With great trepidation I finally set off to do the Cape Wrath Trail. Self-doubt in my own ability and not to mention a pandemic had put paid to doing the trail in previous years, but this time it was a goer. I would at least have a hiking buddy too, my good friend Iain. We’ve been on many wild camping and bothy trips together, but nothing for as long as this and I have heard stories of hiking buddies falling out with each other! Hopefully that wouldn’t be the case for us.
I travelled to Ullapool and met up at Iain’s bunkhouse, he put me up for the night and we had a few beers whilst making last minute tweaks to our gear. Luggage scales out we weighed our packs with 5 days’ worth of food, Iain’s pack came in at 18kg and mine was 13kg.
In the morning, we were all set. Iain’s Dad gave us a lift to Inverness where we caught the bus to Fort William. I made a pact with myself to have a social media blackout for the duration of the trail, so it was a bit of a social media binge on the phone, whilst trying to preserve the battery. On arrival we discovered the passenger ferry to Camusnagaul had yet to restart after lockdown. Quick thinking, we hailed a taxi and headed to the Corran Ferry instead. This stung us twenty quid, but starting at the Ardgour Inn rather than Camusnagaul would shave off a few kilometres of tarmac bashing.
After some final faffing with the packs and polishing off our Morrison’s Meal Deals, we were finally ready to set off on our adventure. It was a fine sunny day and it didn’t take us too long to walk along the coast to our turn off point down Cona Glen. It’s a nice feeling as you head off the main road and into the lush wooded area. The further we travelled down the glen, the more remote it felt. Some early signs of blisters had us both worried, Compeed out and footwear adjustments made sure we carried on a bit further until we decided to call it a day. Blisters a couple of hours into a big hike is never a good start!
Our pitch was perfectly placed for our assault on Day 2, we’d head up and over the pass and drop down to Callop with a lunch stop at Glenfinnan. Burger and chips x2 ordered at the National Trust Visitor Centre. We left the tourists behind at the famous viaduct and continued our journey north. We stopped by Corryhully to check the blister situation, thankfully we caught them early!
We paid homage to Sgurr Thuilm and Streap guarding either side of the pass as we dropped towards Glen Pean. Rather than cutting around the perimeter of the plantation to Strathan, we cut through the trees to experience some of the worst bog ever. It was short-lived as we got ourselves on the track to A’Chuil where we’d retire for the day and I would have to address a rather nasty heat rash on my derriere!
After a sunny start to our hike, Day 3 was looking rather gloomy and overcast. Still feeing a bit jaded from the effects of a 31-kilometre walk with 922 metres of ascent the day before, we pencilled in Sourlies as a potential stage end. Whist it took longer to reach than we expected, it was still too soon to call it quits. Instead, we had some lunch at Sourlies and I wished Iain a happy 50th birthday. I could think of a lot worse places to spend a birthday! We were getting too relaxed enjoying the surroundings. We dusted ourselves down and got around the coast. Trying to make a direct beeline for Carnoch was nigh on impossible. The marshland was waiting to soak up any weary walker not paying attention to where they step! With fatigue setting in once again, we found a nice riverside pitch under the imposing Beinn an Aodainn.
The beginning of Day 4 took us into the heart of the Rough Bounds of Knoydart. The River Carnoch cascaded deep below us in the ravine and with a scattering of native trees, it felt like the most remote, isolated spot in the British Isles. We eventually reached Barrisdale Bay and feeling strong, pushed on for the rough and never-ending walk along the coast to Kinloch Hourn. Hardened Munro & Corbett baggers will be well acquainted with this path! We managed to blag a cottage for the price of a B&B at Kinloch Hourn.
The cottage was worth every penny as it rained constantly throughout the night. We sat tight for the rain to die off in the morning before setting off, following the pylons for a short distance before the big ascent up to Bealach Coire Mhalagain. The Forcan Ridge was looking rather inviting in the spring sunshine. Descending towards Shiel Bridge, I managed to dislodge a massive boulder almost crushing my ankle. Somehow my trekking pole got in the way and took the brunt of the rock and I got away with just a bent pole. We eventually settled on a riverside pitch 3 kilometres short of Shiel Bridge.
Being fixated on reaching set stages set out by the guidebooks, I was disheartened that it took us five days to get to Kintail. In reality this isn’t a good approach to any long-distance hike. It should take as long as it takes. Stop when you’re tired or push on when you’re feeling strong. I learned to listen to my body and not worry if we stopped short of a suggested stage.
It was Day 6 and our food supplies were depleted. We picked up our resupply parcels at the Kintail Craft shop, as a thank you for agreeing to hold our parcels we bought some items from their shop. It was now time to tackle the stunning but notorious Falls of Glomach. No difficulty in good weather, we struck the correct path. In poor visibility, this can cause confusion with the lower path which leads to a dead-end natural waterfall viewpoint. We got ourselves down to the track that would eventually take us beyond Iron Lodge to the remote Maol-Bhuidhe bothy.
It was another braw sunny day, the river crossing by Loch Cruoshie presented no problems. We skirted around the east flank of Beinn Dronaig. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to nip up to the summit, however I had other worries. My satellite communicator had failed and I had no means of letting my partner Nicola know I was safe, bumping into 2 Munro baggers I asked if they would text her at the summit of Lurg Mhor, thankfully they agreed.
We headed around to Bearneas Bothy, where I took a tumble in the bog and managed to bash my knee on the only visible rock anywhere. After an extended break we pushed on towards Craig, I finally got a phone signal and checked in with my partner. Feeling overwhelmed I got upset and was ready to quit!
A new day and a new me, I was up and packed before Iain, feeling mentally and physically refreshed. Iain’s Dad met us in Craig with re-supplies. My trail shoes were wrecked, but I had a fresh pair waiting. After parting company with Iain’s Dad our journey continued over the Coulin Pass and eventually to Kinlochewe. We pitched by the track that leads to Heights of Kinlochewe.
Another bright sunny day and we pushed on towards Fisherfield Forest and marked the half way milestone of the trail. Our route would skirt under the southern flanks of Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair with our rite of passage at Bealach na Croise. From here we decided against going via Shenavall, taking an alternative route to Lochivraon, eventually reaching Iain’s house for a well-deserved rest day.
With a rest day, we were refreshed and raring to go, but our lucky weather streak had finally run out. It was wet and windy as we traversed across Inverlael Forest to reach Glen Douchary. The route to Loch an Daimh wasn’t obvious and new deer fencing confused matters, but we were soon back on track making our way to Kncokdamph and ultimately to the Schoolhouse Bothy.
I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the next stage. Lots of track bashing to Oykel Bridge and beyond made it arguably the least attractive section of the whole trail but it would allow us to smash some miles without worrying about rough terrain. We stopped at the hotel for some breakfast and once again hit the track that would eventually take us north of Benmore Lodge and into the mountains of Assynt. We pitched our tents by the river we’d followed for most of the day.
Day 12 beckoned and so did Iain’s Dad. He was meeting us one last time with more supplies at Inchnadamph. Breabag and Conival stood in our way with a small narrow col offering passage to Gleann Dubh then onto Inchnadamph. We re-supplied with enough food to get us to the Cape. The lift back to Ullapool was too tempting, so I made a sharp exit with my heavy pack. I waited for Iain to catch up as we headed into what felt like the heart of Assynt, a complex myriad of rock, confusing terrain for the weary walker. We missed our descent route to Glencoul, heading down a steep hillside and eventually passing Eas a Chaul Aluinn, the tallest waterfall in Britain. The stunning views momentarily taking our minds off the heavy packs and tired legs. We were more than pleased to finally reach Glencoul, it was a hard-thought destination.
It was now day 13 and unlucky for some we needed to negotiate getting around the sea lochs; Loch Glencoul and Loch Glendhu. This gave us a dog-leg of walking west, then shifting east to reach Glendhu Bothy, then heading west again before finally heading north. I had to keep reminding myself that this is factored into the distance and I was still getting closer to that fabled lighthouse.
With plenty food in our packs, a deviation to Kylestrome wasn’t needed and we took the path north to Achfary and Loch Stack. We cheated slightly by doing a short section of road walking to Lochstack Lodge to avoid the pathless section under Arkle. Fatigue was setting in from another big day and the lack of places to pitch wasn’t helping, walking further than we intended. We eventually stumbled upon a nice pitch by Loch Airigh a’Bhaird under the impressive Arkle.
Day 14 marked our penultimate day on the Cape Wrath trail and feeling positive we set off north to Rhiconich. The path petered out after around 2 kilometres leaving us with a boggy section and a substantial river crossing (Garbh Allt) before reaching the desolate Rhiconich. Iain stripped down to his skants for the river crossing. I already had wet feet so I nimbly crossed over at the mouth of the river. Upon reaching Rhiconich, I was left somewhat disappointed to find no hot food was available. Fortunately, we spotted the Old School Inn a few kilometres along the B801. Burger and chips eagerly ordered to furnish the famished bellies!
Fuelled and ready to roll we continued on towards Blairmore where we turn off towards Sandwood Bay. I met some day trippers coming back and Iain took a detour to look above the famous Am Buachaille sea stack. I reached the dunes and spotted 2 or 3 tents dotted around, but I managed to get the beach to myself. I took a moment to reflect on the last two weeks, it had been an amazing and sometimes testing journey. Yet here I was, hard to believe I could now see the lighthouse 10 kilometres away as the crow flies. Sitting on the rocks above taking in the vista, I spotted a solo figure cutting across the bay, the figure got closer and I spied the big pack and trekking poles. I realised it was Iain.
During the planning stages, Iain and I came to a mutual agreement that as experienced hill walkers we would not need to be attached at the hip. So, if either of us wanted to push on or bag a hill enroute then we could. This was pivotal to the success of our trip. Whilst we hiked many miles together, we would often have stages where one of us would be well ahead. Despite this, we always naturally lunched and finished the days together. This approach allowed us to have company and support, as well as that much needed time alone.
It was now the final day; it was warm and sunny as we set off one last time. On the previous day I had experienced a pain in my left shin that increasingly got worse. I was worried shin splints was beginning to set in. I figured it was most likely down to all the road walking on the approach to Sandwood Bay. A good night’s sleep and some Ibuprofen seemed to have done the trick, phew!
We had phoned ahead to check with the MOD that the firing range was not going to be in operation. They gave us the green light and upon reaching the danger zone, we were pleased to see the red flags were down.
The pathless section across Cape Wrath wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected and after a lunch stop, it didn’t take us long to reach the vehicle track and ultimately the lighthouse. I felt completely dumbfounded to be standing in front of that lighthouse. Admittedly part of me also felt subdued to have reached the conclusion of such a fantastic experience. Years of Cape Wrath Trail wanderlust and here I was at the end.
I caught up with Iain at the Ozone Café, we congratulated each other and ordered a bacon butty and a brew. Signing the guest book, the lady informed us we were the first hikers to reach the lighthouse in 2021, a nice little memento.
I sauntered behind the lighthouse buildings and pointed the phone towards the Isle of Lewis to get enough signal to phone Nicola and let her know the good news.
We marked the end of the trip with a night at Kearvaig Bay, finishing off the evening by easing my worn-out feet with a paddle in the water. The last day presented the final walk of the trip to catch the boat across to the Kyle of Durness where Iain’s parents awaited to give us a lift back to Ullapool. As a thank you, we bought Iain’s Dad a bottle of malt whisky. His help made the logistics so much easier. As tempting as it was to celebrate with a few libations, I decided to head home to finally see Nicola.
An amazing experience, that’ll live long in the memory.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in my Cape Wrath Trail boxset series: