Day 5 – Auch Estate to Kingshouse (16 miles)
It’s hard to believe, I know, but the picture above was taken first thing in the morning. Before coffee. In the fresh, cold, Scottish morning air. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such consistently perky pictures of me under circumstances that ought to have been trying. In fact, the physical challenge, the aching muscles, the cold nights and mornings, the sometimes dodgy food (Nothing good can come of dehydrating things and putting them in bags, it seems), all of it seemed just to add to the overall amazing experience. I have rarely in my life felt such a constant sense of happiness in the moment as I did while hiking the West Highland Way.
A couple of miles further along the gravel road from our campsite (which looked adorable again in the daylight) around the brooding hills took us to the Bridge of Orchy. There’s a stern train station (seriously, it’s in the middle of nowhere, who gets off the train here??) which has numerous signs insisting that toilets are strictly for train passengers, definitely not hikers; a pretty bridge (as advertised); and a nice pub with delicious coffee and an outside tap from which to fill your water bottles.
And basically things get wilder from here onwards. The path becomes a path, rather than a nearly-road, and heads up into the hills. Quite steeply in fact. And everywhere you go there are rowan trees – this delighted me, as Rowan is my middle name, and I love both the associations of rowan with witchcraft and the fact that you find them in the most unlikely places, all windswept and defiant all by themselves. You feel that if they had middle fingers, they’d be raising them at the elements.
Pausing only to eat bacon and egg sandwiches at Inveroran Hotel, that we pleaded unashamedly for, and only obtained because the lovely staff took pity on us (too late for breakfast, too early for lunch. Curses!), we headed up onto Black Mount.
And this is truly the highlands at last, the path is a narrow cobbled road that feels as though it belongs in a fairytale, and it passes for miles over Rannoch moor. All around you are incredible, majestic hills and the way meanders through them without passing over the summits. Eventually you can see nothing in any direction but wave after wave of rolling hills that go on and on until they are obscured in mist. We were incredibly lucky to walk this section on such a beautiful clear day that the views were amazing. Every so often we would see clouds around a mountain top, with beams of sunlight breaking through and lighting up sections of trees or moor. And it brooded, despite the good weather. You could see why all those gothic novels were set on moors.
Bizarrely, at one point we met a very well to do gentlemen walking in the other direction, holding a cup of tea. He was dressed as though he might be attending the races or a London gentleman’s club. He told us he was headed ‘just down here’, vaguely waving a hand that he clearly felt to be self explanatory, (although we were a good 6 miles from any sort of civilisation that way, and indeed 4 miles from anything the way he’d come) and asked us where we were from. ‘London’, we told him. He nodded knowingly. ‘Ah yes. In Italy?’. Um, no.
We also met some Southbound West Highland Way hikers who’d started in Fort William 3 days earlier. They waxed lyrical about Glen Coe, that they’d passed through the previous day. ‘Spectacular’ was a word bandied about freely. We nodded politely and wondered how anything could possibly be more spectacular than our current surroundings.
For these rugged uplands are more than just grass. Dotted around all over the place, adding greatly to the atmos, are numerous dappled black and white stones, which look as though they’d be perfectly at home being used as standing stones by passing Druids; craggy ridges; mysterious ruins; beautiful streams and waterfalls; and patches of pink, purple and red heather, stunning in their unexpected colour.
We reached the 17th century pub and hotel called Kingshouse, which is pretty much the only place to stay for many miles around, (unless you count the ski village up to the left, but I had dark suspicions that one would have to utilise that terrifying ski lift to reach that) at an amazing half past three in the afternoon. This adorable place was apparently once much frequented by cattle drivers across the moors, and now boasts some lovely spots set aside for wild camping right outside. They don’t charge you to wild camp there, and they do amazing steak and ale pie. Win/win.
I feel compelled to point out though, dear reader, that in the true spirit of gothic novels (well, perhaps slightly less glamorously than in a Bronte masterpiece), we were kept awake half the night by the deafening moo-ing of cows that sounded as though they were literally right outside the tent, and the splashing of water, as though there were cows in the stream we’d camped by. We even had a quick midnight debate about whether they’d step on the tent and concluded that they were probably not that dim, so convinced were we that a herd surrounded us… Yet a peek out of the tent revealed nothing, we’d seen no cows all day, we saw no cows in the morning, or for the entire next day… and there was no cow poo anywhere… None. Clearly ghost cows. Possibly 17th century drover ghost cows, who can say?
To be continued…