Day 15 – The Ullapool Conundrum

I awoke before dawn having slept poorly. I had drifted to sleep to the sound of midges hitting my bivvy. It had been like listening to the sound of rain on a caravan roof. The midges weren’t up yet but neither was my willpower. It wasn’t even 5am, I couldn’t walk without more sleep, so off I dozed.

I had a very surreal dream. One of my co-workers was starring in a play and we were late. For some reason we were also lost in the highlands in what looked suspiciously like the Falls of Glomach crossed with where I grew up. The “we” included several work colleagues, my PhD supervisor ( who offered to buy me a drink before disappearing into the throngs of people, because, you know, the wilderness is where you find all the best throngs.), and also there was my old chemistry teacher. For some reason he was married to one of my work colleagues. Perhaps more believable was one of my co-workers turning out to be an anarchist. He proved this by filling out a form with all the correct information, just in the incorrect boxes. He also signed his name a bit funny; he wasn’t a very good anarchist. Anyway, we all started running to escape the great clouds of midges. I then woke up to a great cloud of midge.

This was a midge cloud of epic proportions, I mean like the weird smoke monster in Lost before that series started getting crappy. If you imagine you’d scraped the burnt bits off your slice of toast, you look down and the sink is covered in little black bits, well that’s an approximation of what it looked like through the mesh window of my bivvy.

Having packed my sleeping bag inside my bivvy, I summoned he courage to jump outside; I was promptly eaten. Anything that wasn’t midge was more or less either me or dead midge as I hastily packed. Wearing only a t-shirt, the midges targeted my arms. I wiped them off leaving black spots of dead midge on my arms. You’d have thought that evolution would have made it so that most animals could recognise the smell of dead peers and think “hell no”, instead I seemed capable only of attracting more midges. Ears, nose and eyelids were particularly unpleasant and I ate more than a few. Soon I was packed and off ready for an uneventful day.

My shoes rubbed as the heels of my trail runners were slowly disintegrating. My socks were still damp and I’d had no chance for a proper foot check that morning. For now all I could do was plod on.

The plodding on went well and I tried to remember that I’m on an adventure, one I should enjoy each moment of and not wish it away. I’m still not going back to midge-land, but enjoying where I was lasted well until I hit the A835.

There’s always a question mark hanging over Ullapool on the Cape Wrath Trail. It’s a good halfway point and place to rest and resupply. I was already low on food and although it was a bit out of the way and a long and boring walk, I’d always known that I’d not take a shortcut through the hills here. I phoned ahead and booked a B&B (O2 coverage has been good thus far), then on I limped down the road.

As far as roads go, this one isn’t fun. Well, it may be fun for motorcyclists, is has the special reflected N road signs that stand for fun corners, but for me it was long and boring. It reminded me why I had opted for as little road as possible on. The only thing it was good for was getting miles done quickly.

Quick those miles may have been, but my joints and feet suffered on the hard road surface. Tired from a bad night and an early start I must not have looked my best as drivers gave me a wide berth as if I were about to fall into the road gasping for water like a drowning trout on a hot summer day. Some time later I arrived in Ullapool.

Food and medical supplies were quickly ticked off the list, a shower and shave would come later (my first in a week), but not before dinner. Apparently one of the best chip shops in the country can be found here. I found it and has a large haddock and chips with onion rings and irn-bru. It was glorious, the best fish and chips in living memory, if only I could find such a chippy in Cambridge.

I now have over 21,000 calories in my rucksack, plus extra fudge and an irn-bru flavoured macaroon, so I’m all set for the final leg of my journey. There are about 100 miles left to go and I’m now counting down instead of up. Each uphill takes me a little longer and each downhill hurts a little more, but I’m currently good to continue, one day at a time, and once again I have to say, so far it had been completely worth the effort.

Day 14 – Lost Sir Limpalot of the Loch

I arose early-ish and began with a foot check. I knew this wouldn’t be pretty. The swelling on my left foot had gone down and the blisters on that foot had been taking care of themselves. On the other foot, my right was shredded. I had felt a blister burst just before the Limg Hut and the road to Kinlochewe. Days of walking through bog had taken its toll and I was rapidly approaching the stage I’d need to worry about ending up with trench foot or at least infected blisters. As long as nothing got infected it’d be sore but fine. The torn blister between my big toe and the one next to it was going to prove painful. The toes along the line were also a bit sore so I decided to trim my nails while I was there. It took some careful hands while using a knife, but they felt better trimmed. Next job was to patch up a bit of rucksack then find something relatively clean to wipe my camera lens with. (I’m going to have a lot of blurry and smeary photos.) Finally, some jobs done and I set off.

The first stretch was pathless and awkward, particularly as I was being careful not to get my feet too bogged up. After a few hours I found a path to take me down into Kinlochewe, just in time for a cheese and onion sandwich lunch. I was an hour ahead of yesterday with five miles less distance to cover, this was beginning to look possible, only 148 miles to go, but first the sandwich.

It was a very tasty sandwich, but there were copious amounts of grated cheese and the bread was not entirely intact either. This was a sandwich of questionable structural integrity. While I ate the lady behind the counter talked to me. I quickly re-learned the natural order of things, for people in rural cafes to complain about the weird things that foreigners did. I smiled and nodded, only speaking between mouthfuls of grated cheese. It was all coming back to me: when they are talking I can eat; when they’re not talking I have to talk (Note to self: finish the mouthful of grated cheese first); when in doubt smile and nod.

The trek out of Kinlochewe started well enough, all the way until the footpath came to a half at Lochan Fada. From there I just had to make my way between Sgurr Dubh and Beinn Bheag through to Loch an Nid, easy really. This is where things started to go wrong.

I started following a path up towards Sgurr Dubh, there were two walkers ahead of me and I had heard rumour that there were others on the trail a short way ahead and that they had been managing less than 16 miles a day. I followed them up for a while, neglecting my map and compass. To be fair, my map wouldn’t have been all that much help, it’s not quite detailed enough when lost on top of a hill. Again my compass saved me as I swung down and around the hill. I saw a loch in the distance, not quite where I expected it to be, but it was there, that’s gotta be it, right?

Unfortunately my mapping software doesn’t show parts of the know universe that fall beyond the best fit for sticking my route onto sheets of A4. It therefore neglected to inform me of the existence of Loch a’ Bhraoin. As I made my way towards it I saw another loch to my left. This was closer and nearer to where I thought my loch should be, but meant that I was now somewhere I shouldn’t be. In the end I resorted to using my GPS; the one to my left was right. I hated using it and wondered if one day the hills would be full of tourists using a GPS that barked satnav type commands at them, “turn left next to the wee hillock, carry on north through heather and bog for approximately three county kilometres”… I felt that would somehow miss the point, getting a bit lost was part of the game (which I had just lost, again).

As I travelled along the Skye Boat Song replaced m previous earworm of Loch Lomond. I supposed that I was at least closer to Skye. Unfortunately I don’t know the words beyond the chorus and even there I’m sketchy. I mostly settled for my own random jibberish or a lot of “dum, diddly dum, dah dah” in my head. I also kept thinking one line should be “The crownless again shall be king”, which is of course Tolkein, but sort of fits.

The remaining few hours were slow, mostly consisting of being eaten by midges and clegs. I called time just a click short of my target of Shenavall bothy. I was exhausted and with a gentle breeze and beautiful weather I ignored the tarp for just a bivvy with the night sky overhead. Once inside the midges decided to pay me a visit.

Day 13 – A Perfect Day

No mice this time, just the sound of scratching at the door. It was quiet here, alone in the bothy. I was reluctant to leave; the drizzle and cloud seemed uninviting.

There had been an information sheet about the bothy. It had been a home up until the end of the First World War. The conditions up here were so difficult that the family living here needed to store four months of food for the winter. It may only have been ten miles to civilisation, but as I soon found out, it was a long hard ten miles. You’d have to be tough to survive the winter in this place.

I had thought that I’d make a good hermit, but perhaps here would be a little too remote. As I walked on towards Strathcarron it occurred to me that the last time I had seen another person was at Shiel Bridge. The last time I had said a few words to anyone was approaching Barisdale and the last time I had a conversation was Sourlies Bothy. Over 18 hours had ticked by since I’d even seen as much as a human footprint. It seems strange to be this isolated. Even hiding away in Cambridge it’s easy to go days without proper conversation, there’s always some sort of contact with mankind, even if it were just the internet, tv or listening to music. Here the only reminders that civilisation existed were the bothy I was walking away from and my own footprints. I feel that this kind of isolation is a lot more wholesome.

It was a hard trek to Strathcarron. I was once more navigating through cloud, which I seem to be getting better at. My only misadventure occurred when happening upon a fence, where upon crossing under it I had somehow managed to bang my head. I succeeded in grazing my head (it feels like a cut but how would I know? I realised I hadn’t seen a mirror in days). I also succeeded in ripping a hole in my hat. This has not been a good year for hats for me. This is a near identical replica of the one that I lost in the Lake District and I fear I won’t be able to replace it again. Similarly, today I slipped over again and now fear that my trail runners may now be equally willing to end the relationship.

I stopped in Strathcarron for some lunch. I already needed the rest and some hot food made a welcome change. Looking in a mirror told me that I had indeed managed to carve quite a long but shallow cut along the top of my head. A tea, coke, cheeseburger and chips and I was back underway, once again only really at the start of my day.

The sun was now out and about and it was a beautiful day for walking. With a solid path beneath my feet everything was falling into place.

I stumbled upon Coire Fionnarich bothy, somewhere that seemed like it would make a wonderful home. My claim to becoming a hermit was then proven when I encountered some mountain bikers in the pass between Meall Dearg and Sgorr Ruadhh. Conversation with them seemed a bit disjointed and they seemed sure I would make it further than I would today. I seemed to struggle to convince them that I wasn’t going to be walking along the road. If I wasn’t socially retarded before I left then I am now.

Our paths separated and I promptly got lost. Well, not lost exactly, the path disintegrated and I was temporarily misplaced. It took me over an hour to work myself back to where I should have been. That didn’t bother me anyway, I was still enjoying the walk out here.

Next up was what I had thought may present a difficult choice. My path continued to the north around Beinn Eighe whereas a road to the right could quickly and smoothly take me to Kinlochewe, saving me precious miles and time. No one but me would even know. In the end the choice was easy. I continued straight ahead and as I rounded Sail Mhor it proved the correct choice.

I had one of those passages of serenity that only Buddhist monks are meant to have. Peacefully I plodded around, listening to the sounds of wildlife, the breeze foot by and the crunch of path underfoot. This was like some sort of hippy-dippy zen walking that I was doing as I calmly reflected on where I was.

Loch Coire was beautiful and I camped on the side of Ruadh-Stac Mor. (Note to self: here be ridges to run along in the future.) This felt like a similar camping spot to the one at Kings House, only higher up and far more remote.

The sun had set and the grey sky changed to a pinkish-red at the horizon. This had been a day that made the whole trail feel worthwhile.

Day 12 – Lost in the Clouds

It was dry when I started out, which meant that at least I could pack things dry. Within half an hour it was raining on me. As I made my way down this wet stretch towards Shiel Bridge, I realised that there was no way I would have made it along here last night in the gloaming. Like Sourlies Bothy, I had called the day short at exactly the right time.

I wandered through a sleepy Shiel Beidge and started to make my way up to the Falls of Glomach.

I was not making great progress in the rain, progress that slowed further when I entered the cloud. Visibility seemed to have dropped below 100 metres in any direction. I got my compass out; even with a path the clouds were disorientating. It felt a bit disconcerting so I stopped to check my bearings which I then attempted to double heck using the GPS on my phone. With wet hands and a wet screen I had no way to operate it. I couldn’t get anything dry enough to use it. This was less than ideal.

In the end I decided to follow one of the paths below my feet. I regularly checked my map and compass. There wasn’t a lot else I could do.

The falls were pretty enough, and the scenery around them spectacular, but I didn’t have time to stop for too long and soon I was moving on. The day was passing me by; it had been scheduled to be one of the longest even without the additional miles added to the start.

I carried on walking, along a loch, past a lodge, you know, the usual. I was certain that I would not make up that distance today. As I made my way up past Iron Lodge and north to Maol Bhuidle, I knew I was right. With the wind and the rain and the tired legs, I decided to call time early. Over the course of three days I’m nine miles behind where I wanted to be. I’ve done 230 miles in twelve days.

Tomorrow is going to be another long day, and another attempt to claw back some lost distance. Before that inevitable chase I have lots to do. I have maps to check, repairs to make and this blog to update. More than that though, I have muscles to rebuild. Here’s a rundown of my niggles:

– Neck – aches and clicks
– Shoulders – both ache
– Left elbow – somewhat uncomfortable since Fort William
– Lower back – sometimes a sharp pain
– Right IT band – grumbling since day 1
– Both knees – deteriorating rapidly
– Both ankles – already deteriorated
– Left foot – swollen
– Big to on left foot – haven’t been able to be d it since Loch Lomond. I think I stubbed it on something.

Still, despite all that and all my grumbling I’m mostly enjoying my time out here. I just wish I wasn’t playing catch up.

Day 11 – Doubt and Willpower

I’d been woken a couple of times during the night by the sounds of small scurrying things. A mouse had taken the opportunity to take a nibble out of one of the mesh pockets on my rucksack’s hip belt. That would teach me not to leave empty wrappers unguarded in my pockets.

I waved goodbye to the people I had shared the bothy with and attempted to claw some distance back. It didn’t go well.

The journey started with footpathless bog and then got worse. There was no point in trying to keep feet dry. At least the bog-water flowed easily out of my trail runners.

As I came down a slope some mud gave way beneath me which in turn led to me falling onto my backside. Moments later this was followed by my foot slipping off what had suspiciously looked like a stepping stone at a river crossing. Despite not falling in, I still ended up in the unenviable position of having a wee boulder stepping on my left foot. That hurt.

I kept trudging forward and discovered the first level of despair – that point where you find yourself standing still, seemingly unable to continue, your feet being enveloped by the bog. By ankle deep you realise you have to find the will to keep moving. If the ground had been dry enough I’d have probably just had a lie down.

For all that, there was a moment of almost overwhelming joy when I reached the top of that stretch. It was now all downhill to Barisdale.

As I made my way down, I came across a group of five people. A weather-beaten Scotsman, following him was a tall man in tweed carrying a gun and behind him three hound ladies, one of whom appeared to be his daughter. The Scotsman asked where I had come from, after I told him he laughed that “it must have been a nice easy walk then”. He wished me luck and I continued on. It was now lunchtime and I was finally ready to really start my day.

I made my way slowly to Kinloch Hourn. During the walk to Barisdale I had doubted I would make it much further than that today. By now I was certain of it. As I slowly lost and found paths and moved onwards I wished I could take a boat like Tweed Jacked and co. had done. 10-15 miles a day seemed difficult at the moment, 20-25 seemed impossible. I couldn’t see how I was going to make it. This is easily the hardest walk I’ve done on my own, and I still have another 200 miles to go.

As I approached Kinloch Hourn the sun peeked out. I checked the time; it was 16.15. There was plenty of daylight left for walking. I might not be able to make it all the way to Shiel Bridge, but I’d be damned if I was going to sit here and not try.

My luck turned once more as I pushed on. I came across fresh water and a good path. I followed the path until fit stopped. I had trouble locating the next path, which was easy to understand once I realised that there was no path. My route was just an arbitrary blue line drawn on a map saying “you are here, get there”. Again the going became slow and as the sun dipped behind the hills to my left I found the second level of despair – not having anywhere suitable to camp as the sun set.

I continued down and around, the mountains gave way to allow me a little more sunlight. I darted towards Shiel Bridges but with the light beginning to fail I knew that it was in vain. Tired and aching, I put up my tarp in the fading light only a mile and a half from Shiel Bridge. Even though I was still four miles away from where I had planned to begin tomorrow’s long day, I felt that I had snatched some measure of success from the jaws of defeat. I felt ashamed that I had contemplated a B&B in Kinloch Hourn; I knew I was better than that. I’m glad to be a bit further down the trail; I’m now exhausted.