Day 2 – Garadhban Forest to Ptarmigan Lodge – 14 miles
The sunlight that greeted us with a beautiful dappled effect in the pine forest on the second day as we emerged from our first night wild camping was to last us the rest of the week, at times it was so warm it might have been Summer. We certainly hadn’t expected to be hiking in just a T-shirt in Scotland in October, but we were incredibly blessed with balmy days for our entire visit. With the added benefit that it was too late in the season for the swarms of midges that apparently plague summer visitors (those that have no green label Avon skin-so-soft, presumably).
In theory, it would be a short-ish 4 mile hike from our campsite to the nearest town, so we figured we’d get a fairly early start and be there in time for coffee and teacakes for elevenses, hurrah! What we did not realise was that between us and the nearest town of Balmaha and its potential delicious refreshments, stood Conic Hill. (Or, as some walkers we met later dubbed it, Cardiac Hill).
‘The first taste of the highlands’, the guide map called this. Notice the path heading up, and up. You can’t see the steps in that photo but there are many, and they are steep. And while it’s technically true that the path doesn’t go over the summit of the hill, it’s only a matter of metres… There is an opportunity to take an alternative route and avoid this hill, but where would be the fun in missing one’s first taste of the highlands? So over we went, stopping many times to ‘do a little breathe’, and thinking that perhaps the small bag of raisins we’d had between us for breakfast may, in retrospect, have been somewhat inadequate. As I’ve noted before, it’s amazing how much difference a weighty backpack makes, particularly uphill.
We finally made it to Balmaha at half past twelve, and stumbled gratefully into the nearest pub for a decent burger and chips. The situation was way past teacakes.
From this point onwards, for the rest of the day, the trail winds its way past the stunning Loch Lomond, in and out of forest, up to the Loch’s shore and away again, in a teasing dance that leads you up and down winding trails with amazing views. Sometimes you’re close enough to the shore that you could paddle should the urge strike you, and we did pass groups of hardy Scottish teenagers doing just that (standing around, ankle deep in loch, just chatting, as though their feet weren’t freezing off. I kid you not). We passed on the paddling on the grounds that I’m quite wimpy about cold water.
This shore of Loch Lomond is a restricted area where bylaws prohibit wild camping, there are a couple of campsites you can book (which have pitches right by the side of the trail as you walk through) but stopping at either would have made for a short day with not enough miles covered, so we opted to continue on past Rowardennon for a couple of miles to move past the restricted zone and wild camp once more. It’s made pretty clear when you enter and exit the restricted zone, so there’s not much chance of accidentally falling foul of the wardens.
After Rowardennon, the path splits into a high and a low road, the high road is the newer path, diverted because the lower path along the loch shore is becoming quite eroded and a bit dangerous. We knew this vaguely, but the signposts still point down the lower path, and by the time we realised our error (thanks to the amazing Gaia GPS app) we were a fair way along, and getting quite keen on the idea of stopping for the night so we didn’t retrace our steps. The trail here winds up and down, over boulder and tree root, and you feel like you’ve entered a childhood tale and will soon be finding the Faraway Tree. This more than makes up for the slowness of the resultant progress.
There are a few spots that have obviously been used to wild camp right by the side of this path, but to our suspicious Londoner eyes they totally looked like traps for the unwary with their short grass and circular arrangements of campfire stones, so finally we hiked up a slope into a sea of ferny bracken to wild camp in a clandestine manner next to a waterfall (although practically anywhere we picked would have been next to a waterfall to be honest. They’re ubiquitous, though no less delightful for that). It turns out the waterfall sounds aren’t helpful when you awaken in the night desperately needing to pee and there are 2 enormous backpacks in the porch blocking any exit, it’s pitch black outside, you don’t want to awaken your loved one and you’re worried if you go out you’ll accidentally fall in the stream, but hey, they’re super pretty.
It also turned out that ‘Off the Beaten Path’ lamb casserole in a bag is absolutely delicious. This pup is the fussiest in the world when it comes to food, and it was good to find that there does exist camping food that’s edible. I have to say here that the ‘just warm it up’ food was indeed edible, but the same cannot be said for the dehydrated food you add water to that we had later on. Ick. You live and learn. Yes, it’s absolutely worth the extra pack weight for the non-dehydrated rations.
To be continued…