So, this was it. The section of the trip that I had come over here for. 10 days, roughly 180km, 7 ‘hills’, and all via a route that I had chosen myself – a combination of tracks, suggested day walks and large cross country sections.
To say that I was a little nervous would be an understatement! I think I spent most of the morning vacillating between positive determination (“I can do this”) and disbelieving terror (“what the hell am I doing?!”). The cross country section through Glen Roy had really rattled me. It was so hard, and I thought the northwest highlands would be boggier, plus I was planning to walk over proper big hills as well. I was also worrying about my route, as well as my decision making when I was out there. When navigating, if you are not certain about where you are (or which way you should go), it is very useful to have someone else to discuss things with. They may point out things you’ve missed, question assumptions you don’t even realise you’ve made or identify a stupid mistake. From rogaining experience, this has always been very helpful, and a source of comfort. On this trip, I was on my own, with no-one to backup my decisions or help me out if I got stuck. I was also concerned about my ‘common sense’ decision making – would I know when to turn back or find a different route if things got too hard, or would I be too stubborn (who, me??) and get myself into a situation that was very hard to get out of? As for the route, I didn’t even know if some parts (a couple of river crossings and descents off hills) were possible, let alone sensible.
However, I reassured myself with all the logic about how much planning and preparation I’d done, how I’d had some practice now, and how I could always get out if I needed too. And that I’ve got a lot better at being sensible and not stubborn.
I got up reasonably early and finished my packing. I didn’t need to start particularly early as the first day was a shorter one, but we still had a long drive (by Scotland standards) to get to Ullapool, and were dropping in to Scott’s sister’s place on the way. We eventually got to Ullapool just before lunchtime, had some left over pizza then got to the start of my walk by about 12:30pm. This was a bit later than I’d intended but I may’ve been dragging my feet all morning as I was still pretty nervous! I made Scott give me a big hug before I left (I really needed a ‘Ben’ hug, but as he wasn’t around, Scott had to stand in!) then set off.
The start of the walk was on good tracks that are used for short walks by the locals a lot, but of course it went straight up a very steep hill. What better way to start a walk?? It was actually a good start as it gave my nerves a chance to settle and got my navigation sorted before I got to the cross country part of the trek. There were a few intersecting tracks and given my track record with navigation at the start of walks, I was particularly careful to check and double check every intersection.
Eventually I came to a large river, which I had sensibly planned to cross on a proper road bridge. This marked the start of my cross country walking. I stood on the edge of the road, took a compass bearing to a point on the ridge above, took a deep breath and stepped off the road . . . .
It was a bit boggy, but my Glen Roy experience held me in good stead. It was also not nearly as bad. Some bits were surprisingly dry. The scrub was not as thick, nor the hill as steep as Glen Roy so it was a positive start to the trek. I got to the top of the ridge, and followed a fenceline (as planned, from my maps) for a while, continuously checking the compass bearing as the fence line was less “a fence line” and more “some small fence posts spread at considerable distance in an approximate line”. I was again very diligent with my navigation, checking the compass often, stopping to look at the map, and mentally marking off every small lochan with delight as I passed them on the correct course. The walking was actually quite pleasant – not too hard, quite scenic (if you like that kind of scenery, which I do!) and incredibly peaceful and isolated. I was not alone though – birds, frogs and deer all sharing the place with me.
I followed the fence until it turned the second corner (as planned), then took a bearing and headed entirely cross country again. On the third series of lochans I turned north, then headed east at the next one . . . all surprisingly close to my planned route (this is where the GPS data becomes fun to look at). My turn east was a little sooner and sharper than I’d intended as I ended up following the river rather than going up the next hill. This brought me across to the main river (Allt Duasdale Mor) further south than I’d intended but it turns out this was probably a good thing as it looks like it would’ve been much more difficult to cross where I’d planned to. I ended up crossing just to the north of Lochan Sgreadach, just in case anyone reading this is trying to research walking in the area!
At this point I hit a track which should’ve taken me all the way down to Langwell Lodge where there was a bridge to cross the River Canaird. The track was lovely at the start but sadly it seemed to disappear as soon as I hit open countryside. This made for some very frustrating backtracking when I ended up too close to the river and some very unpleasant boggy cross country walking. There were also quite a few midges and other flying things around, especially close to the river which made stopping and looking at the map rather unpleasant.
The main “other flying things” at this point were these strange things that looked more like crawling insects than flying ones. They were incredibly hardy and difficult to get rid of but didn’t actually bite me. They’d land on me and stay there even when I tried to brush them off. Swatting them didn’t help – they simply didn’t squash! But, as they didn’t bite, I didn’t mind them nearly as much as the midges and I actually got quite fond of them in a strange way (although I did prefer it when they didn’t land on my face!). It took me ages to find out what they were – nobody I asked knew, even when I finally brought a dead one back with me. Eventually, towards the end of my trip, someone identified them as “deer keds” (see the wikipedia page). They latch onto deer and drop their wings once they are firmly attached.
I eventually got to the bottom of the hill near the lodge. The bridge was right in front of the lodge and I felt a bit uncomfortable being so close to someone’s house so I had a look upstream to see if I could cross there. I probably could’ve but would’ve had to take my shoes off so I ended up using the bridge anyway. This was also a frustrating exercise due to the maze of fences around it. I found a laneway between two fences which looked like it was there to give walkers access to the bridge without going through the fields. At the end, right next to the bridge, the laneway just ended with another fence!! I ended up just climbing over.
I then modified my route slightly so I wouldn’t go right next to the Lodge, and also because I could see how steep the hill was where I’d intended to walk! This new route took me through a paddock with a very friendly grey pony. He neighed and wandered over to say hello and followed me across the paddock so I got an apple out and shared it with him. There was a boggy section in the middle and he was even less keen on it than I was, picking his way through very slowly with a doubtful look on his face!
I went out the gate at the other side of his paddock (happy to use a gate and not climb over any more of their fences) then crossed the road and headed up the hill on the other side. Just after I came out of his paddock, two people walked past on the road. Also, there were a few dogs penned up nearby that went nuts, barking crazily and banging against their pen, anytime they saw me. This really didn’t make me feel any more comfortable about walking around there so I was pretty happy once I was up the hill a little way.
This hill was very much like Glen Roy – crazy steep and really thick grass, heather and/or bracken. Plus, to top things off, it also had big holes dug in it everywhere. About half a metre across and not quite that deep. I decided in the end that maybe the method of planting trees here was to dig a hole, then plant the tree in the pile of dirt from the hole. See the photo below, there is a tiny tree in middle of the pile of dirt next to the hole.
I had taken a compass bearing, but was also adjusting my course based on where I was on the hill and the rivers I was passing. It was quite a long hard walk up the hill, capped off with a 10’ fence to climb. I really don’t think many people walk around here! The top of the hill was a bit boggy so it was slow going, but at least I had a fence to follow (an actual fence this time, not just a series of poles!).
Once I was off the hill I could see my target, the road bridge just south of Drumrunie, so I headed directly towards it. This section was a big grassy plain, but not normal grass . . .that really long tussocky kind that hides everything underneath it. It also had lots of tiny little streams running through it, some quite deep. I discovered this when I was walking along and suddenly my right leg disappeared. I ended up on my left knee and my elbows . . . . and my right foot still hadn’t hit the bottom yet! When I wiggled it around I could hear water splashing, so I’m glad I didn’t go any deeper! Anyway, I pulled myself out and continued trudging (I think I was trudging by this point!).
I crossed the River Runie on the A835 road bridge, then turned left and crossed Allt Liathdoire on the next road bridge. My original plan had been to turn north up the edge of the forest then follow the river up, then over, Cul Beag . . . “just for the fun of it”. I had a couple of views of these hills earlier today and they were looking pretty big. It was late and I was feeling pretty tired already so I wasn’t going to get over it today. I was worried I wouldn’t find a campsite on the path I was going to take and that it would take so long to climb tomorrow that it would put my timing off (planning to camp near hills and go up them in the mornings) for the rest of the walk. I also didn’t know if I’d want to go over Cul Beag tomorrow, or if I could handle the long cross country walk to Stac Pollaidh after it. It was finally starting to sink in how big these hills are and how hard the cross country walking is around here!
I didn’t have any particular reason to climb this hill, so was quite happy to skip it. I decided to find a campsite nearby, then I could decide in the morning what I wanted to do. I think in my head I had already decided to skip it and walk the 8km to Stac Pollaidh on the road instead of cross country over Cul Beag anyway. I thought this would at least put me back on schedule, let me recover a bit and give me some confidence back.
I then had to find a campsite! This was the hardest place so far. It was already getting dark and I felt pretty silly walking along the road still (a few cars went past). I didn’t want to be right next to the road but the land was quite steep for a reasonable distance on both sides and I didn’t want to be trudging around in bog a long way off the road trying to find something.
I was getting a bit panicky about it but eventually I found a spot that was almost flat and almost big enough for my tent. It was down a dip from the road, so not immediately visible, and was slightly on the western side of a small lump (the wind had been coming from the east all day) but was otherwise still very exposed. There wasn’t actually enough flat ground for the whole tent so I couldn’t get the front door pitched out properly (the ground sloped up steeply there – at least I put my head at the uphill end!) and inside the tent there was a huge lump along half the floor so I had to sleep on one side of the tent!
Also, I got absolutely swarmed by midges as I was trying to set up. This was the worst I’d seen so far, and was even on elevated, reasonably dry ground. I set the tent up as quickly as I could, which also meant I didn’t do a particularly good job of it. This wasn’t helped by the ground being tussocky so it was hard to find a nice secure spot for the pegs. Once it was set up, I dove inside . . . . sadly this was also my first experience with bringing a cloud of midges inside with me so I then spent the next 10 minutes trying to kill them all! There were also so many midges on the outside of my tent that it sounded like it was raining (with them landing and taking off all the time).
I had my first dehydrated dinner of the holiday – potato and salmon in dill sauce. I had added the water about an hour before I stopped so it was well rehydrated (even without hot water) and was actually quite good. It was very filling too, and I had to force myself to finish it.
Despite some ominous forecasts yesterday, today was actually really good walking weather. It was overcast and threatened to rain a few times but never actually did. There was a slight breeze, but in the afternoon it had calmed down entirely (hence the midge problem!).
Also, my gaiters were fantastic. I’m so glad I had them.
My main thought at the end of today was “What a tough day! I’m not sure if I’ll make it through 9 more, especially not with hill climbing in them as well!” I’d managed 20km in 6-ish hours . . . barely 3km/hr, with no significant hills, . . . and the hills looked really big too. I was seriously doubting whether I’d make the entire walk, especially with any enjoyment and not just stubborn determination (which is NOT what this trip was supposed to be about – almost the opposite in fact!). Still, tomorrow was another day, with a nice easy road walk to start so I’d go to sleep and see how I felt in the morning. I just hoped the midges were gone by morning.
And yes, I slipped a couple of extra photos in today, but I’ll make up for it with a few less tomorrow!