Saturday, 28 June 2014

Stage 5: Strathyre to Tentsmuir Point

Easy walking in easy weather: the walk ended pretty much as it began five weeks ago in Angus. Bar one slightly wet morning, there was no rain and hardly any wind for the final week. I stayed at the campsite in Strathyre for a couple of nights. I pitched by the river and lay around a lot in the sun watching the large gang of resident ducks patrolling the grass. My sister pitched up next to me for a night and we had a few beers and watched football in the Strathyre Inn.

The fine weather held. From Balquhidder Station I negotiated forestry brash then boggy moorland over to the head of Glen Ample. Beinn Each and Stuc a'Chroin followed as I walked long into the evening to a wonderful high camp by Lochan a'Chroin. The Stuc was the final big mountain of the trip. Familiar landmarks were spread out below: Dumyat, Longannet power station, the Forth estuary, the Campsies. On this last day in the mountains the wildlife continued to thrill: a ring ouzel, and fox cubs amongst a jumble of boulders.

Fully extricating myself from the hills took a couple more days. I crossed miles of moorland and bog, traversing Uamh Bheag. I wondered at the meaning of this hill's name: 'little cave'. Perhaps it refers to the springs that well up on its northern flanks. The spot is marked by an old cairn, the water clear, cold and delicious.

 The springs overlooked the massive Braes of Doune wind power plant. This sits on deep peat moorland. The peat hags are enormous around here, canyons of black mud. How much CO2 was released from this carbon sink during construction of the wind farm, excavating access roads and digging turbine foundations? These moors still hold much beauty and remoteness despite industrialisation. I had a magnificent wild camp just out of earshot of the turbines.

The following morning I wandered down a heathery birch-lined glen, avoiding a military firing range on the hills to the north, to the high road to Braco. The moor opposite was full of curlew calls, and a barn owl flapped out of the grass. The crest gave a few kilometres of intensely heavy going through some nasty bogs. The hill sported the last full-on Gaelic name on my route: Meall a'Choire Odhair, 'hill of the rough hollow'. A typically accurate no-nonsense description.

At last, after a second meeting with the monster pylons of the Beauly-Denny power line, built to carry wind-generated power out of the highlands, I entered a forestry plantation. I emerged onto a rural back road that ran by fields of cattle and broadleaf woods. I was back in the lowlands. As I tramped the miles to Auchterarder on roads and tracks I began to get the feeling I'd come full circle.

The Ochils gave one last hill day and wild camp near the head of Dunning Glen. Eastwards the hills are drowned in conifers. I picked a way through, following the watershed over Slungie Hill and Heads Hill, and stopped in Glenfarg for the night. I was getting tired, slowing up. Another shortish day took me through Pitmedden Forest to Newburgh. These were Pictish lands, Roman frontier country. Mugdrum Island lies off Newburgh and some speculate it was used by the Romans to bridge the Tay.

Roads tended to run north-south in this area, so sometimes I had to force my way east. I ended up in some awkward places including an off-road driving centre. There was also a dearth of campsites both formal and wild. Each day involved a search for a cheap bed and breakfast - these were hard to find too.

It was time to pick up the pace. Next day I followed the Fife Coastal Path through the hills and woods of northeast Fife and down to the Tay at Balmerino. This part of Fife is deeply rural. I could sense something ancient and unshakable in the slow ruminations of cattle chewing the cud and the gravelly potholes of tiny back roads. Rusty vintage tractors littered one overgrown field; cockerels did endless call-and-response across another.

The end had to come eventually. I walked the last few miles in the morning, along the coast through Tayport and into Tentsmuir Forest. A little gate opened onto the dunes. Skylarks soared and the sun broke through as I came to a stop where gentle waves washed the sand.

There were no great epiphanies or overwhelming emotions at the end. There was the quiet satisfaction of seeing the venture through good and bad to the end. There was also the sense that if the experience had changed me in any way, these changes would play out slowly and subtly, at unpredictable times and unexpected ways.

So it's done but not quite dusted - I have thoughts and reflections and plenty of photos to share still. If you haven't done so, now would also be a good time to throw in a few pennies for Venture Trust and Scottish Wild Land Group - visit the fundraising page on this blog.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Stage 4: Tyndrum to Strathyre

The hardest part is over. It's downhill all the way now, give or take a few large intervening bumps. So I was thinking as I left Tyndrum after a few days of rest and time with my family. In fact I had two of the hardest days of the walk during this stage, long days in foul weather over Ben Lui, Beinn Oss and Beinn Dubhchraig, and two days later over Stob Binnein and the Braes of Balquhidder. Yet the stage finished in a heatwave as I crossed Meall an t-Seallaidh and sweated my way into Strathyre.

Ben Lui added midges to the misery of a very wet camp. The inside of the tarp was black with them, and I was wracked with coughs as I inhaled midges. There were dozens of orchids and a lovely burn though. A nice spot nonetheless.

The previous day was a relatively easy one, out of Tyndrum by the scars of lead mining, over Meall Odhar and Beinn Chuirn. Next day it rained and rained as I slogged over the Ben Lui group. After Beinn Dubhchraig a missing footbridge meant wading a swollen river, trying to focus through a haze of midges. A few hours later I arrived at Crianlarich youth hostel very late, hungry, exhausted and muddy. Not a bad day's work - but it was work and little else.

Next day, still feeling it, I crossed Cruach Ardrain in much better weather. It's a challenging scrambly peak, and a pivotal one for me. The Trossachs came into view, Ben Ledi, Ben Venue, Ben Vorlich and the final 3,000er of the walk, Stuc a'Chroin. The Highlands were running out. That night as I camped in a giants' landscape of massive boulders at the feet of Ben More and Stob Binnein, I allowed my thoughts to drift to the end of the walk.

The highlands weren't done with me yet though. In a washout of a day I climbed Stob Binnein. That was the easy bit: beyond, the Braes of Balquhidder offered perhaps the toughest terrain of the trip. I added zig zags to the watershed's own meandering as I worked around crags and bogs. In the middle of this toil a red deer fawn walked right up to me, looking me in the eye, as its mother ran. The day was transformed. The rain had stopped too and I camped by a hill loch, overlooked by crags as the setting sun lit the breaking clouds and set sky and water on fire.

For the first time in weeks I woke to sunlight. After the last of the Braes, Meall an t-Seallaidh, I dropped into Kirkton Glen (the actual watershed goes to Balquhidder Station but is obliterated by forestry). Hot sunshine, forestry tracks, Rob Roy's Grave, an American tour group, lush meadows, horses, cattle, with the slow water of the River Balvaig through it all. Chilli con carne, beer and ice cream in Strathyre. It was good, all of it.

Please if you haven't done so - visit the fundraising page and make a donation to Scottish Wild Land Group and Venture Trust.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Stage 3: Dalwhinnie to Tyndrum

I awoke to the sound of rain drumming on the tarp. Opening my eyes I could see the midges massing on the mesh of the bivvy bag's face panel. I was camping at Ben Alder Bay on Loch Ericht. The previous day I'd fought my way over Bheinn Bheoil face first into driving rain and mist. Cold and wet and wary of lightning I'd retreated from Ben Alder to camp by the loch. Eventually hunger and a full bladder forced me to unzip the bivvy bag and emerge to let the midges have their fill.

This was the stage of the walk where I began to run up hard against limitations, most notably the weather, time, terrain, and my fitness and stamina. The close brush with lightning had also affected me more than I realised. On the hill I was constantly on edge. It was threatening to spoil my enjoyment. It quickly became clear that I wouldn't be able to walk every step of the watershed as I'd hoped. Instead I tried to thread together a route that was challenging but achievable within those limits, that stayed close to the watershed and included some key summits.

The fine weather that rounded off the previous stage of the walk didn't last. Walking over the Fara from Dalwhinnie, a heavy shower hinted at the drenchings to come. Next day over Bheinn Bheoil was grim: the highlight was a ring ouzel or mountain blackbird near the summit. That evening I received the first real savaging by midges of the trip.

Despite a poor start the next day turned out well. Early rain cleared and I had a long sunny ridgewalk over the Munros of Sgor Gaibhre and Carn Dearg. The latter hill was one of those pivotal points of the walk where I seemed to be entering an entirely new landscape. Ahead lay Rannoch Moor and the great mountains of the west: Glencoe, the Mamores, the Grey Corries. The humidity was intense the next morning. Ugly black clouds bubbled up and there were distant rumbles of thunder. The day descended into farce as I lost the path from Rannoch to Kingshouse and ended up in the middle of the moor in pouring rain. It was a long struggle over difficult terrain to regain the track and reach Kingshouse. It rained all night. Camped behind the hotel, I awoke to puddles of groundwater inside the tarp. I had wanted to traverse the Black Mount but they were wreathed in cloud and I didn't feel confident navigating the complex ridges in poor weather. I was tired and depressed and needed some respite.

The walk along the West Highland Way to Bridge of Orchy is a fine one. I caught a bus from there to Tyndrum and stayed at the campsite. The following morning, fully dried out and in better spirits, I bussed back to Bridge of Orchy. The watershed route had fallen to bits but I was determined to have a good three days exploring the hills down to Tyndrum and climb as many watershed summits as time and energy allowed. And they turned out to be great days. On a beautiful afternoon I walked over Beinn Achaladair and Beinn a'Chreachain to camp at a lonely bealach looking out to Rannoch Moor. Next day I was feeling done in after six consecutive days of walking. I had a short day over Beinn Mhanach. I was glad I camped early. The heavens opened in the late afternoon and rain hammered the tarp for almost four hours. Finally on a showery morning I crossed Beinn nam Fuaran and Beinn a'Chaisteal before walking through a green, trackless pass through the hills to Strath Fillan and so to Tyndrum. Three great days and a good rummage through the hills went some way to make up for the disappointment of previous days.

Perhaps the highlight of this stage - and something I might not have seen if all had gone to plan - was visiting the Tigh nam Bodach. This tiny stone house at the head of Glen Lyon is home to a little family of stone figures. Every April they are taken out of the house by a local shepherd, and put back in October. It's an ancient shrine and the ritual mirrors the movement of transhumance: taking cattle to summer pastures in the hills and returning to the lower lands as winter approached.

Sadly, Tigh nam Bodach is threatened. Planning permission has been granted for a mini hydro scheme in Gleann Cailliche. If it goes ahead a road designed for heavy construction traffic will be driven up the glen. With increased ease of access will come more people, and the little stone family and their house will inevitably be lost to thieves and vandals.

Local legend says that bad things will happen if the figures are taken. Maybe this isn't a supernatural threat but a logical assessment of where we're headed when we destroy our connection with the land and our past in the name of money.

Finally a reminder that I'm walking for Scottish Wild Land Group and Venture Trust. Please visit the fundraising page on this blog to read more and donate to two great charities.