In this series I look back on my three-week solo hike along the Cape Wrath Trail, Scotland’s most challenging long-distance trail. Along this journey through some of the most difficult terrain the Scottish highlands have to offer, I had to deal with marshy trails, missing supplies, friendly Scots and being completely shut off from the modern world. Read on to find out more! Want to read the rest? Click here for part one and part 3.
More Belgian Meetings
I woke the next morning to the sounds of the other bothy residents preparing to leave. They’d decided to quit the Cape Wrath Trail after all, their lack of proper equipment forcing their decision. Not long after they left I finished packing up my gear, closed the bothy door behind me and started climbing up the hill to get back on the trail. As soon as I reached the path, a young, stocky hiker came walking by just as I started walking in the same direction. As we were now moving up together anyway, we introduced ourselves and decided to continue on as a duo for a while. His name was Toon, and despite this obvious hint it still took me almost ten minutes to figure out he was from Belgium and that we could stop talking in English to each other. I mean, come on. How many more Belgians can you expect to come across within 48 hours?
The rest of the day proved to be blissfully free of more Belgian encounters, with Toon’s company being a welcome relief from muttering to myself all day. Toon was hiking only part of the Cape Wrath Trail, hopping over to the Isle of Skye after reaching the area around Shiel Bridge, a good three days of walking further north. We decided to team up for those days and entertain each other with stories from both our earlier adventures. Toon’s sturdy physique served him well in our uphill struggles, as he would plow ahead regardless of elevation, sometimes leaving me heaving for air halfway down the hill. My stamina wasn’t quite up to the point it should be, I know. I like to think I compensated for my lack of fortitude by just being really good company. I think.
After braving a long day of rough Knoydart terrain, soggy trails and even a precarious climb along a rock cliff with a river flowing wildly beneath us, we ended up reaching Inverie in the dark. Supposedly this was a very lovely place by the sea, but all we saw was the opportunity to call it a day and set up our tents to sleep. So sleep we did, falling unconsious to the sound of lapping waves along the shoreline hidden away somewhere in the dark of night.
The next morning we woke to an amazing view, the seawater forming an endless field of blue just metres from our tents, the distant hills covered in morning mist that lazily drifted down among the trees. We packed up quickly, making generous use of the little shelter cabin on the campgrounds to avoid the now heavy midge-clouds. We continued on the trail, tracking back our steps a way before climbing up to Mam Barrisdale, the high point leading to Glen Barrisdale, where we would find a place to camp. The weather turned sunny as we reached Barrisdale Bothy, where we had a late lunch. We found out the bothy was privately owned, and staying there would cost us money (as opposed to the bothies maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association). The day was dry and not yet done however, so we opted for camping a few kilometres further down the glen instead.
Island Awesome and the short-lived Cape Wrath Army
Later that day we found the perfect camping spot; a small outcropping of land separated from the shore by a wet sandbank, located a little way off the trail right where it bends eastwards towards Kinloch Hourn. When the tide came up, the place would become a little island. Most importantly, the winds coming in from both Glen Barrisdale and Loch Beag on the other side ensured that the midges stayed away, finally providing us the opportunity to light a campfire and enjoy the evening outside our tents for once!
After we set up camp and while cooking our evening meal a person on the other side of the now quickly-rising tide hailed us. “Are you hiking the Cape Wrath Trail?” he shouted at us. “Yeah!” we replied. “Where is the trail? I think I lost it! Hey, is that bacon?” And so Ryan joined our merry and ever growing band of happy hikers. A New Yorker currently studying in Edinburgh, Ryan was one of those people you always end up meeting along any trail: wild-spirited, enthousiastic, impulsive and so badly underequipped it’s leaning more towards the hardcore than the naïve. He was also hiking only part of the Cape Wrath Trail, surviving on cold oatmix, light snacks and peanut butter and spending his nights in a waterproof bivvy bag. He managed quite well though, but eagerly accepted our offer of some freshly cooked bacon anyway.
After wondering whether even more people would show up to join our group, we imagined ending up walking the three remaining weeks towards Cape Wrath in an ever-growing Cape Wrath Army, overcoming insane odds, recruiting more wandering souls along the way, to eventually arrive at the Cape’s lighthouse to claim it a Free Hiker State of sorts, Britain be damned. Then Toon tried to re-ignite our dwindling campfire with his gas stove, resulting in the thing becoming a sort of improvised flamethrower. Fingers were burned, laughs were had, the fire died out and we dubbed our merry campsite ‘Island Awesome’. We didn’t even need a drop of alcohol that night to fuel our shenanigans and spirited conversation. We were just three people getting high on fresh mountain air, seaside views and the company of random strangers.
Midge Cakes and Hurried Goodbyes
The next day we arrived in Kinloch Hourn, after spending the day hiking up and down the hilly southern shores of Loch Beag. The local B&B offered coffee, tea and home-made cake, so we went inside and had ourselves a proper tea-time break. The owner of the establishment also provided us with some good info on the incoming weather, as rumour had it a storm was heading this way. The next day would see us climbing to an exposed, 800 metre high ridge, so we would need all the weather reports we could get. Thankfully, the storm wouldn’t hit the coast for another day, so we were in the clear.
We camped out on the nearby fields, with a stiff wind coming in from the loch. As soon as that wind died, however, we appeared to be in one of the worst midge-infected places I had encountered so far. Thousands of the little bloodsuckers now came at us, forcing us inside our tents long before nightfall. For those of us that had tents anyway, since Ryan was now forced to retreat into his bivvy bag, which was essentially just a really closed-off, waterproof sleeping bag. His cries of anguish at being locked inside a coffin-like enclosure provided a comfortable background noise while Toon and I ate our dinner and read a book inside our tents.
The next morning saw us waking up with the clouds of midges still roaming outside our tents, preying on an opportunity to descend on us as soon as we’d leave our shelters. Through coordinated effort and a trick or two (I lit some moist toilet paper on fire at some point, to smoke out the worst of the midges) we managed to pack our tents and get going as soon as we were able.
That day we were climbing towards what is known as ‘The Saddle’; a rugged, 1010-metre high ridge underneath which we had to pass to reach Coire Caol, a glen that would lead us to Shiel Bridge. Even after days of walking among some of the best views Scotland has to offer, our senses still weren’t deaf to the beauty of the surrounding landscape, and our minds’ eyes vigorously recorded every bit of natural wonder on our way up. The further we climbed, the harsher the wind started to blow, thanks to the ever-narrowing funnel of rock and hill around us. At the high point of the pass, we had to lean into the gales which were now almost threatening to blow us down into the glen below.
Opting for a slower and less painful way down instead, we made our way along a rocky ledge and followed Coire Caol for the rest of the afternoon, braving some more marshy terrain when the trail ceased to exist, crossed a river and finally reached the campsite at Shiel Bridge at the end of the day. Knowing that this would be the end of our merry attempt at raising a Cape Wrath Army, we decided to head towards the local pub first and raise a pint or two to the memory of the past few days before seeing each other off.
And so pints were raised, WiFi was connected and loved ones were being told they had to hold off on claiming that life insurance just yet. Ryan needed to catch a bus to the nearest train station, so we went out to see him off. Just when we were walking along the main road, the bus in question came soaring past, and before we knew what was going on we waved it down, gave each other a handshake and off went Ryan aboard the bus, leaving me and Toon to worry about what to do next. Toon was eager to continue on towards the Kyle of Lochalsh, where he would cross to the Isle of Skye. So we had dinner at the campsite while I set up my tent and prepared myself for a day of rest. I still had a long way to go, and was in no hurry. After dinner we said our goodbyes and before long I was on my own again, left to wonder about the kind of short, intense connections people tend to make when travelling. For now, I was pleased to have had such a great first week to lift my spirits. I now turned my thoughts to the trail ahead, wondering what kind of adventures the next few weeks would bring before I touched that lighthouse on distant Cape Wrath.
Little did I know a challenge would present itself that had little to do with mountains, trails or biting insects…
This story is continued in part three.