Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Strathcarron to Glenfinnan. A Taste Of The Cape Wrath Trail.

I love the Scottish Highlands 😍. Some of the best and wildest landscapes anywhere in Europe are to be found there and I was to get a further taste of this on a section of The Cape Wrath Trail. To say I was looking forward to it is an understatement and I counted the days until the six day window of my trip came around. On Friday April 14th I then did my usual thing of train from Mallow to Dublin in the late morning , then catch the afternoon ferry to Holyhead where I enjoyed excellent fish and chips before catching the next train to Crewe where I joined the Caledonian Sleeper train that deposited me in Inverness at 08.30am. This left me enough time to get a strong coffee in the station before boarding the train for Kyle of Lochalsh from which I alighted in Strathcarron at 10.50 on Saturday morning. Yes it is as tiring as it sounds but I was thrilled to be finally able to get moving and stretch my legs.

Saturday April 15th;
In the days leading up to my trip the weather forecast went from predicting rain almost every day to then saying it would be mostly dry but cloudy as I got nearer the date so it was wonderful to see some bright sunshine as I enjoyed the beautiful train journey from Inverness into the western wilds. Sure there were some nasty showers on route but it is always a bonus not to have continuous rain and strong winds to contend with and the showers seemed brief and scattered and that was a result in my book. Anyway I alighted from the train in Strathcarron which has a post office, a small hotel and a tiny railway station and precious little more. It is situated a couple of kilometers from the head of Loch Carron and there is a wide open feel to the area where the hills don't seem to encroach too much. Before I left the station I sorted out my rucksack and took off my travel clothes and put my waterproofs near the top and at 10.55 I was off. Any weariness I felt washed away quickly and I felt a lightness of spirit (if not bag) and a simple joy at commencing another little adventure. The weariness was also washed away by a sharp shower of sleety hail that arrived just as I reached the trail to the hills and had me scurrying for the thankfully nearby waterproofs. Welcome to Scotland it seemed to say but it was but a brief affair and soon I was enjoying some sunshine again but the waterproofs stayed on as it was quite chilly and another reminder that I was a good 400 miles north of home.
Leaving Strthcarron

Into the wild and the views are amazing

Looking back...Liathach takes centre stage
Bidean a Coire Sheasgaigh and Lurg Mór

It only takes a short few minutes on the little track before you find yourself suddenly immersed in the wild open boggy ground and shortly pretty much all signs of civilization are left behind. Now all that can be seen is hummocky boggy ground stretching in all directions with the mountains above Applecross and Sgurr Ruadh behind and the munros of Monar ahead. A dusting of snow lay down as low as 700 mtrs which only added to the beauty of the overall scenery. My hope for today was to reach the Maol Bhuidhe bothy but I wasn't overly concerned as I had my tent with me and sufficient food for several days so I could go as far as I felt like and find a spot to camp if I wished. The walking was generally pretty easy and the path is fairly good as you rise gently alongside the River Taodail before then following the Eas na Creige Duibhe Móire until you reach the bealach northeast of Creag Dubh Mhór at 443mtrs. Ahead a whole new vista appears and the wide valley below, which holds the bothy of Bendronaig Lodge, is backed by the remote munro of Bidean a Choire Sheasgaich looked very inviting, or it would do if it hadn't been despoiled by the construction of a roadway which was to enable the development of a Hydro Electric scheme. It was a shock to the system to walk along the road once I reached the valley floor and after a brief stop to look into the bothy I was glad to depart the valley and head once more into unspoiled country.
Terrible scaring caused by the Attadale Hydro scheme

Bendronaig Lodge

 As I rose into Coire na Sorna on the good track towards Lock Calavie things became truly wild once again. The good track runs until the end of the lake but after that progress becomes something of a war of attrition with the bog. There is a footbridge over the river at the outlet of the lake and even getting to this means climbing over, around and across turf banks and trying to avoid the constant morasses that crossed the way. I should say that I was using the 1-50000 maps for this trip and on the map it showed a track that crossed the Allt na Lóin Fhiodha river some three kilometers southeast of here so I decided to head for that. The tough nature of the ground didn't vary a whole lot and it was a tiring exercise to get past Cnoc a Mhoraire to reach a place where I could finally see the area of the supposed crossing point and to discover that there was no bridge. I was tired by now and I could really have done without covering the extra ground to reach that point so I dropped directly to the nearest point of the river and took off my boots and pulled the trousers up above the knees and managed to cross there and stay dry. Oh my but the water was bracing and it was a huge relief to exit the freezing waters and dry off and put the dry warm socks and boots back on. Two and a half squelchy kilometers later I reached the bothy and it was a huge relief to drop my bag and relax.
Up at Loch Calavie. Showers around but almost all missed me 😊

Rough ground ahead and wetter than it looks

Maol Bhuidhe bothy nestles in the wild

After crossing the river

Excellent bothy

I had been really lucky with the weather today. The frequency of the showers had increased but almost all of them missed me and all my clothes were dry as I squeezed through the narrow half door. There is a fireplace in the bothy but there was nothing to burn and so it was fairly chilly but a wonderful sanctuary none the less. It was now just after quarter past five and the exertions of the long journey and the six and a quarter hours carrying the bag had taken their toll and I wasted no time in finding a spot upstairs to spread out my stuff and get my food sorted for dinner. I wasn't alone as a young English guy was already in situ and we were later joined by a couple in their late fifties. Once I had dinner sorted fatigue took hold and I excused myself and retired to bed early. The weather had turned a little for the worse and the showers had become more frequent but the sound of rain hammering against the skylight just above me was like a lullaby and I was soon asleep. A long much needed rest followed..Bliss

Sunday April 16th;

There is no point denying it but sleeping on a mat...even a nice thermarest one that is almost two inches thick is not the same as my nice comfortable bed at home and the quality of sleep I get is more fitful but nonetheless I got up much refreshed at 07.30 and set about readying for the day ahead. The cloud was down at around the 800mtr level and occasional light rain drifted across the landscape but I wasn't too worried as the forecast was pretty decent and I would have to take was would come anyway. Once ready I exited at 08.15 and set off once more on the next leg of the trip. Today I was hoping to reach Shiel Bridge which had a couple of campsites and a shop and maybe even a phone signal 😀. The first four kilometers was a gentle rise over once again very boggy ground towards the wide pass between Faochaig 868mtrs and Aonach Buidhe 899mtrs and immediately the wildness and remoteness of the place was a joy. What rain there had been was now almost completely gone and patches of blue sky were beginning to appear. Progress was also helped by an excellent track that reached from the pass all the was to Iron Lodge in the valley floor and ran to the end of Loch na Leitreach where my path left this valley and headed for the Falls of Glomach. I really enjoyed the five kilometers or so of the hike along the valley floor. Even though the area was semi cultivated and there was a few estate houses it was still very beautiful and of course the now sunny weather helped as well.
A wee bit dank leaving in the morning

Still lovely tho

The way down to Iron Lodge

Approaching Loch na Leitreach with Carnan Cruichneachd beyond

Looking back

After Loch na Leitreach a footbridge crosses the river and you then turn to follow the Allt a Ghlomaich (over another footbridge) into quite a spectacular gorge and path rises towards the still hidden Falls of Glomach. The path rises up the right hand side of the gorge and there is a bit of exposure in places where the consequences of a fall would be very serious indeed. After a while things widen out and after crossing a stream from the right the path rises again up easier ground on the right until you reach the plateau from whence the falls drop. From here you can only see the top half of the falls which is spectacular enough but to experience the true majesty of the entire falls then you have to follow a path steeply down towards a good rock platform where you can enjoy the full spectacle. And quite the sight it is as a good volume of water thunders over a hundred metres into the depths below. I must confess I hadn't expected a great deal from the falls but they surpassed my expectations and if the opportunity arises I would recommend a visit. But that's not all this area has to offer as once you reach the flat ground above the falls you have a wide plateau over which mountains of up to 1100mtrs soar. I turned and climbed towards Bealach na Sroine where I sat a while and enjoyed a bite to eat and enjoyed my majestic surroundings.
The way to the falls

A 100mtr drop

Looking back

A pleasant spot and weather for lunch

It was all downhill from here as I set off for Shiel Bridge and civilization. I began to meet a few people coming against me as well as they headed for the falls. A fine path led down easily to Dorusduain Woods and eventually I reached a parking area which is of course where I took a small wrong turn. Just a little one but I missed the track that led over the river to Morvich which meant I walked on the tarmac road past the farmsteads at at Strath Croe. This then meant I would have to turn backwards to reach the campsite at Morvich so I chose instead to continue along the road until I reached the busy A87 and headed instead for the other campsite beyond Glenshiel Lodge. This added about five kilometers onto the trip and meant that today I would spend eight and a quarter hours on the go. When I reached the place near where the campsite was supposed to be it came as a nasty shock to see a sign saying that camping was a mile and a half further on but relief was huge when I spotted the basic little site only a few hundred meters away. It is nicely situated alongside Allt Undulain and offers nice views up to the nearest tops of the Five Sisters of Kintail. I pitched my tent and walked to the nearby shop and so was settled for the evening and sorted (food-wise) for the rest of the trip. A young Italian guy pitched his tent near mine and we got to chatting. It turned out that this was his second attempt at walking the trail (having been rebuffed by storms in February) and this time he had actually started his adventure in Glasgow and hiked the length of the West Highland Way before continuing on towards Cape Wrath. He has started up a new website http://www.thewalkingrobin.com/ in which he documents his hikes and reviews gear etc. It is in Italian only at the moment but he plans to offer it in English as well very soon. He was a delightful guy to talk to and his delight and enthusiasm for this hike was plain to see. He was also something of an expert in travelling light and his sleeping arrangement came in at under one kilo in total, including tent, mat and sleeping bag. Lets just say it didn't look comfortable and my older bones preferred (and needed) a bit more in the way of comfort.
The way ahead

Towards Beinn Fhada

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Some of The Five Sisters of Kintail..Nice view from the campsite

Monday April 17th;

I got up to a chilly clear morning and after waiting for the shop to open so I could get fresh bread rolls (which it turned out they didn't and wouldn't have) I left behind Shiel Bridge and headed into Knoydart. This promised to be an exciting leg of the trip as I have always wanted to visit this most remote area of the Highlands so I was really looking forward to my day. A decent track leads you into the picturesque Gleann Undalain at whose end rises the beautiful and spectacular Forcan Ridge which gives one of the finest scrambles in all the Highlands. It looked quite alpine as well this morning at the top was crusted with snow. I contemplated traversing the ridge but I reckoned that it wouldn't be much fun with a heavy bag and it would have to wait until I could give it my full attention and be able to better enjoy the experience. Towards the back of the valley (where wonderful wild camping spots abound) I crossed the river and made a rising traverse under Biod na Fhithich  and reached Bealach na Craoibhe at 496mtrs. This was a fabulous spot to rest a while and look across at The Five Sisters of Kintail on one side, the ever more enticing Forcan Ridge on the other and ahead the rugged land of Knoydart beckoned. A path rises towards and traverses just beneath Meallan Odhar 610mtrs and just before you start to climb up the Forcan Ridge proper the path runs beside a broken low wall as it traverses the ridge and heads towards Bealach Coire Mhalagain 699mtrs, which is the highest point on The Cape Wrath Trail.
Shortly after leaving the campsite. Looking towards Shiel Bridge

Looking inviting ahead

The Forcan Ridge circuit

Towards Cluanie

Temptation proved too much for me however and before I reached the bealach I dropped my bag and armed only with my camera I decided to climb the spur that rises to the summit of Sgúrr na Forcan at 963mtrs. Steep grassy and stony ground gave way to spurs of rock that offered some good sport. Patches of snow made things a little spicier in places and I was aware that I would have to be careful going back down but it felt great to be climbing unencumbered by the heavy bag and my progress was swift. I reached the airy top and paused a short while to enjoy the stupendous views. My my but the way to "The Saddle" the highest point of this beautiful ridge looked inviting but it was a fair distance away still and its technical nature meant it would take a lot of time to get there and back down. I dropped to a nearby low spot on the ridge and made my way carefully down the steep ground and once below the snow patches progress became easier back to my bag. From the bealach the route drops initially through boggy ground until a nice moraine spur is followed into Coire Mhalagain until you reach the 350mtr contour where a trail contours around the lower slopes of Sgurr na Sgine into Coire Reidh. It then gradually loses height and continues until it reaches a line of electricity pylons and climbs a little to a notch and drops into a narrow glen before entering some woodland in the remote little estate hamlet of Kinloch Hourn which nestles at the end of the stunning Loch Hourn.
Another world up on Sgurr na Forcan

Towards Knoydart

First views of Loch Hourn

Dropping down towards Kinloch Hourn

So far I had been going for over six hours and there is the option to stay here in a B&B or indeed camp by the bridge but the day was so wonderful that I decided to press on as far as Barrisdale. But not before I sampled some tea and cake in the tea-room of the B&B. I was a fairly hungry by now and I was looking forward to a big wedge of cake to keep me going for the rest of the day but lets just say I was underwhelmed by the rather small piece that arrived. I still savoured each delicious bite and the tea also seemed wonderful. I inquired how long it would take to reach Barrisdale and was somewhat taken aback to be informed it could take up to five hours. He then asked how long it had taken me to come from Shiel Bridge and then he suggested less than four. I was still a bit surprised and decided to waste no further time before setting off once again. At this point I should say that the views along the beautiful Loch as I descended to Kinloch Hourn had shown me a couple of places where it might have been possible to set up camp so I knew I had options. Once past the little jetty the roadway ends and a lovely trail runs through some Rhododendron and woods and the overall effect is a delight. Before too long things become a little boggy and progress is a little tougher.
Starting along the Loch

Ladhar Bheinn looking amazing..as does everything else

It wasn't all flat going..Plenty of ups and down

Long way back

Finally reaching Barrisdale. If I had the choice again I would camp just ahead

En route the hopes that this is a flat walk along the shore are also dashed and there are several significant ups and downs before you reach Barrisdale but my oh my are the views worth the effort. As I progressed further the views towards Ladhar Bheinn 1010mtrs became more and more spectacular and there were also glimpses of the Ilses of Eig, Rum and Skye to be enjoyed. Of course the blue Loch and its surrounds were also a delight. Eventually after a final boggy climb you drop down to the beautiful sands of Camas Liathach on the shores of Barrisdale Bay. When the winds are light (like today) this would offer a glorious place to camp but a sign suggests you use the appointed camping area alongside the bothy so I continued on on the sandy track for the two kilometers to the bothy. There were five people already there when I arrived, three hours after leaving Kinloch Hourn and nine and a half since I left Shiel Bridge but there was plenty of room so I quickly stashed my stuff and set about cooking dinner. Alas the bothy is located in the middle of a small working farm area and while the views are undoubtedly great I still felt a twinge of regret that I hadn't pitched my tent on the stunning spot I first reached on the other side of the bay. That's not to say that here didn't have its compensations. Indoor running water and a flushing indoor toilet was luxury indeed and the distraction of deer grazing meters from the bothy was also a delight. Still if I was back there again and the weather was good I know where I would choose to stay.
Heading towards the bothy

Tuesday April 18th;

I hadn't slept very well but the sight of an awesome starry sky out the window above my bed was a welcome distraction in the night and I still felt okay when I got up at 07.30. Over breakfast there was a bit of chat (everyone was surprisingly reticent the previous evening) and I was able to find out a bit about the others plans. The four in the other room were finding the going a bit tough and had revised their original plan of hiking to Strathcarron and were now going to finish in Shiel Bridge. The tall Englishman (think legs sticking a good foot beyond the end of his bunk 😄) who shared my room was going to traverse over Ladhar Bheinn and drop down to Inverie and stay there before returning to Kinloch Hourn. As I ate breakfast it seemed a bit surreal to watch a pair of young stags having a bit of a tussle not far outside the window. You got to love Knoydart. My plan for today was to head as far as Sourlies bothy and take it from there. The foursome had advised me that the bothy was full of mice but that there were plenty of camping spots nearby which suited me fine. I had also been warned by my Italian friend that the final stretch of the path across to the bothy was super boggy so I would skirt the left edge of this area and hopefully find dryer ground. That was a fair distance away yet as I started my day in wonderful weather yet again and followed the good track out of the bay into Gleann Unndalain. This glen is very nice with a fair bit of beautiful Scots Pine woodland on either side of the cascading burn and of course the views all around were wonderful too. A long steady climb eventually saw me reach Mam Unndalain at over 500mtrs and a whole new vista opened up before me.
Gaining some height shortly after leaving.

A fine track all the way to the Bealach

A steep drop to the valley below

Lovely waterfalls and possible plunge pools for the ..ahem..brave??

A steep drop into the narrow valley below was the first obstacle and I took a fairly direct line towards a hillock near the bottom and to the right. This meant skirting some steep rocky outcrops but the final drop to the River Carnach was quite easy and on dry ground. Before the river enters the narrow exit of the valley there is a wonderful spot to camp just above a beautiful waterfall which has a large deep pool below it that offers the brave or insane a chance to enjoy a plunge from about 12meters. I would of course have done it myself but I am not a fan of cold water 😅. Again at the narrowest point of the exit, beside a spot where the river is overhung by a rockface more camping spots are to be found but I was heading further on and shortly afterwards you enter the much larger valley that leads all the way to the head of Loch Nevis. Here lots of deer were to be found and the far side is overshadowed by the very beautiful peak of Sgurr na Ciche 1040mtrs. The next three kilometers or so was again very boggy but lets say I had crossed worse on previous days. Eventually I reached the place where the ground flattens out a couple of kilometers from the Loch and it was here I decided to forego the walk to the footbridge and miss the crossing of the very swampy section and I took off my boots and forded the river here. Painfully chilly it again proved to be but I was soon on my way and traversing under the spur that drops from the peaks above. There was a track of sorts to be found here but it was also pretty boggy but I eventually reached the beach and Sourlies bothy just four and a half hours from the off.
Heading down towards the valley before Loch Nevis with Sgurr na Ciche above

Final river crossing

Loch Nevis

Sourlies Bothy

Leaving Loch Nevis

I relaxed a little while here and ate some biscuits before deciding to head further along the trail and find somewhere to camp later on. A steady climb up the wide glen alongside the Finiskaig river was straightforward if again quite boggy but once in the long narrow rough section that stretches for just three kilometers until you pass Lochan Mháim things get decidedly tougher. Now the bog competes with rocky outcrops and the way ahead is a torturous sequence of twists and turns hops and jumps and it seemed to go on and on. It is still undeniably beautiful though and despite growing fatigue I was enjoying myself. Time was slipping by as well and when I spied a possible place to pitch my tent near the end of the Lochlan I was briefly tempted but I decided to continue into Glen Dessarry and hope to find something there. Once past Bealach an Lagain Duibh it was much easier to progress on the "normal" boggy slopes. Nothing presented itself as a camping spot yet so I pressed on into the fir woods ahead. After a while a lovely spot appeared on a wide sweeping bend in the river but it was on the far side so again I passed it up and continued. Then shortly after exiting the woods, where the river again sweeps around in a wide flat arc a lovely cropped, grassy, dry area came into view and I made straight for it. I had found home. As it turned out I was only a few hundred meters from the bothy at A'Chuil. It was now just five pm so it had been an eight and a half hour day and I was well pleased but quite tired. An ideal camping evening was enjoyed and a good nights sleep also followed.
Entering the rough pass of Mám na Cloiche Airde

Thankfully not too far to the end of the pass

Entering Glen Dessarry. Easy ground ahead

The view back from my campsite..Garbh Cioch Mhor and Sgurr nan Coireachan


Wednesday April 19th;

It had rained a little bit in the night and the cloud shrouded the hilltops when I emerged from my tent in the morning. The odd patch of passing mist was about as well but I managed to have breakfast and get packed up in the dry and I was on the move again at 07.30. I joined the forest road and enjoyed the next few easy kilometers until I reached the track that runs out of the woods to the footbridge over the river Pean and began the long long gradual pull up into Gleann a Chaorainn. This glen would eventually led to Bealach a Chaorainn. Initially a track of sorts could be followed up above the left side of the river but again this became a muddy smear up through constant deep wet bog. I found myself dreaming of being able to walk fifty meters on dry springy turf but it was not to be. Eventually, after several kilometers, I dropped down to the rivers edge and crossed it easily and followed a better trail on that side. Now the pass stood up ahead and what a spectacular one it was as the mountains of Streap 909mtrs and Sgurr Thuilm 963mtrs book-ended each side. The cloud was lifting as well and the top of Streap could now be seen in the wispy mists. There was a chill breeze gusting through the pass when I arrived and I briefly had to don the waterproof top again for a little protection but once I entered Glenfinnan (my final glen of this trip) I was once again in the shelter and walking into some warm sunshine.The bog was also a thing of the past and a well made track descended easily alongside the fledgling river and progress was easy at last.
A misty morn and A Chúil bothy

Starting up towards Gleann a Chaorainn

Looking back towards Loch Arkaig

The impressive Bealach a Chaorainn with Streap on the left

After a couple of kilometers I rested awhile and had a bite to eat and luxuriated in my stunning surroundings and reflected on the days of travel I had done. I had covered about 115 kilometers and climbed 4500 meters over the five days. I had found the entire experience exhilarating and this was of course helped in huge measure measure by enjoying excellent weather. The highlands are a joy and offer a vast wild landscape that can at times feel overwhelming but is always interesting and varied. I know some people say that it isn't really a wilderness but it is very easy to get that lost and remote feeling when you are in it and to be fair that is good enough for me. It is also good enough for people from many far flung places as well. On the route I had met a young woman from "down under", some English (of course), Scots (awrite pal), a German, an Italian, a few gents from North America and a few women from Holland. I can only imagine that this wonderful route which has so much to offer will only become more and more popular. I was also a little sad that things were coming to an end all too soon and I felt I could have gone on for many more days. The skies were clear now as I walked down as far as Corryhully bothy and very shortly after that the track became a road which eventually passed under the impressive Glenfinnan viaduct. I reached the main road at 1pm so today's trek had taken five and a half hours. I felt quite fresh and I would have loved to continue into the Ardgour Peninsula and continue until I reached Fort William but constraints insisted otherwise.
Finally nearing the pass

All down hill from here :)

The Glenfinnan Monument and Ardgour beyond..So enticing

It came as a shock to the system to be in the midst of lots of tourists and traffic and my next problem was how to get to Fort William. Thanks to the return of phone signal I was able to find out that the next train didn't go until 16:00 and the next bus was 15 minutes after that so there was nothing for it but to stick out the thumb and try and hitch a ride. Lo and behold literally the first car stopped and I was sorted. A young Czech woman and an English friend of hers, both of whom were living in Inverie, gave me a lift into town. I had thought that all the excitement was over but the driving of the Czech woman was really scary and her constant violent adjustments (at some speed) to the steering wheel as we went around every bend meant I was actually quite glad to safely reach the town. Now all that remained was the long slow journey home. Next time I might head north from Strathcarron 😋