ticks are brushed off my left arm in a foot-airing stop. A shower and a few beers mean a sound kip and if anybody was snoring that night it would have been me – it is so warm in the night that the sleeping bag zip is undone and the bag used as a quilt.