DAY 8 Thursday 13th May
Braes of Ullapool to Loch a Chroisg
Walked from 10.00 to 18.10hrs
Distance 22K Climbed 618m Camped at NC 230 025
Breakfast was at 0830 hrs so I got out of bed about 07.30 only to find the view across Loch Broom virtually obscured by very low cloud, my suspicions regarding the weather had been well founded. All my washing had dried over night so I would start again with all clean clothes. I small talked over breakfast with the other B&B guests, a young couple on a touring and walking holiday reminded me of Ali and I, 28 years ago, when we had a wonderful two weeks hostelling and camping on the Isle of Skye and in Wester Ross.
After an adequate rather than gargantuan breakfast I set off in a thin Scottish drizzle on the 2kms walk to town. The clouds were lifting a bit and by the time I reached Ullapool the hills on the west side of Loch Broom were more or less clear, which indicated a cloud base of about 500m.
I found the little Post Office and queued with the local stamp buyers and pension collectors to retrieve my parcel. For the next 20 minutes or so I received some strange looks as I spread the contents of rucksack and supplies parcel out on a nearby seat. After sorting, I repacked the parcel with the hard rations that I had decided to return as ‘surplus to requirements’. Ironically from that day my appetite for the dried foods went up very considerably, to the point where for the last 2 days I was eeking out my dwindling rations. When I returned home I received a severe reprimand from mission control for this cavalier dismissal of so much of my rations.
I phoned Ali and with a promise of phoning again later in the day from Strath Kannaird I turned my thoughts to the next most important problem – that of locating a ham and mayo baguette, but I searched in vain, there was no sign of a bakers, and by the time I thought I should ask someone, the streets were deserted, I trudged disconsolate and baguette-less out of town. At least the fine rain had relented and by the time I had crossed the Ullapool River on the edge of town I could almost convince myself that it was getting brighter.
Six days later travelling on the Tim Bearman coach from Durness to Inverness, we stopped for a 40 minute break in Ullapool and going into the Costcutter store (almost opposite the Post Office!) I found they had an excellent bakery section selling all sorts of mouth watering fresh made rolls – including ham and mayo baguettes! I had not bothered to investigate this emporium on my first visit as its name just conjured up visions of own brand washing powder and cheap sliced white bread.
I walked out of town on the A 835 fully expecting to be on the path – SRWS Route 313 – within minutes. The path is shown as leaving the road 500mts west of the river, however having crossed the river there is a large waste disposal complex extending some way up the valley, bounded by a high forbidding wire fence. Then just after a stretch of dense gorse bushes, there is what appears to be a track leading to some sort of small holding, but this is about 200 or 300mtrs further on to what is shown on the OS map. I retraced my steps thinking I had missed the path, but eventually decided that the track must be the only option, I left the road and for some time was not at all confident, because there were fences in all directions, the fence to the waste site on my right and deer fences going up the hills in front and to my left
I kept on contouring around above the waste site, until I really thought I was going into a ‘blind alley’ when all of a sudden a small gate appeared and in a further 500m. another gate lead me on to the open hillside, presumably now back on the original path, which I was pretty sure used to go through what is now the waste site.
The next 3km were over fairly bleak heather covered hillsides, but there were decent views back over Loch Broom. The weather had taken a definite turn for the better since leaving the road, there was very little wind, and the clouds were breaking up to reveal a filtered sun overhead and thick haze all around, similar to the previous afternoon. The light was such that distant views were limited and colours seemed to merge together.
The path climbs steadily to about 200mtrs under Beinn Glubhais, NH 135 965 before going over the shoulder and leaving the southern views behind, I stopped and sat in the sultry midday warmth, looking back towards Ullapool over the wooded hillsides below. The rather mournful monotonic whistle of the golden plover gave a welcome confirmation that there is animal life in these hills, for over the last week I had gone for long periods without seeing or hearing anything of feathery or furry persuasion.
Photo 51: Lunar rockscape – Loch Dubh.
Having dropped down north-east of Beinn Glubhais I soon picked up a good track that comes from the A 835 up to Loch Dubh Beag. Another 1.5kms further on, at the water’s side there was no sign of track or path continuing around to the other lochs. This small loch is linked to Loch na Maoile and Loch Beinn Deirg to provide the motive power for a little generating station in Strath Kannaird. Someone down below must have left the electric fire on all night, because the water level was quite low, revealing beige coloured slabs of rock between the water and the heathery fringe. I initially thought the going would be fairly easy, but was soon to be disappointed. Sudden changes in the layering of the rock, which I fancy had been caused more by dynamite and JCB, rather than geological faults, meant that I had to resort to stumbling through peat and heather above the ‘high water mark’.
At the north end of the loch was a solitary fisherman, but my path through the heather took me about 50m away from him – too far for a nodded greeting and an “I hope you get a big one!” Just beyond, by the little dam and feed channel down into Loch Beinn Deirg, I sat down for some well earned refreshment. It should have been at this time that I sink my teeth into that succulent ham and mayo baguette. Instead it was tasty dried fruit and healthy nuts, plus a big treat – a cashew and macadamia nut bar. I realised that I was still fretting about my inability to have procured that doughy delight, I nearly consigned the nutty confection to the undergrowth after one mouthful so lacking in appeal was it. I cannot understand how the manufacturers of this snacky treat could have taken such wholesome ingredients and turned them into something so totally lacking in taste and sensory appeal.
Within a few minutes of resuming, after my feast break I was on the track around Loch Beinn Deirg and all of a sudden, views opened out to the north. Although I had never been this far north, Little Loch Broom and Dundonnell had been the northerly limit of our trip in 1976, I knew from both looking at maps and also from conversations with friends that the terrain changes as one moves into Assynt and above. This several hundred metres of track illustrated that change so clearly. Gone were the big mountains and ridges separated by great glens, sometimes wide and forbidding, sometimes narrow and secret. Gone were the long deep lochs, gone were the vast tracts of high mountain moorland. Ahead lay the wide open spaces of Assynt, with lonely mountains, standing proudly separate from the low hills and boggy moorland, and WATER everywhere, fractured watery expanses and countless lochans of all shapes and sizes, too numerous for many of them to be granted the honour of a name.
The weather was slowly improving and in spite of the haze there were views of Cul Mor and Cul Beag. By the time I was descending on the track down to the A835 and Strath Canaird I could see Ben Mor Coigach in the N.W. then in the hazy distance the chisel ridge of Stac Pollaidh. Further round the impressive massif that is Cul Mor and Cul Beag, and to their right Canisp about 20km away. Suilven the near neighbour of Canisp was resolutely hidden behind Cul Mor, but it reminded me of the famous line in the ‘Pete and Dud’ sketch, about Vernon Ward’s duck paintings, when in response to Pete’s observation that you could only ever see one eye because the ducks always flew sideways, Dud responded that even so you had the strong feeling that the other eye was straining to look at you round the beak!
Photo 52: Loch Beinn Deirg Cul Mor and Cul Beag
The little settlement of Strath Canaird looked so attractive in the soft afternoon sunshine. A cluster of cottages and houses sprinkled along the top edge of an area of green pasture, such a contrast to the wintry brown and beige overcoat the surrounding hills and moors were still wearing. I could see the ‘phone box, from which I hoped to call Ali in a short while, by the junction with the track up the River Canaird NC 150 023. Several cars whooshed by as I trudged up the road to the telephone box, apart from the fisherman I had neither met nor spoken with anyone since leaving Ullapool and the effect of what was now eight days of walking with so little contact with people left me with a rather curious sense of detachment, so that even the occupants of cars did not really register as ‘human contact’.
It was good talking to Ali again even though it was only a few hours since the quick call from Ullapool. She was her normal chatty self and told me of the heatwave that Devon together with most of the U.K. was experiencing. She bemoaned the lack of cash rich visitors coming into the shop. While talking I inadvertently knocked a pound coin off the ledge in the ‘phone box, it fell down on to the floor and thence into the grass (it is one of the new design box with a gap at the base of the side panels!). We said our goodbyes, knowing it would be a couple of days before we spoke again and I then looked for my misplaced coin. A few minutes later I sat down on the nearby verge to take a drink and chocolate and also to ponder on the ease with which a pound coin can disappear off the face of the Earth.
I contemplated the next phase of the walk which once again led into the wilds, crossing the A837 some time the next morning to then head off into the badlands beyond Loch Ailsh, around the eastern flank of Ben More Assynt to later emerge on to the A894 a few kilometres south of Unapool hopefully in about 48 hours time, which would be my next opportunity to report in to H.Q.
Photo 53: Strath Canaird Cul Beag left Cul Mor right in distance
I set off along the track which dropped down away from the main road, past some houses and on up the Strath Canaird towards Langwell Lodge. This is an extremely pleasant walk, with the river down on the right hand side, it was sheltered and very warm in the mid afternoon sunshine. The Landowner must be a keen plants man; the track passed a very well kept plantation of mature trees. I am pretty hopeless in identifying trees but there were clearly many different species, spaced far enough to be able to appreciate their shape and colour. Further up near the Lodge in a sheltered south facing little valley was an enclosed wild garden, full of rhododendron and azaleas in full flower. A real oasis of colour, in an otherwise brown and grey landscape.
After the Lodge the track runs adjacent to the river for 2 kms or so, then leaves the valley and climbs up the hillside through a beallach between Meall a Chuaille and Ruith Chnoc NC195 024 up towards Loch a Chroisg. The view from the high point was spectacular, sunlight reflecting off the river made it appear like an incandescent ribbon below me, further away the lower reaches of the strath, where I had walked two hours earlier, further still, 9 or 10 km away in the sunny haze, sea and sky merged in a silvery uncertainty where the out of focus shape that was Ilse Martin floated ethereally.
Since leaving Fort William I had seen very few deer, those I had come across were extremely timid and quickly moved away with little provocation. In this section of the walk I saw two herds and on both occasions they seemed completely unconcerned by my presence, stopping on higher ground adjacent to the track to scrutinize me before melting into the heathery moorland.
I should have been content, walking in an outstandingly beautiful wild area, warm spring sunshine, wildlife posing in front of me to be seen, I was vaguely troubled though, several things were bothering me. Firstly the weather, I was even more convinced that the change I sensed yesterday was coming. I am no expert, but the build up of thick haze to the west combined with the strong wind, that now I was on higher exposed ground had become much more noticeable, were two indicators I would rather not see. Secondly since Langwell Lodge there were wire fences, stretching up the strath for miles, these were old low fences rather than high deer fences. I was not sure why this unsettled me, except that in an illogical way it tied in with my third worry.
When I was planning the walk I was rather attracted to the option of route 320 of the SRWS. ‘Kylesku to Altnacealagh’ , a 30 km walk which “……….. goes through some very wild and remote country on the east side of the Ben More Assynt range….”. To link this to a route from Ullapool, (the path I had taken so far), left a 10km. stretch beyond Loch a Chroisg NC215 025 going N.E. across wild moorland with no vestige of a path, before striking the A837 just below the track to Benmore Lodge.
I had felt that this section may cause a problem, because it is obviously a very wet area, many streams draining away in different directions, very reminiscent of Dartmoor. So I had suspected the worse regarding underfoot conditions. Within 24 hours I was to rue the fact that I had been using the ‘Crown Copyright 1981’ version of O.S. sheet 15, because the 2002 version would have shown the hazard that was to cause me so much grief the following day, and ironically it was a hazard that had not immediately come to mind in the planning of the walk.
When looking for wild camp sites the ends of lakes often provide good spots, level, very often with grassy area adjacent to the water and obviously, ample fresh water! The western end of Loch a Chroisg broke that particular rule on the first two counts and as I continued along the waterside path I began to see the eastern end of the loch and the nearer I got to it the nagging suspicion grew that there was a double disappointment in store. I stopped at the last decent stream that flows into the loch and filled my 2 litre platypus, very fortuitously as it turned out because I did not find a camp spot till I was well clear of the loch and there was no running water nearby. There was a good level area of grass among the heather, I quickly pitched the tent and then went off in search of more water, eventually finding a trickle in the undergrowth, at least it was enough to fill the washing bowl, so I now had water for drinking, cooking and washing!
Photo 54: Camp Day 8 near Loch a Chroisg
I had pitched camp at about 1800hrs, and due to my treat of B. and B. accommodation the night before I had no washing or drying of clothes to fill my time, so I enjoyed a leisurely meal. It was a fine evening, there was a build up of cumulus along the eastern horizon even though the wind was still from the west. However by sunset, 21.30 that seemed to have gone again but there was now a lot of high stratus cloud. The whole pattern of weather over the last 6-9 hours reminded me of that at the end of day 2, and I recalled with apprehension the weather of day 3! The temperature had now dropped and I was glad to have my mug of horlicks and get to bed. I had walked a pleasing 27km. But it had been a less satisfying day than some, I think because of the doubts that were troubling me.