Back in October 2017 I’d planned to walk to Inverie, Knoydart, via a night in Sourlies Bothy at the end of Glendessary. But a work date got in the way, which is just as well, as the day I would have woken up in Sourlies, was the day I woke up with flu and didn’t get out of bed for 10 days.
Running Girl has mentioned on a few occasions how she did this as a birthday treat years ago. She took the boat in to Inverie from Mallaig and ran the 14 or so miles through to Glendessary in one go. We all have different ideas of what constitutes a treat. It seemed reasonable that my 54 year old self could manage it over 2 days. I’d just spent a weekend being part of Running Girls support group as she ran 35+ miles a day. A couple of 7 mile days (roughly dividing the distance in half) over albeit rough ground and with a heavy rucksack, taking into account that just because I completed my challenge of walking/running (mostly walking) 100 miles in January did not make me fit - well, it would be a challenge, but unlikely to be one I couldn’t manage. Which would be just as well, as there is no phone or internet signal from start to finish.
No 1 support in the unsupported walk came from Spook who helped me to pack and made sure I had everything I needed for inclement weather and disaster. The weather on 27th/28th February was to be dry and sunny. And not cold. What better time to do this? No midges, no snow, no rain - no people. He wished he could come with me
There was nearly people, as a man appeared at his car just as I was departing. He’d walking in yesterday, nipping up a Corbett on the way, and taking 5 hours to get to Sourlies. He had the place to himself, though he could see that folk had been there the night before and he’d had to tidy up their mess. He said there was a snib on the door, so after 10pm he’d locked it. I asked him why he’d felt the need to do that??? “oh, just peace of mind” he said mildly. He’d walked back out in 4 hours. He was at least 10 years younger than me, strong and didn’t look remotely fatigued.
No 2 support was in Running Girl doing a 50 mile round trip to deliver me to Glen Dessary. She was more excited than I was, no doubt reminiscing about that birthday treat. She wished she was coming with me.
There was a warning sign……….
There was also 2.3 stones (15kg) of equipment strapped to my back . It was just a little disconcerting that after only 45 minutes of walking, when The Stalkers vehicle appeared and they slowed down to say hello, I’d jumped in the back before quite knew what was happening.
No 3 support. I know Fraser, though not his companion who was driving. I could see concern on their faces that ‘assistance’ was being sought before I’d even left the road. To my mind I was simply conserving energy. It may only have been 10 minutes in the truck, but it saved 20 minutes on foot and I was still struggling to adjust to the weight on my back. Fraser’s colleague asked my plans and reminded me that it was a steep climb up from Carnach on my 2nd day. I’d seen that on the map. “Just one step at a time” he said, with the air of a man who was used to supporting ill-prepared people on a Shoot . “and look for the stone wall on the other side of the river. The bridge has gone and that is the shallowest point to ford.”
“Have you been to Gleann Meadil before?”
“I’ve never even been to Knoydart before!” I exclaimed.
“Ah” said he.
It was hard to tell if this meant that I was in for a lovely surprise, or a terrible shock.
With a worried look, Fraser checked when Spook would be expecting to hear from me again (in over 24hrs time) and said goodbye.
Little by little, I adjusted to the rucksack and concentrated on careful steps and only looking at the view when I stopped. A turned ankle, especially with an extra 15kg on my back, would be catastrophic. After a couple of hours I stopped for lunch, believing this to be roughly my halfway point. After all, the man I’d just met had diverted up a hill on the way in.
Looking back, it was encouraging to see that, despite the slow pace, I’d come quite a distance. I had read that the path became indistinct in places. As I eventually meandered about the bog of what was presumably the watershed, I had to agree. There’s not a lot of straight lines in Scotland’s walkways, and I was making long work, trying to keep my feet reasonably dry.
No 4 support. Andrew Dignan’s stick. I took it with me as a bit of a joke, enjoying the image of myself as an old Shepherdess, fancying that it lent me an air of experience in the hills. Andrew passed away last year, and his son, Gorgeous Kev, gifted it to me as he knew I was wanting to make my own stick. As a tester of bog depth, and support on rough stony paths going downhill, and helping to haul me and my load uphill as well as that wonderful opportunity it affords to just lean and look, it was way better than fancy walking poles. Andrew’s stick was as important a piece of equipment as my bivvy bag and my coffee pot.
As time and effort ground on, I was beginning to treat the map as if it were my mother, consulting it every 5 minutes to see if “we were nearly there yet.” Really, it was quite clear which way to go so I finally tucked it away in the rucksack.
This was bad timing……..
Whilst it was obvious that I would be going between the low points of the view, it wasn’t obvious which side of the river I should be on - well, it WAS obvious to me, but there was a sign telling me to go the other way.
Implication, despite the clear path, that this was not the correct path. Go and cross the river.
But when I walked over to the river, the path petered out at the gorge, and when I looked back at the cross, the path on this side of the river was clear, as it headed to the gorge. Ocht - a prangster. Did I get out the map to check? The one I’d been clutching to me for the last 3 hours? Of course not. When I checked the map later, it crossed the river here!
An equally exciting, and disconcerting moment. I could see Loch Nevis where Sourlies bothy sits snugly beside. But it was still too far away and I was clearly on the wrong side of the gorge as the path became more and more precarious. I needed to get to the other side, but couldn’t face the walk back to the cross. Andrew’s stick came to my assistance. I unhitched my rucksack and hooked the stick over the top loop and carefully lowered it down some small crags where the length of the rucksack and the stick combined were enough to bring it to rest on a grassy bit. Then I could more safely scramble down without the extra weight. I did this over two sections of crags and got myself to the river where a short but steep grassy scramble would take me up to what was now clearly the true path. My heart was louping and my legs were shaking, but it was fantastic to be alive!!! Andrews stick then took me down that long long walk to sea level, where I was shocked to find that I’d taken 5.5 hours to get there.
Home sweet home. The part of the trip that had caused me the most concern, prior to starting. was spending a night in a bothy alone. I’ve only stayed in two before - once with Spook and once with Running Girl. A night of terror filled me in James of The Glens bothy near Duror as I dreamt of the Redcoats who took him away from his house and hung him by the Ballachulish Bridge for a murder he didn’t commit. It turned out to be very well fed, noisy mice, running about our rucksacks. Then, a night of terror ensued in a secret wee magical bothy out on the coast, where a storm blew up and we thought the roof was going to blow off. And there was the added fury of my daughter who said her noodles tasted funny and I gave her a row, told her not to be so spoilt. Eventually I realised we’d used her container to transport methylated spirits for the stove. YUCH! And she was pretty scary.
Little had I expected the journey into Sourlies to be so tough and exhausting, and until I got there, my fears of a bothy night had melted away in the relief of actually getting there in one piece - until I got there. Whilst it was a fine wee refuge - and clearly had not been the dwelling of some poor crofter torn from his bed and burnt out of his home, therefore unlikely to be harbouring any ghosts - I took exception to it and decided to bivvy out.
Two long burning logs had been carried in for the purpose. It would be lovely to lie here and listen to the sounds of the sea and the night. I had a little extra support (no 5?) by my side.
By 6.30pm dark was falling and there was a long night ahead. With nothing else to think about, I pondered my predicament. I was completely exhausted. I’d got myself in here and there was only one way out, unless I lay here and waited for 2 days for Spook to get the message and send a boat or a chopper. The message was in the delay. There was absolutely no other way of sending a message. I was completely alone. If anything or anyone was to trouble me, only I could get myself out of it. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so alone and lonely. Where the hell was Running Girl and Spook when I needed them? I took to thinking about the inordinate amount of bones lying around the place. It was like an animal graveyard. What the hell had been eating them?
Did they come here to die? Or did they die because they came here? That was the question.
As I tried to distract myself by flicking back over the photo’s I’d taken, my heart nearly broke through my breast bone when I saw a crazed, burnt kind of face in a balaclava peering over my shoulder.
That was it! I was out of my bivvy bag and had it dragged into the bothy running back with the shovel to get my burning log. If that man who’d stayed here last night wanted ‘peace of mind’, I bloody well wanted it too. Door bolted, heart pounding. Shovel inside as possible weapon of self defence.
Suddenly I really needed that whisky, and I thought I’d left it outside.
No - it was here……
One hip flask was not going to be enough.
With the gentle phut phut of the flame, I tried to focus on calming down. I looked at my support system.
Andrews stick, and Martin Ledgeroute’s boots, - ex mountain rescue and the most amazing bog and gorge river crossing boot - No 6 support. La Sportiva. Sorry Martin. I know you’re coming back up for a visit soon, but you can’t have them back.
No sooner had my nerves resolved themselves to settling down or I risked dying of a heart attack, there was a heavy rubbing sound at the gable end of the bothy.
Remembering a night in a Nissan Hut in Glen Doll with my equally feart pal Richard, circa 1985, I was sure this must be a large stag (of which I’d seen plenty when I came down to the loch). In Glen Doll, it was likely a wee sheep masquerading as a large monster and we were absolutely petrified. I’m older now. It would be fine, as Glen Doll had turned out to be fine. I’d read my book. The Colour of Bee Larkhams Murder. Nope. Not reading THAT. It was now 9pm. I needed a safe distraction. I picked up my phone and idly scrolled to my text messages. I picked out a dear friend and read our messages back and forth to each other between March 2016 and September 2016. I smiled, re read them, sighed, and as the log burnt down, settled down to snooze. I decided I wouldn’t look at my phone to see the time until there was a light dawning.
At 5pm, there was the tiniest of dawns. The wind was making the roof creak disconcertingly and it seemed that my clear day of yesterday had passed and it was going to be a duller, perhaps wet day. I could sense movement outside beyond the wind which was making me uncomfortable, but the deer had been right at the hut when I’d come down the glen, so I rationalised and waited for the light to grown.
I peeked out the window for reassurance that there was nothing untoward outside, and opened the door.
THIS was an indescribable moment of happiness. Fear melted away and I felt safe, strong and capable. I made a cup of green tea, porridge and sat outside the bothy.
As I was brewing coffee before departure, it dawned on my who my no 7 support was. My dear friend isn’t with us anymore and yet last night it had been her who had soothed my fears. I burst into tears. We like to say that the people we love are in our hearts when they’ve gone, but it’s even better if they’re in your phone, because then they can access your heart on dial up. How she would have hooted with laughter if she’d known how scared I was and that she could comfort me.
Re packed without the logs - a psychological boost as well as a physical one - and my trusty stick in hand, it was time to walk around the coast line to the next glen, the river crossing and the climb up to the Col into Gleann Meadil.
On the map, this is a short, easy walk along a beach and across flat land. It took me an hour! The usual zigzag to cross bogs and a diversion to take a photo of something that in the past, I’d have had to drag over the mountain……..
Without the wise guidance of The Stalker of Glendessary, I’d have missed the ford. No 8 support was the words of my mother as she moaned about terrible river crossings in bare feet with her boots strapped round her neck. She knew it was worth it to have dry feet and if Mental Monday’s swims have prepared me for anything, it’s cold, wet feet. I wasn’t risking wet boots and sure enough it came to not far under my knees.
The loss of the bridge makes this a very difficult crossing when the river is in spate.
Carnach - the point of starting the 550m climb.
If I’m trained for anything, I’m trained for going up a hill. 14 Ben races plus the attendant training must count for something. Everytime I ate something, I told myself my rucksack was lighter, and my energy levels lifted. Andrew’s stick took the strain.
After 1hr 40mins of climbing (and resting) it was time to say goodbye to the Glen of Carnach (I don’t actually know what the glen is called but the river is Carnach so it’s a good guess) and hello to Gleann Meadil……..
Oh happy days. I could see straight to Inverie! That gentle curve at the foot of the hills is the gentle curve of the bay. Of course, I’m not a crow, the path wiggled about, the view was seriously foreshortened and it took me 3 hours to get to the Knoydart Foundation Bunkhouse in the village.
That tiny wee cross on the hill was only tiny because it was still quite far away.
And on the map, where my wee road met this road up the next glen (which leads to Inverie in the other direction) looked like the main road into Inverie. I had felt sure I could hitch a lift……………not trained in the art of map reading, obviously.
When I got to the bunkhouse it was 1.45pm. Glancing at the ferry timetable I realised I was in loads of time for the 3pm ferry to Mallaig which takes 30 mins and I could catch the 4pm train to Fort William. The bunkhouse was superb. I took a wee peek in the kitchen and the lounge and with no one there, it was down to an honesty box and pick your own room. I left Fiona a note as although I hadn’t heard back from her before I left home, I’d attempted to pre book and I didn’t want anyone worrying. I also left my room fee in the box as this wasn’t an economy move. It was a get home to my husband move (lightweight!) The village of Inverie was the most wonderful calm, reassuring presence at the edge of a wilderness. I still had no signal, so thought I’d reassure Spook I was still alive by using the Telephone Box - I was fairly sure I still knew how to use one. No phone inside the box! Post Office - closed for lunch. Shop - closed for lunch. I went to the pier and a man waiting for the ferry reassured me that contact with the outside world returned halfway across the loch.
The boat from Mallaig would appear between the two headlands and would cost £10.
Inverie. A special place - even with an empty telephone box, closed for lunch shops and an empty bunkhouse. You just knew that you were welcome there.
As my train approached my station for home, I couldn’t face lifting my rucksack anymore and couldn’t get Spook on the phone. This could have been the moment that broke me. But there was No 2 support, waiting in her van, ready to lift my bag in for me. She burst out laughing when she saw the state of me.
“As I was walking, I realised I’d never asked you if you’d actually enjoyed your birthday treat all those years ago!” I wailed.
“Oh, I absolutely loved it. But I’d got Climbing Kev to leave my bike at the Glendessary road end so that I could cycle the 30 miles home. I HATED that bit.”
She delivered me to Spook where she left me - giggling in a slightly manic manner (me - not her.)