This is part ‘B’ of my first half of the Cape Wrath Trail.
The map below is captured from beacons sent every 30 minutes as I was walking. If you zoom in you will notice there are some gaps and other anomalies; nevertheless you can get a good idea of where I was when.
Wednesday 11/10/2017 Kinloch Hourn to Shiel Bridge
A day and a night of rain at Kinloch Hourn and the yard at the Tea Room is flooded.
The route over to Shiel Bridge goes high, past The Saddle and the Forcan Ridge with rivers that challenge in spate on both sides.
I was advised to check-in at the Stalker’s Cottage before heading to the hills. The party from the lodge are going a different way so that’s OK. Douglas looks me up and down, but will not give any advice about the river ahead.
As little way up the track I am joined by a dog. It was interested in distant deer, but after running ahead a short way it patiently waited for me before starting off again.
Once we had gained a bit of height Loch Hourn came into view and I realised the dog was guiding me on the wrong path. We descended again and parted company when it found a hunter who knew where it came from.
My host from the previous night warned me about Coire Reidh in spate “come back if you have to – I’ll find room”. The normal fording place was a little deep and quite swift, but 30 minutes upstream the river braids into several small water courses which could be cross without much trouble.
My high level plan involved an extra 200 metres climb to the top of Saddle and then a walk along the ridge to the west and then north. The top was in and out of cloud and the hour a little late so from the bealach and the bottom of Forcan Ridge I headed down – with a great view of the 5 Sisters of Kintail in front of me.
Warned about the next river, I crossed very early and walked alongside it until I reached the confluence of three torrents at a point shown on the map as Gob na Roinne. In the failing light it was hard to see how deep the river was, it was clear however that the advice to cross early was wrong! The map seems to indicate that despite the path, a crossing is not actually necessary at all.
With the knowledge that there had been 8 hours or so with no new rain I carefully sidestepped my way across.
Soon the wild path turned into a well-worn track and Sheil Bridge came into sight.
I had sent a parcel to Helen McLeod at Kintail Lodge Hotel, just a little further down the road. As well as rooms for more than £100 per night there is a hostel and a bunkhouse. I expected a room in the hostel but it was full. The ‘Wee Bunkhouse’ is used as an overflow.
This curious small building in the middle of the carpark is quite homely on this inside. With the bar for company and a fine meal of sea trout with clams, I was quite happy to retire on my own to this room for six.
Thursday 12/10/2017 Kintail to Glen Affric
This was to be the highlight of the high-level walking. Up on the ridge and across the 5 sisters and beyond descending down to Camban bothy. Fitness and weather conspired against a high route again.
The forecast was for high winds getting stronger in the evening and the distance on the winding ridge is quite far. So I headed for Morvich instead. The track here is the Glen Affric Way. It is pleasant underfoot and, with almost no incline, make for very easy walking.
At Glenlicht House the route up and over to Affric begins – crossing the river and skirting some fine waterfalls as the path gains height.
With Camban bothy just around the corner I could see that the planned exit from the high route would have been fine. At a little after 2pm however this was no overnight stop and I needed to recalibrate.
The sign at the beginning of Affric Way said that Alltbeithe Youth Hostel would close at the end of October but I suspected that they might have already have shut up shop.With all I needed on my back I could be infinitely flexible, so “no worries” in theory – but with saturated ground everywhere a lot of potential camping spots become less attractive.
After a fine path all the way, the last bit in Glen Affric to Alltbeithe is horribly muddy.
The hostel was closed and locked up except for Dormitory 3 behind the main building which was left open as an emergency shelter. A number of bunks filled the room – mostly without mattresses.
It was still only 3ish – not so late in the day and, regretful about missing the Kintail ridge, I followed the path from the back of the hostel up to Stob Coire na Cloiche on the ridge behind. Understanding that gales were to come, I worked out that I could find a spot sheltered from both west winds and from the south by dropping over to a hanging valley just below Sgurr nan Ceathramhnan.
On Harveys map this look easy and clear, but on the ground it was a little different. The 1:25000 OS map (consulted later at home) shows that the way down is not quite opposite the ascent path. And the lochan which features on the other side of the ridge is actually not very sheltered at all.
The wind was rising as the light faded and I moved from one side of the lake to the other looking for somewhere with at least a bit of shelter, pretty much in vain. Even finding flat dryish ground was difficult and I ended up squashed on a little island between two streams.
The wind blew hard throughout the night and it rained most of the time. Fortunately the streams on either side continued to drain away, and the new pole sections provided by Heather Rhodes of Pacer Poles flexed but did not break.
Friday 13/10/2017 Affric Ridge to Maol Bhuide bothy via Iron Lodge
The rain stopped in the morning, and the wind eased too. At last I was on my high level route!
The ridge over Carn can Dhu and Mullach Dheiragain is easy underfoot. I was beaten to all fours by the wind on a few occasions but it was mostly good walking. In character, this ridge is quite different from the one to the west: both point the same way, but the neighbour which has featured in two of my TGO challenge routes holds much more interest – being bumpy and lumpy with some enticing camping spots.
The descent at the end of the ridge is pathless, but down below visible as a target is the road returning from Loch Mullardoch to Iron Lodge.
The stalking season was still in full swing and in the distance my eye caught a very busy animal – probably a dog, and fresh tracks from a multi-terrain vehicle.
Iron Lodge looks iconic from a distance with its stand of trees. But close up it is just another scruffy house, probably shut and empty except for a few days during a hunt.
From here two paths head north. The westernmost is the most direct route to Maol Bhuide bothy. I knew from a previous TGO trip in the opposite direction that on the other side of the bothy are a couple of potentially tricky river crossings one with a wire bridge. But a day with very little rain gave me some hope that the water levels might be reasonable.
A fine path up and over the bealach contrasts with a boggy mess down on the other side. This bothy is famous for yet another river crossing – for most people they wade-in from one side and then the next day they have to wade-out on the other side of the building. I determined to avoid one of these -and the boggy track – by heading across to the lochan that feeds the stream next to the bothy.
Getting around this was not easy, with a feeder stream to cross. but with some 30 minutes of building stepping stones I managed to break through and descend the hill to the back of the building.
Last time I was here with 4 TGOers that made pleasant company and a cheering fire. But generally I find bothies depressing places – cold, dark, and dirty. And so with this place, despite its splendid location and the range of supplies including food, wine, and whiskey left by previous visitors.
Being Friday I thought somebody might make the trek in, but then with the unfavourable weather it was unlikely. By 8 I knew I was on my own and stretched out in the living room.
Saturday 14/10/2017 Maol Bhuide to Gerry’s Hostel at Craig
My appointment with the night train was fixed for Monday at 8pm, so I had 2½ days walking left. I expected Gerry’s hostel would be humming this weekend and I could hook up with someone for a couple of day-walks before getting the Monday afternoon train to Inverness.
The first crossing north of the bothy was better than I remembered. The deep part of the river is on the north side, but getting out here is easier than plunging in from the opposite direction. The way over to Loch Calavie is sort of pathless and mostly wet. It was here I remember a wire bridge hidden from view until right upon it. But this has been replaced.
A well made track head west to Bendronaig Lodge with its out-building that is used as a bothy – famous for a flushing toilet. Before the lodge the track reaches a wide new service road which reaches a dam on the lochan to the north, and in the opposite direction, the lodge and eventually the way to Strathcarron.
On the far side, through the mist over the lochan, Bernais bothy is visible. At the end of the road, keeping to the east side of the glen, the path leads over bealach Bernais before heading down to Allt a Chonnais the river that leads out of the wilderness to the main road in Glen Carron.
In 9 days walking I have only seen 3 couples on the trail so I am quite sensitive to footprints. On the far side of the bealach I find two sets of fresh prints together with the imprints from a horse. With the prospect of company, I put on a bit of speed down to where I know there to be a difficult wire bridge.
Eventually the track on the other side of the river comes into sight and there, parked-up is a horse box. Maybe I could get a lift the last few mile to the main road! I continue hurtling downward. As I reach an impossibly slack wire bridge the truck slowly moves off with the horsebox in tow.
The rive is wide and reasonably shallow, and a final paddle gets me onto the other side. The track above here is wide and well made to service a generating site which was built here a few years previously.
Powering down the road, I reach the horse box parked again, and a driver spying the deer on the hillside with a telescope. In the back of the truck is the crumpled body of a dead stag. Soon three figures appear across the river dragging another stag along. A rope is thrown across pulling the carcass through the water, while the figures move with agility one-at-a-time over a much tauter wire bridge.
Half an hour later they pass me by ‘I would have offered you a lift, but as you can see we are rather full-up!’
It takes something like an hour to get down to the road. Not far along is Gerry’s hostel. Gerry himself had died a year or so ago, but I had heard the place continues to operate, run by his son. I naively expected it to be busy – but probably with one bed for me somewhere.
There are many, many signs around the building all saying ‘Open All Year Round!’ – but I found all the doors locked. And no sign of people. As my mind turned to the possibility of pitching my tent in the garden, I noticed a woodshed with an open door.
Here I found someone who confirmed the hostel was closed. Reluctantly he opened up for me. Switched on the heating, the drying room, the de-humidifier in the sleeping room and showed me how to operate the rather poor shower. It was hard to imagine how this would function if the place was full.
It was eerie to be the only guest. My room had 14 beds, next door the living room had maps, hifi, records, musical instruments, sofas, in fact all you need for a pleasant stay. And a few eccentric touches like a lampshade made from a washing machine drum. Apparently there are two more rooms with 6 beds each upstairs. The kitchen seemed well-enough equipped.
My host Simon blamed his slightly strange behaviour on palmoplantar pustulosis which had struck him down 6 weeks earlier. With extremely painful feet, he wanted nothing more but to leave me alone and put his feet up. He had a supply of food cans to sell to guests so I supplemented my camp meal with a can of fruit and some custard.
I slept well despite the place being haunted by many TGOers who have filled the place each May. The railway passes by the kitchen window where there is a sign ‘W’ meaning “Whistle!!” to warn those on the crossing a little further down the track. Normally this happens around 7am, but not on Sunday morning.
Sunday 14/10/2017 Craig to Strathcarron
I didn’t feel comfortable planning another night here with my host’s indisposition and imagined a more comfortable night at the hotel at Strathcarron.
There’s an attractive track through the woodland on the far side of the river. Even though it is weekend it is deserted. It ends rather abruptly after 2 or 3 km but on the way there’s a sidetrack over the top to Bernais bothy and a second one signposted to ‘Golden Valley’. As I contemplate this and study the map, a stag comes walking slowly towards me through the woods. I grab my camera – unfortunately the lens covered in condensation – and at a few metres away he looks up and sees me blocking the path. In shock, he bounces around and runs off.
I follow him down the little used path eventually passing through a gate and crossing a ford then up through some fine old trees onto the hillside.
Following the route is a challenge and once in the open the force of the high winds curtail my explorations and persuade me to navigate to the downward path shown on the map.
Loch Carron comes into view and a spectacular patch-work of water fields down below. Crack in the cloud cover let sunbeams through and some impressive rainbows appear over the valley.
The route down leads to some buildings so it is easy to follow the map – the only problem is that there is nothing on the ground resembling a path. Once in the valley however a good track leads west to a road which eventually arrives at Strathcarron station.
The hotel next to the station is another favourite with the TGO, in previous years being one of the start locations. This changed hands last year, much like Gerry’s hostel. The Kintail Lodge Hotel changed hands the year before, and the Kinloch Hourn Tea room changed hands a bit before that. So things may seem the same but are actually different.
I was in room 6, the same as last time – a very small double – with plumbing problems.
The new owner is a brummy who called the only female guest ‘love’ or ‘pet’, and was finding new problems with his investment every day. The barman was from South of the border and new to the place, good at pouring beer, but challenged by the fire in the grate of bar. The cook was from Guildford and after finishing breakfast he came upstairs to spend an hour or so in my bathroom looking for a leak under the floor, once found he moved down the corridor to do some decorating.
The owner of the Kinloch Hourn Tea Room is from Shropshire, and the owners of the Kintail Lodge Hotel are also from England. I am not sure what to conclude with this small sample of the Scottish hospitality industry!
I spent half the morning in my cramped room with the cook/plumber banging away in my bathroom, and then went downstairs and was confined to a tiny lobby reception area as all the public rooms were locked up, so I was looking forward to moving on!
I was happy when the midday train arrived to take me to Inverness.
We whistled as we sped past Gerry’s hostel.
In Inverness there were some hours to kill, but by 8 o’clock I could get on the night train and order some food. Suitably chilled I fell into a fitful sleep.
At 2am we were all taken off the train. At Edinburgh. “The western line is closed because of storms and the eastern line is closed too”. We marched in a crocodile past some of the homeless of the town to the lobby of a nearby hotel for cups of tea and a comfortable seat.
It was interesting to see how many people travel on the overnight train! Most managed to find a seat on the first train to London at 5:30 which, as the first train of the day went slowly looking for problems until Newcastle when we were given the ‘all clear’ to speed homewards.