The Cape Wrath Trail is unlike any other in Britain, not having a formal defined route but instead a start and end, Fort William and Cape Wrath. How you get from A to B is up to you, but it can’t be done without crossing wild country, fast rivers and perhaps some peaks.
A Cicerone guidebook and associated website give the main alternatives, but they didn’t exist when I crossed the Great Glen at Gairlochy or stepped off the coach at Cluanie. So my 2012 walk is very much a self-designed version of the Cape Wrath Trail, while very much in its spirit; and even beyond, I made the occasional variation whenever I wanted to.
Kintail in 2012
There are few pictures from this year – it was the first year I used only a smartphone to record a trip, and it was acting up rather badly.
Stage 23, Monday 11 June 2012: Cluanie to Glen Affric, seven miles
Like Corrour and Cape Wrath, Glen Affric youth hostel had been a target for decades, since my twenties, maybe earlier. I certainly recall looking at a (then) one-inch OS map and wondering at the red youth-hostel triangle placed in such a lonely spot, free of access from road. The track from Cluanie is straightforward, though wet and mucky by reputation – but after a dry month it held few horrors. I had thought of going over the A’Chralaig/Mullach Fraoch-Choire ridge, but my right leg was still feeling the after effects of a two-hour descent from Ben Nevis after the CMD arete 48 hours earlier, so stuck to the valleys, and the Munros were in cloud anyway. A nice alternative might have been the Corbett of Am Bathach.
Three pairs of hillwalkers, all involved in big multi-Munro days, were also staying at the hostel – indeed one individual was due to finish the entire round the following weekend. I felt thoroughly put in place, but they all seemed amazed by the logistical thought required for through-walking, so I didn’t feel too bad.
Stage 24, Tuesday 12 June 2012: Glen Affric to Camas-luinie, 13 miles
A bit of a bottling out, today; I probably could have got myself over Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan, a magnificent Munro rising north of the hostel, but settled on its Corbett outlier Sgurr Gaorsaic. Even this though was a diversion from the ‘bad-weather’ line, which would have stuck to the glen below the hill. In planning, I’d identified two potential issues: crossing Abhainn Gaorsaic (this word means ‘horror’!), and descending from the Falls of Glomach. From the hill-top and in descent I could see stepping stones at the outflow from Loch Thuill Easaich but also, on a better line, some narrows at 029236, and I went for the latter. They proved easy to cross.
The Falls, where I met a few people who had walked there by the Bealach na Sroine (one couple disputed their guidebook’s ‘moderate’ grading – moderate for the NW Highlands, I told them!), were disappointingly slight of flow but impressive of height nevertheless. I had heard bad things about a loose, steep, scrambly descent from the Falls, but didn’t find any undue difficulties; a step across a burn soon after leaving the Falls might have been heart-stopping in spate. Then, it’s down almost to sea-level, and the welcoming bunkhouse of the Whitefalls Retreat at Camas-Luinie.
Stage 25, Wednesday 13 June 2012: Camas-luinie to Bearnais, 14 miles
I’d viewed this day as being fairly straightforward, but with a potential sting in the tail. After leaving the road at Nonach Lodge, it’s a steady pull up Glen Ling before crossing over to more wooded country above Loch an Isaich. After here, the track gives a thrilling, and unexpected, view across to Lochcarron, and the great hills of Torridon beyond, before winding down to Bendronaig Lodge. Here, a couple of mountain bikes had been left, probably by hill-walkers on Bidean a’Choire Sheasgaich, the Munro which dominates this section of the walk. The lodge’s log-store was tempting too, knowing that I would want fuel at what is reckoned to be the coldest bothy in Britain.
The first task, though, was to get there, and from this direction there is no track after a stalker’s path veers away. A quad-bike trail does however leave the path at the logical (023412) place; this peters out to a sporadic path; this in turn disappears in the channels and runlets above Loch an Laoigh. For me, with peat drying out and no recent rain, never a problem; judging from the bothy book, quite often the last mile can be a nightmare. I made up for it a bit by picking up my first-ever ticks in an ‘unguarded’ moment later that day. Kept warm that night though.
Stage 25, Wednesday 13 June 2012: Bearnais to Achnashellach, 11 miles
The ‘easy’ way away from the bothy is the stalker’s path to Strathcarron, but with thoughts of 2013 in my head, I wanted to push further north, across the 2000ft pass of Baobh-bhacan Dubha.
And once having climbed this, it makes sense to continue over the Corbett of Sgurr na Feartaig, an excellent two-mile ridge with the hills for next year unfolding all the while. No real difficulties; the summit is off the stalker’s path by a few hundred yards, and after having descended, there is a very rickety bridge over the Allt a’Chonais, but with great visibility and low water levels the summit could be enjoyed and the river forded.
Beyond Gerry’s famous hostel at Craig, there’s a couple of miles of road-walking, but traffic is light. (Later, I discovered that most could have been avoided by using forestry tracks.) I started early ‘just in case’ but arrived at Achnashellach station with a couple of hours to spare – as did a young backpacking couple without reliable timepiece, so at least I had company.
Wester Ross in 2013
Stage 26, Friday 7 June 2013: Achnashellach to Kinlochewe, 11 miles
It is barely yards, from leaving the train, that you get one of the most dramatic of Highland views, the Corbett of Fuar Tholl.
No plans for ascent today though; the lessons of 2012 learnt, I planned to stick to the path over the pass of Drochad Coire Lair, where another fine view, of the corrie’s two Munros, awaits.
I took a little break in the cute little Teahouse bothy – in Victorian times, it really was a teahouse! A few miles beyond and over another rise, a patch of felled forestry has to be crossed, albeit on that Highland rarity a waymarked path, before an awkward little section by the A’Ghairbhe river. I found a path in the heather terrace to its east for the last mile, which helped a bit.
Stage 27, Saturday 8 June 2013: Kinlochewe to Loch an Nid, 12 miles
Hill day. There’s a straightforward start through Gleann na Muice to Lochan Fada, which is a beautiful spot, with Slioch rising beyond.
From here I set off to Bealach Odhar and from there crossed the Corbett top of Meall Garbh before tackling the stony cap of Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair. This is the highest of the ‘Fisherfield 6’, a fearsome Munro round (of, in fact, now five Munros), which several people I met were wisely tackling with a high-level bivvy in between. I thought of picking up Sgurr Ban as well, but with quite some way to go to camp, decided against it; the bottom of the untracked Coire nan Clach is rough, so I would have been pretty late down had I done so. And so to my first wild camp in Scotland, a mile or so from the spot stated by the OS as to being the most remote in Britain, by distance from a public road.
Oh and space for conversation snippet from Lochan Fada, to two girls aged 6 and 9: “Has daddy hauled you up any Munros then?” [Younger:] “64.”
Stage 28, Sunday 9 June 2013: Loch an Nid to Clachan, 14 miles
The morning was simply wonderful, especially as the track climbs away from the Abhainn to give a spectacular view down Strath na Sealga, Shenavall bothy in the distance, Beinn Dearg Mor on one side, An Teallach in its absurd, jagged-ridge glory on the other.
Clearly these mountains can do something to you. Spending a few minutes at a very comfortable cairn just beyond the Shenavall path junction, a couple comes up from the road at Coire Hallie, he late 30s, she central-casting blonde-haired young 20s more equipped for the beach than the hills. Between them on this hot day they might have had a litre of water. He surveys the ridge: “Is that An Teallach then?” We (me and pair of walkers I’d just met) assure him it is. “Do you think we could get to the ridge by going over that hill?”, gesturing to the E top of Sail Liath. We assure him there must be a way. So off they set.
The afternoon can’t rival the morning for grandeur, but the track past Loch an Tiompain towards Inverlael is straightforward enough.
I’m wondering where in this relatively busy valley one might camp, and try my luck at Clachan, where the B&B owner says that folk usually just pitch in front of the church, and I can use her outside tap. Perfect.
Stages 29 and 30, Monday/Tuesday 10/11 June 2013: Clachan to Duag Bridge, 18 miles; Duag Bridge to Oykel Bridge, four miles
I had felt tired arriving at Clachan and expected that the 12 or so miles to Knockdamph bothy would be enough for me, but the easy start through the pine forests went quickly enough and I was soon looking back down to the village.
There’s a cairn at 225875 that signals the end of the track from the valley, though quad-bike tracks continue a little longer. Soon after, turning the corner above Glen Douchray, freelancing around with wild and open scenery in front of me, I felt one of those rushes of elation that make all the hardships worthwhile. Moving to turn off my phone, which I’d earlier had ready for GPS reasssurance that was quite clearly not needed, I found an improbable four bars of mobile reception, so phoned home to share this wonder. Of course, no Barbara there, but she later told me that on the message I had sounded fantastic.
The river itself was low and an easy crossing. The undercut peat hags of the far bank showed that there were times when it would be impassable.
The E bank path by the river is a rough one, but reach Loch an Daimh and the troubles are over. Clearly, Knockdamph bothy was only to be a staging post. Soon I busied myself with the simple few miles to the little Schoolhouse bothy, where I spent a sound night.
Reading the bothy book, clearly many do walk on to Oykel Bridge in one day, but there was no gain for me to do so. The next day, I was though now so fully into my stride that not walking on, up Glen Oykel, was hard to resist. But that was for next year. I cadged a lift off a delivery driver at the Oykel Bridge hotel and was soon in Lairg, sampling cake in the café, chips in the chippy, and beer in the pub, before the bus (actually van) to the station and the train south.
Glen Affric hostel is, relatively, an oasis, with its own (modest) wind turbine for electricity, proper cookers and comfy sitting room.
The Whitefalls retreat bunkhouse was run by a cheerful local chap and came with two breakfast eggs from his own hens. I had it to myself, as I did the Bearnais bothy – the latter scrupulously clean, but remember to bring fuel in from somewhere.
The Kinlochewe Hotel had a perfectly good bunkhouse attached, and a great bar too – shame they don’t serve breakfast to bunkhousers, but the Whistle Stop café in the village doesn’t discriminate.
There are plenty of fine wild camping spots around Loch an Nid, and indeed I could see there was quite a community around its outflow, though I chose a spot at its head. Clachan has a good patch of green in front of the church, as mentioned.
Zoom in for detail up to 1:50,000