This is the third and last part of my Cape Wrath Trail adventure and it is also the longest and most informative, so make sure you are reading it all. To really get the full picture make sure to catch up on part 1 and part 2. Enjoy.
Going on your own CWT adventure? Press the image to get the ultimate planning guide
The morning started wet and windy, as a direct continuation of the night before; Glancoul’s dramatic location was enhanced by the weather. The bothy was cold early in the morning and I woke up stiff, so a quick warm up of push ups, jumping jacks and stretching helped me get moving. I quickly packed up and left the bothy, joining the clear 4×4 trail on the northern shore that heads to Glendhu bothy on the other side of Beinn Aird da Loch. The Cape Wrath Trail is a very clear path and the weather cleared a little to reveal the amazing fjord-like valley that I had come from the day before. The trail started to narrow and at times disappear, but it is easy to find again. The walk was slippery and boggy, rounding the beinn and getting into a small wooded patch about 4km from Glencoul. At this point the rain came back with a vengence and the rest of the walk to the bothy was not very welcoming. The trail disappears just before the bridge over Glenn Dubh but picks up a clear 4×4 road straight after and the 200 meters to the bothy are easy.
At Glendhu I stopped for a quick brew and snack, where I met a Glaswegian who has been walking the Cape Wrath Trail for 17 years in parts, taking 2-3 days once a year to complete another section – he expects to finish it in 2016, what a journey! From the bothy the trail is very clear and simple, making the walk extremely easy, especially as it stopped raining and just stayed windy. The easy trail also allowed me to relax a little and enjoy the view around.
The Cape Wrath Trail climbs north and leaves Loch Glendhu after a bridge, using another 4×4 road. The walk up to trig point 409 was pleasant, windy and stunning with views over Loch an Leathaid Bhuain and Beinn a Ghrianain. My aim for the day was reaching Lochstack lodge and camping around there. I reached the sheiling at Bealach nam Fiann (trig 409) and had my lunch and coffee, huddled in the shieling as protection from the wind. At this point my fatigue was in full blast and I was very keen on getting to my camping spot. I decided to take the road via Achfary and not walking the nonexistent trail via Ben Dreavie. The walk down to the road stayed on a clear 4×4, and at some point I was due to split left on a fork, but the gate was locked due to felling works in the forest. I reached the road at Lochmore lodge, enjoying the view over the loch and up Ben Screavie.
At the road I turned to Achfary, hoping to get some cell signal and talk to Mika, but had no luck. I found a semi working payphone and called home to hear my family missing me badly. The frustrating phone along with the rain that had returned and my fatigue overtook me and all I wanted was to rest, shower and have a hot meal. Mika supported my need for a break and a decision was made to make my way to Rhiconich Hotel to spend the night. I continued walking on the road, which was quiet and surrounded by mountains, mainly towered by Arkle and Ben Stack. The walk started pleasant but windy, but after a couple of km the rain was back, along with gale and patches of hail. I managed to reach Lochstack Lodge, but before leaving the road and joining the trail that is clearly boggy, wet and partially non existent, I opted to hitchhike to the hotel. I ended catching a ride to a place a couple of km from the hotel, cutting out roughly 10 km from the day’s walk.
My arrival to the hotel was with mixed feeling of relief, anticipation and guilt for opting to take the “easy route”. I enjoyed the amenities, showered for a long time, scrubbing the filth off, rested and ate well. It was a great night of rest and recovery. The hotel has an in-house restaurant and offers rooms from £50 a night including breakfast (which was great and filling). I had a big dinner with a couple of pints there and enjoyed my meal, not just because I was partly starving, and the staff were all friendly and welcoming.
I woke up feeling slightly more human, starting the day slowly, enjoying the full offer of having my hotel room until 10:00. The plan of the day was an easy 12-24km to Sandwood Bay or to Strathchailleach Bothy, so I was in no rush to start walking. After a big breakfast, another shower and putting on clean, dry clothes, I finished packing and started by leaving the A838 and turning left on to the B801 towards Kinlochbervie where the Cape Wrath Trail leads to Sandwood Bay. The walk follows the road to the London Stores in Badcall where you can go on a non existent trail around Beinn a Chraisg and Sandwood Loch, or stay on the road to Kilochbervie, turning north before the port on the road to Blairmore and Oldshoremore. I picked the road, enjoying the wind, the views on the loch and the insights into life in the Highlands.
As you leave Kinlochbervie the road becomes smaller and the views wilder, with the ocean peeking in between the hills. In Blairmore I left the road at the parking spot and took the 4×4 road that is clearly marked to Sandwood Bay. The Cape Wrath Trail stays clear and the weather was nice – windy, cold and sunny, the perfect combo for being active. The area is vast and bleak and when you get the first view of Sandwood Bay – it is amazingly wild and gives a feeling of being at the end of the world. I decided not to camp in the bay due to the winds, the coming rain and my new found love of bothies; despite the fact that the guide by Ian Harper defines camping as a rite of passage for walkers of the Cape Wrath Trail. Instead I decided to enjoy a long break on the beach, taking in the waves, the salty wind and the towering cliffs.
The walk to Strathchailleach bothy has no trail but navigation is very simple: head to the northern part of the beach, cross the spill from the Loch and climb up the little cliff ridge heading north east. Find the 3 peaks at 125m, 172, and 217m high, all easily identifiable and head to the pass between the two lower peaks, roughly to the east. Walk around the Lochan and head east to Strath Chaillach, from there you will see the bothy easily.
Strathchailleach is not the greatest bothy I have ever seen, as tends to happen with such remote bothies with no trail or road that leads to them. It used to be the residence of a hermit who lived there for 35 years, and the evidence is there. One room is the “common room” with some chairs and a fire place. A small second room is attached to the common room and seems to have been used as a kitchen. The second big room is a sleeping room with a sleeping platform. I tried to light a fire using peat, but it was too damp and I was unsuccessful. I choose to place my self in the sleeping room, and even found some boots in my sizes to use as camp shoes! After 3-4 hours in the bothy I had a couple from Reading who were hiking in the area join me, and we had a nice social evening together before all of us just fell asleep, exhausted.
The bothy was very cold and I woke up early ready to finish the Cape Wrath Trail. After trying my best to pack up quietly so to not wake up my bothy mates (I wasn’t that successful), I said my goodbyes and headed north to Cape Wrath and the end of my adventure. Since this area has no trails, it requires some navigation, but it is an easy one: crossing Strath Chaillach (the river) right outside the bothy (to the east) and then keeping a northern bearing until crossing a small stream that feeds Strath Chaillach. After the stream, contour the cnoc to the east (Cnoc na h-Uidhe) and head north to Keisgeig River. Past the crossing, head to the fence that marks the MOD training zone just north to the river and cross it, making sure there are no red flags indicating the training zone is in use. Past the fence head north-north east to the saddle, and past the saddle you can pretty much see the cape.
The descent from the saddle was nice and easy and the day was clearing, but winds were starting to pick up from the west, sending a few very cold gales. From the saddle it is an uncomfortable slosh through a bog until reaching the 4×4 road that connects Cape Wrath to the Kyle of Durness. When I met the road I just took a left turn (west) and followed ot all the way to Cape Wrath. At this point the drizzle was back, making the walk a little ominous in the bleak landscape. After rounding Dunan Mor I finally saw the lighthouse that is situated on the cliff, and even got a break in the rain to really enjoy the view and the situation. The rest of the walk was easy and I reached a pretty deserted Cape Wrath. The place is very exposed, windy and looks a little tired from the constant battle with the elements. I had a walk around the area, peering (carefully!) over the cliffs and marveling at the endless ocean around me. After I walked around I found refuge from the elements next to the cafe entrance That was at 9:45, and I learned that the cafe opens at 10:00. I waited while exploring the place a little more and reading the information signs. The place as a whole is a little anti-climatic in my opinion, but it was dramatic enough to mark the end of my trip: 250 miles (minus 20 miles of hitchhiking) in 11 days, or just over 237 hours.
After the cafe opened I enjoyed a coffee and a cake, learning that the minibus and ferry were doing a special, earlier, one-off trip from Durness to Cape Wrath and back that day, arriving to the cafe at 10:20, leaving at 10:30. You can learn more about that journey in part one of this trip report under the logistical issues. Once I reached the ferry, Durness was still a walk away, but I managed to catch a ride with my fellow Cape Wrath escapees. I got to the Spar store in Durness at 12:00, got some much needed provisions (cheese, meat, crisps and beer), went to the camp site (100 meters down the road) and pitched my tent.
The rest of the afternoon consisted of rest, talking to my family and eating, lots of eating – from my new provisions, to some of the food I had from the trip, to a dinner in the local pub. The Durness camp site is very windy and exposed, so there is not much to do around there, especially with a tired, fatigued body, inflamed knees and ankles and very injured feet. And that last night marked the end of my journey. In the morning I packed up, headed out and made my way to Inverness, where I was reunited with my family and started the process of recovering and absorbing the whole incredibe experience.
The conditions I had to deal with and why bothies are the best
I’ walked the Cape Warth Trail from the 16th of May 2015 until the 26th of May, and according to many locals and the various weather sites, the weather was roughly 2-3°c lower compared to the average. That May also ended up being wetter than previous Mays, resulting in some very wet days, waterways in a swell and bogs being more saturated than the usual. In comparison, May 2014 was 2-3°c warmer than the average (which is 15°c high to 8°c low) and sunny, with barely any rain. I packed a pair of shorts for this trip but they were not used except for a couple of times when going for dinner in my tights!
Since the weather was so grim and the land so saturated, camping was a real challenge, both on the comfort front and the land limitation front. The limited camping meant either relying on paid accommodation or on bothies; I chose bothies, over and over again. But first, let me explain what bothies are: bothies are an emergency shelter that can be found in Scotland and Wales and are free to use when space is available. Bothies are maintained by the MBA (Mountain Bothies Association) and are owned by the estate that the bothy is situated at; the estates kindly allow the MBA to keep the bothies open to the public.
Bothies are very basic structures and as such offer no amenities at all but a concrete floor, 4 walls, a door and a roof. On the other hand, some bothies are more regularly maintained or are more easily accessible for maintenance and offer an excellent range of “spoils”: sleeping platforms, wooded floors, fire places, dry wood, etc. The MBA is a volunteer-based organization that receives no funding and collects no money for the use of the bothies, so it relies of donations and membership fees to exist. I personally donated and became a member the moment I was back to show my gratitude for this great organization and the wonderful work they do. If you plan on going to Scotland and might be using bothies, please support the MBA for their efforts. I spent 7 nights out of 11 in this trip in bothies, I had several lunch stops in bothies on the way to escape the rain and wind, and I was extremely happy to find them along the way. Every bothy I saw and went into felt like a true refuge from the harsh elements that the Scottish Highland had been throwing at me.
Another small point is that bothies do have a basic code of behaviour that should be followed. Don’t assume you can use a bothy as they can get full very fast, so having a tent as an alternative is a must. The most important thing about bothies is to think about fellow walkers: keep it clean and tidy, try and leave wood to dry inside even if you haven’t had any when you got there as it will make the person coming after you very happy.
Gear – the good, the bad and the dead
I’ve talked and explained much about the gear I took on this trip. Much of it was in the ultralight category, bringing my bag’s dry weight (without food or water) to just under 10kg (22lbs). As far as the gear itself goes, I was very happy with the vast majority of it. I used my gear, abused it and enjoyed it, and as with all great challenges, some items were extraordinary, some were extremely bad, some didn’t survive, some wasn’t needed and some was just missing. So let see what fell under those groups:
Mountain Equipment Ibex Pants – I have had the Ibex for about 3-4 years now, and they are now my go to trousers for any outdoors activity that is not in scorching heat – they are robust, stretchy, lightly wind resistant and fit me perfectly. I find that with light rain, the rain sheds easily, and when the rain is strong and they get soaked, they dry in no time. Looking at Cadha Buidhe ridge on a sunny morning. Under Armour Original 9″Boxer Briefs – I have been using these for years, but on this trip I only had what I was wearing and another set. I washed them with soap several times, left them to dry during the night, finding them damp and getting them to dry on me in no time. I also had no chaffing or any crotch irritation (not a pretty topic but vital in these adventures!). Mountain Hardware Quasar Anorak – I got this waterproof hooded top a few years ago as the fabric is supposed to be very breathable, but it was only here that I finally had the chance to fully try it. The weather kept on changing from sunny and windy to wet in no time, so I ended up walking in it all day long without feeling uncomfortable or sweaty.
In extremely bad, I have only one thing to mention: my footwear – Inov-8 Trailroc 235. I have been using these shoes for a year now, getting used to them for longer and longer trips. The Trailrocs are a zero drop minimalist trail running shoe and I was sure I was ready for hike a thru hike with them but I was wrong.
First, they started to fall a part before I even left, and by day 2 of the Cape Wrath Trail I had my little toe on my left foot outside of the shoe. Having a hole in the shoe created rubbing and blisters on the smaller toes on my left foot. Second, the shoes were not wide enough for a whole day on my feet, especially with the Sealskinz waterproof socks, so I had blisters starting on most toes and the fore foot. I eventually took the insoles out from the shoes and managed to get some space, but then some of those blisters popped and became infected due to the constant humidity from being soaked in the bogs. Lastly, the shoes didn’t offer enough support or protection for my feet. The terrain on the Cape Wrath Trail was harsh – rocky, boggy, slippery, wet and many miles on pressed paths. My feet didn’t have any protection from any of it. I needed more cushioning and some ankle support to help with carrying 15kg on my back for 10-15 hours a day, everyday.
I will replace my Trailrocs with another pair as I find that they are excellent mixed terrain running shoes, but I am back in search for zero drop hiking boots that will be wide and minimalist enough – any ideas anyone? Drop a note if you know of any.
Unsurprisingly, I had quite a few things that didn’t make it through the trip, some from the abuse, some from old age, some from unknown failure and some because I stupidly forgot it – here is the list: Backpack: Elemental Horizon Kalais – probably the biggest surprise for me as it has broken seams on the contact point of the shoulder straps. The pack was great throughout the trip, even with the broken seams, and I wouldn’t have noticed it if it wasn’t for getting gear wet in the bag (it is meant to be waterproof). I’m a little disappointed that it happened as it is a bespoke back that costs a fair bit, but I will be in touch with the manufacturer. Shoes: Inov-8 Trailroc 235 – old age and many miles of abuse managed to ruin the shoes. I still have them in the house and Mika keeps reminding me to bin them, but I am attached to them. The mesh is broken in many places and the soles are wearing out, but they are great shoes. One walking pole: Leki Trekker – those are very old by now, about 7-8 years, and I have taken them on every single trip I’ve done since buying them. Those poles saved me on many occasions, especially on the Cape Wrath Trail: stopping dangerous slides, breaking falls, preventing me from sinking into deep bogs and helping on river crossings. I am sad to see them go but it is time for a new pair. eReader: Kindle Gen 1 – for some unknown reason, when camping in Kinloch Hourn the screen just froze and never got back to itself. The lack of reading material was very frustrating, but I learned I can use my phone as an eReader for the time being until I get a new Kindle. Dry bag: 8L Sea to Summit bag – stupidly I forgot to hang my food bag on a beam in one of the bothies and mice got to it, making a hole in the bag.
First aid kit: self made – this trip I really used my first aid; from cleaning wounds to feet treatment and emptying the pain killers arsenal. Time to make a new kit and restock it. The gear that didn’t survive the Cape Wrath Trail
Sealskinz Socks -I took the Sealskinz waterproof socks to try and protect my feet from the constant humidity and cold, but at the end it wasn’t as cold and it was much wetter than I was expecting. On day 3 I just gave up on those and my feet finally stopped deteriorating into more and more blisters. Waterproof trousers – I packed my Mountain Equipment Firelite trousers (Gore-Tex Active) but I only used them once, and that wasn’t really needed either. Since I chose the “wet feet” method, I found that there wasn’t much of a need to protect my legs all that much, as when my trousers did get soaked, they dried in no time. Between the 2 items, I could have shaved almost 400g (out of 9700g), so a pretty significant weight save.
Here are a few things that I was most definitely missing; there were other small things, but those were the items I repeatedly missed: Camp shoes – The debate about camp shoes in the ultra lightweight gear world is long and on the verge of violent, and for many years I didn’t believe in them. During this trip, I missed a pair of camp shoes every single night, especially in bothies. It was so bad that on night 6, when spending the night in Shenavall I decided not to go relieve my bladder before going to bed, which led to a very uncomfortable night. In the future, if I go for more than one night, I will be carrying a second pair of shoes, especially as there are some really light options out there. Compeeds (lots) – I had just a couple when I set off to walk the Cape Wrath Trail, and by the time I finished the trail I had gone through 2 packages. I think the main problem is that I haven’t used them early enough and I haven’t had enough to replace the ones I had that kept on falling off due to the wetness of my shoes, socks and feet. Towel – This is a small comfort item that I easily was able to replace using one of my shirts, but I had a few showers, mainly in camp sites, in which a small, quick-drying towel would have been welcome. A towel would also have been useful when I gave my feet a cooling and a wash in a few streams along the way.
Total expenses for the trip
My total expenses for the whole trip including travel were £400 (and 18 pence), roughly $640 USD. So what did I spend money on:
My biggest expense here, but by booking in advance it was less bad than realising the need to travel last minute: Night train from London to Inverness (I planned on going north to south at the beginning) – £79.50 Bus from Inverness to Fort William – £11.60 Ferry from Fort William to Camusnagaul – £1.50 Minibus from Cape Wrath to the ferry – £6 Ferry across the Kyle of Durness – £4.50 Bus from Durness to Lairg- £8.10 Train from Lairg to Inverness – £16.70 Bus from Inverness to the airport – £4 Flight from Inverness to London – £103 Total travel: £234.90
Accommodation and meals
My second biggest expense despite spending most nights in bothies (which are free): Donation at Corryhully bothy – £1 Camping site at Kinlochewe – £9.8 Hotel at Richonich – £50 Camping site at Durness – £7
With accommodation I usually dined in the local places: Dinner at the Rhiconich Hotel – £20 Dinner at Durness – £16 Coffees/sandwiches/cakes along the way – £29.25
I also got supplies in a couple of places (Kinlochewe and Durness), plus I had to buy more Compeeds, batteries, a whistle and other small bits. All those other expenses ended up being just over £30. For an 11 day trip in another country, £400 is not bad. It is important to remember that this doesn’t include my packed food that ended up costing a couple of hundred pounds.
Final thoughts about the trail and its future
The Cape Wrath Trail is one of the hardest trails I have met, but it was walking it in a fast and aggressive way that really took it to a whole new level, making it the hardest thing I have ever done in my life; second only to the first three months of my daughter’s life (which are, by all definitions, the hardest thing on the planet). On the other hand, despite all the hardships and challenges I had a long the way, the Cape Wrath Trail was an amazing experience that took me back to days of wild roaming and immersion into nature. I had time to reflect, think, meditate and clear my mind – all at the same time, which is what a thru-hike should provide. I would recommend anyone that trust their ability, skills and gear to try a trail of this magnitude and enjoy the elation that is part of finishing it. In retrospect I would have done thing slightly differently, but I would definitely do it again. who knows, I might get another chance to enjoy the Cape Wrath Trail. At the moment, the trail continues to be relatively unknown, walked by a few dozen each year (I don’t have exact numbers). The first thing that goes against the Cape Wrath Trail is that it is not an official long distance trail in the UK, and so doesn’t get funding and support as other national trails do. At the moment it is not even an actual trail as you need to navigate to find your way in some parts. The third thing that goes against the Cape Wrath Trail is its remoteness, making it very hard to become popular enough to support a well maintained trail, or even to justify marking it.
The combination of the above reasons are what makes the Cape Wrath Trail one of the very few truly wild trails in the UK, offering a unique and amazing challenge. For that reason alone it is worth walking it, either in the traditional pace or my more “challenging” pace. In the next few years I think that the Cape Wrath Trail will see a growing interest and investment, maybe taking away some of it wildness. The first step can be seen in the up coming ultra mountain race planned for the end of May 2016, bringing some increase of users and support systems to the trail. I’m not sure how the presence of the race will effect walkers, but I have a feeling that being on the trail at that time next year will mean a much less quiet time with much less solitude. The race is planned to take 8 days (only a couple of days fewer than me, not that quick…) and will follow the same route I’ve done. If you are interested in taking part, check their site; and no, I will not be taking place no matter how many times I’m asked about it….
What is next for me
As for me, I’ve learned from this trip that I can’t be away from my family for so long – 12 days was too much for me and I think I will be limiting my long trips to up to 5 days. I do hope to continue this great tradition of going on a 5 day trip or two every year, aiming to do more and more things that push my limits. My plan is to slowly recover and go back to running, plan a few more weekends for this year and take my family camping to show my daughter the joy of being fully immersed outdoors. I’m already starting to plan my next longer adventure (my father in law said that I’m like an addict, looking for my next fix, but he is the same!), thinking about maybe trying a winter climb in the Atlas, or maybe start trying to do Shvil Israel, now that it is gaining more interest. There are also other trails In the UK that I want to walk, like the Skye traverse. Alas, it is time to just rest for now and enjoy recovery and home.
Until the next adventure!
Going on your own CWT adventure? Press the image to get the ultimate planning guide