Fort William to Bealach a’ Chaorainn
This should be a Cape Wrath Trail report, broken into 7 or 8 different days, but if you’ve read my previous post you’ll understand why it’s not. For those that haven’t, I only managed about 30 miles of the trail before sacking it off and heading home early. As such, this is a one page report on my walk from Fort William to the top of a pass just outside the tourist hotspot of Glenfinnan.
23rd May 2019 – Home to Durness
The journey to the start of the walk is worthy of a blog post on its own and it took almost as long as the actual walking that I did. It began with a 450 mile drive from home to the tiny village of Kinlochewe, which marks the half-way point of the CWT. On-route I dropped off a re-supply parcel, depositing my food and fuel for the second leg, beneath a thick bush beside the road into Shiel Bridge. I’d only been in Kinlochewe for about 10 minutes, when Chris arrived. I left my car in the small car park and together we took Chris’s car north, another 125 miles to Durness.
24th May 2019 – Durness to Cona Glen
We spent the night at Glengolly B&B, which is a great place, especially if you like Border Collies and the landlord, Martin (you’d be hard-pressed to find a nicer man anywhere!) allowed Chris to leave his car parked securely behind the house. In the morning we were waiting at the bus stop outside the Spar shop for the little Far North Bus that is also the local school bus. The kids get priority and the surprising number of CWT completers who were heading back south piled into a second mini-bus that met the main bus after it had dropped the kids off at school.
The Far North Bus took us to Lairg train station where we caught the train to Inverness and from there, the coach to Fort William. We had a late lunch in McDonald’s and headed along the road to find the ferry across Loch Linnhe. I pulled off the biggest con of my career when (I think) I managed to persuade Chris that an enormous cruise liner sitting in the middle of the loch, was our ferry across to the other side! We used the real ferry to reach the far bank and began the walk proper.
The Cape Wrath Trail eases you in gently, to what will become an extremely tough, rugged and remote walk. The first 7 miles are along a tarmac road, followed by another 10 miles of well-graded four-wheel drive track through Cona Glen. A good hill track takes you over the first hill to another five miles of tarmac past Callop and into Glenfinnan. Four more miles along a tarmac estate road lead to the bothy at Corryhully beyond which another four-wheel drive track takes you most of the way up the hill to Bealach a’ Chaorainn. The first 30 miles of the walk are mostly easy going!
We breezed along the tarmac from the jetty at Camusnagaul, enjoying the unexpected sunshine and the wonderful scenery. The Ben was large and looming on the far side of the loch and as we walked down the lane, the huge cruise ship slipped its anchor, bellowed its horn three times and slid silently past us, down the loch towards the sea. The road has several camping options, some of which were already taken by car-campers or campervans, but the weather was perfect, so we decided to push on while we could, fully expecting the weather to worsen tomorrow.
We left the tarmac and joined the excellent four-wheel drive track into Cona Glen. We passed a couple of marginal camp spots and soon found perfect flat ground beside a lazy section of river, right beside the track. It was getting on for 8pm by the time we were set up and had a brew going. The breeze that had been keeping the midgies at bay dropped shortly after and we were inundated with the little pests. We tried our Smidge which seemed to stop them landing, but not clouding around us and eventually had to deploy head nets.
There’s only so much fun you can have with a head net on, so we were in our tents by 9pm or so. I managed to bring about a million of the little bastards into my inner with me though. Once I was zipped in with them they seemed to be happy congregating in the corners of the tent, rather than on me, which was a blessing. I listened to my audio book for a while and soon dropped off. I don’t think I slept much – I have a new pillow which took a bit of getting used to, it kept escaping until I eventually crammed it into the hood of my sleeping bag.
25th May 2019 – Cona Glen to Corryhully Bothy
The midgies were just as bad, if not worse, in the morning as they had been the night before. I heard Chris packing up about 5.30 and by 7am we were walking. The weather was initially fairly kind and we had a slight breeze to keep the pests at bay. Chris had a little play with the wire bridge across the river, dropping some gear in the process, which he had to fish out without falling in.
As we reached Corrlarach and the locked bothy (that turned out not be locked at all) it began to rain. I swapped my trousers for my waterproof troos, but stuck with my softshell for the time being, it not being heavy enough to justify the warmth of the Paramo just yet.
The four-wheel drive track makes for easy walking and the glen is a lovely place, wide and open but with steep mountains on either side. They were mostly clear on top, but misty in places, and wonderfully atmospheric. At the head of the glen we picked up the hill track that dog-legs up the side of the northern face of the glen, picking its way through a narrow pass and down another glen on the other side. The climb was hard-going (for me), the path is delightful but steep and my lack of fitness and pack weight made it tough. On the reverse slope we found a hump to shelter behind a made a brew. My main luxury for this walk had been my groundsheet and it paid for itself in just this stop alone. We could sit dry and comfortably on what would otherwise have been sodden ground in ankle deep heather.
We continued to descend, very steeply in places and I’d forgotten how useful a pole can be in these circumstances. I’ve got out of the habit of walking with a pole, but since my tent uses two for supports, I’d been using one on this trip. I shall be using it more in the future. We met the wide track that leads to, and beyond the buildings at Callop and from there we used the wide forest road to reach the outskirts of Glenfinnan. A long series of wooden duck boards brought us into this busy little tourist attraction.
By the time we reached the Visitor Centre at Glenfinnan it has been raining for hours and we were both feeling a bit damp. The monument is a superb tribute to those who fought for the Jacobite cause in the 17th & 18th centuries, but I tell you for nowt, that 99% of the visitors to this place don’t give a hoot about it, probably don’t even notice it. They’re here for the viaduct – and not to marvel at the engineering that went into its construction, but because it’s been used in a couple of the Harry Potter films!
After being royally fleeced in the Visitor Centre (Bonnie Prince Charlie would be proud!) we pushed on along the estate road to Corryhully bothy. We had planned to camp around Callop, but the extra miles from yesterday and the pace we’d set today made this a more sensible option. We arrived to find it full, and it was only about 4pm. It was now hammering down outside and I made the decision to pitch my tent and sleep in that, rather than try and find room on the floor. As it was floor space was also at a premium as several more people arrived before I went to bed and four more arrived after that.
I warmed up by the fire for a couple of hours, cooked my meal and had several brews. The bothy has an electric kettle so there’s no shortage of hot water and no worries about finding water outside as the river had risen considerably even in the time since our arrival. I had probably the best night sleep ever in a tent. A good flat pitch beside a natural white noise generator and I slept soundly until about 5am.
26th May 2019 – Corryhully Bothy to Bealach a’ Chaorainn
We were out and walking by 7am again. The rain had not stopped all night, and it had been ferocious at times, it was still hammering down as we set out. Our plan was to reach A’Chuil bothy by early afternoon and if it was still raining to have a half-day and stay the night there. Our advances on the previous two days would mean we would still be on target and if tomorrow was a nicer day (as forecast) we would walk in that instead of the rain.
Our first test was a very wobbly and rickety bridge over a torrent of water that runs across the path. I sent Chris first and followed nervously after. This was just the first river crossing of the morning, and by far the easiest.
As we ascended I began to get fed up. The incessant rain wasn’t helping, the river crossings were a pain, my pack was weighing heavily (burdened as it was by wet gear and 10 million dead midgies) and I decided enough was enough.
At the head of the pass I stopped Chris and we huddled behind a huge boulder, out of the worst of the wind and I told him I was quitting. This is not an unusual conversation for us when we’re on a long backpack, but it was one I was hoping not to have with him this time round. However, I knew my heart was no longer in it and I could get a lift from Glenfinnan, where I had a mobile signal and a road for my son to find me on. Chris was obviously annoyed (I don’t blame him, I really don’t) and he tried to persuade me to push through the feeling and carry on. The problem was that I had no option of recovery beyond this position and I really, really didn’t want to walk for 6 more days feeling the way I did.
This was one of the hardest, yet easiest decisions I’ve ever made. Hard because I wasn’t injured and I still felt fairly strong, the climb hadn’t been that bad and I had no good excuse to quit, other than the lack of fun I was having. It was the easiest because I knew this spelled the end of my long-distance backpacking aspirations. I wouldn’t be putting myself, or more importantly Chris, through this again. I turned and fled back down the hill, leaving Chris to push on alone. I had no qualms about him walking alone, he’s more experienced than I am and he knows what he’s doing and besides I’m not sure I could have persuaded him to quit even if I’d wanted him to.
I got back to the bothy and found one of the guys from last night still there. He was planning on waiting out the bad weather before driving across to Malaig to collect his son. To cut a long story short, I persuaded John (with the help of a few quid) to drive me to my car at Kinlochewe and get himself a nice warm B&B for the night instead. We even managed to get a lift from the bothy back to his car at Glenfinnan from the estate manager in his Land Rover.
I had a great journey back to my car, John was a chatty old guy and had lots of stories about previous walks and family holidays in the highlands. He eventually dropped me back at my car, and I thanked him profusely for the lift. I drove home through the night, arriving around midnight after quite an eventful day!
In many ways, crashing out when I did was the best thing that could have happened. I will let Chris tell his own story, but in short, two days later he post-holed while walking into Sourlies and pulled tendons in his groin. He walked for two half days, trying to walk it off, and getting to somewhere with a phone signal. The last thing I’d said to him when I turned and legged it down the hill was “ring me if you need me, I’ll come and get you”. Which is exactly what he did.
At about 10.30 a couple of days later I got a phone call from an unknown number. I was so close to just letting it ring, but something made me answer it. 30 minutes later I was embarking on an 18 hour, 1,050 mile round trip to collect Chris, drive him to his car in Durness and return home.
He’s gutted to be out of the Cape Wrath Trail, at least for the time being. I’m not. I’d love to be able to walk the route; so many aspects of the route, the terrain, the remoteness and solitude appeal to me, but I’m not prepared to make the personal and emotional sacrifice that’s needed to experience it.