Part 1: Inverlael – Gleann na Sguaib – Ullapool, Part 2: Black Bridge – Loch Vaich
Monday, 08 April 2013
33.4 km/837 m/08:30 hrs
Some time ago I had read about a “Coast to Coast in a Day” route from Inverlael (Loch Broom) to Bonar Bridge (Dornoch Firth). I thought this would be a good training for the TGO Challenge, but instead of doing it in one day – it is almost 52 km long, after all – I would make a two day backpacking trip of it, with a camp about halfway near Deanich Lodge.
The only thing I was worried about were the snow conditions. Although it is mainly a low level route, it crosses the pass between the Munros Meall nan Ceapraichean and Beinn Dearg at a height of 850 m, and I would only find out about the snow level once I got there.
I had booked a bus ticket to Ullapool and a train ticket from Ardgay to Inverness for the next day. Buying the train ticket in advance instead of on the train meant a saving of over £ 6, which would be better invested in a pint or two at the pub opposite the train station in Ardgay, where I was planning to wait for my train (or so I thought!)…
When I got on the bus on Monday morning, I asked the bus driver if he could drop me off at Inverlael, he was happy to do so and stopped right beside the phone box at the start of the track.
At the start of my walk, Ben More Coigach visible in the distance.
As I made my way up Gleann na Sguaib, the clouds lowered and it started to snow, combined with a strong headwind. When I reached the snow line, the path was still clearly visible.
But higher up, the path was obscured by deep snow drifts.
Looking back down the glen.
When I reached the ford across one of the tributary streams of the River Lael, it was completely covered in a large snow bridge. As the previous drifts had been very soft, I had no idea how I could get across this one without getting soaked in the stream, and I couldn’t see where the path continued on the other side.
I remembered a previous visit when I had climbed the Beinn Dearg group in summer conditions. Following the path up to the bealach was straightforward, but the terrain on either side of it was quite rough, a mixture of heather and boulders. Walking across this kind of ground, covered in deep, soft snow would not only take me much longer than I had planned, but I was also worried about twisting an ankle.
Besides, if there was that much snow at a height of only 500 m, it would probably be a lot worse at the bealach which was 350 m higher. Past the bealach, there were still several km of pathless ground to negotiate until I would reach easier terrain near Glenbeg Bothy.
Considering all this, I didn’t feel comfortable with continuing, and decided to turn back.
Now I had two new problems: Once I reached the road, how would I get away from there? And where should I go – I still wanted to do a two day walk, but a snow-free one preferably!
On my way down the glen, the sun came out and it became nice and warm. I sat down for a break by the forest track and tried to figure out what to do. As usual, I had no map with me, only the printouts of my planned route :oops:, which had become useless now.
I used the ViewRanger app on my phone to study the maps of the surrounding areas, and after a while I came up with an idea for a route: From Ullapool I would walk along Glen Achall as far as possible before it got dark, and camp somewhere in the glen. The next day I would continue to Duag Bridge and return via the Rappach Water, then take a bus from Ullapool back to Inverness.
I stayed on the forest track until it joined the A835 about 1.7 km N of where I had started in the morning. At first I was tempted to try and get a lift to Ullapool, but then I remembered that this was supposed to be Challenge training, and as such every km counted. The weather was really nice by now, and I tried to walk on the grassy verge wherever possible, so in the end the long road walk didn’t seem that bad.
Loch Broom, seen from the forest road.
Looking towards the S end of Loch Broom.
I arrived in Ullapool at about 16:15, and first went to Boots to buy travel sickness tablets for my unplanned bus journey the next day (for the train I wouldn’t have needed them).
I couldn’t find the current bus times at the bus stop by the ferry terminal, so I headed for the Tourist Info to get a timetable. On the way I noticed that the public toilets were closed, and so was the small supermarket that used to be in West Argyle Street (I had been hoping to buy a couple of cold drinks).
When I asked for a bus timetable at the Tourist Info, the assistant said there were only two buses to Inverness per day, one at 09:50 and one at 16:40 (connecting with the ferry from Stornoway), and I’d better book a seat in advance because these buses were normally full. 16:40 seemed a bit early, but I didn’t have much choice, so I was going to buy a ticket. During the process I mentioned my walking plans (the original and the new one), and suddenly the assistant became very interested and walked over to the large map on the wall with me.
She showed me how I could have walked a coast to coast route avoiding the high pass near Beinn Dearg, by walking along Glen Achall to Duag Bridge, and then along Strath Cuileannach, where I could have joined my original route at The Craigs. Unfortunately it was far too late in the day for that route, but she had another suggestion: Get the bus to Black Bridge and walk in a northerly direction past Loch Vaich to get to Deanich Lodge. This seemed doable, as I would still have a few hours of daylight left, the only problem was that it was almost 16:40 now and I would be very lucky to catch the bus (let alone get a place on it)!
But it was worth a try and I quickly bought a Landranger map (I didn’t want to rely on the ViewRanger app alone) and rushed back to the ferry terminal. I was really lucky – the ferry was late and the bus had to wait for it, and although there was a long queue of passengers, at the end there were still some places left. And the friendly bus driver agreed to drop me off at Black Bridge 🙂
And so I started the second part of my walk at 17:30.
Meall a’ Ghrianain, the S top of the Corbett Beinn a’ Chaisteil.
The first section of the walk is on a tarmac road and I made quick progress until I suddenly noticed a Highland cow between the sheep by the river to my left. Where there is one, the rest of the herd can’t be far away, and I began to look around me, feeling slightly uncomfortable.
When I came to a junction where the road turns left and crosses a bridge and the track continues straight ahead, I wasn’t sure which way to go. According to the map, it didn’t seem to make a difference, and so I stayed on the road. A few minutes later I saw that I had made the right decision: A large herd of Highland cattle were gathering on the other track at the edge of the forest!
By some old buildings E of Strathvaich Lodge I found this dodgy looking bridge, and I walked across it very slowly as it was quite wobbly.
On the other side, I crossed some boggy ground to rejoin the track.
Looking back to Strathvaich Lodge and the bridge.
When I reached Loch Vaich, the low sun came out and bathed the surroundings in a warm light.
By the ruins at Lubachlaggan the light slowly began to fade, and instead of continuing to Deanich Lodge into darkness, I decided to stay.
Loch Vaich – Ardgay
Tuesday, 09 April 2013
35.6 km/277 m/08:30 hrs
There were a few light snow showers during the night, but not enough to lie on the ground.
Morning light over Loch Vaich.
After packing up my tent, I continued along the track towards Deanich Lodge.
Am Faochagach on the other side of Loch Vaich.
Meall a’ Chaorainn.
Around 10:00 I approached Deanich Lodge.
Gleann Beag and the crags on the S flank of Càrn Bàn.
Abhainn a’ Ghlinne Mhòir.
Deanich Lodge and Meall a’ Chaorainn.
The start of the track along Gleann Mòr, looking back to Gleann Beag.
A little bit further down Gleann Mòr, I came across another herd of Highland cattle.
Thankfully, they were several metres away from the track, and I followed my usual tactic of walking by quickly, avoiding eye contact… and only dared to take a photo when I was well past them.
View back to the head of Gleann Mòr.
Gleann Mòr, looking NE.
Scots Pines high up on a ridge.
At the end of Gleann Mòr, I passed the entrance to Alladale Lodge.
Nearby I found a sunny and sheltered place above a gorge with some waterfalls – a perfect place for an extended break.
Soon after, I passed another gate with an application for a zoo licence from 2010. I haven’t heard anything lately about the progress of this application (to re-introduce bears, wolves etc. into the Alladale Estate), I wonder if it will be successful?
At The Craigs (which mainly consists of a disused red phone box which is now a distribution point for the local newsletter) I joined the main road along Strathcarron.
This last part of the walk was the least interesting, it was just a very long road walk with the occasional farmhouse or cottage beside the road. My feet hurt because of the hard surfaces I had been walking on during the last two days, and I didn’t even feel like taking any photos.
What kept me going was the thought of a pint at the pub in Ardgay… and I was utterly disappointed when I arrived there at about 17:15, only to find the pub opposite the train station closed! 😥
I had not seen anything like a tea room, café, not even a shop on my way through the village, so I walked over to the bus stop in front of the train station and asked the two women waiting there if there was anywhere I could sit down, have a drink and wait for my train which was due at 18:45. They told me that the pub had closed down a long time ago and that the nearest place would be Bonar Bridge. That would have meant another half hour walk there and back, and it was out of the question with my sore feet.
My last hope was a waiting room at the train station, maybe even with a vending machine for drinks? But no such luck, the station building itself seemed to be inhabited, and the only choice seemed to be an open shelter on the platform. I sat down on the bench in the shelter, ate my last apple and tried to ration the rest of my water. It was very windy by now and I felt quite cold after a while.
Suddenly I noticed one of the women from the bus stop walking over to the platform – I was confused, why would she get a train when she had been waiting for a bus earlier? It turned out that she had only been at the bus stop to drop her daughter off, but then she rushed home, put the kettle on, made a flask of coffee and a ham roll for me, and came back to the train station. She had even brought some milk and sugar in small containers! I was totally overwhelmed by such friendliness and hospitality from a total stranger 🙂
We sat and chatted for a while, drinking coffee until my “trail angel” had to leave. Thank you again for this wonderful experience that gave me a nice memory of Ardgay which otherwise seems to be a very depressing place…!
When my train arrived, I got up and could hardly walk the few metres to the train. But it was great to have a comfy seat and to warm up at last.
The whole trip had been much longer than planned (69 km in two days, and most of it on hard tracks or roads), and I had missed out the most interesting and probably most scenic part of the route (the section from Bealach an Lochain Uaine past Loch Tuath and Loch Prille to Glenbeg Bothy). But it had been a good trip, and after a couple of days I could even walk normally again!