Day 11 Sunday 16th May
Unapool to West side of Arkle
Walked from 09.40 to 17.45 hours
Distance 31K, Climbed 945m Camped at NC 286451
The view over Loch Glendhu was a bit depressing when I first looked out, low cloud down to about 250 mts, so Ben Strome and all the higher hills to the east were obscured; the redeeming feature though was a suggestion of brighter skies to the west.
I set off at 09.40 after a very substantial breakfast and the weather had improved since earlier.Patchy sunshine brightened up the sea now and the clouds overhead were lifting, but all the hills maintained close contact with their cloudy hats. My route followed the road to Kylestrome from where I would pick up a path over the hill and past Ben Strome. The new bridge which sweeps majestically across the mouth of the loch leaves the old ferry points of Kylesku and Kylestrome at least a kilometre to the east and does not rejoin the course of the old road until some way up the hill. For the walker this means at least another 2kms but the view from the bridge is worth it. The wind had lessened since the previous afternoon but other than that there were no indications that any great changes had occurred.
Photo 66: Kylesku-Kylestrome Bridge, Quinag in distance
The path I was looking for leaves the old road at NC222 345 and as I approached, walking down through the trees towards the old ferry hotel, I could picture things as they were before the bridge; cars accelerating up the hill having just come off the ferry, at busy times maybe a queue of cars going down the hill waiting their turn and just a general quiet bustle. Now it has become a real backwater. I was not at all sure I had located the path but having left the road and worked my way up following a path of sorts, I soon came to a gate which lead out on to the hillside and it clearly was the route I wanted.
The path climbs steadily going eastwards and the views to the right are stunning, Quinag to the south-west with its huge corrie separating Sail Gharbh from Sail Gorm, the upper reaches still in cloud. From this distance the bridge looked like a spindly branch lying across a stream. The two watery fingers of Loch Glendhu and Loch Glencoul stretching away, reflecting only the steely greyness above them. Ben More Assynt still looked in as grumpy a mood as it had for the last two days, its mantle of cloud set stubbornly at about 750mts.
As the path gradually turns north-eastwards the view below opens up to reveal Loch an Leathiad Bhuan NC275 358 , a large remote loch nestling in the hills 180 mts above Loch Glencoul. It drains into the loch below by means of the Maldie Burn, which must be in line for ‘shortest river in the U.K.’ award, but what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in character. The lower reaches of its 2 kms course are a series of spectacular waterfalls, the lochside path from Kylestrome follows the Maldie Burn, to eventually join the path I was taking and would certainly be a good alternative route.
I had seen several herds of deer since leaving Kylestrome, they all seemed unconcerned by my presence, continuing to do their deer things as if I did not exist. So different to the herds I saw in Strath Cannaird on Thursday which had been only too quick to melt into the heather once they got wind of me.
Somewhere close to Ben Strome, on rounding a small bluff my attention was caught by a movement on the hill to my left about 150m away. For probably two seconds I had a positive sighting that really excited me. When one is out in the wild it is such a bonus to see birds and mammals in their own habitat and positive sightings are always to be treasured, remembered and talked about for years to come. We can all recall that golden eagle in the Cuillins of Skye/ Glencoe/ the Galloway hills or wherever, that gannet diving from 50m above the bay at Lamlash on Arran, etc. etc., all our own positive sightings! Well this time I was 100 per cent sure that I had seen a wildcat —- or was it a fox—– or maybe a really fat hare. Whatever it was it did not have the decency to stay around.
Photo 67: Ben Stack (left) and Arkle from Bealach nam Fiann
The high point on the walk over to Loch More is the Beallach nam Fiann NC270 380, about 7 kms. from Kylestrome. The wind here was considerably stronger than down below and I was glad of the ruined shieling to give some shelter while I eat some of Mary’s packed lunch, For some time I had been anticipating with delight, succulent sandwiches and crisps as a change to dry roasted pumpkin seeds and dried fruit.
I sat looking north towards Ben Stack and Arkle, both were capped with cloud, but every now and then a shaft of sunshine would break through and bring to life the silvery screes of Arkle but each time I was too slow with the camera to capture the moment. Looking back into Assynt the view was very much the same as it had been, dark hills and heavy cloud.
Suitably refreshed I was soon heading down the track towards Achfary Forest. Loch More and the valley were in sunshine and remained so, certainly for the next hour and a half that I was passing through. This is a very satisfying path to walk on as it angles down the steep side of the hill above the forest, and gradually getting steeper lower down as it nears the trees.
Photo 68: Looking E from track above Achfary Forest Loch More
On the O.S. map Ben Screavie NC310 396 looks an insignificant hill at only 332mts, but on this occasion in the afternoon sun it appeared like a huge shiny grey whale beached in the loch, being fairly devoid of vegetation the sun was reflecting off the grey rock slabs and screes. The whole effect was accentuated by the shadow and darkness of the higher hills behind.
Photo 69: Road to Lochmore Lodge and Ben stack
The path wound down through the southerly edge of the forest, to emerge on the lochside road NC300 388 near Lochmore Lodge. The upper part of the forest was memorable for the prolific growth of a moss, which covered everything at ground level except the running water. Rocks, stacks of logs, branches all had a verdant furry green cover. It was like something out of a fairy tale, an enchanted wood where anyone foolish enough to go to sleep would remain there for ever more – just a green mossy shape.
Photo 70: From road to Lochmore Lodge. Loch More and Arkle
The great banks of gorse around the north end of the loch filled the warm afternoon air with their coconut scent, and I relished the rather parochial feel of this quiet corner of the Highlands. I was soon at the entrance to Achfary Estate NC292 396 and my route was along the estate road past the various estate buildings and offices. The track then lead back into the forest again, to emerge after 2kms to the open expanses of Strath Stack.
On the road just by the estate entrance I saw the famous (in a limited way) black and white telephone box. Information gleaned from the internet suggests that the story behind its unique colour scheme was to blend it in with the surrounding estate buildings. I found it worked perfectly and was soon talking to Ali. She told me that there was still wall to wall sunshine over the whole of the U.K. apart from the very north west tip! Devon was sweltering in the extreme temperature and she was trying to shake herself from a heat induced torpor to go for a bike ride. As I finished the call two guys appeared and we chatted for a few minutes. They said their plan was to drive to Durness and then on Tuesday to go by bikes to Cape Wrath and then on to Sandwood Bay. We parted with the possibility of meeting again two days later. I did not know then, but a bicycle as a means of getting to Sandwood Bay from Cape Wrath is about as much use as a chocolate fireguard!
As I set off up the road a fearful noise assaulted the Sunday afternoon tranquility. I could see about 200m ahead, where the track goes into the forest, a mechanical thing had appeared, which was obviously the source of the hideous racket and the spawn of the Devil Himself. Its progress along the track was so slow that I caught it up within a few minutes. It seemed to be some sort of early prototype motorised wheelbarrow, powered by an exceedingly ancient and environmentally unfriendly 2 stroke engine, which was so finely tuned that it did not need a silencer. It was being driven by an elderly, early prototype tweed clad estate worker, who in sullen resentment, ear defenders clamped to his bowed head, sat slumped upon this Satanic workhorse. As I drew level I did have the passing hopeful thought that maybe being overtaken by a middle aged (plus) backpacker might induce such surprise that he would release the throttle in his shock. I noticed that the load carrying section of this heinous contraption contained no more than 2 bucketfuls of garden rubbish, which shortly afterwards he turned off the track and jettisoned. I reflected that perhaps his life was so dull and boring in this quiet rural idyll that he periodically needed a fix of mind-numbing multi-decibels and carbon monoxide to relieve the tedium.
Having had such excitement the next section of the walk was positively uneventful. This lower section of the track passed through fairly dense forest, sheltered from the wind and cool in spite of the warm spring sunshine above. As the track climbed so the trees thinned and became more scrappy, these trees were the first line of defence against the prevailing westerlies that come funnelling through Strath Stack. The unique shape of Ben Stack, a rocky fin lying on a WNW to ESE axis, cannot be appreciated at such close quarters but its southerly flanks are still very dramatic, rising steeply from the narrow confines of the glen. The track itself slowly became less cared for, to the extent that as it approaches the head of the Strath it is little more than a serpentine peaty scar made by ATV’s, as they try to avoid the more boggy ground.
Photo 71: Looking back ESE down Strath Stack
Once I was well clear of the trees I found a sheltered grassy area and stopped for rest, refreshment and for the umpteenth time to go through the water ritual. As I sat leaning against a heathery bank, chewing nuts and chocolate, I pondered on the fact that even though I had found a small piece of grass it was still very wet and boggy. The further up Strath Stack the more is the temptation to turn round, for the views ahead are of boggy tracts of moorland while the view back reveals Strath Stack in all its remote glory, and to anyone interested in physical geography is a fine example of a glaciated U shaped valley
The NW end of the valley was remarkable for only one thing and that was the ongoing construction of an electrified 2 metre high deer fence crossing the moor in a SW to NE direction. Way over I could see a caravan which must have been used by the construction gang. This was no mean fence, it marched across rock and bog alike and where it passed over solid ground the rock was drilled to accommodate the posts. Not only that but on my side of the fence a second series of posts about a metre high and the same distance from the main fence, carried a single electrified strand to give more protection; but against what?
Photo 72: Double Electric Fence above Strath Stack
I was worried, was I on the inside or the outside? What (or who) was being kept in (or out). What was on the other side? What were the cost benefits of erecting such an expensive fence? Was it being paid for by an EEC grant? Should I touch it just to see whether it really was electrified? There being no darkened room for me to lie down in, I wandered off in a NE direction along the path that leads down to the A838 near Loch Stack Lodge. The visibility was reasonable albeit a bit hazy, but Foinaven was there in the distance still with its cloudy headdress, to the east Loch Stack and between them was silvery Arkle.
I turned right on to the road for a short way and then took the road to the Lodge NC268 436, crossed the bridge and followed a clear track east then north as it winds its way round a hill then over the moor towards Arkle, this being one of the main access points to that mountain. I was beginning to feel the effects of the days walk and as the time was now 18.00hrs I decided that once I was well clear of the Lodge I would look for a place to camp. Everywhere seemed to be wet, bog plants the only vegetation. Just before the point where the track passes between two lochans I noticed to the left about 100 metres from the track a ‘shelf’ of higher ground which looked grassier than the surrounding area. I left my bag by the side of the track and went squelching across to investigate, it was by no means ideal but at least firm enough to pitch a tent!
Photo 73: Looking NE Foinavon in cloud from close to camp
Rising ground to the north of the ‘shelf’ gave a bit of protection from the wind. I soon realised that it was unwise to stand on one spot for very long unless it was a large tussock because I would quickly get that sinking feeling. I was disconcerted when doing a ‘trial lie’ to test the comfort of the position and with my ear to the sleeping mat I could hear the occasional drip, drip coming from underneath me! Half an hour later the tent was up and I had foraged for water, having gone at least 400m on to the lower slopes of Arkle before finding running water suitable for filling the water containers.
Photo 74: Evening sun on Arkle from camp
I had pitched the tent roughly in line with what I judged was the wind direction which meant that from the doorway I looked on to the magnificent silver screes of Arkle’s SW face, the weather was still giving me cause for concern, the strong wind brought clouds racing in from the west and meeting the mountains they then delayed to thicken the cloudy ceiling above. Every now and then the evening sun would burst through on to Arkle’s slopes immediately transforming the ice cold silver screes into layers of molten lava.
The normal evening routine proceeded and I retired to my sleeping bag by about 21.00hrs happy that at best lying down my weight was spread over the widest possible area, thus reducing the likelihood of my disappearing downwards.
As I reflected on progress, with the evening nip of malt, I realised that tomorrow would see me leaving behind the mountains and heading for the sea for the last leg up to Cape Wrath via Sandwood Bay.