The Cape Wrath Trail: Durness to Glencoul

Day one: Durness to Cape Wrath

Upon embarking on a solo long distance walk, one expects that they will encounter their fair share of hardship along the trail, and that their original plans will morph as conditions change and various obstacles arise. It is for that reason I like to keep an open mind; I feel it paramount that we relish rather than fear the unexpected forks in the road- for what is a journey without a fair injection of the unknown? Good adventure is oft born from the spirit of surprise.

I was led into the unknown soon after leaving the blustery confines of the Sango Sands campground, in which I spent a restless night listening to the wind beat its mallet on the sides of my new Tarptent. The 500 m wide kyle of Durness, over which the Cape Wrath ferry ran, was a mess of white peaks and ocean spray. The ferry itself was little more than a small motorised fishing boat, and I surmised that even the most game of mariners would have shuddered at the prospects of pushing it out into the blue and white tumult today. The conductor of this ship was a Scottish man known for his proclivity to alcohol, and his decision to open the ferry was apparently as dependent on the weather, as it was on his previous night of drinking. As such, I was unsurprised when I came across the little board that read, “ferry closed”, and discovered that my intended means of transport would be unavailable. As the ferry was not operational, the minibus service that took passengers from the jetty to the Cape Wrath lighthouse would also not be in use.

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The stormy town of Durness
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A beautiful sunset at the Sango Sands campground

The thought of waiting it out for a day did not cross my mind. I was eager to get started on the trail, and decided that the only option was to walk around the kyle and thereafter make the distance required to reach the Cape Wrath Lighthouse on the very north-western edge of the country. I managed to hitch a ride on the A838 with two English ladies, Silvia and Ann, who dropped me off near the small footbridge that breached the River Dionard. From here, it would be a rough, slow 6 km walk to the Jetty on the opposite side of the kyle and a further 18 km to the lighthouse.

From the River Dionard, I opted to make the top of Sithean Mór, rather than skirt around the headland. The ascent was gentle but the ground turned muddy and water logged, and here I was introduced to the wonders of the Scottish highland bog. With careful step, one could avoid the worst of the muddy sludge. Every now and then, however, a shoe would disappear into the void of muck, which only very hesitantly relinquished it after measurable pulling force was applied. Although the going was slow, I soon made it to the crossing of the Grudie River. A narrow wooden structure took me across its pumping waters and onto relatively solid, dry ground. To my right, the bay opened up and I was presented with a wonderful view of the kyle. Here, I could perceive the dark currents of water slowly draining from great yellow bars of sand, and the sun made several welcomed appearances, bouncing off the ocean, which shone like a cracked gemstone.

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Gazing over the Kyle of Durness

The ground was uneven and pathless, and I was happy to reach the jetty after about 2.5 hrs of walking. It was not, however, the surface conditions alone that made for such slow progress, but a combination of 100 km/hr gusting winds and a backpack that was far heavier than anything I had carried before.

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At the Cape Wrath side jetty

After passing the jetty house, and a very stationary Cape Wrath minibus, I continued northwest, along a solid vehicle track. I soon came across an important looking sign, which indicated that I was now entering a military firing zone. Thankfully, another sign quickly assured me that the naval forces would not be dropping bombs during the month of May, and I passed the barrier, and headed into the wastes. The road quickly moved inland, and I left the scenic blues and greys of the inlet for the yellow and brown hues of bare highland hills. The wind picked up further, and it carried with it a cold rain that stung like ice needles on the bare flesh of my cheeks. If I had been walking with the gusts, I would have flown, as things were, however, I found myself battling an occasionally immovable force. It was thus I made my way slowly across this post-apocalyptic landscape.

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I pushed myself forth and became one with the undulating wilderness. There was a stark vastness to this place and a silence that existed between the gasps of wind. It took me 4 hrs to traverse the 18 km from the jetty to the lighthouse. I was spent; cold, wet and tired and it was only the first day of walking.

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The Cape Wrath lighthouse

The Cape Wrath lighthouse is positioned on the edge of a blustery cliff line. There are no trees here, and the wind gallops up and across the flats like a powerful warhorse. It was therefore unsurprising that as I circumnavigated the surrounding area, I failed to find a place protected enough to set my tent. I also did not detect any sign of the caretaker, John, who was said to be the sole human inhabitant of this remote location. Finding no easy way into the lighthouse either, I settled for a small red cube shaped building. Reaching for the roughly painted wooden door, I noted the slightly ironic scrawl “Ozone cafe” above my head. I stepped into the confines of the building, and silence descended.

Out of the wind, I quickly began to regain feeling in my fingers and toes. But I was not alone for long. The faint baying of dogs announced the arrival of the mysterious caretaker, John, and a group of walkers, whom I had met before on the bus from Lairg to Durness. The group of three had traveled on foot from Sandwood bay to Cape Wrath and only stayed long enough to enjoy a sandwich from John’s ‘café’ and brief respite from the wind. It was the ‘hardest walk ever’, they assured me, as they were sucked back out into the cold. Alone with John, I was treated to a supper of fish and chips and a glass of wine, on the house. I ate alone, as John retreated quickly to a hidden place after leaving the steaming meal before me. I was offered a square of floor for the night, and a gas heater was lit to make the concrete room more habitable.

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Dinner is served

Before drifting off to sleep, however, I was joined by more walkers – a group of 3, who had walked around 6 days worth of the CWT. They had started as a party of 9, but lost 6 to injury and fatigue. They scoffed at my flimsy shoes and told me I ought to give up now, based on the horrid conditions they had just been privy to. Behind, I caught a small, supportive wink from John. I smiled through them. Their tales of woe, and the difficult conditions I had experienced today filled me with a great excitement for what was to come. I was now, however, very ready for bed.

 

Day two: Cape Wrath to Strathan Bothy

First on the agenda: Lighten the load.

I left with John several items, including a 500mL bottle of fuel, a bag of chocolates, several batteries, soup packets and powdered milk. And, at 7 am, when I stepped out of my very welcomed shelter for the night, I could perceive a slight difference in the weight of my pack. I also noticed a dramatic change in the weather conditions; crisp, blue skies and sunshine, and most notably, the day was seasoned by only a slight, salty sea breeze. This was not the Scotland I had expected, but it was certainly a very welcomed surprise.

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Blue skies and fine weather abound

The walk retraced steps on the dirt vehicle track but veered sharply south, just before the border of a military boundary passed the previous day. I followed closely the red dotted line marked on the Cape Wrath Trail North (Harvey ed.) map. It took me cross-country, following neither road nor track nor trail and my eyes were wide and my nerves alight at the amazing vastness and starkness of the surrounding country. The ground was dimpled with rocks, low lying heath and peat bogs, and from a distance it all homogenised, a golden yellow and brown roll draped over black and grey sea cliffs, which shot upwards from the deepest of blue oceans. I glimpsed no other life but the occasional sea and moorland bird, and the memory of a predator making its way through the heath, on the search for hidden prey.

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Where the sea meets the land

I reached Sandwood bay by 12:30 pm. The soft white peppered shores of the beach provided an interesting contrast to dark roughness of the hills and the ocean between which it nestled. The intensity of the sun and the squeak of a thousand grains of sand under my shoes took me back to the coast of Australia. I mused that without pictures few would believe that Scotland could conjure up such a rosy, warm visage.

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Approaching Sandwood beach
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Making tracks

I stopped long enough for lunch and a few photographs and then headed inland, past Sandwood loch, and towards a bothy situated about 5 km from the beach. The final few kilometres were very marshy and water finally intruded my ankle-high boots and gaiters.

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Views over Sandwood loch

After nearly 3 hours of walking, Strathan bothy was a welcomed sight and as my first bothy encountered in Scotland, appeared very well kept. It was a small 3-roomed stone and wood structure, with a bright red wooden door. Once inside, I sloughed off my backpack and set about preparing my rest spot for the night, which would be on a small wooden bench in the middle room. Before heading to sleep, however, I was visited by a rough looking German who was nearing his final day on the CWT. His name was Tom and as he wolfed down an egg salad sandwich, he provided some positive advice regarding the trail to come, including best route alternatives and the potentially difficult legs. He decided to press on around 5 pm, and I was left to the dark confines of the bothy.

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Strathan bothy

I would like to say that I slept fitfully, but my first night of complete aloneness, and a disturbing entry in the bothy’s logbook conjured up noises in the adjacent rooms. In red, scrawling pen was writ: “Why are there scratches on the roof and hair hanging from the ceiling?? I think a girl died out here”. That night, it certainly felt as if someone where haunting the old shack I found hospice in.

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Day three: Strathan Bothy to Lone

The days here are long, and the sun rises before I wake and sets after I fall into bed, darkness has become an imaginary thing.

I stepped over Strathan’s threshold by 9 am and headed west, towards A Lon Mòr River. The crossing was slow, as the bridge marked on the map was no longer standing, but soon the bothy and its little red door were swallowed in the distance. I followed a boggy road until I reached some flats, and then veered off-track, south, and up to Meall Dearg. Although only standing at 269 m, it provided an impressive, if a bit windy, view over the landscape, including the loch and shoreline of Sandwood beach.

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A bridge no longer
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Strathan swallowed by the landscape
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Views from Maell Dearg

Upon descent off the opposite side of the hill, I spotted the first of many deer I would encounter on this trip. The Scottish red deer are the same wet brown and yellow as the landscape they find their habitat in, and if it were not for their movement, I would have passed unknowing of their presence. I followed cloved prints for a way but did not happen across them again, and soon I dropped out of the hills and back into civilisation.

At 12:30 pm, I joined up to a paved road, just a few kilometres southeast of Badcall Inchard. From here, I continued southeast, stopping briefly in a lovely café for a crab sandwich and tea. Luxury. I then followed the road swiftly to Rhiconich, pausing only to watch several expensive, fast looking cars wiz past me – quite a juxtaposition to the wilderness I had just found myself walking in. After a brief chat to a couple of walkers (dad and daughter combo), I was back into the dirt and mud, as I followed the Rhiconich River south. The going became progressively boggy upon approach of the Garbh Allt and I battled on until I reached the distinct and very solid road above which the imposing Arkle (787 m) loomed. I would not be tackling this shattered, curving ridge of quartzite but I did veer again off the well-trodden path to walk under its shadow towards Lone.

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Crabby sandwiches and tea
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Approaching Rhiconich
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A death adder spotted on track, the only native poisonous snake in Scotland

I had been debating whether or not to take this route, as it was nearly 5 pm and the German, Tom, had warned me that this section was incredibly marshy. He did, however, also give me advice to stick on the east side of the waters running from the Loch An Nighe Leathaid, into Loch Stack, and I was curious to experience ‘real Scottish bog’. It was easy going until the last 1 km, where the land transformed from comparatively solid peat mud, to a marshy green pea soup. I noticed that the swap was punctuated by little grassy islands, and although similar in appearance to the swap, a little prod from a walking stick determined whether it would probably hold my weight or not. My shoes were soaked by the time I made Lone, but I was much drier than anticipated. I dreaded the thought of experiencing this particular section in the pelting rain, and silently hoped that my good weather luck would persist.

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Below the Arkle

I made camp at 7 pm, on a little grassy bank by a wooden bridge in Lone. It was quite windy as I crawled into bed, however the clouds held fast. I was not nearly as tired as I was on previous nights, and I started to let myself believe that I had found my “hiking legs”.

 

Day four: Lone to Glenoul bothy

I woke to an angry stomach – perhaps the Mexican chicken freeze dry meal of last night didn’t mix well with the creamy crab sandwich I ate for lunch? In any case, it all settled after a quick visit to the woods with a shovel. Last night was gusty, but I set my tent up with the wind and this seemed to muffle the rhythmic rap of the gale outside. I was walking by 9 am and the few drops of water that struck me as I packed my tent held little substance, it didn’t feel as if steady rain would follow. I passed several folk looking to make the summit of the Arkle, and they confirmed my prediction of fine weather and clear blue skies. I again hit bitumen road, but quickly picked up a steep forestry path, after walking through Achfary. The stony path took me southwest, towards Kylestrome and its hard surface battered my legs, and my left knee in particular started to ache with each step across the bleak, recently deforested landscape.

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Views over a deforested Achfary

I carried a lot of negative thoughts with me up and over that pass and by 12 pm, I was ready to make camp and sleep my low spirits away. I was, however, determined to make Glencoul bothy and so I pressed on regardless.

First, I had to reach Glendhu bothy. The walk along Loch Gleann Dubh was punishment, as I was given constant reminder of my path and the upcoming ascent around the opposite shoreline. When I started at the climb a little after 2 pm, however, I quickly lost the trail and with that all the pain and angst was forgotten and I found myself back in my element, scrambling up mossy rocks, swinging from hanging tree branches and sliding through the marsh. While on-track walking was physically easy, it battered at my spirit. Off-track, on the other hand, I could express myself more fully and start to engage my brain, as I problem solved the best possible routes across complex landscape. I veered off course in my excitement but corrected myself quickly, and soon came across a lovely rocky single-laned path. I was able to follow this around the headland until it expanded into an old vehicle trail, which snaked all the way down to Glencoul bothy.

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Glendhu bothy
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Walking the headland

Climbing around the headland, I perceived a sudden change in temperature. As if on cue, the sun burst forth from the clouds and even the wind took on a fiery breath. The views of Loch Glencoul were spectacular and with the sunlight creating a million tiny mirrors on the water’s surface, it was an incredibly magical sight. I rested for a moment on the side of that raised cliffy headland, marvelling at the beauty of my surroundings and descended only when the curiosity to explore my bothy for the night overtook me.

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Views over Glencoul bothy

Glencoul is spectacularly positioned, right on the edge of the loch and finding full sun for the most part of the day, at this time of the year. I was settled into the cosy bothy by 5 pm, but couldn’t resist waiting up for the sunset. As I meditated to the changing of light, I became enthralled with an imagined future, in which I lived in a small cabin by the ocean on a remote part of a beautiful country. Despite a distinct low experienced in the middle of the day, I was to end on an incredible high. Could I have imagined visiting a place as perfect as this, when planning my Scotland travels? And what other wonders did this great land have set to offer, as I continued my great exploration.

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Sunset paints the land in orange and red
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Sunset lights up Glencoul bothy
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