At 1424hrs on Friday 12th April 2019 my dog and I reached the lighthouse at Cape Wrath; the culmination of over two year’s thought and planning. It had been 18 days, 4 hours and 24 minutes since the ferry embarked on the crossing of Loch Linnhe, so beginning our journey on the Cape Wrath Trail.
I first heard about the Trail from a friend who made a short film, about the Cape Wrath Ultra. This can be seen here. For a long time the thought of walking the Trail was just that- no more than a thought. I didn’t begin to really consider actually doing it until early 2018. Living in Mallaig I am familiar with a lot of the area that comprises the first few stages, from Fort William to Barrisdale, and slowly the idea coalesced in my mind that I should make an attempt.
The first thing I did was to decide on a date. I settled for Easter 2019, because I could make the time available from work fairly easily. Further, there would be no midges around at that time of year, which was probably the most important consideration. Other factors were possibly favourable, such as the cooler weather and the lack of traffic, however the shorter days would mean less time to complete each stage.
Initially this was still just an idea in my mind. I spoke to nobody about it. I am generally very poor at completing things, and since this was to be something bigger than anything I have attempted before, I felt it was prudent to keep my plans and ideas to myself for the time being.
I joined the Cape Wrath Trail Guide Group on Facebook, and began some earnest research regarding kit. I had not done a through-hike on this scale, and lightweight gear had never really been a consideration to me. Soon I was replacing my rucksack, sleeping bag and tent. Once I had made this outlay I began to talk to other people about it; having spent so much money now it seemed inevitable that I would have to at least try it. The Facebook page is the most helpful group I have encountered; all questions were met with a genuine wish to help.
After I had bought the excellent Cicerone guidebook by Iain Harper and the two Harvey’s maps for the Trail, the real planning began. I drew up a draft outline of the route I wanted to take. My plan was to optimise the use of bothies, and I tailored my schedule to make the most of the shelters available. I thought that this would make the experience more comfortable, especially in the event of a prolonged spell of poor weather. Drying kit in a one-man tent is no fun for anyone, and given the abundance of bothies that are available this seemed the most sensible option.
There are many variations along the length of the Trail. There is an initial choice to make. You can start from the ferry to Camusnagaul and go through Knoydart, or you can take the Great Glen route to the east. I chose Knoydart, since this goes through familiar territory and it also takes the line of the original route. I also decided to avoid towns as much as possible, so I missed out the popular diversion into Ullapool. My route followed the Cicerone guide, however the stages detailed didn’t quite fit my idea of using bothies as much as possible, and so I shortened or lengthened them accordingly. The schedule I settled on had 4 nights out of 16 under canvas. All the rest were at bothies, with the exception of the bunkhouse at Kinlochewe.
FOOD AND RESUPPLY
The Trail is too long a hike to carry all your food with you, and there are few shops en-route to make purchases from. My main food was several vacuum-packed meals (I had access to a vacuum packer!) and a pack of red lentils to make dhal with. I had some flour and made chapattis to go with the dhal. I carried a bag of trail mix that I made up, and some treats like Rocky bars. The dog ate about 250g of cooked square sausage or liver per day, plus treats.
I set off with 4 days worth of food, and made up 4 resupply packages each containing 3 days rations. Each pack weighed around 3kg with the exception of the last one that contained whisky and weighed around 1kg more. Each pack contained: 3 x breakfasts (Oat so Simple), 3 x instant noodles, 2 x vacuum meals, 2 x boil-in-the-bag rice, 3 x Rocky bars, 3 x Sesame Snaps, 3 days worth of trail mix, 3 x dog meals, dog treats, 1 block of cake. One of the parcels had coffee refill (I took my Aeropress because I like decent coffee in the morning) and one had whisky as already mentioned.
The trail mix I made up was a great source of energy, and it was something I could often be eating. Every time I stopped to check the map, adjust the pack or refer to the guide I could have a quick handful of the mix. It easily kept me going through each day without having to stop for lunch.
28/03/19 Stage 1: Fort William to Glenfinnan (Corryhully Bothy), 24 miles (39km)
This was a very tough first day, mainly due to the length of the stage (an additional 4km from Glenfinnan to reach Corryhully Bothy) coupled with an overloaded rucksack that just proved too heavy. I also had a late start, only making the 1000hrs Fort William to Camusnagaul ferry.
Considering you are actually starting the fabled Cape Wrath Trail, it is wholly underwhelming. The opening 8km or so are actually walking south along a road, a curious paradox for an epic route to the most remote northerly tip of Scotland. Once you leave the road and become established in Cona Glen, the excitement levels really don’t elevate much more. A short climb (400m) gives but a whiff of what’s to come; the stage is long, however there is nothing you can do but get on with it.
I arrived at the bothy in the dark, at 2145hrs. At only 26 miles from my home in Mallaig, I felt like just calling someone and sleeping in my bed the night.
I was in a lot of pain, and had a fitful sleep, constantly changing position. My priority at this point was to lighten my load; otherwise it was unlikely I could carry on. I got rid of several items from my bag saving 3kg, including spare clothes, camera tripod and a litre of spare fuel for my Whisperlite. The bag felt noticeably lighter, and after coffee and breakfast I felt able to carry on.
29/03/19 Stage 2: Glenfinnan to A’Chuil Bothy, 11½ miles (18½ km)
The weather was overcast, and I climbed away from Corryhully into the rain and wind. I was walking with another hiker, headed for Inverie, whose company was good if a little slow. The fine 4×4 path crosses a bridge to lead a way up the valley, bound by the magnificent Streap to the right and Sgurr Thuilm to the left. The path narrows to nothing as you reach the river source, and there is a curious gate with no fence; everyone usually succumbs to the urge to go through it.
The weather followed us down from the bealach into the valley towards Glen Pean. This rendered the river well charged, and a crossing point was difficult to find. We finally settled on a spot, which had several large boulders we could use to pick a way across. It was difficult, and I stripped down to river shoes; I had the dog harnessed to my rucksack and he was able to follow, although it was not easy for any of us. Safely on the other side, and my new hiking partner was very grateful; he said he would not have made that crossing without me, and proceeded to crack open a can of beer to mark the moment.
The walk from here to the bothy was relatively straightforward, if long. It is around 7km along a forest 4×4 track, and we reached the bothy at 1900hrs, 7½ hours after leaving Glenfinnan.
30/03/19 Stage 3: A’Chuil to Sourlies Bothy, 7 miles (11km)
I woke to a fine morning, sunshine and blue skies. My calves still ached a lot from the initial impact of that terrible first day, however the good weather helped to lift my mood and overcome the pains I was suffering. It is a relatively short distance into Sourlies Bothy from A’Chuil, however that doesn’t make it easy at all. The terrain is rough, with a long and arduous climb through the Glendessary plantation before rising still to reach the cairn in the middle of the valley. From here the scenery becomes much more dramatic; the remote nature of Knoydart really begins to hit home. The first sight of Loch Nevis soon follows a fairly straightforward river crossing. The path down is well paved in places, and your imagination is often drawn to the poor pack-mules that would have had to haul various goods when these ancient trails were used as traditional drovers’ routes. It was a difficult hike, arriving at the bothy by 2000hrs.
As luck would have it, I met a friend from Mallaig. I was still keen to lighten the load I was carrying, and was able to rid myself of another 1½ kg of unwanted kit. The CWT is about survival, and I soon realised that I had brought quite a bit of kit I didn’t need.
31/03/19 Stage 4: Sourlies to Barrisdale, 8½ miles (13½ km)
I woke to a lovely day, stepping from the bothy under clear and calm skies. I enjoyed a full river wash, following the departure of my colleagues for the night. Onyx and me again, felt nice to be alone. Confidence was growing with the improved weather and waning aches.
The first issue leaving this place was always going to be crossing the River Carnoch. The bridge that spanned the water had been in severe disrepair for some time; it was removed because it had been deemed too dangerous to use, and the replacement hadn’t yet been installed. In the event, the actual crossing was trouble free and I was able to complete it without even having to remove my boots.
The scenery on this stage is spectacular. As you follow the River Carnoch upstream you enter more steepening gorges, with stunning mountain peaks and amazing waterfalls. There were photograph opportunities at every turn. The pools along the length of the river were especially inviting, and I was so close to just stripping off and jumping in; all this under a beautiful blue sky and lovely warm sunshine. Leaving the river where it runs south at a right angle, we climbed steeply north to find the Bealach Undalain. Hard and steep, 90 minutes to climb 500m. The descent into Barrisdale was fast, and spirits were good. Onyx had a good day too; he seems to sense when we are nearing bothies, and trots ahead to arrive first.
Barrisdale resembled a Youth Hostel from the ‘70s. It is basic, vestigial, cold and uninviting; very simple and somehow unwelcoming. Cooked dhal and read the guide in readiness for tomorrow. Couldn’t wait to leave the place.
01/04/19 Stage 5: Barrisdale to Morvich, 20 miles (32km)
This is a tough stage. The opening walk into Kinlochourn tackles several separate ascents, each around 100m. I took it straight on, without any hesitation, and reached Kinlochourn after just three hours. I was elated, and planned to treat myself to a sausage sandwich at the tearoom there. Sadly, it was closed, which was more depressing than perhaps it should have been! I was really looking forward to that sandwich…
Pressing on, passing the river and very simple campsite, I met Malcolm, the Kinlochourn stalker. Malcolm generously gave me a litre of unleaded petrol, and so quelled the fuel anxiety that was growing in me. My supplies were running low, the nearest petrol station being at my destination in Shiel Bridge.
As I cleared the small copse above the stalker’s cottage, birds sang and flew from tree to tree along the route. My mood was definitely brightened and I walked with a smile on my face. The climb out of Kinlochourn is steep and unforgiving; just keep following the line of pylons and push on through. There was promise of rain, but still a milky sun tried to break through the high cloud.
You follow the good 4×4 track past a small wooden stalker’s hut, handy for an emergency shelter. The river crossing that follows can be difficult in spate, but the rivers were low for us and again we just skipped across.
The track soon changes into rough indistinct ground, and the weather was deepening as I reached the foot of the climb up to the Forcan Ridge. Long and steep, you have to keep telling yourself to just keep going. There is a small lochan that marks the top of the climb. From here look left and head for a distinctive line of stones; pass them from above. Clearing the bealach I began a descent into cold, icy sleet. The downward path into Shiel Bridge was characterised by this, turning to heavy rain as we lost height.
By the time we arrived at Shiel Bridge, Onyx and I were wet and miserable. We had missed the shop and petrol station (good thing we met Malcolm!), and began the walk towards Kintail. Coming off the hill I had developed a strong yearning (perhaps from the disappointment of missing the sausage sandwich) that a cheeseburger and a pint were in order from the Kintail Lodge Hotel, and this was a driving force that pushed us on through the dreadful weather. A picture had formed in my mind of me sitting in the bar, roaring fire, and enjoying some of the pub fare while chatting to the barmaid. Thoughts were even drifting to taking accommodation in the bunkhouse, but dreams were cruelly shattered when I reached the hotel and read the sign at the door that said CLOSED DUE TO UNFORSEEN CIRCUMSTANCES.
The next 2 miles to reach Morvich campsite were incredibly hard, given the level of disappointment I had just suffered. However, the campsite itself is very well appointed, had a superb drying room and shower/toilet facilities, and was also the source of my first resupply. Sadly the shop sold little in the way of fresh produce, and since sausages and beer were on my mind (I just needed a treat!) I endured the walk back to the small shop at Kintail to sate my cravings.
02/04/19 Stage 6: Morvich to Maol Bhuidhe Bothy, 18 miles (29km)
Breakfasted on sausages and coffee. There had been more rain in the night, which fell as snow on the higher ground. The air was cold and even blue skies couldn’t hold back the feeling that worse was to come. Onyx was a concern. I walked him around the campsite, watching his gait and trying to gauge his feeling. The excellent facilities on offer here were tempting me into a rest day, but after much thought the prospect of worse weather to come drove us on into the stage ahead.
The route follows a metalled road for a short distance before crossing left through some houses- keep looking for Falls of Glomach signs. You eventually end up on a small track that easily wends a way along the south bank of the river until you see a clear wooden sign to your left- FALLS OF GLOMACH- you cannot miss it (I say this because I did miss it, and when I backtracked I couldn’t believe how this happened). Cross the river (bridge) to find the path, which is simple enough, climbing after leaving the forest and contouring around the hill to rise and cross the bealach.
Snow dominated the scene as we passed the first of two 500m ascents. After clearing the bealach, we dropped down to find the spectacular Falls of Glomach. If you want to view the falls it is worth it, but bear in mind the route off follows a line from the sign above the falls. Cold sleet buffeted around me, adding to the difficult nature of the descent away from the waterfall. The path clings precariously to the side of the gorge; at one point I went off route and found myself having to down-climb a rocky bluff some 20ft above the path.
I reached the glen by 5pm, and then endured the long walk out past Iron Lodge before turning to ascend the final bealach of the day and a seemingly endless walk to the bothy. I arrived as darkness was falling. Onyx and I were cold, wet and tired after a full 10-hour day on the hill; imagine the joy I felt on discovering firelighters, kindling, logs and coal sitting neatly by the fireplace, which was most welcome after the difficult approach. This is such an important thing, leaving fuel for the next visitor. A small and simple gesture that made this bothy infinitely more comfortable for us. Very soon I was eating a good meal, in front of a warm fire, while enjoying a cold beer saved from yesterday’s booty.
Outside the trees swung wildly in the wind, and the rain lashed against the windows; inside a picture of calm and simple pleasures.
03/04/19 Stage 7: Maol Bhuidhe bothy to Strathcarron, 18 miles (29km)
Awoke from the best sleep of the whole trip so far, despite the howling weather outside. A brief glance out of the window revealed snow and strong winds; it looked horrible. Thoughts leaning toward a rest day, but there wasn’t that much fuel here (it is very remote) and the weather could just get worse… better to keep on moving. Onyx looked fine, no obvious signs of distress.
The tent was aired last night, hanging from the upstairs landing. After packing everything down, I set off into the icy wind and sleet. The conditions were pretty dire. Onyx did not want to leave the bothy. I had to stop and go back for him; he just sat at the door. There followed a disastrous start. It was difficult finding a decent spot to cross the river outside the bothy. The guidebook shows a crossing point to the east of Loch Cruoshie; I wandered some way upstream before finding a suitable place, but I soon found myself trapped in a horrid, peaty, boggy, nightmare landscape that was defined by random hidden watercourses making forward progress almost impossible. It took 2 hours to clear the bog, through driving sleet and icy rain, and when I established the north bound path around the headland the bothy was heartbreakingly still in sight. I had only moved 1km in that time. Cross to the west of the loch, whatever the conditions. You will find the route out much easier.
We pressed on. Thankfully there is a decent 4×4 track which takes you on past Bendronaig Bothy, but the path over the final bealach is difficult to find and we missed it first time, having to retrace steps to get back on track. Absolutely awful weather! We finally descended into Strathcarron feeling very miserable. Poor Onyx! I wanted a shop to get him some milk; he deserved it. I saw a policeman in his car at the Strathcarron Hotel, and asked him. He generously took both of us to the shop, where we bought sausages, buns and milk amongst other treats, before then driving the short distance up the road to drop us at the bottom of the track that leads to the bothy. Retreating into the security of Coire Fionnaraich Bothy, thoughts drifted to the possibilities of a rest day tomorrow…
04/04/19 Rest day
A lot of this decision was about the dog as much as me, but to be fair we both needed it. The bothy was comfortable, with a cast-iron firebox, so I left Onyx to sleep while I walked the 3km down to the road from where I hitched a ride to the nearby village to source some supplies; coal, wood, kindling, beer, treats and snacks. Spent the day relaxing and drying kit. Did some laundry and then spent a wonderful evening in the company of Sophie and Tony, who introduced me to the infectious game of ‘Making Bacon’!
05/04/19 Stage 8: Coire Fionnaraich Bothy to Kinlochewe, 19 miles (30½ km)
I was up early in anticipation of a long day with two 600m climbs ahead. Fine weather forced a way through, and I prepared coffee with confidence and good feelings around me.
The first summit was relatively straightforward; it was cold across the bealach, with ice and snow crusting the ground. The descent into warmer air was good, and I passed the Ling Hut and main road around lunchtime. The second climb was tougher, contouring around Sàil Mhòr. It seemed to go on forever and I wondered would I ever reach the elusive waterfalls, however it was worth all the effort and more. The incredible atmosphere in the cathedral-like amphitheatre at the head of the waterfall was breath-taking, and again simply being in such a sensational place lifted my mood.
From such highs there soon followed depths of despair that will live in harrowing echoes amongst my darkest moments in the hill. It is necessary to descend, find and then follow the 400m contour. This seems simple enough (particularly with the aid of GPS). However, the terrain is quite brutal, and progress along the next 6km was at a tortuous 1km per hour. The ground is comprised of large blocks, and these form a very disorientating landscape featuring many dips and rises that sap your energy and erode your will to live. The terrain is so undulating that you cannot even fix on a navigation point, and you find yourself constantly having to check your direction. It was with such great relief when we found the path that descends into Kinlochewe, arriving at 2115hrs after 13 very tough hours in the hill. However, the disappointment was to continue.
The plan had been to stay at the bunkhouse attached to the hotel, however it is not dog friendly and we were turned away. Fortunately, I had arranged to meet a colleague in the bar, and she was waiting for me with her friend who was the proprietor of the local Post Office (where I also had a resupply package to collect). She generously offered to put us up for the night, and I enjoyed a nice pint, which had been most definitely well-earned.
06/04/19 Stage 9: Kinlochewe to Loch na Sealga, 17miles (27½ km)
A fairly straightforward day after the desperation of the previous stage; dry and overcast, cool conditions made for good progress over a single 600m ascent and then finding a thin stalker’s path that leads to Loch an Nid. The glen drifts north then cuts northwest to find Strath na Sealga and Shenavall Bothy.
The landscape over the bealach is quite unique and striking. Thick slabs of quartzite bedding are stacked upon each other, and gently tilted to create a dominant, stepped feature notably seen in the river exposure which has to be crossed.
The day was straightforward, however there was an incident at the bothy, which could have been very serious indeed.
Shenavall Bothy is one of the more popular bothies on the Trail, and there was a party of French teens as well as a couple with their two children. Everyone was in good spirits, and after laying out my mat and sleeping bag upstairs I went to the kitchen area to prepare some food. What happened next highlights how dangerous the most simple of tasks can become; how easy it is to court disaster.
The fuel cylinder for my MSR Whisperlite needed refilling, and I had the litre of unleaded petrol that Malcolm from Kinlochourn had generously given me. It was in a plastic Primus bottle, which had a security lid that needed pressing down to unscrew. Holding tight around the bottle with one hand I pressed and turned with the other; Malcolm had filled it right to the brim and my firm grip caused some of the petrol to flow out of the top and down over my hand onto the table top. I hadn’t even noticed the lit tea-lights that were on the surface, in amongst all the usual clutter you find in bothy kitchens (pasta, oats, tins etc). In an instant the whole bottle had ignited, with flames leaping 3ft into the air. I stepped back, staring at my hand covered in burning fuel. I shook it, and some of my clothes caught light. Trying not to panic I smothered it under my arm to extinguish it; patted out my burning clothes.
The scene was terrifying. The French girls screamed and ran from the table to get out of the bothy. One of them dropped a shawl, and the French boy quickly began to try and douse the flames with a bottle of water he had. The family from upstairs came running down to see the inferno that was leaping up in front of me and they hurried outside. I grabbed the shawl that one of the girls had dropped and quickly used it to smother the fire; it worked, the fire was out, but what a mess. The whole incident lasted about 1 minute.We all spent the next ten minutes or so outside, coming to terms with the shock of what had just transpired. The fact that I am a fire-fighter in Mallaig and I was wearing my charity fire-fighter’s T shirt didn’t go unnoticed; soon enough we were able to laugh about the situation. My fingers felt a scalded sting, but I was very lucky not to have had a more serious injury.
07/04/19 Stage 10: Strath na Sealga to Glen Douchary, 19 miles (30½ km)
I knew this was going to be a lengthy day. The plan for the whole trip was to optimise the use of bothies, and this stage was originally going to end at Knockdamph Bothy. However, I underestimated the time it would take, covering over 20 miles and with three ascents. There was also a navigational error that lost me nearly an hour as I negotiated the path through the forest east of Inverlael. My navigating was usually good, and this was simply down to not concentrating and missing the bridge over the river (dur!).
As the day drew on, I realised I was in danger of not reaching Knockdamph Bothy. On completing the final climb out of the forest and contouring around the slopes of Meall Dubh, I stood above Glen Douchary and looking to the northeast through the glen I could see the waters of Loch an Daimh; the bothy rests on the north shores of this loch, and it was simply too far away to reach safely in the failing light. I dropped into the glen and pitched the tent by the ruins there, on good ground and by the river. Despite the late hour (2030hrs) I took the trouble to cook dhal and chapattis. It had been a difficult, long day, and it seemed prudent to have a good meal inside me.
08/04/19 Stage 11: Glen Douchary to Oykel Bridge, 13½ miles (21½ km)
I awoke to a cold but clear morning, with blue skies and high cloud. Onyx seemed fine, and after breakfast and coffee we set off for Loch an Daimh and the Schoolhouse Bothy (beyond Knockdamph Bothy). The stages so far had been long and testing, and not making the bothy last night had left me with the need to reassess my plans. It was 12km to the Schoolhouse Bothy, but a further 6km to the Oykel Bridge Hotel where my next resupply package was. It seemed like I was adding another day to the trip if I went for the Schoolhouse Bothy, with the prospect of not making my supplies until tomorrow. I could survive another night before resupply, but I think in my heart I really wanted the package sooner (on account of the cake I knew it contained). Also, the hotel had ‘bothy rooms’ that I had read about in the guidebook, and I suddenly warmed to the idea of staying in the relative luxury of one of these rooms. There was also the likelihood that we could get a cheeseburger in the hotel bar…
As we walked through Glen Douchary it soon became apparent that camping where we did was a good call. There is little in the way of a path; the ground is rough and undulating as you follow the river downstream. It was very picturesque and there were many photo opportunities, but progress was quite slow and it took over three hours to reach Knockdamph Bothy. From here it is relatively straightforward, following a decent 4×4 track all the way past Schoolhouse Bothy and finally reaching the Oykel Bridge Hotel at around 1700hrs.
The lure of hotel comforts was proving too strong, and on arrival I made enquiries about the bothy rooms, with thoughts of a cheeseburger and pint in the bar very real in my mind. All this was instantly shattered though, when I was told the rooms need to be booked well in advance as they are very popular and they were all taken. The idea of another night under canvas was a bitter pill to swallow, especially after most of the day had been spent thinking of all the good things the hotel could offer, not least a rest day. However, luck was with me. While my resupply package was being retrieved, the proprietor checked the register and noticed that nobody had actually booked into the bothy rooms yet. It turned out the booking had been cancelled the day before, and so there was availability! Further, they had booked for two nights, which meant I could take a rest day. The only downside was they didn’t serve cheeseburgers; will we ever get one I wondered?
09/04/19 Rest day
The bothy rooms cost £35 per night, with a full Scottish breakfast an extra £10. Meals in the bar were £10. The staff at the hotel were more than helpful, offering to launder all my clothes for me. I sorted through my kit and jettisoned some more stuff that I wasn’t using, including shaving gear, half my first aid kit, river shoes, and 3l bladder. I managed to lighten my pack by 1kg, and left it in a dry bag to collect on my return. I took a stroll along the River Oykel behind the hotel under blue skies; I heard birds singing and it felt like the first day of spring.
I spent time in the bar planning the rest of the route, charging my phone and power bank, updating social media and generally chilling with bar meals and a few beers. The dog was getting all the off-cuts from the kitchen; he had won more hearts. The Oykel Bridge Hotel is a lovely place with very friendly staff who will do anything they can to help you. Just be sure to book in advance.
10/04/19 Stage 12: Oykel Bridge to Loch Càrn nan Conbhairean, 15½ miles (25km)
Walking away from the hotel using a good 4×4 track, I followed the trail past Benmore Lodge where the path became less distinct. Here a lesser tributary coming in from the northeast joins the River Oykel. This is the point a decision has to be made- west takes you to Inchnadamph and right enters more remote and desolate country. Both routes skirt around Ben More Assynt before meeting to the north and then leading to Glencoul Bothy. I wanted to avoid civilisation as much as possible, so opted to go east.
The walk from where the rivers meet follows a path that gradually becomes less obvious. The ground around was rough and uneven; camping would have been difficult. The map showed a lochan to my left but I couldn’t see it, and I began to feel disorientated and unsure of my position. There was a 400m climb in front of me, and as I gained height the missing lochan appeared. All was now where it should have been and as I crested the hill Loch Càrn nan Conbhairean came into view.
I camped by the loch and it was so beautiful, perfectly calm and peaceful. I found a good spot next to the water, and pitched the tent with a smile on my face.
11/04/19 Stage 13: Loch Càrn nan Conbhairean to Glendu Bothy, 15 miles (24km)
This stage felt really remote. The ground from the loch was mixed, occasional path, boggy and uneven. Heading north in the shadow of the ridge system that leads to Ben More Assynt I was absorbed by the silence. The Trail climbs slightly then trends northwest above a scattering of lochs. To the east it seems you can see forever. As I passed through this huge wilderness I was surprised to meet a group of teenagers doing their Duke of Edinburgh awards. It really was a most random encounter. We chatted for a short while and I let them feed the dog some treats, before we continued on our ways.
Passing to the west of Gorm Loch Mòr, the route heads north through a small bealach. I made a navigational error here and trended northwest through a small pass. I was supposed to find myself dropping down to a 4×4 track alongside Loch an Eircill however I was about 1.5km to the west. I soon realised my error and was able to simply track across the rough ground to find the 4×4 path above the loch. This then heads straight toward Glen Coul.
Glencoul Bothy is in one of the most sensational settings imaginable. It sits right on the shores of Loch Glencoul, surrounded by a magnificent expanse of water and mountains. It was very tempting to stay. There were two occupants who had a good supply of fuel, however it was late in the afternoon and there was still plenty of time for me to press on and climb the ridge to the north that lies between Glencoul Bothy and Glendu Bothy. The ascent was a steep 200m, affording some incredible views back toward the bothy. As the path reaches the top and you begin the descent to the north, it becomes less distinct. By this time I could make out the buildings where the bothy was. Wild fires dotted the hillside opposite to give a dramatic scene. Finally finding the shores of Loch Glen Dhu I could see people outside the bothy. I hoped they would have fuel; having a fire is always a great way to spend a night in a bothy.
When I arrived the occupants, Becks and Fiona, welcomed me and gave me a seat in front of the fire and a hot cup of tea. There was a little whisky to follow our meals, and a memorable night was had.
12/04/19 Stage 14: Glendu Bothy to Loch Garb-bhaid Mòr, 15 miles (24km)
This was likely to be the final stage that was to present any difficulties. The Trail climbs to 500m before following rough, pathless ground toward Loch Stack. I didn’t have a definite idea in mind where I would finish. The guidebook has the stage ending in Riconich, but I thought that would be optimistic and always planned on a wild camp somewhere around Loch Stack.
Leaving the bothy I was in good spirits. There was a high wind but the skies were blue and clear. I headed away on a good 4×4 track then made the first of two critical errors that lost a lot of time. After around 4km the path splits to begin the climb towards Ben Dreavie, and I missed this to continue on the track east toward Kylesku. Having to double back lost me around 45mins which I was annoyed with but not dispirited. I pressed on with a degree of urgency trying to make up some of the time.
The 4×4 track drifts northeast before reaching a shieling. Here you want to turn left to find Ben Dreavie. I made another error before this point; by taking the wrong left turn, I took a path that went southwest instead of northwest. As I walked I began to realise things were not perhaps as they should be, but I pressed on. I walked for over an hour along this track before I checked Viewranger. It was devastating to see that I had somehow gone around 5km off-route. By the time I had corrected this error I estimated I was some 2.5hrs behind on my day. This was significant, considering the difficult ground that crosses Ben Dreavie. There is a simpler alternative route that drops down through the forest to the east, which finds the village of Achfary. From here the road takes you 4km along the south shore of Loch Stack to Lochstack Lodge. This easy option was not how I had imagined the stage to go; I had enjoyed the challenges the Trail had given me so far and this seemed like a bit of a cheat, however it would have been foolhardy to go the more difficult way being so far behind on time. And having the day that I was having, I just wanted to get past Loch Stack and find a place to camp.
From Lochstack Lodge there is a good 4×4 track that you want to leave after around 5km. Loch Garb-bhaid Mòr is visible about 1km northwest. I headed there and found a fine spot to pitch the tent. The wind had continued all day and wasn’t stopping. A windy tent means a restless night. I woke at one point to Onyx being sick; I desperately fumbled with zips to get him out. I managed to contain his mess to part of his foam sleeping mat. I felt bad putting it outside; I knew the winds would carry it away but I just couldn’t deal with it and pushed it into the raw, boisterous darkness.
13/04/19 Stage 15: Loch Garb-bhaid Mòr to Sandwood Bay, 13 miles (21km)
It was no surprise when I woke to blue skies and high winds; this had been the template for the past two days and looked set to continue. Nor was it a surprise to see the soiled sleeping mat had long since vacated camp. I resolved to keep an eye out for it on my travels, and it made me feel better to believe I would find it somewhere upwind and then deal with it.
The wind made it cold. There was sunshine but my camp was in the shade of the imposing 800m Arkle to the southeast. The dog shivered as I readied the pack for departure. Once moving it became marginally warmer, but any discomfort was tempered by the knowledge that by the end of today we would be at Sandwood Bay, which meant the Cape tomorrow. The track was initially rough, thin, and boggy in places, undulating along the eastern shores of the loch. Following quite a difficult river crossing we neared Riconich, and the ground became flatter and much easier. Riconich is small and almost inconsequential; there is a hotel and a good public toilet, but little else. From here you just follow the road to Kinlochbervie (B801) that winds and dips its way to cover the 5km before you reach the legendary London Stores.
When walking the Cape Wrath Trail, shops are so few and far between that when you do find one you tend to go nuts. Erwin is the proprietor of London Stores, where I had my final resupply package delivered to. He is a very engaging character, and following my little shopping spree I went outside to repack my bag. Erwin generously made me a very good cup of coffee and a cheese sandwich, and I enjoyed a few moments sitting outside the shop. While there I met a man who was part of the early Cape Wrath Trail movement. There used to be a website that he ran until around 4 years ago, helping to try and get the route out there for people to discover. He also told me of his friend, who is now 85 and was an early pioneer of the Trail, who completed it at the age of 19. A lovely bit of history.
It was difficult to leave all this reverie behind, but I still had to reach Sandwood Bay, which meant I had to get walking. I chose to avoid the road through Kinlochbervie that takes you to the beach, rather to backtrack 100m and find a track that strikes northeast across more rough and boundless country. Route finding becomes a little difficult; the hills are indistinct. Small lochans were useful for navigation. Eventually you find yourself overlooking Strathan Bothy, with Sandwood Loch stretching out to the north. I dropped down to cross the river by a good bridge before taking the torturous final 5km to reach the bay. The ground here is flat, but very long grass made it feel spongy, like walking across a huge mattress; incredibly energy sapping.
This final part to reach Sandwood Bay seemed to take much longer than it perhaps should, but eventually all the hard work paid off. As you reach the coast, you can immediately see the impressive stack Am Buachaille to the south of the bay. The strong winds accompanied me, and sands were being whipped past us as we made our first steps onto the beach. Sandwood Loch is freshwater, and if you plan to camp amongst the dunes then it is wise to collect any water here.
I set the tent below a dune to try and give some cover from the wind, and cooked sausages for both the dog and me. The sunset was magical, fitting for such an amazing and beautiful place. I sat in the shelter of my tent sipping whisky and looking on at the breaking waves. I could have stayed at the bothy, but this is Sandwood Bay; tomorrow everything will be full of sand but it didn’t matter.
14/04/19 Stage 16: Sandwood Bay to Cape Wrath, 5 miles (8km)
Another night in a windy tent; no surprise that I was up for dawn to get some ‘blue hour’ shots of the bay. We breakfasted on the last of the sausages and readied for the final stage to reach the lighthouse at Cape Wrath. The skies were blue and an early sun was peering over the dunes.
Before long we were leaving Sandwood Bay and making our way back inland. We visited Strathchailleach Bothy out of curiosity for James McRory-Smith who lived there for 40 years, making regular treks out to the London Stores to collect his pension and gather supplies. Some of his pictures still adorn the walls, and it was an immersive experience to absorb the silence of the rooms and imagine that simple but doubtless tough existence.
We were soon crossing into MOD territory. Hostilities had recently ceased some three days before our arrival, however the brutal winds were still battering us. There is a final 300m high point, which on reaching, offered a view back toward Sandwood Bay and Am Buachaille; although the lighthouse was still not visible I could see the land ahead of me meeting just sea beyond.
The 5km left to walk were mostly downhill; we gained the final 4×4 track that takes you to the buildings, the first view of the lighthouse finally emerging as we contoured around Dunan Mòr. Looking back it is possible to see Am Buachaille one last time. The sun shone down from a windy blue sky as I reached the lighthouse and touched its walls. I doubt I could have got a better day for it. After taking several photos, Onyx and I retreated to the Ozone Café to see if we could get something to eat. Angie at the café was more than happy to serve us, and I was soon sitting with a full breakfast and a pot of fresh coffee. Onyx had a plate of sausages; a fine way to mark the end of our journey.
GETTING OFF CAPE WRATH
Exiting the Cape in mid-April is not easy. We were the only visitors, and there was neither bus nor ferry. Angie came to our rescue, and for a modest fee took us to Kearvaig Bothy and agreed to meet us in the morning and take us as far as the ferry berth. From there it is only 5km to walk to the head of the Sound of Durness, where it was a relatively simple crossing. I hitched the 6km into Durness.
Once in Durness you can catch a bus to Inverness, but they aren’t often. Be prepared to stay a night at the campsite. It is well appointed and has a pub right next door, which helps take the edge off the stranded feeling you may get. Unfortunately they didn’t serve cheeseburgers. You could make a trip of it and visit the Smoo Caves, but you will most likely want to just get out of there fast. I had arranged to have someone come and meet me, so within a few hours of arriving I was in my friend’s car, beginning the long journey home.
Bothies are simple mountain shelters, open to all and available nearly all year round. They are found in England and Wales, but mainly concentrated throughout Scotland. Dedicated volunteers maintain them and the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) oversees this. The location of all MBA bothies can be found on their website here. They are free to use; all they ask is that you follow the Bothy Code. The MBA is a charitable organisation and they rely on donations to fund the work they do. You can become a member of the MBA and help; details can be found on their website. Always check the website before visiting a bothy. Any restrictions, such as closure for stalking season or maintenance, will be detailed there.
This was the first through-hike I have done of this nature, and I learned a lot in terms of the equipment to use. I underestimated the effects of a heavy rucksack (as mentioned in the early stages) and the virtues of lightweight gear cannot be overemphasised. My initial pack weight was in excess of 21kg, which proved to be far too much. As stated, I was forced to dump some stuff and over the course of the first few stages the pack weight was brought down to around 16kg. Taking out food, this meant a base weight of around 12kg, which is at the top end of where you want to be. If I were to do this again I would aim to reduce this to around 8 or 9kg.
Gear that I liked:
1) My rucksack. I chose a Bergans Helium Pro 55. Comfortable, hardwearing, weighs 1.2kg.
2) Arc’teryx Gore-Tex jacket and trousers. Did exactly what they were designed to do. The trousers had built-in gaiters, which saved me on several occasions. Gore-Tex does have its flaws though, and I am currently looking at upgrading to Paramo clothing.
3) Walking poles. These were invaluable; they got me up many hills and across many rivers. I used Leki Carbonlight weighing 408g per pair.
4) Boots. I wore Scarpa Terra GTX, which (combined with Sealskinz socks) kept my feet dry for the whole trail. I prepared them for several weeks with repeated applications of Grainger’s G-Wax and water just ran right off them. My feet gave me no issues at all.
5) iPhone 5s. Used for the Viewranger app. More about this in NAVIGATION.
Gear that I didn’t like:
1) Tent. I took a Zajo Gotland 1-person tent, which was good enough, easy to pitch; Onyx and I were comfortable in it. The main issue with this tent was the weight. In the end it is about 1kg too heavy (2.2kg), and I am looking to replace this.
2) Sleeping bag. Alpkit Pipedream 400, weight 860g. This is rated as 3-season, however I just found it a little too cold for comfort, even in bothies.
3) 3 litre bladder. I took this but never used it. I carried water in a 1 litre Sigg bottle that I had attached to the waist belt on my rucksack. Water is readily available along the Trail and it seemed better to keep hydrated like this rather than carry all your water for the day in your pack.
Walking the Cape Wrath Trail by Iain Harper (published by Cicerone) is invaluable. It is also available as an eBook if you cannot justify the 240g that it weighs. I navigated most of the first week using just this book and a Silva compass. Coupled with the two Harvey’s maps (Cape Wrath Trail South and Cape Wrath Trail North) this was all I needed to get me through the whole thing. I had the Viewranger app on my phone, and although I didn’t use this for constant reference, I did refer to it on occasion to confirm or check a position. This did prove very useful, and I had Anker PowerCore 10400, which was able to recharge my phone up to 6 times. You can plot the whole route before you go, and have it all downloaded onto your phone so you can easily navigate in airplane mode with neither signal nor Wi-Fi.
It seems almost redundant to have to say that this was an incredible journey. I found it very hard indeed, much more so than I could ever have imagined. I had to find strength to continue at times when all I wanted was for it to end. Despite walking through such spectacular scenery as the wild and boundless highlands of Scotland, I spent most of the time with my head down staring at the ground below, as I put one foot in front of the other and dragged the Trail beneath me.
I spent a lot of time worrying about the dog; I thought that if I was hurting so much, then so must he. Having said that he was brilliant throughout, and it was a great source of strength to have him alongside me. He coped with everything the Cape Wrath Trail could throw at him and he did it without even knowing he was on it. I doubt I could have completed it without him.
It is one of the charms of hiking through such a remote wilderness that you can do most of it with neither phone signal nor Wi-Fi, and when you achieve your goal, arguably one of the greatest moments you will have, you cannot let your friends and loved ones know what you have just done. Despite all the immediate connectivity with social media, there is still that special preserve of the distant hinterland that the Cape Wrath Trail threads its way through. The Trail gave me perfect isolation. I hated it; loved it more. I promised myself I would never do it again, but promises are made to be broken…