Day 34, May 14th, Inchnadamph to the River Laxford.
Inchnadamph is another hostel at which breakfast is included in the price but quite obviously this was not forthcoming at 4.30 am. There is however free tea, coffee and milk 24/7, there was some bizarre gluten-free cereal in the ‘free food’ box, and I pinched some bread from a crate labelled ‘do not take this bread, it’s for breakfast’. Seemed logical to me. As I was hurriedly munching this odd combo, I peered out into the dawn light and realised the garden was full of enormous Red Deer.
I had a cunning and sophisticated plan. This was to hike like stink as far and as fast as I could possibly manage, to try and beat the forecast heavy rain to the dreaded Garbh Allt, a river further north that would notoriously rise to terrifying uncrossability as soon as the predicted downpour arrived.
Stepping out into the murk at 4.45 am, I even fancied I might make it to this river that very day and hopefully sneak across it at dusk. I’d constructed a motivating visualisation of my collapsing into a whimpering heap of relief and exhaustion on its far bank in around fifteen hours’ time. Such a thirty-five mile hike might have been feasible in Norfolk, but it turned out not to be quite so feasible on the Cape Wrath Trail.
Why? Because the Cape Wrath Trail north of Inchnadamph is rough as old boots, and in places steep too. In compensation, it passes through some of the most gobsmackingly extraordinary world class scenery in the British Isles. Sadly, this scenery was initially invisible, due to the thick fogbank I walked into as I contoured around Cnoc an Droighinn.
The fog and the daunting nature of the day’s programme necessitated loud motivational ‘singing’ of completely unprintable made-up ‘songs’. At Loch Fleodach Coire I stumbled out of the fog onto a small tent, in which a couple from Yorkshire had been (literally) rudely awakened by my obscene caterwauling. I shared my concern about the weather forecast with a head sticking out of a green fabric blob in a way that reminded me of Brian the snail from The Magic Roundabout. The head kindly didn’t mention my ‘singing’, but I trudged up the rocky bealach below Glas Bheinn in a chastened and quieter manner.
It’s a steep slither down to the Abhainn an Loch Bhig but along all this section the trail is mostly clear. On the east bank of the burn, however, the going becomes tricky and is made more so by the remains of an iron fence line, probably Edwardian I’d say. I’ve personally dug out the remains of similar early 20th century iron fences in Norfolk and can tell you that doing so is amazingly hard work, it’s no surprise this one miles from anywhere has just been left to collapse and rust away, impeding and in places even mildly endangering walkers. The wonder is that it was so expensively and labour-intensively ever put there in the first place.
Compensations included my first Cape Wrath Trail orchid (I would subsequently encounter thousands of these frail, ghostly blooms) and of course the UK’s highest waterfall, the Eas a Chual Aluinn.
I was also surprised to find that Assynt was alive with frogs, they were everywhere underfoot, in Biblical numbers. This isn’t so completely amazing, I suppose, as the entire place is basically one gigantic swamp, but I’m intrigued that they survive the harsh winter up here. Our frogs in East Anglia have been devastated by Ranavirus. Perhaps the Highlands are a refuge for amphibians, as they are for Cuckoos and Willow Warblers?
Glencoul bothy is amazingly located, you can see why people love it. Iain Harper says ‘you may be ready to call it a day’ after reaching here from Inchnadamph. As it was only 11 am, I wasn’t really ready to call it a morning. I left a heavy pack of Tesco’s posh porridge oats hanging from the laundry line out of mousereach (unless Scottish mice can walk slacklines) and moved on. A pair of Ring Ouzels were gathering food for their chicks from the strandline in warm sunshine.
The track up from Glencoul is long and steep but amazingly well engineered, in places evidently with the aid of heavy machinery and even explosives. I can’t really see the point of all this hard labour as the track simply peters out into a rough (and in places elusive) path halfway round the loch. Perhaps the next grant application is still pending. Either way, it was hard work in the sunshine, but the view back down to the bothy develops as you climb.
At the east end of Loch Gleann Dubh you end up walking through massive rocks on a seaweedy beach, which I imagine is tricky at high tide. Glendhu bothy looked cosy, but I had the bit between my teeth now and didn’t even pause. There was definitely rain in the air; actual stormclouds were forming over Quinag. Trudging up the Maldie Burn, I was chilled to the bone by a sudden squall and briefly flailed by substantial hailstones, but after a month’s hiking in Scotland I’d toughened to the point of not even bothering with waterproofs. Not least because I’d also learned to judge that ten minutes later I’d be sweating again in bright, warm sunshine.
At the old shieling, where the sharp turn to the north-west is thankfully obvious, there’s quite suddenly a first view of Arkle, the distinctive bulk of which was to be a constant companion for the next 24 hours.
There now follows one of the most exciting sections of the Scottish National Trail. Here, for reasons known only to Cameron McNeish and the other originators of this wild and wacky walk, the trail takes you up to an actual summit, in fact after the Three Brethren over 400 miles to the south this is only the second actual proper summit on the entire excursion (I don’t count Brown Knowe as a proper summit).
This exciting actual summit is Ben Dreavie, the walk up to which from the south-east is very easy, along an obvious trail. I mention this because the walk down from it to the north-west is absurdly difficult, through some of the most trying and trackless terrain on the whole CWT. This section alone is a good reason for not trying to walk the Cape Wrath Trail north to south. After floundering up Ben Dreavie in that direction I think it would be a case of ‘blow this for a trail’ and a quick retreat to the fleshpots of Kylesku.
It was ridiculously windy on the top but the valedictory views of the Highlands away to the south were great. The summit itself is a very singular place, being made from a strange kind of pebbly conglomerate I didn’t see anywhere else on the trail, quite possibly because it doesn’t go up any other rocky summits.
Even with GPX Waypoints in your phone, descending Ben Dreavie is a bit confusing, viewpoints and angles alter, lochans appear and vanish, their shapes shift. You try to memorise from the map which lochan is which – this one is a bit like Iceland, that one like a foetus, the next one like a tadpole – but even if you get them in the right order, WalkHighlands and Iain Harper recommend different routes around and between them and the terrain is absurd.
All in all, this section is really slow going, and I was starting to despair about getting anywhere near the Garbh Allt before nightfall. In fact, at my snail’s pace across the map it was now looking impossible. Mitigating my despair was the observation that the forecast rain was holding off, in fact if anything the clouds had dissipated rather than gathered, although every so often a couple of them would playfully regroup and whisk an icily refreshing shower over the so-called ‘trail’.
Finally just after Feur Lochan the elusive ‘trail’ entertains you with one final comedy bog before rejoining the clear track around Cnoc na Saile. This was enlivened by hundreds more of the pretty pale orchids, and several more brisk showers. As I turned a corner during one of the latter, Arkle suddenly reappeared in front of me, draped with a rainbow like a ceremonial sash.
For a while I sat in the chilly drizzle and enjoyed the spectral show. The sun came out, I sat a while longer. I’d had it. Banjaxed. Gloomily, I consulted the GPS to see how far I still was from the dreaded Garbh Allt. Blooming miles. Hang on, there was mobile signal! I conceived the mad idea of calling my partner at home in Norfolk, asking her to consult the weather forecast for the north-west Highlands and report back. She wasn’t in. I left a garbled, incomprehensible message which to a lesser woman might have suggested a terrible emergency, but which my seasoned other half wisely ignored.
Hang on, there was, quite inexplicably given the location, full strength 3G mobile Internet! It must have been the Duke of Westminster’s WiFi. Feeling slightly foolish, I looked at the weather forecast myself. The forecast heavy rain had paused en route and was now not due to arrive until eleven the next morning!! Even writing this, months later, I can vividly recall the feeling of a massive weight of doom lifting from me in a second.
I could almost see my despair winging away across the lochans, flying high over what seemed a completely new and alien topography, north of Arkle. This particular spot, on the northern flanks of Cnoc na Saile, feels strikingly like the end of the classic Highlands in which I’d spent the last three weeks. Stretching away from here to Cape Wrath is a quite different and even stranger landscape, the like of which I’d never seen.
Meanwhile, I resolved to find a campsite. There weren’t any. Every scrap of initially promising ground turned out to be rocky, tussocky, sloping and/or soaking. I ended up all the way down on the A838, resigned to sleeping on a roadside verge as it was now late in the day and I was shattered.
Then, through the pine trees, I spotted a tent and in fact down by the River Laxford there is a perfect campsite, which I shared with a nice but thankfully unsociable Dutchman in a Hilleberg. My gas stove was playing up, but with my tiny backup meths burner I cobbled together Supernoodles and cocoa before falling into a deep sleep. I’d walked 38 km in one day over some of the roughest sections of the Cape Wrath Trail, but early the next morning I’d be frisking across the Garbh Allt before the rain, that was good enough for me.
Day 35, May 15th, the River Laxford to Sandwood Bay.
Dawn over Arkle was pink and chilly, like me but prettier.
I took a few snaps as I’d learnt these Highland dawns are surprisingly ephemeral. Sure enough by the time I’d packed up the tent the sky was a dull grey. I left my Dutch chum to his snoring and stomped off past Stack Lodge which, like everything on the Grosvenor Estate, is beautifully maintained to a standard that bespeaks bottomless wealth and which, outwith the grouse season, can be rented complete with cook/housekeeper for a mere £2310 a week. As it sleeps thirteen, this isn’t as daft a proposition as it sounds. If I had a dozen friends I’d seriously be tempted, the location is amazing.
The CWT skirts the foothills of Arkle along a vehicle track but then quite suddenly peels off to the north over what appears to be a completely untrodden virgin bogscape. On the drier ground at Loch a Garbh-bhaid Mor the scattered bootprints of hundreds of soggy-footed trailwalkers finally coalesce again into detectable paths, one close to the lochside and another slightly higher alternative. Having blundered randomly along stretches of both, I’d recommend the latter.
Still the rain held off, although the sky was puddingy and the breeze detectably moist. It was barely 8 am when the dreaded Garbh Allt came into sight, and finally I felt sure I was going to make it across.
Ha ha ha, after all that worrying and striving the Garbh Allt was a pussycat, barely halfway up my skinny shins, I paddled around in it just for fun.
I’d promised myself that if I got across the Garbh Allt I’d brew cocoa from its teeming waters and put a large slug of scotch in it. It’s important to keep your promises, even at 8.30 am. I wandered off towards Rhiconich giggling vaguely.
My vaguely good mood evaporated when I found that my vague hope of further refreshment and perhaps even a bacon butty at the Rhiconich Hotel was to remain an unrequited fantasy, in fact the proprietor of this dumpy-looking joint was positively shirty when I vaguely enquired whether the catering for non-residents advertised outside was in fact available. It wasn’t. Other CWT-ers have told me that staying here is good value and perfectly tolerable and that in fact the bar can get quite jolly of an evening. Just don’t expect coffee of a morning.
Luckily it’s only another half an hour along the B810 to the totally lovely Old Schoolhouse which does not only great coffee but delicious breakfast baps and much more besides, including BnB. After my very long hike the day before I was a whole day ahead of plan and seriously tempted, in fact I went as far as enquiring the cost. Just then some very windblown and tired cyclists appeared with the same enquiry. There was but one room left, and I had first refusal. I took pity on them and tramped onwards.
I took care to call at the legendary London Stores, where the proprietor will answer any enquiry, however vague, with an impish sense of humour I subsequently found to be typical of the north-west Sutherland locals. Here you can buy pretty much anything within reason, mind you, I didn’t try asking for anything outlandishly unreasonable so who knows?
Thanks to the London Stores, the Schoolhouse breakfast and my remaining Tesco treats I was now somewhat over-supplied, but I was planning to party big-time on Cape Wrath. One thing I certainly didn’t need was to locate the Spar shop at Kinlochbervie, a good thing too as it was undetectable by my Earth senses. You’d think a shop with such a small catchment would have signage visible from an internationally-renowned walking trail, but no. Sigh.
Tired, I called at a couple of BnBs in KLB but everywhere was full, due to some annoying motoring event. Several times along the long road I’d been intimidated into the ditch by vintage vehicles, their drivers grinning and waving as if I should be pleased to breathe their vintage fumes and hear their vintage racket. On the brow of a hill I came upon one that had broken down, and took the chance to grin back.
Having risen at dawn I had time to kill, so I then ventured into the stuffy but friendly Kinlochbervie Hotel (also full) for tea and a scone. The tea was deeply strange and after thirstily gulping most of it I finally realised it was Redbush, a foul infusion I profoundly detest. ‘Erm, you don’t do ordinary tea?’ I asked the impressively-proportioned lady behind the desk. ‘Redbush is just the same as ordinary tea’ she replied, kindly but firmly as if to a dim child. I headed out for the peace and sanity of Sandwood Bay.
People had told me Sandwood Bay is often quite a friendly place and as I’d seen quite a few other walkers heading out there, I’d been (vaguely) looking forward to perhaps a few yarns around a camp fire. On the way to the bay I encountered most of them trudging back. Several of them mentioned they’d seen the weather forecast.
When I got there I had the entire place to myself*, there wasn’t even a ghostly mermaid, let alone a Victorian family, just me and a few Wheatears. I pitched the tent (carefully sheltered from onshore wind – see Llimping round the Llŷn), ate a heap of food that was even by my standards large and alarmingly random, then walked the beach under ominously thickening clouds.
My partner loves beach pebbles so I set to gathering her a representative selection. The geological diversity along the strandline was so great I soon had several pockets full, a weight of rocks that would have been quite silly to drag over Cape Wrath. Luckily I had a whole evening to refine my choices. I ended up building her a mini-cairn of pebbles, by a windblown violet, vaguely fantasising that perhaps one day we would come to Sandwood Bay and camp there together.
At this point I was, quite suddenly, completely and utterly overwhelmed by loneliness. I’d been in the hills for five weeks. I missed my home and my loved one. I went to bed. Still the forecast precipitation held off, other than in the general area of my eyes.
Not long after dawn I was briefly awakened by the patter of raindrops. The heavens finally opened and the rain got heavier and heavier, until it was slamming onto the silnyylon flysheet like shot falling on a polytunnel (I sound I’m unusually familiar with having once run a nursery on a shooting estate).
Luckily I can sleep quite well in the regular, continuous noise of steady rain (whereas music or the sounds of people wake me instantly and permanently). I fell back into a deep slumber and, as the rainclouds kept the sun at bay, I stayed that way until almost midday.
*apparently the following night Sandwood Bay was so busy with fair weather wild campers you could hardly swing a phantom mercat.