Completing the Cape Wrath Trail

After a couple of weeks back at work, I have managed to get back to Scotland to try and finish the CW trail (more midges, bog and clag). I am flipping the trail to start at Cape Wrath, as that will make it much easier to sort the logistics of exit (getting to and from Cape wrath is a bit of a mission). So I flew to Inverness and enlisted the services of Rory who has been ferrying me around trail heads in Scotland and he drove me all the way to Keoldale where the ferry goes to the other side of the Kyle of Durness to take the minibus to the lighthouse and cape wrath, I spent the night wild camping in my tent not far from the ferry stop as there were no hotels with any rooms, much to the amusement of Rory who had taxied me the 2hour 40min ride up.

Day 1 Cape Wrath Lighthouse to Kinlochbervie – 25km

I woke up early with cows mooing around my tent and mooched around as the first ferry didn’t go until 9.30. It was a comical arrangement and Andy the driver was hilarious and amused us in the beaten up mini bus on the other side to take hikers a bumpy 11miles along to road to the Cape Wrath lighthouse. Everyone else was on the day tour, so I shouldered my pack and headed out when we arrived at 11.15

After meandering back along the 4wd track for 2km, I took a bearing for the start of the entirely pathless 11km stretch to Sandwood Bay. My navigation is a bit ropey, but I did ok today as the day was clear. When there is no path you don’t really worry about getting lost……as you know there is no path to follow. It was quite boggy and windy but at least the sky was clear apart from the odd 10 minutes of rain (always just enough rain so I put my poncho on but the rain stops 5mins later)

The Keisgaig river required a bit of bank scrambling but soon after that I was climbing the fence out of the MOd test firing zone that started at cape wrath (don’t worry, no live firing that day).

The Lochans before and the Loch a Gheodha Ruiadh were really lovely but I pushed on to the wonderful Sandwood bay before I stopped for tea at 3.30 pm after a few wrong turns.

The tea was restorative and I banged out the next 12 in 2hours and 20 mins, first on the well established 6km trail to the road end at Blairmore (annoying lots of young kids day hiking who I kept overtaking in spite of my huge pack) and then the 6km into Kinlochbervie where I had managed to secure a room at the inn – shower, wine and steak for me. Already after one day I am feeling utterly zen, must be the effects of leaving the Wrath behind me

Day 2 Kinlochbervie to Bealach Nam Fiann 28 km

After a solid Scottish breakfast including black pudding I headed out for a 7km road stretch. I (like most hikers) hate road walking as it is brutal on the feet, but I got through the distance in an hour and 15 minutes, heartened by the stunning views down into the harbour and soothed by the dulcet tones of Louis Theroux interviewing Jon Ronson on his podcast. I arrived at Rhiconich at the hotel at 10.20 hoping for a Diet Coke but they were closed 🙁

I headed up the Rhiconich river, which started as a fairly decent path but by the time I reached loch a Garbh it was pretty boggy. The river crossing at Garbh alt put paid to the unexpected delight of the mornings dry feet. After that the path got progressively more entertaining picking through the heather at the side of Loch a Garbh Bhaid Mor so I stopped for tea and a break at the head of the loch

From the head of loch stach there are three options to glendhu – one over Ben dreavie which has no path and is described as gruelling, one taking a road shortcut through Achfary (which I didn’t fancy as it was 8 km of tarmac which is awful, although most people take this one), or a third lesser taken route finding your own path from loch Airigh a Bhaird down past loch Ann Nighe Leathaid down to loch stach. I took the latter and was rewarded with lots of bog (including another thigh deep encounter when I wasn’t paying attention) but stunning views of the lovely Ben Ackle on one side and Ben Stack on the other.

The benefit of this route was that I actually didn’t see a single person from Rhiconich to Achfary, and no hikers all day. My secret joy in hiking is listening to music and singing at the top of my lungs (and I can’t sing in tune) so I had a lovely day bouncing through the uneven bog and heather serenading the frogs.

I passed a lovely camp spot at the foot of the lake at 15.30 and probably should have camped. But I kept going for another 2.5 slow dawdling hours before I found a suitable pitch at the bealach (I don’t need much, just a water source and some flattish ground ). The last couple of hours were blech, on some roads and then up a steep logging track. But I was rewarded with an excellent view from my tent.

Day 3 to Glencoul Bothy 22km

Looking at my maps last night, I realised my planning had been a bit off, so I have two days to get to Inchadamph (where I have a room booked and a resupply parcel) which is about one days of walking. Oh well I would sleep in, walk slowly and enjoy the views. I had a leisurely start with coffee and breakfast in bed (I never get out of my sleeping bag until I am breaking camp). I heard a hiker walking by my tent at 8.30 which shamed me into moving my butt and I was en route by 9.15

It was a lovely and leisurely 10km stroll down to the Glendhu Bothy, with stunning views to Sail Garbh and Sail Gorm. The trail meandered down the Maldie burn and then turned to loop around the glendhu loch. The bothy is at the end of the loch where I stopped for lunch and a hot chocolate

From Glendhu it was another 10km to Glencoul bothy skirting around the top of the Beinn ard de loch. The hills are covered with pink flowers and ferns and the views were spectacular.

I stopped at Glencoul around 3.30 to have some soup and contemplate where to stay the night. I am not a fan of sleeping in bothies – too many mice, you never know who might show up, and there are increasing challenges with hikers not sorting out their waste (buy a titanium shovel). After I ate I was still quite chilly and then the sun came out so I ventured outside to lie in the sun and while away the afternoon reading a book.

By 18.30 no one had come and it was still glorious so I pitched my tent by the loch. It was an excellent lazy day, and in a Scottish miracle I have dry feet, dry clothes, dry shoes, and dry gear. I haven’t seen a soul all day, literally noone but the feet of the person going past my tent 12 hours ago. Life is bliss

Day 4 to Inchnadamph Lodge c14km

As I often do when hiking, I misjudged my day. I had decided it would be an easy day as I reckoned I had about 10km to go to inchnadamph. The weather was clear and I didn’t want to arrive in inchnadamph too early or I wouldn’t be able to get into my cabin. So I lazed about until 9.30 assuming I had about 4 hours of walking max, and the weather was forecast to be dry. So it took more like 5.5 hours and was a largely pathless or rocky 14km, and it pissed down with rain for most of it, and my nav was terrible. None of this is a problem, but note to self it is always easier to think you have a big day ahead and have it turn out easier than the other way around

However, the views were stunning. First the trail followed the shore of Loch Beag and then up the river Abhainn an Loch Bhig past the Chual Aluinn waterfall. After fording the river about 2km, it was a straight climb with no path up an unnamed stream to intersect a foot path than wound round the contours of the night Beinn Uidhe which was shrouded in mist. Coming down the other side were some lovely lakes and a nice hill path that eventually dropped into Inchnadamph. The scenery was lovely even in the rain. I didn’t pass any hikers today either (the solitude is wonderful).

In true hiker fashion, I was very excited about a hot shower and being able to wash my socks, but I was more excited about the shop at the inchnadamph lodge where I was staying. I had been dreaming of Coke and cheese and onion chips. Alas, it was not to be, they haven’t opened the shop since Covid. Oh well, just as well my resupply package was there, though I am not over the moon about another real Turmat, I am now clean and drinking copious cups of tea and figuring out when I might get cheese and onion crisps (best guess – Ullapool in 65km)

Day 5 onward to Oykel Bridge – 37 km

I woke up to the sound of rain on the roof and prepared myself for a fun day. I had breakfast, shouldered my (now very heavy resupplied) pack and headed up the Gleann Dubh river. The first few km were lovely, rainy but a nice clear trail. The trail eventually petered out and then it was a game of navigating in the direction of the bealach (pass) which was a notch in the horizon under the watchful eye of Conival. After an initially pathless bog, I found a faint trail. The gpx track indicated I was off course for most of the way, but I stuck with the faint trail and it eventually led me safely to the pass (at a lower contour) without having to traverse the scree.

The pass and the route following was a couple of kms of solid bog. It was so boggy that most of my footsteps were disturbing frogs and every pace meant a frog jumped which made me feel mildly guilty for ruining the frogs zen. I slipped my way down the slope to ford the source of the oykel river and then climbed up a bit to find a faint path skirting the lower contours of Carn Nan Conbhairean and steadily following the river south for about 6km

It was odd to pop out at civilisation at Benmore lodge – a cluster of well kept houses and city 4wds. Unfortunately this meant the 2.5 stretch along Lake Ailsh was on tarmac which was punishing on my feet.

At the end of the lake I chose the longer route following the river along the fishing spots rather than the 4wd track through the recently logged forest. I didn’t see many fisher folk but the path had obviously been maintained for them.

The last 8k was a bit never ending, I had forgotten to fill my water bottle higher in the hills and the streams marked on the map were dry and the sun had come out. So around 4pm, having not had a drink for three hours I had a mild sense of humour failure. I gave myself a solid talking to and remembered that there was a pub with takeout at oykel and kept walking.

I arrived at oykel at 5pm, just in time for the bar to open, and I had three pints of cider to rehydrate and a burger – the first food since breakfast four days ago not to come out of my pack. Pure bliss

I had planned to camp quite close to the hotel on the trail out of town so loaded up with 2.5 litres of water and headed out. Unfortunately there were no nice spots at all (just lumpy mossy forest), so I ended up getting another 6km in to schoolhouse Bothy with a very heavy pack. The midges were out in force by the time I arrived at 8pm so I headed inside and there was only one other occupant. The Bothy was quite clean and there was a separate room with one bed so I decided to stay inside and keep the tent dry. An hour of gossip about vaccines and mushroom jerky and I went to bed in what was probably the teachers office in the old schoolhouse and was now a bed for one.

Day 6 – to Ullapool 26km

I didn’t sleep very well and couldn’t really stomach breakfast (it was a posh bean rehydrated meal and it was not good). So I drank my coffee and headed out around 8.30. I meandered the first 7k, on what I am going to call ‘cow shit track’ – the trail was on a 4×4 track but there was an unbelievable amount of cow shit. And ironically, no cows in sight.

I was hungry by the time I got to Knockdamph Bothy so I tried another breakfast – this time pasta – and I went down much better. So after a leisurely hour break, I strolled on above loch an Daimh

I came over the hill and started the walk down the Rhidorroch river towards Loch Achall. It was a slog. Pretty but not stunning, and on a hard gravelly 4wd track. I stopped a couple of times for 15 minutes to air out my battered feet. I have a spectacularly bad set of blisters on my left foot and a pretty bad set on the right foot. Ouch

And then my headphones stopped working, so distracting myself with music didn’t help, so I spent the time working out what I could jettison from my pack in Ullapool that I wouldn’t need for the final 2-3 days (I mentally estimated a good 2kg including half my resupply package which I couldn’t face eating). Not my prettiest day on the trail.

I limped into Ullapool around 3.30 cursing the asphalt. Ullapool is a heaving mass of tourists and I had been warned by my Bothy mate that the queue for fish and chips was an hour long at dinner time, so I went for a late lunch. Then I had the most wonderful shower at a lovely b&b (waterside house) and lay down with my feet in the air. All my blister remedies have failed on the two worst offenders so suspect I will be limping tomorrow

Day 7 – to Loch Nid – 26 km

I have a couple of days to wander over to Kinlochewe. The weather forecast is terrible for most of Scotland, but it looks like we will escape the worst of the thunderstorms up here.

Most of the morning was a rainy blur. However my spirits were intact as I had had an excellent Scottish breakfast and had managed to replace my headphones. I had also mostly managed to sort my blisters out. The rain was ploppy rather than driving rain and so while it was misty and wet, I wasn’t cold. My pack was also feeling better. I sent home 1.8kg from Ullapool this morning, but has added the weight back in ham and cheese rolls, chocolate and crisps.

I arrived in shenavall in time for a late lunch and a gossip with a lovely young English crofter from the Isle of Lewis. It rained steadily so I had a few cups of tea and waited for the rain to pass

The sun came out and I set off. I had been musing that morning that I hadn’t injured myself yet…… and that must have tempted fate as I rolled my ankle badly about 100m from the Bothy on a totally flat path Oh well. I hobbled the next 10km up a lovely river enjoying the sun that peeped out from time to time

The winds had been forecast for 40km, so I was looking for a sheltered pitch site near loch an nid. Alas, no shelter to be found. I pitched my tent on an exposed site on the loch shore but didn’t properly unpack inside the tent as I figured I would wait to see how the winds evolved. I checked the forecast on the garmin and it did say the winds would go down later in the evening, and the path was only going higher up the mountain so I stayed put. By this time my ankle was well and truly swollen, so It would be fun trying to hobble the final 20km tomorrow and I definitely didn’t feel like moving this evening

My decision was vindicated an hour later when the winds dropped and the heavens opened. It’s still quite warm so sat in the tent with the storm doors open watching the rain and taking inventory of my sore spots. I am covered in midge bites including on my butt (they get you when you stop to pee) and also on my head (they bite through hair). I have numerous swollen clegg/horse fly bites. My feet are a mess and my left foot has two infected blisters. I have lost both my little toe nails. And my right ankle is approaching the size of a tennis ball. And I am still pretty happy to be here, and have really loved the remoteness of the trail, though some sections were better than others (the knoydart and the Kylescu to inchnadamph in particular).

A quiet dinner mostly consisting of chocolate and a windy night

Day 8 – hobble to Kinlochewe – 20km

Ok, so I woke up with an ankle the size of a tennis ball! Hmmmm. Not really much you can do about it as I am hardly going to call mountain rescue with a sprained ankle.

My foot could bear a bit of weight without pain but it was hell when I landed on something uneven. Just as well the first 7km of the trail was pretty much pathless and uneven :-). Oh well nothing to do but just start walking. I made slow progress up to the Bealach na Croise, taking care with each step (thanks goodness for hiking poles) and I stopped for a restorative hot chocolate.

From there it was a steep descent to the stunning Lochan Fada which is surrounded by breathtaking Munro’s. There were a few tents on the foreshore but no signs of life. I was doing such a good job favouring my right ankle that I tripped over my left foot and skinned my knee.

From there the path improved in a slow hobble down the Gleann na Muice where I stopped for lunch and a chat with Matt by the river. Fortunately after that it was a flat 6km into town where I am now sitting with ice on my foot and a pint of cider at the Kinlochewe hotel. It took me 5.5 hours to hobble 20km 🙁

So that’s it – trail done. Yes it was hard compared to other Uk trails (which are way marked and have paths), but was much much nicer than the average uk long distance trail. It also wasn’t tougher than Swedish Lapland or lots of NZ (where we get good training on river crossings and route finding). Would highly recommend for the scenery and solitude

Kinlochewe, August 7, 2021 (note – written on phone in tent during hike – apologies for typos

Additional information

  • More details on the cape wrath ferry here
  • If you need an excellent driver in the highlands – call Rory on 07525 234 471
  • More details on the trail here
  • Link to the first blog and packing list here
  • Check the firing times at the MOD for cape wrath here
  • Favourite vlog was Haze outdoors – hilarious, you can find it on YouTube

Don’t read the next bit if you won’t pee outside

So, I often get asked questions about hiking – is it safe? Is it safe by yourself? Where is the loo? Where do you shower? Do you really only take one change of clothes? What do you eat?

So, some answers

  • yes it’s pretty safe out here, safer than riding a bicycle in London or visiting Kabul. I never worry about other people (pick the right route and you won’t see anyone), and I have a beacon on me with an sos button if something goes wrong (which is most likely to be a fall, not somebody else bothering me)
  • No, there is no loo in the wilderness. For serious business I take a deuce (a 17g titanium trowel) and dig a cat hole and bury the waste and paper. For peeing either carry the paper out in a ziplock bag (too annoying for me), shake and dry (ok on short trips) or use a pee rag (a good idea on longer trips) https://www.pcta.org/discover-the-trail/backcountry-basics/leave-no-trace/pee-rag-hiking-backpacking/. I never leave any trace that I was anywhere and leaving loo paper in the open is vile
  • I shower if I am in a town but often that might only be every 4-5 days. In between I swim in the river if it is warm. I am by myself so I don’t mind being less than sparkling clean
  • One change of clothes is enough – something comfy to sleep in that looks ok if you want to be seen in public (I use icebreaker track pants). Your day hiking clothes will often be wet so you have to keep your spare dry at all times, otherwise you risk hypothermia
  • Food matters, and it weighs a lot. I spend money on buying tasty dehydrated meals as I hate pot noodles and I need protein. I am a fan of real turmat and LYO, both of which you can buy here https://basecampfood.com/collections/lyo-expedition-food. This means you need a reliable boiling water stove – I love my jet boil, but always carry a back up ignition source (I have a fire starter) as the igniter on a jet boil rarely sees out the year. I reckon it is about 600g of food per day, so often another 4-5kg in the pack. I then eat whatever I fancy when I get to a town

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