MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the month “September, 2016”

Ben Lomond

In 2002, the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park was born, encompassing 720 square miles of mountains, lochs and forests. To the north-west of Scotland’s largest city Glasgow, it is an easily accessible playground for the outdoor enthusiast. From water sports to hiking and family activities, there are plenty of options for enjoyment, and for hikers like me, it encompasses not only the earlier sections of the West Highland Way, but 21 Munros (Scottish mountains >3000ft).

I enjoy hiking mountains, not just for the exercise and achievement in doing so, but mainly for the reward in the view at the top and the satisfaction of ticking another summit off the list. I don’t personally see the point in hiking a mountain when it is poor weather, as the view is my favourite part, but yet nearly a week after summiting Ben Nevis in low cloud, I found myself with just one chance at hiking Ben Lomond and a poor weather forecast to contend with. Without my own transport, it didn’t take much to convince my brother to drive me there and join me on the hike, and so, despite the predictions, we set off from my parent’s house on the nearly 1.5hr drive to the car park at Rowardennan.

Within the trees on the banks of Loch Lomond, the large car park (cash payment only) was nearly full despite the grey clouds that hung overhead. Aside from the munro, there are a few local walks as well, but it seemed that Ben Lomond was a common destination. On stepping out of the car, I was immediately overwhelmed by a large swarm of midges. When I used to live in Scotland, midges were a presence but rarely an annoyance for me. Perhaps my blood wasn’t that attractive, or perhaps my memories are selective, but of my 29 years of living in Scotland, and many trips to the west coast, I can only remember a couple of occasions where they were a pain. Now however, I had the allure of foreign-tasting blood, and in just a t-shirt, my arms were soon blackened with the largest concentration of midges I have ever seen. The ones that weren’t munching on my arms were swirling around my face, and my patience quickly went as I waited for my brother to get geared up.

The last time my brother had hiked Ben Lomond, the start of the track was being upgraded and there was a detour from the information centre. On this day, the track had reopened at its original location behind the information centre and we set off, hounded by the midges the whole time. Starting in the lower forest where the view was minimal, we reached a clearing where shortly after we were sent on a diversion as the next section of track was being upgraded. The track was still obvious but a little rougher under foot, and with less trees, it soon became obvious that the summit of Ben Lomond was nowhere to be seen.

Looking up at the clouds

 

Despite gaining altitude from the beginning, the midges continued to follow us, and through bracken we continued our gentle climb until we reached a bridge which led us onto grazing land. Below us, Loch Lomond was disappearing into the distant cloud, and now Ben Lomond stood in front of us, low cloud swirling around. Like Ben Nevis the week before, I was amazed at the number of people out hiking on such a poor weather day. Groups of kids were out doing a charity walk and they showed me up with their youthful fitness. They stopped often though, so eventually we passed them by as the path continued its steady climb.

Looking down towards the hidden Loch Lomond

The path up Ben Lomond

Looking towards the summit of Ben Lomond

 

A light drizzle started, and whilst my brother kitted up in his waterproofs, I decided to press on without as I was quite warm from the effort. It wasn’t particularly heavy at this stage, but by now we were in the cloud, and I had no idea how far we had to go with no point of reference. I just followed my brother and the well-trodden path, but the higher we got, the more I noticed people giving me a strange look as they came down in wet weather gear and I plodded on in capri-pants and a t-shirt. At about 850m, the path began to zig-zag, and on turning a corner at a low false-summit, it was like walking in to a wind tunnel, and I found myself suddenly cold and wet. It was a mission to put on my waterproofs in the driving wind and rain, and I was aware of plenty of soaked-looking people emerging out of the mist above us.

Duly kitted up, we pushed on for the final summit push. Unfortunately, the weather meant I spent most of the time staring at my feet, so the summit push is a bit of a blur. There was an initial steep section followed by tracing the outline of the eastern corrie, a rocky plinth that gave brief shelter before we were left exposed again for the final trail along the summit ridge until the summit emerged from the gloom. It was so busy here despite the now heavy rain, that we couldn’t even get a photo at the summit marker, having to make do with a photo on the path at the summit edge. We could have been anywhere. I couldn’t believe how many people were up there, but with the rain quickly drenching us, there was no point hanging around.

View from the summit of Ben Lomond

Obligatory summit photo at Ben Lomond in the rain

 

There are two options for descending: back the route you’ve just come up, or going down the Ptarmigan route. I assumed with the weather that my brother would want to do the quicker, easier route back down, but having done it before, he suggested we take the Ptarmigan route so despite not being able to see it through the clouds, I followed his lead and was amazed at the barely visible path disappearing over the cliffs. Had I been on my own, I would never have even noticed this as a path, it was so discrete in the clouds. I certainly didn’t feel unsafe, but it was a shame to miss out the views that I’m sure this route would afford on a good weather day. It reminded me somewhat of the hike I did on Little Mount Peel in New Zealand with a rapid descent over rocky drops in altitude towards the summit of the Ptarmigan.

Looking down towards the Ptarmigan Route in the driving rain

 

Crossing near a series of small peaks (of which one is the Ptarmigan), the path turns to descend back onto the green-covered hillside. The rain was still ongoing, and despite having not eaten and both being quite hungry, there was nowhere sheltered to stop. By now several hours into the hike, my jacket was starting to lose it’s waterproof abilities and I could feel myself getting damp within. As we continued on a now gentle descent down the front face of Ben Lomond, the grass changed to bracken, and we could just about make out Loch Lomond through the occasional break in the clouds.

Following the Ptarmigan Route down the face of Ben Lomond

Loch Lomond just about visible through the clouds

 

Eventually we found ourselves back in the forest above Rowardennan and we followed a burn as it made its way down towards the road. Then it was just a matter of walking along the tarmac back to the car park where we tried to warm back up in the car, eating our lunch surrounded by the midges that sneaked in with us. Whilst I’m very glad I ticked another Munro off the list, it reinforced why I don’t enjoy hiking when there isn’t a view involved. Perhaps on a sunnier occasion when I’m next in the country I might try this one again, but for now, I’m going to leave the mountains for better weather.

Edinburgh Rocks

Despite my protestations that Glasgow is a better city than Edinburgh, I do love a good visit to the Capital city. With friends in the past and present living there, I’ve had ample opportunities to visit, as well as attending theatre shows and exhibitions with my family throughout the years. From summer festivals to the winter markets and Hogmanay, there is something on all year round. So there was no doubt in my mind that Edinburgh would be a part of my trip home.

On a Saturday in the middle of June, I boarded the bus into Glasgow’s Buchanan Bus Station and managed a quick turnaround there to get on the Citylink bus to Edinburgh, and settled in for the journey looking out at the grey skies that persisted the whole way. I had a good bit of outdoor sightseeing planned, so was a little disappointed at the forecast that had been issued. Undeterred, I was looking forward to catching up with a couple of friends, and was met by one of them on getting off the bus. Not yet festival time, there was still a buzz in the air as we left St Andrew’s Bus Station, and I was reminded immediately why tourists love this place.

Arriving mid-morning, our priority was brunch, and we set off in search a cafe that my friend recommended. Amongst the grand buildings of George Street, we worked our way to Frederick Street where Urban Angel was, and after filling our stomachs, it was time to burn it all back off again. There are a few spots in Edinburgh to get the classic views, and Calton Hill is one of them. At the eastern end of Princes Street, one of a collection of paths leads up steps to the top of the hill where a collection of monuments and an observatory are scattered across its summit.

 

By now several weeks into my holiday over-indulgence, I was beginning to feel immensely unfit, a thought which raised some concerns for the multi-day hike that was coming up in just a couple of weeks. Pushing those thoughts aside, there is much to see from here, with views north over Leith and beyond to the Firth of Forth, and over the city centre to the south-west. Edinburgh Castle stands tall on its rocky promontory across the city and the distinctive peaks of the Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat lie almost directly opposite.

 

The clouds were considering breaking up a little and small patches of blue pock-marked the sky above us. Edinburgh’s Old Town has a distinctive look about it, with many buildings of grandeure and turrets and towers aplenty. From here I could spy my next target, one of Edinburgh’s many famous landmarks, the Scott Monument. For all my previous visits, I had never realised that you could climb up it, so this would be something new for me. By the time we’d retraced our steps down the hill and along Princes Street to its base, the sun had come out with gusto and the warmth was welcomed.

 

Built to commemorate Sir Walter Scott, construction began in 1840, a few years after his death. Standing at over 60metres high, a series of spiral staircases lead up a total of 287 steps to multiple viewing platforms at different elevations. Overlooking the Princes Street gardens and Princes Street itself, it quickly became one of my favourite viewpoints of the city. With every level gained, the view grew more expansive, and even the tower itself was something to admire, with statues and detail adorning it at every level. With the clouds all but gone, we could see for miles in every direction. The only downside was that the higher we climbed, the narrower both the staircase and the viewing platforms got, making it quite awkward to negotiate the large numbers of people that were up the tower with us. Especially at the top, there was a queue to circumnavigate the platform, followed by a queue to get back down again. It was the height of the tourist season, a weekend, and a sunny day, so it was hardly surprising.

 

We took a quick look at the stained glass windows on the lower level as we made our way back down, and back out in the sunshine, my friend headed off for the afternoon and I wandered around some tourist shops waiting for the arrival of another friend. I found some Edinburgh Rock, a rather sweet and sugary candy that I hadn’t had since I was a kid, and parked myself up on the sunny roof space of the Princes Mall until my friend arrived. We made a beeline for the Royal Mile which was packed with locals, tourists and buskers. In direct line with Edinburgh Castle at its western end, the High Street section is a broad pedestrian thoroughfare, lined with bars, restaurants and tourist shops, and the outdoor seating that sprawled outside was packed at every venue.

 

We watched a busker swallow a sword before heading off down hill to the lower Royal Mile which is open to traffic, and at its end, Holyrood Palace and the relatively recent addition of the architecturally unique, Scottish Parliament building. Last time I’d visited, my friend and I had gone inside the Parliament building for a tour, and at certain days and times, this is a regularly offered possibility depending on sittings. But our target on this occasion was the ice cream van parked up at the bottom of Salisbury Crags. By now it was very warm, and I was not dressed for a hike. I had been keen to get up Arthur’s Seat, a climb I’d only done once before, but on such a warm day, and having already found Calton Hill to get me in a puff, I was suddenly in two minds.

 

My friend suggested we head only as far as the St Anthony chapel ruins just a little up the hillside, and that seemed more than fine by me. Munching on our ice creams, we took our time and enjoyed the view over St Margaret’s Loch below us. After a respite, and watching the other walkers push on upwards, we opted to go up to the top of the Crags and see how we felt. It was a busy place to be with friends and families, walkers and joggers making a steady line both up and down the hillside. Once again, after having a rest on a lower plateau, we decided we’d gone all that way up, we might as well keep going, and so we summited Arthur’s Seat which was absolutely packed. The last time we’d come up here, we had taken an alternate route up, so it was nice to have done it differently. Once again, the view is phenomenal, looking out over the city to the west and the Firth of Forth to the north.

 

We had plans to meet back up with my other friend that night, but there was still plenty of time ahead of us. Returning to the Royal Mile which is littered with closes (alleys), we went to Mary King’s Close, one of many parts of Edinburgh that is haunted. Unfortunately they were booked out for a few hours, so instead we headed up the hill to Camera Obscura, a place that I hadn’t been to before. Dating from the mid-19th century, it has become an interactive world of illusion with the Camera Obscura itself still occupying the top floor. The roof has an outdoor space providing yet another view point of the city and as the demonstrations of the camera are timed, we had a little time to enjoy the vista before heading indoors.

 

After the camera’s demonstration, we worked our way down the six floors filled with optical illusions, negotiating the maze of mirrors and a vortex tunnel. Even as an adult, this was fun, so although the entrance fee is rather pricey, there was plenty to look at and explore, and worth doing once if you have a lot of time in the city. We took silly photos in the various interactive sections and wandered round the large gift shop at the bottom before heading off in search of dinner.

 

We chanced our luck at a rooftop Thai restaurant on Castle Street and were rewarded with a table on the balcony. Presumably named after the large river that runs through Bangkok, Chaophraya was fantastic. We sipped on glorious cocktails in the evening sun, and enjoyed delicious food before it was time to head back to the Royal Mile. The restaurant was upstairs off Castle Street, and walking down this street, we were overlooked by the greatness of Edinburgh Castle. There was still hours of daylight ahead, being only a few days away from the longest day of the year, but the lowering evening sun cast a different light on the old buildings as we headed up the hill to the Royal Mile.

 

Catching up with my other friend again, the three of us joined the crowd at the meeting place for our City of the Dead tour. Edinburgh, like many old cities, is rife with ghost stories, and there are plenty of opportunities to go ghost hunting. Another activity I’d not done here, I’d managed to convince my friends to join me on the hunt for the Mackenzie Poltergeist, supposedly one of the World’s most documented poltergeists. As a regular solo traveller, I will do almost anything on my own quite happily, including gallivanting across the world and volunteering in countries where English is not the first language. But doing a ghost tour is not one of the things I would do on my own, so convincing people to join me had been the first step.

From the very beginning, I knew it was going to be good. Our tour guide was an absolute Character with a capital C. He really made that tour, and was amazing at building up the hype and buzz around the haunted graveyard. Our destination was Greyfriars Kirkyard, perhaps more famous because of the fable of Greyfriar’s Bobby, a little dog that wouldn’t leave the side of his master’s grave, resulting in him getting his own statue on the street outside. But amongst the ‘true’ story of the ‘wee dug’, was tales of death and crime and Harry Potter. Indeed, for those who read the books of J K Rowling, who wrote them nearby, there are a lot of familiar sounding names related to this graveyard.

 

The culmination of the tour is entering the locked section of the graveyard, the Covenanters Prison, where the poltergeist activity is said to be at its highest. With regular reports of people being physically injured, our guide had us in the palm of his hands by this point, having expertly weaved his tale of the history of the site. The tension amongst the group was palpable as we crowded into a vault near the entrance. To find out what happens next, I cannot recommend this tour enough. For us though, afterwards we made our way back to Waverley Station to see off one friend, then St Andrew’s Bus Station where I left my other friend behind to take the bus back to Glasgow, more than satisfied with my day in the Capital.

Exploring Myths and Memories

Out of the dark and cold waters of a Scottish loch, illuminated by the midnight moon, there comes the beautiful form of a horse. Broad muscles and mane dripping with water, he finds a poor soul to whom he laments a tale of loneliness, tugging at their heart strings before leading them back to the water’s edge. Enveloping them in his spell, he leads them out into the darkness and drowns them. The mythical Kelpie, or water horse, is a long-standing feature of Scottish folklore, although the stories vary depending on their source. It is said that many lochs in Scotland have their own Kelpie, and mariners of old used to relate tales of Kelpies coming out of the sea during storms to sink their ships. In some stories, the Kelpies take the form of a woman on land, to seduce some unsuspecting man before leading them to water and drowning them.

Before I moved to New Zealand in 2012, I must have seen or read about a public art piece that was planned for Falkirk in Scotland, so when finally they were constructed and opened to the public, I knew I would have to visit them on my next trip home. The Kelpies are two 30m high steel structures shaped as horse heads beside a section of the Forth and Clyde canal. Representing both the heavy horses previously used in Scottish industry and agriculture as well as the transformational change of Scotland’s waterways, they have become an iconic structure in Scotland’s Central Belt.

After a nice lie-in in Glasgow following my road trip round the north coast and the previous day’s hike up Ben Nevis, I set off with my parents on a very cloudy day to go visit the steel behemoths. The sculptures have proven to be a popular place to visit, and even though there was an occasional drizzle, there was plenty of people about. Like so many things, they have their critics but I personally love them. I think they are stunning. It is possible to walk round them and view them from different angles, and nearby the canal played home to some swans with their cygnets. My parents had been here before, but they were more than happy to come again.

 

It was only a relatively short drive from there to the Falkirk Wheel, a boat lift opened in 2002 to connect the Forth and Clyde canal with the Union Canal, and the only one of its kind in the world. Built to help regenerate the canal network and to link Glasgow with Edinburgh via the waterway, it is an impressive feat of engineering even if some people do think it’s ugly. Granted, it has weathered quite a lot, and doesn’t look as grand as it does in pictures from when it opened, but it was still worthy of a look. There is a large visitor centre next to it, and my parents and I enjoyed a wander round the large gift shop and a meal in the cafe whilst we waited for our boat trip. Two canal boats alternate at taking passengers onto the wheel and up to the top, passing through a tunnel and out the other side before making a return trip. Unfortunately, the heavens opened whilst we were on this trip, so we didn’t get to experience much in the way of views at the top. But it was a pleasant and relaxing hour, as well as time well spent with my parents who I only get to see every few years.

 

That night I met my best friends for a night out in Glasgow. In April, I enjoyed going to see The Proclaimers, a Scottish duo, on their New Zealand tour in Christchurch. So when I found out that Ladyhawke, a musician from New Zealand, was touring the UK, I thought it only fitting to see her in Glasgow. One of Glasgow’s best known music venues is King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, which has a bar downstairs, and an intimate music venue upstairs. It had been many years since I’d last been there, and these days, thanks to a back injury in 2013, I prefer to enjoy gigs in a seated arena where I don’t get jostled or spend hours on my feet. The support acts as well as Ladyhawke herself were fantastic, but I felt old amongst the younger music lovers, feeling sore from being on my feet throughout the whole gig. Aside from having to stand, King Tut’s has seen some major names play there, and it is worth checking their gig guide for any stay in the city.

It was obvious the following day that my run of good weather had well and truly ended. Having lived in Aberdeen in the north-east for 5.5years, I had friends that I wanted to catch up with, and setting off on the 3hr drive north from Glasgow, it wasn’t long till I hit torrential rain that refused to give up. It’s never a good sign when your car’s wiper blades struggle to keep up with the force of horizontal rain that is lashing at your windscreen, and this went on for the majority of the second half of the drive. The Granite City that sparkles in the sunshine, looked dour and grey on such a miserable day. I flitted from friend to friend, unfortunately short of time to spend as much time with most as I would have liked to. I got a beautiful surprise from some dear friends in Aberdeenshire who had put a lot of effort into a surprise den for me, and after many hours catching up, I went to bed under the stars.

The rain continued in Aberdeenshire the following morning, and although lighter, went on into the afternoon. I managed to get lost on some back roads trying to take a short cut to the coast, ending up much further north than I’d planned, and nearly an hour late for meeting some more friends. I was in Scotland in the run up to the ‘Brexit’ referendum and it was an interesting time to be back in the country, with lots of opinions and discussion abound. I was intrigued and curious listening to my friends put forth their varied opinions on the matter, amongst catching up with everyone on the movement of their lives since I had left.

Despite the thick clouds and showers, my friend had dogs needing a walk, and I have a favourite spot north of Aberdeen to go seal watching, so we drove to Newburgh beach to face the elements. Luckily we managed a dry spell to walk along the south bank of the river Ythan to the North Sea, where curious seals swam close by, eyeing us up as the river’s current moved them along. There are always seals hauled up on the north bank of the river mouth, an area that is a nature reserve where people and dogs can’t go. But on this occasion, the numbers of seals were incredible. In all my visits when I used to live there, I had never seen this many and we watched them for a while before the return of the rain.

 

I couldn’t leave Aberdeen behind without a drive down the promenade, a place where I spent many an evening walking its length listening to the crashing waves on the shore. At the southern end near the harbour is Footdee, a historic fishing village which I had a quick wander around before setting off on the long journey south. I took a detour to Kirkcaldy in the Kingdom of Fife to visit another friend before following the Firth of Forth west and then onwards to Glasgow.

 

With my hire car due back at lunchtime, I set off early the next morning to head south to visit a place that I hadn’t been to since I was a school kid. Nestled amongst bush on the Ayrshire coast on the west of Scotland, Culzean Castle and Country Gardens is a popular addition to the National Trust of Scotland. Built in the 18th century, the castle sits on a clifftop and is one of Scotland’s most photographed castles. It even features on one of the Scottish bank notes. I took a wander around the gardens first which open to the public ahead of the castle. It was threatening to be a scorching day so it was actually a nice reprieve to step inside out of the sun and take a look around.

 

Inside the castle, there are resemblances to a stately home, and it was built for the Marquess of Ailsa, clan chief of the Kennedy Clan. Reputed to be haunted, I wandered around unawares enjoying the views out to the sea through the large windows. Back outside, a path lead down to a stony beach near where the entrance to some sea caves at the base of the castle lay. Near a gas house, another beach gave a prospect back towards the castle as it perched on the cliff.

 

I had unfortunately picked a day where several bus loads of school kids had come on an end-of-year visit, and every inch of grass around the old stables was covered in children noisily chasing each other. I left them to it and looped back through the old archway and across the bridge to the gardens below the castle where the sun now illuminated the scene. Here it was more peaceful and deserted but before long it was time to make the drive north back to Glasgow, returning my rental car ahead of the next adventure.

Ben Nevis

I followed the A82 south for an hour from Invergarry, all the while looking to the mountains as I passed, all of them hiding their summits in the clouds. I’d lived in Scotland for over 29 years of my life, but it took moving to the other side of the world to make me keen to summit Scotland’s highest peak, Ben Nevis. At 4,414ft (1346m) it far surpasses the minimum requirement of 3000ft to make it a Munro. Munro bagging is a popular past-time for serious hikers and hobbyists alike. I didn’t really get into hiking until I was 25, by then living in Aberdeen in the north-east of the country. I acquainted myself with the eastern edge of the Cairngorm National Park, and whilst I did a good bit of wilderness hiking with my then partner, up peaks that I have no idea what altitude they went to, I’ve only knowingly hiked one Munro, Lochnagar, and this was a favourite hike to head off to on a good day.

So when I took the turn off at the edge of Fort William up through Glen Nevis and into the car park, I was in two minds about what to do. This was my only chance on my trip to get up there, but I wouldn’t normally hike a mountain unless there is a view at the end of it. I popped into the visitor centre to ask their advice. The girl at the desk could only guess where the cloud base was, and advised that the section within the cloud was dangerous with poor visibility, as was the summit due to the potential for losing the path and walking off a cliff edge. Having come this far, I decided to hike up to the cloud base to atleast get some exercise, and make a judgement about going higher based on what I could see. I got chatting to a couple in the car park who had never been up either, and they laughed at me when I said I probably wouldn’t summit because of the warnings. I wondered at their foolishness, or cockiness when they seemed less prepared than me for a mountain hike. There have been concerns in the past that the hike has become rather touristy with people attempting it rather unprepared, and not giving it its due. I could see how this could be the case, and have seen similar issues in the mountains of New Zealand.

From the pay and display car park at the visitors centre, the long ascent starts as an easy riverside walk downstream to a bridge over the river Nevis. On the far side of the river it backtracks before a sign points up between a wall and a fence where it meets the path at the Ben Nevis Inn. Despite the weather forecast, it was a very busy route with a steady stream of people visible ahead and behind me. Early on, the ascent began and as I tracked my way up the hillside and along the glen I could see the clouds swirling around the nearby mountain tops. Even being overcast, it was a beautiful view up and down the glen.

On route to the Ben Nevis Inn

The rocky path going up the hillside

Looking back towards Fort William

Glen Nevis

 

By the time the path from the youth hostel joined the track and a couple of zig-zags broke up the monotony of the climb, I was already feeling the strain of 2 weeks over-indulgence on my road trip. Despite a southern summer of hiking, I was not as fit as I could be. The track is quite uneven and rocky under foot. Some parts of this lower section are a bit uncomfortable as a result, and many footsteps have eroded smoother paths at the side in an effort to avoid this. After crossing a footbridge, the path curves round the hillside to start the ascent up Red Burn valley, and it now became glaringly obvious that the summit was nowhere to be seen within the cloud base.

Footbridge over a small gully

Looking back after turning up Red Burn valley (the end of the West Highland Way is visible across Glen Nevis)

Hiking up Red Burn valley, the summit is hidden in the clouds

 

Having never hiked it before, I had no idea how much altitude was invisible, but I was resolute in my decision to hike to the cloud base and make a judgement call from there. I joined the steady stream of hikers who zig-zagged up the new path route to a low plateau where the dark waters of Loch Meall an t-Suidhe came into view. Several people had stopped here for a snack or a breather, and some track maintenance was being done on the section that passes by the loch’s side. After this short flat section, the path climbs again, meeting a path that heads left round the north face. Turning right, I had to stop almost immediately to kit up as a drizzle was starting. Behind me there were still many people on route up, and as I looked at the path ahead of me, there were several people on their way down.

Loch Meall an t-Suidhe

The start of the rain with the summit in the cloud

Looking back down on the loch

 

The route snakes round the contours of the mountainside, crossing the Red Burn before eventually hitting the start of the real ascent. From here upwards, the path zig-zags up the slope, changing early on from a well marked path to a large boulder field and a narrowing of the path. After just a couple of bends I reached the cloud level, and spurred on by the now steady stream of descenders, I pushed into it to assess the visibility. I could see about 3-4m ahead and behind and decided that I’d keep going up until I felt uncomfortable with the lack of visibility.

With no point of reference, the hike became a long trudge upwards across first boulders and then scree. I lost track of how often it curved left then right then left again. There was a constant appearance of figures emerging from the gloom ahead of me and I had no idea how high I was climbing. I just followed the vague figures in front of me, and took reassurance from the regular stone piles that denoted the path route.

I came upon a junction and turned right like everyone else, and a little further on I became aware of a large group of people emerging from the cloud. I was surprised to find them standing at the bottom of a large patch of snow. The path led right up to it, and I paused briefly to watch people gingerly pick their way up, several people slipping on the way up and down. The main ream of footprints seemed to have resulted in an overly packed icy zone, so I tried to pick a path through fresher snow, still briefly sliding a few times before reaching the top. From the top of the snow, the bottom was barely visible through the cloud.

After the snow, the path continued to climb, although the gradient began to level off, and I surmised I must be near the summit. But emerging from the cloud was stone cairn after stone cairn, and still the path continued. Eventually I had to ask a descending hiker how close I was, and was relieved to discover I’d reach the summit in another 10 minutes. The visibility remained the same, and with no other reference than the regular stream of fellow hikers and multitude of stone cairns I pressed on wondering if I’d know when I got there.

But despite the lack of visibility, the summit became very obvious when I finally reached it. Emerging from the gloom, the ruins of an old observatory appeared, and behind that a rudimentary hut shelter raised up on boulders. I looked for an obvious summit marker, and soon found two of them, the higher one up on a plinth with a queue of people waiting to have their photo taken. It was cold and damp, but there was no way I was summiting Scotland’s highest mountain and not getting a photo to prove it.

At the summit of Ben Nevis

The summit shelter and observatory are just visible through the cloud

The other summit marker

Some hikers make use of the summit shelter

 

I didn’t want to wander too far with no idea where the gullies or cliffs were so I stuck to the obvious landmarks. Sheltered spots were in high demand, and I couldn’t believe how many people were out hiking that day in such poor weather conditions. I hunkered down in as sheltered a spot as I could find free, leaning against the wall of the old observatory, to enjoy my lunch. It wasn’t long until I was joined by other hungry hikers and I noted several that had come up with their dogs. It was a convivial gathering of like-minded people, but the coldness and drizzle meant that nobody wanted to hang around longer than necessary to refuel.

Ruins of the observatory

The doorway of the old observatory

 

Just past the observatory is an official cairn with a plaque denoting it as a war memorial. Once more I followed the figures disappearing into the clouds, able to make out the well trodden track across the many boulders of the summit plateau. Finding myself back at the snow bank I watched as nearly every single person on the descent fell over. I decided that there was no better way for it, and swiftly sat down on my butt and pushed off, tobogganing gleefully down to the bottom with ease. Further on, I kept an eye out for the junction, knowing that this would be the one place I could go awry in the poor visibility. Thankfully there was still a steady stream of ascenders and right where I thought it was, I got confirmation from some figures emerging below me from the cloud.

Cairn with plaque

Heading across the boulders near the summit plateau

 

I felt an overwhelming sense of achievement as I picked my way back down the zig-zag, still with no reference to gauge how far I was travelling. I was in a world of boulders and scree, the mountainside barren around me. I noted that the cloud base had dropped lower whilst I’d been at the summit, as I returned to the wider path near the base of the zig-zags and couldn’t see the loch.

Tracking across a scree slope

Picking a way through the boulders

The loch hidden from view

 

Finally the surrounding mountains broke through and I could see Glen Nevis again. The loch reappeared, and shortly after, the relentless zig-zags came to an end. I crossed back over Red Burn and at the junction by the loch, I looked up at the summit to see nothing but cloud. Retracing my steps past the loch and down into Red Burn valley, I was able to take in the scenery a bit better. The burn itself tumbles down the mountainside in a succession of waterfalls from high up the slopes of Ben Nevis.

Panorama below the clouds

Descending Ben Nevis

Crossing Red Burn

Loch Meall an t-Suidhe

Land of clouds

Red burn cascades from the clouds

Red Burn

 

I didn’t realise it at the time, but looking across Glen Nevis to the far side of the valley, I was staring at the final descent of the West Highland Way, a multi-day hike that I would be walking in a few weeks time. As the valley opened up in front of me again, I trudged past the turn off for the youth hostel and made my way to the Ben Nevis Inn where several hikers sat outside in the beer garden enjoying a drink. Down the hill, and back along the river, I crossed the bridge back to the car park and eagerly took off my hiking boots ready for the long drive back to Glasgow. There are varying reports about the time needed to summit Ben Nevis, and had it been a better day I would have spent a lot more time at the summit. In the end, I summited in 3 hrs and descended in 2.5hrs, satisfied to knock off the King of all Munros.

Glen Nevis

Ben Nevis Inn

Bridge over the river Ness

North Coast 500 – Wester Ross

I remember when I was young, sitting by the waterfront at Ullapool with my family enjoying some fish and chips, when a wasp flew inside my brother’s can of Irn Bru. This is one of a few memories from this place from my childhood, so when I reached Ullapool at the end of a long day driving from the north coast, I immediately felt happy. The sun was shining and the town was bustling. After a much needed dinner and cider, I took a wander along the shoreline and round the coast past the caravan park to look for otters. Instead I found midges: lots of them, and they drove me so crazy I had to abandon my plans to watch the sunset and head indoors.

 

The next morning was a little overcast, and after watching the comings and goings of the CalMac ferry making preparations for its sailing to Stornoway on the island of Lewis, I boarded a little boat at the pier bound for a cruise around the Summer Isles. A small archipelago sitting near the end of Loch Broom, the sea loch that laps on Ullapool’s shores, there are a few tour options to explore them via different company’s trips. We first went in search of sea eagles, drawing a blank, before crossing the loch to visit a sea cave and then moving on to motor around the islands themselves. We were briefly joined by a lone harbour porpoise, but there was plenty of bird life to grab attention for the rest of the sailing.

 

Tanera Mor is the largest of the island group, and our tour anchored here to give us some time ashore. Close to the pier, a post office-come-coffee shop provided sustenance for those who didn’t want to wander, but I made a beeline for the rough track that headed up the hill to a viewing rock which gave a great view over the rest of the island and the smaller islands around it. The sailing back to Ullapool gave more opportunity to appreciate the rock structures of the region with more red sandstone slabs evident, and plenty of Lewis schist on display, similar to what I’d driven through the day before in the North West Geopark. In a little cove we found some seals hauled out to dry, and as we headed back towards Ullapool, the sky tried hard to shift its cloudy cover.

 

After a delicious lunch at the West Coast Deli on a back street of Ullapool, I got back in my car and rejoined the North Coast 500 to continue my journey south. The A835 hugs the banks of Loch Broom, and then at Corrieshalloch Gorge, the NC500 turns onto the A832. Near this junction, a car park leads to a walk down to the Falls of Measach, a 46metre high ribbon cascade deep within the trees within the gorge. An easy-to-follow track leads to a few different view points of the falls and the head of Loch Broom.

 

Heading west, the road winds past Little Loch Broom, another sea loch, before joining the coastline near Gruinard Island, then cutting across a finger of land to Loch Ewe. It was overcast again, so I passed through Poolewe and arrived at Gairloch, my home for the next couple of nights. This had been a place that I’d struggled to find available budget accommodation in, eventually finding a bunkhouse at the Gairloch Caravan & Camping park in Strath. What I hadn’t realised was that I had booked the bunkhouse for sole use, which meant I had my own kitchen, bathroom and tv. After all the previous nights in hostels, I was actually more than happy with this arrangement, and as some rain started to fall, I settled for a quiet night in.

 

Due to a misunderstanding with a booking I’d made, my boat trip for the following morning was rescheduled till the day after. It was starting to feel like my good fortune with the weather had come to an end. On another overcast day, I took the coast road past Badachro to Red Point at the end of the road. Here, the sand is a distinctive red colour, and I had the beach to myself to watch the bird life in peace. I was in no hurry, but eventually other people started to arrive, so I climbed the large sand dune behind the beach for a vantage point before heading off. I stopped at another red sandy beach at Port Henderson, and then at Badachro, a place I remembered from another childhood holiday. Aside from the midges, it was peaceful, the natural harbour providing a safe haven for boats to moor, and the waves were ever so gentle on the shore.

 

After lunch in Charlestown, I headed north a short distance past the little village of Poolewe to Inverewe Gardens, a Botanical Gardens belonging to the National Trust for Scotland. I hadn’t planned on going here, having been here before, but with my plans changed due to missing the boat trip, I found myself enjoying wandering around the woodland and various plant sections all the while overlooking Loch Ewe. Despite the grey skies, it was a beautiful place to be with the flowers in full bloom for summer, and lots of bird life both in the water and amongst the trees. It was a popular place to be that day but it didn’t feel crowded and still retained its peacefulness.

 

Back in Gairloch, there is a beautiful stretch of beach at the head of Loch Gairloch. Past the church and up the hill, a small car park leads to a lookout and a path leading down to the sandy shore. Whilst not as red as the beach at Red Point, it still has a slight red tinge to it, and there was a mix of locals and tourists enjoying it when I got there in the evening. I walked its length, and did a bit of rock hopping at the far end before cutting past the golf course back to the road and back up the hill to my car. It is such a calming place to be, with the coast well sheltered from rough seas by the deep natural harbour.

 

My original plan had been to head off south first thing in the morning and have an enjoyable drive south past Torridon to Applecross, traversing the famous Bealach na Ba mountain pass and on to Plockton. However, my rescheduled boat trip wasn’t till lunchtime, and having to check out of the bunkhouse, I found myself forging new plans and sacrificing a section of the NC500. With the morning at my beckoning, I left early to head down Loch Maree to Kinlochewe and took the single-track road to Torridon. This is a stunning drive, surrounded by mountains on either side. Torridon is just a small village beautifully set on the banks of Loch Torridon, and being a Sunday the place was shut up and deserted. I took a circular walk along the shoreline, enjoying the calls of the various sea birds. Near a bird shelter, the path cut up to a red deer farm, where the deer sat chewing the cud, not stirring as I passed. Where the path reached the end of the village at its junction with the NC500, an information centre gives information on local walks, flora and fauna. After a look around, I crossed the road to see a wild red deer doe break cover and immediately run away from me, disappearing into the trees as quickly as it had appeared.

 

Backtracking the single track road towards Kinlochewe, I stopped at a couple of places along Loch Maree. Had I had more time, I would have relaxed here for a while. As it was, I took a short walk along the shoreline to admire the scenery before making my way back to Gairloch. Grabbing a quick bite to eat, I was then ready and waiting for my trip. I’m a massive cetacean enthusiast, as eager to see whales and dolphins in the wild as I am to travel around the globe, so it was a no brainer that I was going to go whale watching in one of Scotland’s best cetacean viewing locations. I’d been following the viewing reports of the Hebridean Whale Cruises‘ Facebook page, and it had been a very good May and June, so I was hopeful for a fruitful day.

 

When I arrived, our skipper told us that humpback sightings had been good but it meant a long trip out to try and see them. I’ve seen humpback whales many times before in South Africa, Australia, and the Galapagos Islands, but it is very uncommon to see them in Scottish waters so everybody was more than ok about the long trip to get there. Kitted up in thick waterproof floaters, we set off on the zodiac boat, and I have to admit I got immensely bored and frustrated with what felt like a never-ending ride north. I don’t even know where we ended up, and whilst I’m not sure of exact timings, I think it was a good bit over an hour before finally we slowed down near some small islands where gannet activity signalled the presence of fish. We came to a stop, waiting and looking around, and finally we got our reward: common dolphins, white-beaked dolphins, diving gannets, and finally, a lone humpback whale. The fish seemed quite deep so surface activity was intermittent and well scattered, but whilst other days had had better views, it was still enough to feel satisfied. Common dolphins are my favourite species of dolphin, and I hadn’t seen them for 11 years, so in the end, I was more stoked about seeing them than anything else.

 

It was into the evening by the time we returned to Gairloch and now I had a long drive ahead of me to reach my pre-booked accommodation. I didn’t linger, leaving Gairloch and Loch Maree behind and leaving the NC500 at Kinlochewe. This time, instead of turning towards Torridon, I stayed on the A832 before turning south on the A890 at Achnasheen and followed it along the southern shore of Loch Carron before turning off to Plockton. It was a long detour that I could have skipped but Plockton is another place from my childhood that gives me nothing but happy memories, so I was reluctant to miss a return visit. By now hungry, I got fish and chips followed by the best whippy ice cream I can ever remember eating, and fought the midges away whilst wandering around the shore. When the tide is out, it is possible to walk out to a small island via a muddy natural causeway, and I remember fighting off the large, nasty clegs (horseflies) here when I was younger. Thankfully there were none to be seen, only some stubborn midges.

 

I wished I was staying here the night as it is such a beautiful and relaxing place with opportunities to go kayaking and on boat trips. However, I’d booked my location where it was for a reason, as I had to get to Fort William early the next day. So reluctantly, I left Plockton behind, and managed to waste a bit of precious time by missing the correct turn-off I had needed to take. Reaching Loch Alsh in the lowering sun, I joined the A87, pausing briefly at Eilean Donan Castle, one of Scotland’s most photographed castles. The road snaked past first Loch Cluanie, then branched down the side of Loch Loyne before twisting to follow the northern shore of Loch Garry. This was my last stop, where a particular viewpoint allows a vista west over Loch Garry which from this very location, is shaped as the outline of Scotland itself. I ended up having to wait here a while as a wide-load with escort made its way up the hill, and I was rather disappointed to discover that the trees occluded a large part of the view so it was difficult to photograph the image that I’d seen loads online. Perhaps there is a walkway through the trees to see it better, but by now near 9pm, I was tired and wanted to walk no further.

 

When the back log of traffic cleared, I drove down the hill to Invergarry and checked into one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at, the Saddle Mountain hostel. Nestled amongst the trees up a track from the main road, it was recently renovated, and the hosts were exceedingly welcoming. Whilst I didn’t get the best of sleeps due to noisy roommates, I was greeted in the morning by the male owner acting as barrista, serving up fresh brewed coffee. I got chatting with him about my plans for the day ahead, and he voiced exactly what I had feared. With the previous two days being overcast, I had noticed that most of the mountain tops had been hidden by low cloud. Following the same road south, I was on route to Fort William for the one and only opportunity that I had on this trip to summit Ben Nevis, Scotland’s (and the UK’s) highest peak. The forecast for low cloud on the mountains remained and my host advised me not to go up. Gutted but hopeful, I set off for Fort William wondering what I’d find when I got there.

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