Day 4: Cannich to Ault-na-goire
What a drudge of a trail is the Affric-Kintail Way from Cannich to Drumnadrochit – along a busy road, where you are more aware of the traffic than the scenery and through forests, which of course restrict the view – and the tedium is alleviated only by talking to fellow walkers and people out with their dogs. Only at points where trees have been felled are there opportunities to see the sights.
As inspiring as walking through Loch Calavie to Pait Lodge was this route is demoralising. In Drum(nadrochit), new maps are bought at the tourist information centre, the old ones sent home along with a postcard. Restocked and socialised in one of the pubs, the ferry across Loch Ness leaves after 6pm, a little boat sandwiched between the dark depths and the black of the sky. It adds an air of mystery to the evening, whereas the landing at Inverfarigaig adds a touch of danger because disembarking is a dance across metal struts and the weary concrete of an old pier.
Tony Whewell stops off to use the hot water at public loos as the heavens open again on the climb up to Ault na Coire, the home and land belonging to Alex and Janet Sutherland, who host top-notch dinner parties and breakfasts for people camped in their field.
Day 5: Ault-na-goire to Glen Mazeran
Breakfast is a huge cooked affair, more fry up than it is possible to shake a stick at and more fresh tea than could be brewed in the whole of China. A great way to start the day that cuts out the need for lunch during today’s yomp over the boglands of the Monadhliath Mountains. The intended route, across from Farraline to Glen Mazeran is bypassed because of my preoccupation with ensuring my feet are comfortable and chatting with a family from Alabama – the Jacksons, the Jackson Four as I refer to them. I’m not walking back, so I stick to a road to get to NH592232 and the route up and over the top to Glen Mazeran. With the sun out for the day the climb is steep and sweaty and I need water. The only spot to get it means going off piste a mile up the track and shuffling down a steep river bank, which spells disaster.
A stone dislodges under my weight and briefly I am in the air, seemingly suspended for an eternity like some cartoon character, before realisation dawns and I crash down onto another stone, the right shin taking the whole of the impact of my body weight landing, but I manage to stop myself from falling. Had my rucksack been on my back I would have rolled the last 10 steep feet down to the water’s edge. The right shin is agony and 10 painful, numb minutes pass before I can put weight on the leg. Water helps cool the injury but the best treatment will be to walk it off, which takes some time. The shin looks just grazed with the marks on my skin not big enough to justify the pain searing through my limb and it’s at times such as these that you realise how many expletives there are in the world.
The delay tending to my throbbing shin lasts so long that The Jackson Four, who stopped for lunch half an hour earlier, are upon me and my self-pity before there is time to stop swearing and feeling sorry for myself. I catch them up, with the climbing at speed pumping the blood and taking the edge off the pain. Cissy Jackson, the mum of the family, explains to her daughter, Sarah, that the challenge is “type-two enjoyment” meaning that the going at times is tough, uncomfortable and hard work. Only when time mellows the rough edges does the enjoyment and sense of achievement come to the fore and happy memories blossom. That’s the theory, anyway, let’s hope the same applies to me with my blasted shin.
More human incursion in the shape of a new white track crunched into the hillside and not marked on the map sparks temporary confusion about our position as the wind steps up a gear and whisks in stray dark clouds. Me and Will, the son of the four, near a hunting lodge at NH653224 as a heavy squall strikes, making the last 50 yards a sprint for cover. The lodge is a palace, with a sleek table made up of three 30ft pieces of wood and connected benches creating the centre piece. Antlers, obligatory for a hunting lodge, adorn the A-frame of a roof support. We have the peace and shelter to ourselves for 20 minutes until a succession of wet walkers fill the room, making it as noisy as a school refectory with meths and gas cookers pulled out from rucksacks left right and centre.
A 1:25,000 map, saved on the mobile phone, reveals more tracks that are not depicted on the 1:50,000 paper versions. More intrusion. More de-wilding. The Jacksons head straight up and over heading for Glenmazeran, I cut south for a quarter of a mile for a closer view of a wind farm and then head over.
Between the lodge and Carn Ghriogair are dry sections of brown bog that are easy to walk across, with the boots barely making an imprint. Numerous hares are disturbed and they race across the heather, sporting a kiss of white in their tails, ears or feet, remnants from the winter coats. They blend so well into the heather that three times one bolts from just feet in front of me and at a safe distance slow into a gentle bouncing run, as if warming down, knowing they are out of harm’s way.
The wind is so strong it whips from my grip a slim black cloth camera cover, which races and rolls away. I give chase, but it is blown away again, lost for good. Being buffeted and leaning against the wind means there is no chance of holding a camera still. A last look at the lodge from high above reveals that a four by four vehicle has turned up. The owners checking up, probably.
A gulley, where fresh, delicious cold water drifts slowly along, provides sanctuary from the wind – and more hares to startle. Short grass here would be perfect to pitch a tent on, were it not so wet.
The gulley hits a Land Rover track and the beauty of Glenmazeran opens out in bright sunshine. The Jacksons have made camp in the lee of an overhang, but there are plenty of hours of daylight left to amble down the glen – the wide-open scenery is magnificent.
A dark green Land Rover crawls in behind me. It’s a gamekeeper – more checking up.
“You’ll be staying in the glen then?,” he says in a fashion that is neither question nor statement.
“Aye, further down, but not for a while.”
His right arm hangs across the driver’s side window.
“You’ll no be lighting open fires?” His tone is more irritating than my throbbing shin.
“No worry there, mi old fruit.”
He loosens up after making his point and me mentioning the challenge and we have a long chat about the wildlife, Scotland and the Highlands.
“Have a good night,” he says before the vehicle slithers down the glen. More hares, a rabbit, curlews and grouse make light of the wind, which is as strong near the head of the glen as it was at 2,500 feet.
A Glaswegian woman called Mary, who I recognise from the lodge, marches up for the last few hundred yards making for woods near Glenmazeran Burn (NH736227). All purposeful, she heads over a foot bridge for a pitch too close to the trees for my liking.
In a gulley, where pitches look impracticable but which is sheltered from the strength of the wind, my Trailstar is erected three feet above and to the left of a stream. The pitch is over a level dent, if that makes sense, big enough for a person to lie in without rolling away and with the inner erected at a weird angle that leaves it almost sticking out at the entrance to the tarp. The arrangement looks odd, but gives me a flat place to lie sheltered from the gusts. Hot food, cups of tea, peace and quiet, rubbing my sore shin, writing a few diary notes and absorbing the solitude. Fabulous.
I wake up cold and uncovered after nodding off reading. It is freezing. My clothes are stripped off and inside the sleeping bag my cold body is soon cooking at gas mark nine with the top of the bag wrapped round my head. I fall back to sleep in the comforting warmth of my cocoon.
Day 6: Glen Mazeran to Aviemore
While Mary, another red tent and two Scarps went to sleep with the sun setting on their side of the valley, at 6.15am the sun shines on my side. An estate worker in a battered old Land Rover Defender, not the chap in a newer model from the day before, edges along. If the age and condition of vehicles are a sign of the estate hierarchy, this is an underling and he has drawn the short straw of the dawn patrol and more checking up. He does not spot me, in a blue down jacket and subfusc underwear, supping a cup of tea staring across at him, because his focus is on Mary’s red tent and another red tent – a stealth-camping kind of red – and two Scarps slung up on the thick, tufty, terrace of grass by the bridge.
The white shadow of the moon is the only blemish on a cloudless blue sky that makes up for the chill and frost of the night. A glorious morning. Nobody has stirred on the other side of the valley as I leave at 7am. Walking towards the front of the big house at Glenmazeran, a gaggle of hounds bounds towards me. Is this my comeuppance forgetting the estate’s request that challengers do not walk past the front of the lodge? I needn’t have worried. The dogs – young and old, bouncy and friendly – are full of energy; the exuberance of being let out after a night indoors. They are mad not bad; and they all say hello swirling round my legs, oblivious to their age or mine.
The gamekeeper appears, on foot, without the jacket and hat that he wore on the hills. In civvies almost, mufti, in a gamekeeper’s demob suit and our chat picks up from where it left off the day before. The natter comes to an end in the shape of a young lassie – young as in younger than me – in another Land Rover, less battered than the 6.15am version, but not as good as the one on the hills the day before.
“You free for a coffee,” she says.
“That’s very kind, but if you could stretch to a tea that would be lovely,” I say in an attempt to inject some humour, because she has barged in on our conversation without an “hello”, “excuse me” or a “do you mind if I interrupt”.
She smiles at me – an intolerant smile, as if a 12-bore would be her preferred reply. The chatty estate chappy says his farewells and my route meanders past the lodge, in all its salmon-coloured magnificence, reflecting the morning sun.
Oyster catchers and lapwings have me so beguiled that I overlook the track that leads to the bridge across the River Findhorn and it is only a sign, warning of snow drifts, at a turn off to Glen Kyllachy, that brings me to my senses and forces me to backtrack. The bridge at Dalmigavie Lodge is the only way across the river for miles in either direction.
After Findhorn church (NH766241), which is on the other side of the river, the track turns right and the climbing begins, up the side of An Socach. Below in a hollow that houses a smattering of trees is an Akto and a chap called John, whom I met at the Brea Louise pub at Euston before catching the sleeper to Inverness. He waves. A couple of hours later he catches up with me at a green hunting hut, constructed of chipboard – an Aldi-style lodge compared with the Fortnum & Mason-style model over the hill from Glenmazeran.
The gradient heading for Carn Dubh is not a problem, but the wind shears through my layers of clothing and is numbing until I manage to get on a windproof. At roughly 2,500 feet this is a great viewpoint across to the Cairngorms in the east and the way down to Red Bothy is clear, because after half a mile of bog-trotting the route becomes another new wide white road engraved into the hillside and not on my map.
The bogs being drier than normal, and with few hags, walking across them is more bouncy than squelchy, with the only problem being a parallel fence, between three and four feet high with a four-foot gap between the two lines, that streaks down from the heights. One side is electrified and without ladders for walkers to cross it.
John touches the fence and reckons it is not live. But for all his reassurances, stood in the gap between the fences, I am wary, and with my hands on a wooden post, my left foot on a square of the metal fence, the right foot is swung over the electrified part. I should have lifted the rucksack over first because it unbalances me as I am halfway across and in trying to steady myself I touch the bloody wire. A pulse thumps through my chest and I tumble involuntarily to the heather, with a half pike and twist. I am shocked, literally and metaphorically, but there is nothing hurt except my pride.
The new wide white track leads us past another green off-the-shelf chip-board hunting lodge. As pleasant as the walk is through high, windswept and beautiful wild areas, the uncompromising tracks, before Red Bothy and after on the Burma Road into Aviemore are as much a scar on the landscape as the windfarms. The subdued parallel Land Rover tracks with a green line in the centre are quaint in comparison.
Burma Road is a trudge alleviated only by chatting to other walkers and some wide long views. In Aviemore, supplies are bought, a couple of beers imbibed and fish and chips eaten.
Trying to get tent pegs into the ground up the road at Coylumbridge campsite is the devil’s own job because the ground is so hard. It is so compacted that the rain from a short sharp shower does not soak into it but flows across it towards the Trailstar. I quickly grub out a channel with a stick to guide it away. Time for bed.