Day 13: Strathchailleach Bothy to Durness via Cape Wrath


Day 13 Tuesday 18th May
Strathchailleach Bothy to Durness via Cape Wrath
Walked from 08.40 to 16.00hours

Distance 30K (to Cape Wrath – 10K)    

Climbed 612m (to Cape Wrath-243m)                                                                                                                       


The wind increased again during the night, several times I was awoken by either the wind crashing against the building or torrential squalls thundering on the corrugated iron roof, how I relished the warmth and security of the bothy! I gave more than a passing thought to the group I had seen camping near Sandwood Loch, as I snuggled even deeper into my now dry sleeping bag. They must have had a truly horrendous time.

To say that at 06.50 I sprang out of bed would be to stretch reality a bit too far, but I had a great sense of excitement that within a few hours I would be standing at Cape Wrath. At home with the luxury of hot showers and dry towels, the morning ablutions can be savoured and enjoyed. One of the drawbacks of wild camping is that they generally consist of standing stark naked, at the mercy of the elements, washing using a bowl of water about 300mms. square and then a splash rinse in a nearby stream or lake, then attempting to dry oneself on a damp towel about the size of a dish cloth.

Bob's Travels: Map 21I spent nearly two hours breakfasting, sweeping and tidying the bothy and packing my sack. At 08.40 I shut the door and set off on the last leg of my journey. My first task was to get across the river. I stood on the bank and looked with dismay at the place where the previous evening I had crossed on the peat cutting foray, rocks which then had been well above the water level were now completely submerged. The overnight rain had caused the river to rise by 150 – 200mms. and there was now no possibility of a dry crossing, so off came the pack, off with boots and socks ,on with the Teva shoes. I was soon across and a few minutes later had dried my feet and was dry shod again.

The weather was dry, lots of cloud and no sign of the sun or blue skies, the wind had eased a bit and I fancied it had backed a little to a south-westerly, which if anything would help me on my way.

I had read somewhere a piece of advice concerning this last 10kms. section to Cape Wrath recommending a route well back from the coast, because of the steeper nature of the terrain near the coast and also greater difficulty in crossing some of the streams close to the cliffs. Given the position of the bothy I had decided to keep to more or less the same contour to the east of Loch a Gheodhe Ruaidh NC250 676, then under Cnoc an Daimh to contour round NW and then through the bealach to the west of Cnoc a Ghiubhais NC260 705. From there a due north course would take me on to the track about 1.5kms. from the Cape.

Bay of KeisgaigPhoto 82: Bay of Keisgaig

In spite of some pretty wet ground this route did not present me with any problems or delays. The excitement of seeing and then reaching Cape Wrath together with a favourable wind on my back meant quick progress. This is a large area of wild lonely moor and one does not get much impression at all of being so close to the sea, the only really memorable view was from the bealach looking SW to the Bay of Keisgaig. The sea was still angry looking and a thick sea mist meant that sky and water combined in shades of grey. Just after 10.00 I stopped for about 10 minutes on the north side of the bealach which gave me a good view of Dinan Mor, the large hill 500metres south of my goal. I eat some chocolate, nuts and dried fruit. Since leaving Ullapool I had eked out supplies, I bitterly regretted sending so much back to mission control. At the start of the day I had only half a bar of chocolate and under 100 grams of fruit and nuts left. I guessed (correctly) that I would get it in the neck from Ali when I got home.

Cape Wrath is a fairly inaccessible place. A large chunk of this northerly extremity of Sutherland comes under M.O.D. jurisdiction, being a firing range. There is no resident military presence but it can be closed several times a year for exercises. Outside the summer months of May to September anyone arriving at the Cape from Sandwood Bay and intending to get back to civilization via the A838 and Durness, will have to do so under their own steam. Every spring two minibuses are tied onto a large rowing boat and taken across the Kyle of Durness, after this they spend the summer conveying sightseers the 16kms from the little passenger ferry to the lighthouse at Cape Wrath. The ferry across the Kyle and the minibus service are run by different people but are mutually dependant on each other.

When I was planning the walk I garnered all this information from the internet in a matter of 5 minutes, together with the names and phone numbers of the ferry and minibus operators. A few more clicks of the mouse found details of a daily return coach service between Inverness and Durness, run by Tim Bearman Coachs. I rang the minibus number and spoke to a very helpful lady who assured me that by mid May they would be running a regular hourly (ish) bus service every day starting about mid morning. On enquiring she also told me there was no public telephone at the Cape but if I needed to phone there should be no difficulty in getting a signal for a mobile. The return coach to Inverness left Durness at 15.15, so I figured that as long as I reached Cape Wrath by midday I could comfortably make Durness, collect a post restante parcel of clean clothes at the post office and be on my way south that afternoon. Find a B&B near Inverness railway station to make it handy for catching the train home the next morning. I also ascertained that there were no military exercises in May, so everything was falling nicely into place, nothing could go wrong!

Cape WrathPhoto 83: Looking North to Cape Wrath

About 10.45 I set foot on tarmac turned left and followed the road as it gently climbs 50metres or so clockwise around Dinan Mor. I expected at any moment to have to step off the track to make way for a minibus – with the happy faces of holiday makers pressed expectantly against its steamy windows. It is only in the last 300-400metres that the lighthouse and other buildings come into view, but still no glimpse of dramatic cliffs or sea. There is a large, bleak deserted building up a little track to the right, which I imagine at one time had some military significance. The array of buildings around the lighthouse, which I would guess once housed a substantial team of people are now all empty and boarded up.

This must be the place where the minibus stops, yet there was not the slightest indication of human activity, no bus, no group of cagoule clad visitors, crouched behind the walls to escape the bullying buffets of the gale.

It was now, as I sheltered by an outbuilding next to the lighthouse, that I felt a huge clash of emotions. I was immensely proud of myself, that I had completed the 320kms walk from Fort William, achieved all that I had spent so much time planning, yet for some reason, by the part of my mental planning system flagged ‘Cape Wrath minibus’ a large red warning light was flashing.

I toasted my success with the last mouthful of ‘Knockando’ malt whiskey, then found the mobile phone, surprise, surprise, no signal! I left my rucksack by the wall and just with camera and phone walked the last 200metres past the lighthouse and on to the almost northerly tip of mainline U.K.. This is an impressive bit of coastline, the wind incredibly strong – no gusts – just a continual blast. The visibility out to sea was rather hazy to the west and north, not quite so bad looking east. Going due north from here there is nothing other than sea until you reach the ice floes of the Arctic. The little rocky lump of Dustic, with its white surf collar, looked rather forlorn a kilometre or so to the NE.

Cape WrathPhoto 84: Cape Wrath Light

I took a couple of shots on the camera, then turned the phone on again. To my dismay the signal was too weak to leave its mother. I returned to the shelter of the wall, no minibus. In spite of the gale I had still not worked out the reason for its non-appearance. The time was now 11.30 and I decided there was no point in waiting for the possible non-arrival of anf vehicular passenger transport. If I really legged it I figured I could do the 16kms to the ferry in 2.5 to 3 hours, leaving just enough time to get up into the village to collect my parcel. At worst I could flag the bus down on its way south from Durness and forego picking up my goodies.

Journey’s EndPhoto 85: Journey’s End – Cape Wrath

An hour earlier I had assumed my walking to be almost done; now I was retracing my steps, this time into the wind. I had already revised my earlier opinion that the wind had eased, I was now in the strongest wind of the whole trip. Near the point where I had joined the track it turns SE and heads in that direction for the next 12 kms, the SW wind was hitting me broadside, continually pushing me across the road. Several times I found myself having been pushed onto the heathery verge. Occasions like these and my anxieties, lead me to express opinions of the wind, with some vigour, in less than flattering terms, but nobody heard!

Bob's Travels: Map 22I developed a technique to counteract the effect of the wind, using the walking pole at an angle to brace against the sideways force, trouble was after a time my left arm ached like hell – you cannot win. From the bridge over the Kearvaig River the road steadily climbs about 120metres over the next 3kms to the bealach between the impressive rounded lumps that are Maovally and Sgribhis-bheinn. As I approached the bealach I was soaked by a violent squall. Having had thousands of miles of unimpeded passage across the Atlantic the clouds clearly resented having to lift themselves over these hills and accordingly dumped some of their load to express their displeasure. The wind was unrelenting in its constancy and ferocity.

E from Cape WrathPhoto 86: Looking E from Cape Wrath

Dropping down on the east side of the bealach the view east opened out and I expect in better visibility one could see Durness, the time was 13.00 and I was still just about on the pace. I tried the phone again and to my great relief there was a good strong signal, I took off my sack, the noise of the wind was so loud I had to find some shelter before I could make a call. Lying in the heather at the side of the track in the lee of my rucksack the wind noise was reduced to a bearable degree, I punched In the minibus number. I still had difficulty hearing what Donny, the minibus man, said, but I did hear him say that the ferry could not operate because conditions in the Kyle were too rough. I felt completely pole axed as I realised that there was now no way of keeping to my travel plans. While we talked, all kinds of thoughts and options were rushing through my mind.

Donny was really very helpful and sympathetic in the circumstances. He answered several questions and the salient points that came out were; there was no guarantee that the ferry would be running the next day, as far as he knew it was possible to walk around the Kyle from the ferry point, there was a bothy at Kearvaig I could use if I wanted to ‘sit it out’, and a throw away remark that he thought it may be possible to walk across the Kyle at low tide, this last gem of information received no second thought, until about two hours later! His parting comment was that if I did manage to get on to the A838, I had only to phone him and he would come out and pick me up.

I ended the call and for a few minutes just sat looking east into the hazy distance, at Faraid Head , Balnakiel Bay and just a glimpse of the mouth of the Kyle. I decided that I really had no choice, staying on this side of the water was out of the question, food stocks were down to two squares of chocolate, four hazelnuts, one raisin and half a litre of energy drink. Looking on the map at the west bank of the Kyle below the ferry point it was difficult to guess how easy a walk round would be, but it could not be any worse than other terrain I had overcome in the last fortnight.

I then phoned Ali and once I heard her voice, the heady mixture of elation, doubt, disappointment, fatigue and frustration boiled over in a fairly emotional conversation. As always she was so concerned and determined to do all she could to sort out the predicament. We ended the call with a promise that she would investigate the chances of my flying back from Inverness that evening, or the next morning. The travel plan I had allowed for meant I would not be back home for another two days.

As the road dropped down to the bridge over Daill River I noted that the outer end of the estuary showed signs of exposed sand bars. Having found shelter amongst a bank of windswept gorse I sat down for a much deserved rest and consumed the remainder of my rations. Refreshed and rested I set off and half an hour later I passed a little lay-by, just before the ferry landing, where the two minibuses sheltered smugly, from the wind. At the ferry point I climbed up a very steep cliff through heather, gorse and rock on to a small headland. I then started an exciting 1kilometre traverse SE, above the estuary. The 1-50,000 map gives no indication of the craggy nature of the terrain here and it turned out to be quite an enjoyable scramble.

The further round the headland I went, the more I could see of the middle and upper part of the Kyle of Durness, and it was clear that it the tide was very low, revealing acres of golden sand, I now recalled Donny’s remark about walking across. The stream that flows down from Beinn an Amair has cut a sharp cleft in the last few hundred metres of its descent to sea level and as I approached I assessed that my best option was down. Some minutes later I was standing on the foreshore which was encouragingly solid. I continued along the edge of the sand for another 300 – 400metres till I was round the point and there is a channel close in to the rocky foreshore. Looking across the sandy wet expanse, the A838 beckoned me seductively; this was the narrowest point and the road no more than 500metres away. I thought ‘To hell with it, I’ll give it a go!’

Off came the boots, Paramo trousers unzipped and their flapping legs tucked into my waistband. The first channel was only about 20cms deep, then a long stretch of firm sand again until the main channel which is close to the eastern side, this was knee deep and once clear of it I was back on dry ground. All the way across I had been using my fully extended walking pole to test for quicksand, but the crossing was without incident and only took about 10 minutes.

As soon as I reached the side of the road I ‘phoned Donny. True to his word Donny arrived a minute or two after I had finished drying my feet and putting boots back on. He drove me up into Durness, where we drove round until he had found me a B&B.

Ali had been unable to book a flight because of my not having any photographic identification, so I spent a leisurely time the next day, caught the Tim Bearman coach to Inverness, getting there about 20.00 in time to book a ticket for the London sleeper train.

I stepped on to the platform at St. David’s station in Exeter at 11.00 on Thursday morning to be met by Ali. By 12.00 we were back at our business in Budleigh Salterton. The end of a fantastic adventure.