This 9-10 kms walk along the canal to Gairlochy was a good introduction to the rigours of the next two weeks, an opportunity for the body to get into some sort of rhythm and begin to acclimatise to the unwelcome addition of the pack. In spite of all endeavours to reduce weight the fully loaded pack was about 24kgs. This included 2 litres of water and food for 6 days. This was my first outing with my new rucksack and I quickly began to appreciate its superior design over that of my previous sack.
The views to the east up into the mountains – Ben Nevis and the Grey Corries, are very impressive on a clear day, but on this occasion low cloud meant I had to content myself with looking closer to hand. Nevertheless the hills to the west made a dramatic backdrop to the narrow strip of cultivated land on the other side of the water.
So far, the rain has not been far away and apart from a brighter spell in the early afternoon this pattern carried on all day. Even the rather dull light could do little to diminish the impact of the vast banks of gorse in full flower on the west side of the canal as I neared Gairlochy. I think this year must be a good year for gorse as throughout the whole trip north, I was to come across many wonderful displays.
Photo 2: Caledonian Canal and Hills to the NW
A young red deer had strayed onto the tow path, presumably from the more open section near to Gairlochy. It had been ‘pushed’ south by a group of walkers to a section where there was a wire fence close to the path and me walking north, it doubled back past the group, only then to meet up some time later with two ladies who were also walking south. A repeat situation occurred with myself and the two ladies. As we stood about 100ms apart and close to the edge of the water, in order to make the deer’s escape path as wide as possible. The deer trapped between us repeatedly ran full tilt into the wire fence until in utter panic it ran past me, if only it had gone the other way it would have reached open ground within about 300m.
At Gairlochy I turned left across the canal bridge and right on to the B8005, a quiet little road serving Achnacarry and other isolated dwellings along Loch Arkaig, until it comes to a dead end at Strathan, the portal to Knoydart, some 18kms to the west. For 4kms the road goes through the trees along the bottom end of Loch Lochy, although you cannot see much of the loch. A side road to Achnacarry cuts off a big loop in the B8005 and eventually rejoins it at the eastern tip of Loch Arkaig. My route took me a short way along the loch to Achnasaul, but before I reached there I sat down on the loch shore for a much needed rest and some refreshment.
Photo 3: Looking west to Loch Arkaig from Allt Dubh
As I sat looking out over the loch I recalled that I had walked this last section, from Loch Arkaig to Gairlochy at the end of the second day of my coast to coast walk. On that occasion the squalls that had chased me out of Knoydart had consolidated into heavy rain by the time I reached the point where I was now sitting. Then I still had to walk another 10 kms or so to reach the camp site at Torness, on the Spean Bridge side of Gairlochy.
At least this second time around the weather seemed to be improving and by the time I left the loch side road to pick up the path at Achnasaul NN 152895 the sun was shining and it was doing its utmost to appear like a proper early summers afternoon. The map shows a nice clear path going north up the east side of the Allt Dubh, as usual reality was not quite so simple. Achnasaul is a small farm and the track passed close by the house and outbuildings. I was seduced into staying on a track that the farmer would have used to get to the higher ground above the farm. I soon noted that I was looking straight ahead, at hills that needed to be on my right hand side! I stopped and a quick reference to the map and looking to my left I saw a little bridge over the stream I was following, about 150ms behind me, I retraced my steps and was soon heading in the right direction.
After that brief diversion the walk became very pleasant, a steady climb with gradually opening views west along Loch Arkaig and in the hazy afternoon sunshine, way in the distance, I could see the faint outlines of the Knoydart mountains. After 2 kms the valley narrowed and the only long views were looking south, on either side steep grassy slopes with rocky outcrops. The western flanks of Glas Bheinn, to my right, were particularly dramatic.
By the time I got to the watershed where Glenn Tarsuinn heads east NN 165933, the sun had gone and clouds were gathering. This is a beautiful spot, with fairly level ground and superb all round views. East, Meall an Tagraidh, to the north Meall Coire nan Saobhaidh, north-west Geal Charn, south the valley of the Allt Dubh and to the south-east the steep slopes of Glas Bheinn. From here I headed due north for 1.5kms, climbing 250mts to Bealach Carn na h-Urchaire NN 162946. The weather was deteriorating rapidly, the cloud base dropping and on reaching the beallach, thunder was rumbling around Geal Charn to the south west. Then the rain started in earnest. I walked another 2 km north-west over broken ground, made even more difficult by the heavy rain. I decided that with conditions as they were it was best to find a suitable camp site and get some shelter. The confluence of two streams at NN151965 provided a good flat patch of grass with water supply immediately on hand, I soon had the tent pitched and gear stowed inside, together with a fair amount of water!
Photo 4: Gleann Tarsui
With the rain still hammering down, there was no immediate prospect of a cup of tea or food because my tent did not have a porch suitable for the sheltered, safe use of a stove. So I contented myself with the recovery formula energy drink, stretched out and was soon lulled to sleep by the watery noises from the two streams outside. I awoke about an hour later just before 19.00, the rain had stopped and the weather was improving again. Interestingly the streams had risen about 100mm since I first made camp. The end of the day routine now got under way and I soon was enjoying my well earned evening meal. This time I had brought cous cous to bolster the powdered soup. I soaked about 40 grams in cold water for 15 minutes, then heated it and added the soup powder. The result was delicious and a great improvement of the powdered potato I used on the previous year’s walk. That was followed by the freeze dried ‘Real’ packet meal, which only required the appropriate amount of boiling water to be added, then left for 5 minutes and was ready to eat.
The weather had now cleared and the signs were promising for a good day tomorrow. I had the opportunity to look round and get the lie of the land. To the NW the rounded outline of Glas Bheinn (the other one!) with the forest further on arcing round to the north. Looking back the way I had come, was the impressive view of the beallach with the craggier Meall Coire nan Saobhaidh, to the left and the rounded lump of Geal Charn to the right.
This is a fairly quiet neighbourhood with few signs of human intrusion. The paths shown on the OS maps are pretty indistinct and intermittent. In places the tell-tale twin tracks of the ATV’s can be seen but the terrain here is pretty boggy, with dense heathery grassy carpet which although it may be water-logged and looks treacherous is almost invariably fairly solid and safe to walk on.
Having Dartmoor as my local wilderness, I have developed a healthy respect for bogs. it may not have the crags or exposed rocky ridges of other wilderness areas, but when it comes to impenetrable bogs it wins hands down over any I’ve come across in Scotland. Walking there at any time demands great vigilance and understanding of the terrain and in very wet spells one is constantly forced into detours to get past bogs. The thing that puzzles me is that in Scotland bogs can look almost identical to those on Dartmoor but will only be boot deep at worst, while their Devonian cousins can be crutch deep or worse.
I now retreated to the tent for the last ritual of the day, that is to write up my log and enjoy a few nips of malt whisky from the hip flask – this year Knockando, a good Speyside malt. I was feeling more relaxed, having now got into the walk. I had felt rather apprehensive during all the weeks of planning – many winter evenings spent sitting on the sofa studying maps and books, trying to picture the terrain and decide times and distances.
As I sat there in my tent, thinking through the days walk, I was happy with all aspects. The feet and body reported no problems, all the kit was working well, yet again the Paramo jacket and trousers had withstood the rain, their great feature I think is as long as you keep wearing them they dry out so quickly and remain warm at all times. So I retired to my sleeping bag content that the walk was now on!