Strathcarron to Maol Bhuidhe, 10 miles: Thursday 17 May 2018.
One other person departed the train at Strathcarron and made their way to the hotel for lunch, a walker bound for Cape Wrath – for Strathcarron lies on one of the main variants of the Cape Wrath Trail, and indeed my route today was to use part of this in reverse. Alas no lunch: lack of chef. So starting off with a few fewer carbs than planned.
From the nearby village of Achintee, I climbed south-east to the 1300ft col of Bealach Alltan Ruaridh, wiping sweat from my brow every few yards, turning occasionally for the retrospective across Strath Carron.
An Ruadh-Stac and Maol Chean-dearg across Strath Carron
After the bealach, I dropped down to the Black Water. Here, I intersected my own Cape Wrath variant of 2012 – Bendronaig Lodge was just a mile to the east. Indeed many CWT walkers will have come from Maol Bhuidhe bothy, my target for the night, but there are no direct tracks. A stalker’s path does run to the north then east of the Corbett of Beinn Dronaig, but peters out a mile or so short. Surely, I thought, it can’t be hard to handrail the Black Water to its confluence with the River Ling, and gain the bothy that way? And for a mile or so a new hydro track made it very easy indeed. Less than four miles remaining! It took me two and a half hours.
Pathless terrain by the River Ling
It’s surprising how the lack of a path can slow you down, even in good conditions and with no real route-finding problems – although a bit of micro-navigation was necessary here and there, to avoid the ravines into which the river occasionally dips. At last the bothy came into view across the river. There was much wet ground to cross on the other side, which might have given a small group of wild campers nearby a bit of amusement, but I managed to be still dry shod when I opened the door of the bothy at Maol Bhuidhe.
Maol Bhuidhe to Athnamulloch, 16 miles: Friday 18 May 2018.
A long, tough day with two high passes and a river crossing en route, but with incomparable mountain scenery all round. One to finish and think: phew, I can (still) do that.
It’s a steady climb up to the first col, Reidh Leum na Feithe, the remote Corbetts of Aonach Buidhe and Faochaig to either side. Because they are not quite Munros, they have much less footfall than the higher hills, and I was not especially surprised to see no-one – until, at the very top of the pass, a solitary tent. ‘Anyone there’, I called out as I usually do in these situations, and out popped a lithe 50-something woman who had just descended from the latter hill. Now the next time I did this, in far worse conditions in the Lake District, the man beckoned me in. Didn’t happen this time. But we had a nice chat.
Descending from Reidh Leum na Feithe
Today was no natural line, rather a line of necessity to get me into Glen Affric. In between lay a descent to near sea-level (OK, 400ft) followed by a climb up to touching height of the Affric Munros, then all the way back down again. The first down was easy enough, on a good path to the isolated Iron Lodge, well-placed for a break, but then it was up again – first a low col by Loch an Droma, then skirting round to the western extremity of Loch Mullardoch. Wits need to be kept readily at hand, for it’s one of those places where the OS Landranger and Explorer maps can’t agree where the paths are, and neither of them has got it exactly right.
Iron Lodge and Strath Duilleach
Indeed, it was an unmapped path that led me to the crossing-point for the Abhainn a’Choillich. Not even knee-deep today, so a perfectly pleasant paddle. Had the worst come to the worst, I would have had to have stayed on the west bank as the river climbed until it had narrowed sufficiently, rather than taking the very decent path on the other side – and as I knew from yesterday, a made path speeds progress significantly.
The climb to Bealach Coire Ghaidheil
A few spots of rain blew in and the cloud drifted over the tops as I rose towards the 2300ft Bealach Coire Ghaidheil. When the path leaves the corrie, it’s like it heads straight up a curving wall – a dramatic climb. In planning I had even skirted with the possibility of going right at the bealach to pick up the Munros of An Socach and Stob Coire na Cloiche, but I decided against, for three good reasons: it would have delivered me further west in Glen Affric than I wanted; there was a bit of snow on the tops, for which I was ill-equipped; and, frankly, I was tired; it was well gone 4 at the bealach, and even from the bealach there was a steep descent and four miles to go.
The Affric Munros from Bealach Coire Ghaidheil
So down it was, and a pleasant saunter through the glen, a veritable highway compared to any of the previous miles from Strathcarron – there were even mountain bikers! The private bothy at Athnamulloch had vehicles too, dropping off volunteers for a forestry project over the weekend. As I thought, there were plenty of wild camp spots nearby, and I settled in for my quiet evening.
Athnamulloch to Coire Dho, 14 miles: Saturday 19 May 2018.
A much easier day, indeed in part a bit of a trudge along tracks built for land-rovers not humans, but with the saving grace of a top-rate moorland path to the finish. Heavens, there were even waymarks along the track through Glen Affric, at every possible place where a walker might go wrong (though there aren’t many), for this is the Affric Kintail Way long-distance path. But for me, only for three miles, to a path junction at Allt Garbh.
The hydro works at Allt Garbh
Hydro works were in progress here, though this being a Saturday no soul was on site. It wasn’t too difficult to trace the diverted path southwards at first, but once the works had been left behind, I became confused. The map showed the path crossing the stream – clearly it did not. So where did it go? At a point of split, I chose left; I should have chosen right, I realised as I made my way through felled forestry. Down there, was that a waymark post? Surely not, this was not the Affric Kintail Way, and Scotland doesn’t really do waymarks outside of LDPs. But it was, and if I ever come this way again (spoiler alert – 2019 TGO Challenge), I will know better.
Once regained, the path climbed nicely away from the stream to join a landrover track. Oh, this was not nice; vast chippings making walking no pleasure. I thought that there would be a good rest stop at Loch nan Gillean but I could find little but a boulder just below the track with a few early midges for company. There were anglers on the loch and I gave them a cheery wave. No response. But purgatory ended at Cougie. Something of a honeypot this, the lodge making its trade from pony trekking and the like. I bet the ponies never head along the landrover track.
A public road ends here and I just about avoided it. I changed direction significantly now, heading south-west, and was pleased to enjoy a track by the Allt Riabhach made for people and ponies, not motors. There was one short stretch where the chippings returned but thankfully for a few yards only.
By the Allt Riabhach
From Allt a’Choire Bhuidhe, the soft peaty path was made for tired feet, and soon it slowly dropped into Coire Dho. Beyond the many miles of empty moorland – I love walking in places like this! – rose the North Cluanie munros, culminating in Sgurr nan Conbhairean; but for me, the track led downwards, to the River Doe. A quick ford led to better grass for a camp at a sheepfold on the south side, but if the river had been high the north bank would have been practical too.
Wild camp in Coire Dho
Corrie Dho to Fort Augustus, 15 miles: Thursday 17 May 2018.
The day starts easy, along a stony track to the farm at Ceannacroc Lodge where, after wandering about the curtilages of cottages, I finally found the river-crossing below the livestock sheds. This led to a soft path in the flood meadows of the River Moriston as far as the farm at Tomchrasky.
The track to Tomchrasky
From here, it’s tarmac-bashing – the first in 45 miles! The road leads past the village of Dalchriechart to Torgyle Bridge, one of Telford’s great road bridges from the early 19th century as the pacified (repressed?) Highlands were opened up post-Culloden.
From here to Fort Augustus there are low hills now covered in forestry plantations. This can be a bit of a grind, and with my route partly following a gap in the trees caused by power lines I wasn’t expecting much. My Explorer map promised a footpath avoiding a dog-leg in the forest road but there was no sign of it on the ground, so forestry road it was. At the turn I joined – helpful waymarker in confirmation – General Wade’s military road, without which Telford would probably never have dared venture this far north, though here it’s just another stone-chipped lorry track. It reached up to join the power lines, with yet more new hydro works in evidence. It was drizzling now, so my lunch-time pause by the Allt Phocaichain was not taken in a state of high exhilaration. Through the col, however, the forestry road soon moved away.
Forestry works beyond the col
The downhill to Fort Augustus – still on Wade’s line – was on a superb grassy path that the Hanoverian soldiers must have enjoyed as much as I. A sign warned of dire danger from derelict bridges but they seemed in pretty good condition when I met them.
A dangerous bridge
Fort Augustus came in no time, indeed I had to hang around before my bunkhouse opened, but there was no drizzle here in the Great Glen and so no hardship either.