“No self-respecting poacher would be without these,” the burly driver chuckled as he deftly jangled a set of keys.
Bemused, I looked ahead to the padlocked gate and the bold ‘Authorised Vehicles Only’ sign. The man’s son, Ewan, swiftly leapt out of the 4×4 and swung the gate open, tyres screeching as we sped through the gate, barely stopping as the agile teenager jumped back in the car.
The bog-engulfed 200-mile Cape Wrath trail had left me resilient enough to take on just about anything.
“Hold on lassie!” Iain bellowed as he clutched the steering wheel, the car bumping along the muddy track. “This is the real Scotland!”
I laughed in return, Iain’s audacity failed to unnerve me, not after I’d just finished what has been labelled Britain’s ‘toughest hike’. The bog-engulfed 200-mile Cape Wrath trail had left me resilient enough to take on just about anything, including hitching with a self-confessed ‘hillbilly’. Yet I knew my adventure was far from over.
I’d read about the Cape Wrath trail a year earlier and the author made it sound arduous. Midges, bogs, desolate glens. No showers, a heavy backpack and wild camping. That was enough to pique my interest. A year later, I had coaxed a fellow hiker to join me on the Cape Wrath trail, the only other person foolish enough to do this for pleasure. Not one for convention, I had decided to do the hike north to south instead of the traditional route of south to north.
The walk started solemnly at Cape Wrath lighthouse. “You’re doing the Cape Wrath trail?” a Dutchman asked before lamenting, “I got half way but gale force winds and impossible river crossings stopped me a week ago. I’ve come here on the minibus to see where I should have finished.”
I remained dry for exactly two hours.
John and I swapped cautionary glances at one another. We were both long-distance hikers and failure to complete the Cape Wrath trail was not in our mind-set. The weather for the past two days had been glorious. Then Murphy and his Law stepped in, saw we were about to begin our 17-day hike, and unleashed a torrent of rain. I remained dry for exactly two hours.
It rained heavily for four solid days. One of the tent poles snapped. I was saturated and had canals in my boots. Yet I never even thought about stopping. It was Scotland. It rains. Getting wet is part of the experience, isn’t it? We opted for low routes and crossed rivers in narrow places. Locals thought we were mad, they offered us lifts and John looked at me with a glimmer of hope in his eyes, before I shot it down with a polite refusal. We were walking from Cape Wrath to Fort William.
It rained heavily for four solid days. One of the tent poles snapped. I was saturated and had canals in my boots.
We ploughed on through Assynt and Knoydart, the bog and terrain gnawing at our ankles. I was mesmerised by the absolute vastness and utter beauty of the area. The expansive glens were peppered with drumlins, the entire area once being a colossal glacier before the big thaw carved out its current landscape. Now it is dotted with clumps of bog and hundreds of hopping frogs. I caught a brief glimpse of red deer peering down from their vantage point, a mountain top draped in mizzle, at the only other mammals for miles hiking south.
“The natives are out, are they? English blood is their favourite.”
There had been rumours on the Cape Wrath trail for the past four days but I had refused to believe them. I cocked my ears upwards in the tent and was sceptically optimistic. Raindrops. There were no raindrops. Knocking the cooking utensils out of the way, I launched myself into the porch and tore open the zip. It was true! It was the start of a heatwave. My heart leapt but so did the midges, right onto me. The rain had kept them at bay but now there was no stopping them.
“Ghaaa!” I squealed as I threw myself back into the tent with a fit of arm-wielding gestures.
“What on earth are you doing?” John asked, bemused.
“There’s a plague out there!” I shouted in absolute horror.
“Oh, the natives are out, are they? English blood is their favourite,” he teased in his thick Scottish accent.
“No wonder the highlands are uninhabited!” I scowled, scratching at my myriad bites.
The heatwave lasted an entire week, the sky was cobalt and we stopped to paddle in rivers and get washed in lochs. Pink heather danced in delight beneath the sun’s rays and the gushing rivers bowed down to pleasant crossings. The midges kept up their vigil throughout the Cape Wrath trail and I kept up mine; smothering my bites in tiger balm and self-pity. “Stop scratching!” John shouted. “I can’t!” I snapped back.
I pitched the tent on the Cape Wrath trail for the very last time. SNAP! “Thank God for gaffer tape,” I thought.
John left the trail a couple of days early, his back was giving him trouble. I continued to Fort William with the weather initially on my side. I walked along the Cona River, revelling in the absolute solitude of the area. Even the two grass snakes basking on the path blissfully ignored my thundering footsteps.
By the time I reached Fort William on a busy August bank holiday, however, I once again resembled a drowned rat. A storm had hit the night before, my fragile tent poles delicately clinging for life. Ben Nevis loomed into view and its foreboding presence was all around me as I pitched the tent on the Cape Wrath trail for the very last time. SNAP! “Thank God for gaffer tape,” I thought.
After bounding up Ben Nevis the next day, I decided to hitch to Inverness, dreaming of a hotel with a deluxe mattress.
I was picked up by an affable, if a somewhat unrefined character. With his two boys in the back, Iain took us on a scenic route so I, “the lassie” and the kids “the loons” could get a real view of the area.
“Wind the windows down loons!” Iain shouted as we saw the police stopping the traffic ahead. We need to freshen the car up. It smells like a brewery in here, I’m taking all the beer cans to be recycled.”
Thankfully the policeman’s sense of smell was not his strong point. “Where are you going?” he asked.
“She’s going to Inverness – she’s just walked the Cape Wrath trail – and we’re going west.”
The policeman smiled at me. “I’m afraid the road ahead is closed. There’s been a really bad accident and it’ll be closed for four to five hours. There’s no access to Inverness. And you’ll need to go back and around to go west.”
“Right, thanks. We’ll figure something out,” Iain said. “So lassie, you can camp at ours if you like?”
My king-sized bed with an engulfing mattress vanished in seconds. “Sure, that’d be great, thanks.”
“But we’re sure as hell not going on a 60-mile detour. Loons, get the keys and spanners ready!”
Within five minutes, the stake had been used to lift the gate off the hinges, the car had been driven through it, and in breakneck speed, the gate had been put back on again.
We drove wildly up a path as Iain slammed the brakes on in front of a giant padlocked gate. All three of them jumped out in a flash, testing their cluster of keys in the padlock. None of them worked.
“Unscrew the hinges!” Iain shouted to the kids and no more instructions were needed. My jaw dropped and eyes widened in absolute amazement. The kids unscrewed the hinges on the gate and Iain dexterously loosened a giant stake of wood in the ground. Within five minutes, the stake had been used to lift the gate off the hinges, the car had been driven through it and in breakneck speed, the gate had been put back on again. They all jumped back in the car.
“Wow!” I mouthed. “I can fix a broken tent pole,” I offered feebly.
We reached their farm, six miles from the closest house and powered by a generator. The setting was spectacular, close to Glen Affric and the surrounding mountains. The hunger-inducing smell of a barbecue drifted towards us and I was given my very own lodge with a log fire and a bed. I was ecstatic and exhausted.
Feeling slightly uncomfortable from the advances of Iain, who was now drunk, I retreated to my cabin and for a moment thought about pushing the sofa against the door. I laughed at how ridiculous that was; he could simply take the hinges off anyway. There was no need to worry, everyone fell into a deep slumber and my time in Scotland had come to an end. I was driven to Inverness airport the next day and within hours I was whisked away from bogs, midges, and desolate hills.
Oh, how I long to go back.
- See a full 17-day itinerary of the Cape Wrath trail, north to south here.
- Get the top Cape Wrath trail tips here.
Jane walked the Cape Wrath trail in August 2016.