A bridge wants not to be. If it could choose its shape, a bridge would be no shape, an in space to link One-place-town to Another-place-town over a river … – China Miéville, This Census-Taker
The stupendous breakfast in St Anthony’s B&B was one of the best in the UK: gorgeous full fat yoghurt, rhubarb from the garden with strawberries, kiwis and blueberries, all to eat with muesli and fruit and fibre. There was scrambled egg and smoked salmon, toast and marmalade and coffee and juice.
Pretty much the most perfect breakfast ever and with an outstanding view to boot: Saint Anthony’s B&B stands well above Fort William and the sea-loch, Loch Linnhe.
Little did we know that we were to need every calorie of that breakfast. St Anthony’s… you might just have saved our lives.
Our route now took us along the Great Glen Way for a while, following the Caledonian Canal tow path from Neptune’s Ladder for a couple of hours. This route bisects the country from Inverness to Fort William and the canal’s width clearly showed that it could take seagoing vessels. The Ladder is a series of locks
with some sizeable boats in them.
We started in the rain with full waterproofs, but despite the dreadful forecast, it wasn’t long before we were considering taking them off.
Our packs were the heaviest this morning that they are going to be as we were carrying so much food, but we knew we would start eating the food as of lunchtime and our packs would get progressively lighter. Another way we have cut down on weight is by buying a water filter – like a huge syringe – which will allow us to drink water straight out of streams and so we can cut down on the amount we are carrying in our platypuses. Each litre of water weighs a kilo and with all the food we are carrying, that is quite a significant addition. We had a dehydrated meal each for each evening, and high-fat protein, blocks of cheese and chorizo sausage for lunch. We had planned on porridge pots for breakfast and some bars for snacks.
The canal was a great way to start this section of the walk as of course it is flat and we made good headway. Plus (and it was a plus for me!) it had a beautiful verge stuffed full of orchids for me to look at.
The orchids gave way to banks of cranesbill. It felt so good to be back outside.
Black butterflies or day-flying moths were common, and the largest flock of long tailed tits – perhaps twenty or thirty individuals.
There were also terrific mountain views as well. After just over an hour we could see round the back of Ben Nevis to the North face, still with patches of snow on even in June; the top, as ever, was in cloud.
A couple of hours’ walking along the canal brought us to Gairlochy.
Here we left the canal and headed uphill, up a quiet road through pine-woods, with classic loch views opening up from the path.
We left the Great Glen Way to head up to Achnacarry, past the Clan Cameron Museum where a sign advertised toilets, ice-cream, coffee… all essential to walkers.
The museum curator was a fund of knowledge of the area, especially of the local history of the Commandos, who used Achnacarry House, seat of the Clan Cameron Chief, as a base to train here for WW2 beach assaults (under live fire!)
The curator also had the live link to the webcam trained on the osprey nest on Loch Arkaig, and while we drank our coffee we were able to watch the hen feeding her two remaining chicks (after the third one had been taken by a pine marten).
Outside there was a birdsnest of our own: a tiny one built improbably on the top of a post leaning against a shed in the car park:
We walked on and out the back of the estate to the eastern end of Loch Arkaig, one of those stunning loch views which seems to go on forever, a peaceful, timeless sight,
and as we turned and walked west on its northern bank we remarked how profoundly content we felt,
and how lucky, how deeply fortunate, to be out here with the heather just starting to show purple – and the smell of honey really and truly in the air.
We now turned north up a river valley on a track to take us high into the hills. We were walking towards the sun
although behind us the clouds were gathering…
And at 2.30 a squall was sweeping north over the loch.
It looked like it meant business so we put our full waterproof gear on and battened down the hatches with our Peebles rucksack covers. Half an hour in it was still raining, but the path was good and we were making fast progress.
An hour in, the path petered out completely. The guide book had instructions to get up to the highest bealach of this route at 650m: ‘there is no path and the next 4km are quite difficult underfoot. When the stream starts to lose its identity in the peaty cirque below the pass, aim to what appears to be the lowest point on the skyline on a bearing of 330 degrees. The peat makes the going difficult.’
It did indeed, and when we eventually reached the col the wind was extremely high, it was trying to hail, and the windchill was significant.
Dropping down off the bealach the wind eased almost immediately, but the going was still extremely rough, a pathless continuation of the peat hags down which we picked a route, with a stream in a steep gorge to our right, boots very wet although we ourselves were warm enough.
By 6pm we had made it down to the first of the rivers we were supposed to ford. The rain of the afternoon had swelled the river into a tremendous spate and we had to track it upstream until we could see a safe way to cross with the aid of a boulder, mid-stream. This entailed climbing a deer fence.
Having successfully negotiated this it was another 90 minutes’ walk over ‘a good path‘ – for which read a soft, soggy bog over which we once again had to pick our way, trying not to crush our second carnivorous plant of the journey, the sundew.
It had stopped raining and there was sun on the hills we were aiming for. We were pretty pleased with the way that we had managed the difficult ground conditions, and looking forward to pitching our tent about hour beyond the next river, which we were to cross at a footbridge.
The ‘footbridge’ was two rotten tree trunks balanced precariously over another foaming, raging flash flood.
Absolutely unthinkable to attempt a crossing. We were so close to the path we needed, and if the promised bridge had been there we would been home and dry, so to speak.
So we tracked further downstream looking for a wider, flatter section where the water would be shallower and we might ford. In front of us there appeared a wonderful stalkers’ track lower down the valley and we made straight for it, over the heather and hanging bog.
When we were a matter of meters away from it – at about 7.30, under our feet there suddenly appeared another river in furious spate. So close to the path, the escape route, but there was no way to cross.
So we tracked up and down that too, for another hour, testing the water flow and depth with our poles. Too too dangerous to attempt a crossing.
Eventually we realised that, having crossed the first river successfully two hours before, we were now effectively trapped on three sides by boiling rivers too full and fast-flowing to even consider crossing. On the fourth side was 750m-high Sgurr Chòinnich.
We found the flattest piece of high ground we could: friendly heather and moss tussocks but dryish underneath, a slight rise above us protecting us a little, and a big boulder to rest our packs against. It was 9pm. We had done 37km, ascended 950m and descended 560m; a hard, hard 12-hr day. It is well worth tracking the route on the fly-through, especially to see the detours we had made.
We had a gel each from our emergency packs, and pitched the tent at high speed. We got out of our wet things, got into our sleeping bags, made a hot meal. We were trapped, but we were safe, warm, fed, in a good 4-season tent with food and fuel for three days, the means to filter and purify water, and (astonishingly enough) 4G connection.
We would sit out the night and see what the morning brought.