I kept to my promise of starting early. I awoke early and had a good breakfast and set off by 7:30am in the POURING rain.
The previous evening I had thought that I would continue by the route I had intended to go the previous day, that is up to Maol-bhuidhe bothy. I had thought I could get there in time before the two French girls, who David had given me a note for, would have set off. This was an ambitious plan and would also have involved some careful navigation over the shoulder of Beinn Droning to have completed the circuit round to Strathcarron. And with ‘careful navigation’ not being my forte of late I made the cautious and slightly boring decision to detour via Attadale, still a legitimate Cape Wrath route, but it felt like a cop-out to get to Coire Fionnaraich Bothy via Strathcarron.*
But I was slowly beginning to accept I had nothing to prove to anyone, not even myself, so it was OK to chose a slightly easier route. And I was learning that nothing was easy on this trail. Despite the heavy summer rain I felt good and that I was beginning to find my stride physically even if struggling a bit with the navigation and decision making psychologically.
It was early but a few estate vehicles past me, a tractor and a land rover, with a wave and a waterproof shrouded grin I trudged on over tarmac roads. I recall the leaves being weighted with raindrops and the sound of my boots on tarmac as I walked through the estate houses. I felt like I was re-entering civilisation a little and that felt a bit strange.
I successfully found the path which diverted close to and behind a house that belonged to someone who clearly had had enough of walkers passing in front and had routed them round the back. A lady trained a dog in a field some distance away and I started to walk away from the road and people along on a grassy track between leafy bracken, alongside a furious torrent of white water.
The sound of the water was sensational, it made me realise that while I, and I think others, often come into the highlands and wild places to ‘get away from it all’, for some peace and solace, the wild is far from silent. The torrent of water almost sounded like a busy road if I closed my eyes, but that didn’t make for safe walking so I kept them wide open.
The residual trauma from previous river crossings made me incredibly grateful for the bridge when I came to it. I had followed the route on the map with devotion making sure each bracken stalk was accounted for, almost. The trail undulated and wasn’t always clear but I knew from the contours and river bends that I was in the vicinity of where I needed to be and was keeping good time.
I stopped on the bridge for a rest, relief and refreshments and felt my nerves finally subsiding from the previous day. I began to appreciate that I was here, on a bridge in the mountains on a wet Thursday morning in August with no e-mails or deadlines to attend to. From the river things began to ascend. I recall a little bit of tricky navigation to get on the path that would lead me gradually up and up to a bealach and to the forest track that I needed to descend. As in a number of places the forest track quickly became a major gravel road where works vehicles were busy transporting stones and levelling.
This was an area undergoing a major hydro scheme construction. It was a steep descent over rocky ground but I was feeling good and kept good pace. I successfully navigated the pedestrian signs and made it onto the road out to Attadale Gardens. I had anticipated walking into the gardens and had looked forward to buying a coffee and having a seat. But when I got there I was put off by the cost and tried to content myself with sitting at a picnic table in the carpark having some soggy soreen or similar, I failed to find contentment.
Refuelled a little, I headed out to the road to walk into Strathcarron. This is a dangerous and unnerving stretch of road, it surprised me that it had been recommended as a Cape Wrath trail route and have since learned that has changed. It was busy, there was no verge to retreat to when cars sped past and there were some very sharp bends. I was relieved on a number of counts to make it to the Carron tea room. And what a haven it was. And a turning point.
I was so so soggy when I arrived there. I decanted my pack and poles outside the door and walked in. The staff seemed a little unsure of me to start with, which I can’t criticise them for, I would have been unsure of this unkempt customer too. I asked for a bin bag to sit on since I didn’t want to leave their seats wet. And I had a look at the menu.
Lentil soup. Warm, hearty, healthy lentil soup with chunky bread. It was about as much as I could manage to eat in my exhausted and now cold state. And it was one of the most welcome meals of my life. I was feeling fairly low and demoralised at this stage. The rain wasn’t making it much fun and I was deflated by my previous errors. I was not quite at the stage of giving up but was questioning it all as I unlocked my mobile and went online.
An e-mail popped into my inbox to say that I had reached my JustGiving target of £1000. I started to weep as I read through the words of encouragement and support left by those who had donated. I hadn’t set myself a huge fundraising target for this walk, having asked so much of friends the year before when I did the 70 Munros Challenge for Christian Aid. But I had wanted to connect this long chosen journey with the forced journeys that so many have to make due to conflict and many other reasons to seek refuge.
I also discovered via social media that one of the most highly regarded and admired ministers in Scotland had died, Rev Dr Moyna McGlynn. I’d met Moyna a couple of times and knew her husband and daughter, a little. But it was more her death due to cancer that got me. I wasn’t just walking this trail to fundraise for the refugee crisis but I was discovering, as I walked, that I was marking ten years of surviving cancer.
It was almost ten years to the day since I’d heard those fateful words, ‘you have cancer’ that set me off on another entirely different kind of journey of hospital appointments, CT scans, needles, PIC lines, BEP and further surgery. I still have a low level nausea as I type the words and yet here I was, still here, wearily walking towards the future. Moyna, as so many I have known since, haven’t had the same fortune/blessing/gift/________**. And that leaves me a mixed up feeling of sad, relieved and guilty. I muttered a prayer for her family through my tears and gave thanks to God for the inspiration of Moyna’s life and the resolve this news had given me to yet again walk and live well.
By now the staff at the Carron tearoom must have thought me even more unhinged than when I first arrived. But while ordering tea and cake they seemed to softened towards me and began to inquire of my antics. I shared the details of my journey so far and the man serving me told me his son had fallen over on day two of the West Highland Way, by Conic Hill, and had given up. When I’d returned from using the toilet facilities, where I’d tried to deal with some pretty delicate chaffing due to walking in wet trousers, there was a wee parcel of flapjacks and some other date related treat left for me ‘on the house.’
I left the Carron tearoom a new woman. Renewed by the sadness of cancer cutting life short and by the generous support of friends who were virtually walking with me, it took a huge edge of the aloneness I had been feeling. I still had a few kilometres to go before reaching the bothy which included a couple of river / tributary crossings. The first one I encountered while a group of walkers or hydro researchers were coming the other way. One of them extended his hand to me to help me across and I felt my independent resolve slipping away as I took it and hopped over the stones to the other side.
From there it was me, on my own, heading into the mist and the mountains. I’m not sure I would have crossed the bridge, pictured below, with such ease a few weeks before this adventure, but by the time I came to it it seemed positively robust in comparison to some of the rickety fabrications over torrents of white water that I’d managed before:
And then, finally, I reached my home for the night, Coire Fionnaraich bothy:
My best bothy experience so far, I had it to myself, I managed to get a wee fire going and hung everything up that was in need of an airing at least. Getting things dry was a bit too much to hope for. This included drying out the pages of my guidebook which was by now in a bit of a gloop. I tore out the remaining pages that I needed and draped them over a bench in the hope that they would dry out by the morning. And left the book there for the amusement of future walkers who I am sure would understand the conditions the book had got itself into and despair of its foolish owner.
I felt so much more organised and settled down to sleep in front of the fire with my things hanging around me throughout the two rooms downstairs. For that reason amongst others I was glad to have the place to myself. I had an element of unease about staying in such a solitary and old place on my own. I almost prefer camping for the complete anonymity of it all, no-one knows where to find you, should anyone happen to be looking for a solitary woman in the wilds…but regardless of that slight unease I slept sound. My body in recovery for another day.
*’Previous guides have suggested descending to Attadale and then continuing to Strathcarron on the road. This is definitely not recommended. The road is fast with several dangerous blind bends and should be avoided unless in an emergency.’ capewrathtrailguide.org and I would concur…
**complete that sentence as you will.