Cape Wrath Trail 5: Shenavall to Inchnadamph

Shenavall to Inverlael

On the morning I left Shenavall bothy, it was cold and overcast. I was disappointed that the cloud level was so low, as this meant that An Teallach was out of sight. I had walked up An Teallach, a monster of a mountain mass, with my dad when I was about 17 years old, and it has been engrained in my memory ever since. I followed the track behind the bothy which ascends alongside the burn to the east. At the top of the hill, it was dreary and the visibility was poor. The track goes on and eventually joins a larger vehicle track which leads to Corrie Hallie. It was not straight forward to follow this track as much of it was concealed by soft snow, underneath which were deep puddles of melt water and mud. It was easier to avoid the track altogether and walk across the heather and moss covered ground where there was less snow cover – of course, this was very boggy as well. Footpaths have a habit of collecting water in all of its forms, becoming streams in heavy downpour and acting as a pocket for snow to fill.

From Corrie Hallie, there’s a brief walk up the A832 to a bridge across Dundonnell River. From here there is an ascent onto an expanse of moorland and upon reaching this it started to rain again – the rain had been on and off all day. The track across this moorland also had sections of deep mushy snow and the surrounding ground was sodden. I don’t remember water coming in over the top of my boots but my feet were certainly damp and my waterproof clothing had become saturated so that my base layers were getting wet with sweat. This was another day of squelching, almost every foot step, squelch, squelch, squelch. If anything was going to drive me to insanity, it was this sound.

Once I had made the descent into the valley, I followed a minor road on the west side of River Broom south for another 4 km to the Forest Way bunkhouse. It was a slog but good to arrive at the bunkhouse. The bunkhouse itself was full up for the night so I grudgingly paid twice the price to stay in a B&B room and hung up my damp kit in the dry room. I felt slightly awkward when I arrived at the B&B, as the odour emanating from my body and clothing was unpleasant to say the least – the result of days worth of stale sweat becoming damp. Isn’t that a lovely thought. The owner of the Forest Way was kind enough to sell me some bread and eggs for a couple of quid, and some equally generous folk in the bunkhouse shared their beer and some of their tomatoes (!) with me too – fresh food was always a luxury. One of the walkers that I met in the bunkhouse hoped to be the sixth person to complete the Marilyns, the 2009 mountains and hills over 150 metres high in the UK. He only had 32 to go.

Inverlael to Glen Achall

From Inverlael, I retraced my steps northward for 4 km, this time along the A835 before heading east and ascending up the winding forest track through Inverlael Forest. There was a strong breeze and flutters of snow. After leaving the forest, I came to a burn which had no obvious crossing point, Allt Gleann a’ Mhadaidh. I took my socks and boots off, and tied my boots around my neck. There were still remnants of snow on the river banks and of course the river water itself was ice cold. I took extra care during the river crossing, as bare feet in cold water quickly become sensitive to the rough rocks on the river bed, and an accidental slip could easily lead to the loss of a toe nail or a broken toe. In this case, the water was knee deep and not particularly fast flowing, and careful placement of my feet and poles helped with a swift crossing.

The walk into Glen Douchary was tough. The land was an expanse of yet more deep impassable peat bogs, and navigating between them was time consuming and tiring. I was regularly slipping on the slimey moss that covered much of the ground surface. My chosen route took me down to the River Douchary where several streams meet just south south east of Meall na Moch-eirigh. I had my boots and socks off again to cross some of the more minor streams before I could get a closer look for somewhere to cross the River Douchary, but I soon realised that it wasn’t going to be easy. The river was wide, and I couldn’t see a single river section where the water was neither deep nor fast flowing. I wasn’t going to get across this river.

I was stubborn and spent a good while walking back and forth along the banks of the river, trying to find a safe crossing point. This is when “the toothbrush incident” happened. I crouched down to put my boots back on, and suddenly felt a severe stabbing pain in my lower right ribs. The pain took me off guard and was agonising to the extent that I wasn’t actually sure whether or not I had broken a bone. That morning, the last thing I had done before setting off to walk was brush my teeth, and rather than putting my toothbrush away in my rucksack, I’d left it in my pocket. It was my toothbrush that had jabbed into my ribs.

I decided to cut my losses, and set off on a detour around the west side of Meall na Moch-eirigh towards the foot bridge by East Rhidorroch Lodge. I was not a happy man. Every time I took a mis-step on the rough ground, my core muscles tensed, and each time this happened I felt the same intense stabbing pain in my ribs. I was literally screaming with pain and cursing at the top of my voice across the moorland, “SHIIIIIIT”. The light started to fade quickly, and so I pitched my tent, with difficulty, by Allt an Luchda. I didn’t get much sleep that night, partly because of the pain, and partly because I was wondering how I would explain to my friends and family that I had abandoned my trip to Cape Wrath because of an unfortunate incident with a toothbrush.

Glen Achall to Oykel Bridge

I began walking tentatively the next day, still unsure of the damage done to my ribs. I followed Allt an Luchda north until I reached an area of woodland protected by a deer fence, and then followed the fence down from the side of Meall na Moch-eirigh to East Rhidorroch Lodge. It was a relief to cross the footbridge and get onto the vehicle track, as it was relatively easy to walk on and given my injury, much less painful. Although I was still hurting, I was feeling in pretty good spirits – mainly because I was feeling more confident that I was going to be able to continue the walk. I was always on edge about injuring myself and having to stop before the end – luckily this did not come to pass, although the pain in my ribs continued for several months.

For the rest of the day I was walking along nice and easy vehicle track. I was happy about this as it meant that I could make up lost time after setting up to camp early the previous day. By 11am, I reached Knockdamph bothy, and had a brief nosey inside as well as eating a hefty portion of nuts and dark chocolate. Before setting off on my 350 mile journey, I hadn’t even visited a bothy before, so I took every opportunity to have a little explore even if I wasn’t stopping for the night.

I couldn’t see a stone crossing on reaching Abhainn Poiblidh, so it was another refreshing dip for my feet. Fortunately it was a fairly shallow river crossing as the rain had mostly subsided, the sun had even started to occasionally poke out from behind the clouds. From here I passed the Schoolhouse Bothy and followed the track through Einig Wood towards Oykel Bridge. I ran into someone from the Mountain Bothy Association who was responsible for the Schoolhouse and was heading there to inspect it after the winter storms – it had looked in reasonably good nick to me, and lacking a fireplace, it smelt distinctly of damp wood rather than the typical remnant bothy odour of a coal fire.

Oykel Bridge Hotel had just opened for the season and I took the opportunity to buy some extra snacks (chocolate, crisps, fatty and calorific things) when I arrived. I felt uncomfortable being in the hotel having not washed my clothes for 8 days… I warned the staff to keep their distance but they reassured me that they were used to smelly backpackers. It was two hours before sunset, so I continued to walk along the track past Caplich Wood. There was a gate with several signs warning of live bulls in the next field. The signs and the size of the gate made it feel like I was entering Jurassic Park. Indeed, the bulls did look terrifying, but luckily they were temporarily contained within the barn at the farm and not running free. I set up camp a couple of miles along the trackand by one of the many fishing huts that run along the bank of the River Oykel.

Oykel Bridge to Gleann Dubh

I awoke to find slug trails all over my tent, although I could only find one tiny culprit making it’s way slowly across the roof. It was going to be a long day to Inchnadamph, but I had taken a chunk off by walking the few extra miles past Oykel Bridge. The weather was looking promising as I set off walking again and it only got better throughout the day. I was feeling good now, having had a tiring time walking in the rain and then injuring my rib in the days before. It always helps to eat more, so it was great that I was able to get extras from Oykel Bridge Hotel and that I was well fuelled.

From my camping spot, I followed the vehicle track north, passing many more fishing huts before joining a more subtle path that continues to follow the River Oykel from Salachy. It was peaceful in this area of woodland and comforting to be surrounded by that lovely pine scent again. About 1 km south of Loch Ailsh, I saw the first and only sign post for the Cape Wrath Trail which indicated a minor detour from the usual route along the river. I followed the detour and joined the vehicle track to Benmore Lodge. Here I ran into a couple who were walking back towards the bull field where I had camped for the night. We talked about Assynt, and how the scenery gets more and more wild and beautiful further north. This got me excited for what was ahead.

I continued to follow the River Oykel into the valley at the foot of Conival and Ben More. It was silent here except for the sound of the flowing water, and I had the place completely to myself. It was a beautiful valley, and even though I was starting to run short on daylight, I enjoyed a break by the river in the sun. The River Oykel splits off into a number of tributaries, and just before ascending to the narrow gulley on the south west edge of Conival, there was a river crossing. When crossing I slipped and nearly fell, just catching myself with my walking poles. On the other side, I checked that all of my toenails were accounted for before putting my boots back on.

The sun was starting to set, and I could tell that I was going to miss something spectacular unless I quickly made my way out of the shelter of the valley. I picked up the pace, practically jogging up 350 metres of hillside – no easy feat with what was probably 18 kg on my back. I decided not to head on to Inchnadamph but to go up Breabag instead. My hard work paid off. From the top of Breabag, I could see for miles and miles. It was one of the most vibrant and beautiful sights I have ever seen. The sky was on fire, and the golden light of the setting sun made the rocks around me glow with warmth. Assynt is otherworldly.

The wind quickly picked up and the temperature plummeted as the sun dipped beneath the horizon. I had considered camping up there, but it was too exposed to the bitter cold. I donned my head torch and made for the gulley which led off the mountain towards Inchnadamph. On leaving the gulley, there was a gradual descent on some exposed hillside covered in loose scree. This was challenging in the dark so it was necessary to tread carefully. Before reaching the River Traligill, I came across a large area of peat bog. The bog formed a maze in the darkness and it was taking a while to navigate between the nice green grassy islands and avoid tumbling into the black pits of slimy peat. I decided to set up camp about 4 km short of Inchnadamph and wait for daylight. I enjoyed a subtle aurora display of magentas and greens before eating the last of my rations and huddling up in my sleeping bag for the night. Even when the aurora is barely visible, there’s something magical about just knowing it’s there above you.

Gleann Dubh to Inchnadamph

I walked into Inchnadamph first thing in the morning and arrived at the walkers lodge by 10am. Here I picked up a supply parcel and decided to take another day off, not because I was physically exhausted, but because it was a beautiful place, and I wanted to take the opportunity to wash and dry my clothes for the first time in a long time. The lodge also has a small shop with basic food supplies, so I was able to fill up on some hearty food (I was practically gulping olive oil – and enjoying it). I spent the rest of the day sat out in the sun while I waited for my clothes to dry, and ate and ate and ate. The walk between Oykel Bridge and Inchnadamph had been spectacular, and certainly provided plenty of inspiration for many more trips to Assynt. In the evening, I watched another aurora display over Loch Assynt, this time I could see structure, towers of green dancing serenely in the the dark of the night.

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