MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the month “December, 2016”

West Highland Way: Inveroran to Kinlochleven

The wild expanse of Rannoch Moor spans 50 square miles (130 square kilometres) in the Highlands of Scotland, and accounting for the most exposed section of the West Highland Way (WHW), I had been fervently monitoring the weather forecast and keeping my fingers crossed. This was not a day for rain. I’d studied the map of my route, and looked at mile after mile of totally exposed moorland.

I awoke on day 5, and looked out my window at the Inveroran hotel to see that not only was it dry, but there were vague patches of blue sky. I struggled to eat my breakfast, by now sick of the amount of food I’d been trying to consume over the past few days, and pulled on my hiking boots along with all the other guests of the hotel, and set off on what turned out to be the most stunning section of the whole hike. Curling round the river at the head of Loch Tulla, a sign at a forest lodge, denoted the history of the old military road that ran through the area, and then through a little gate, and past some trees, I found myself at the start of the moor.

Inveroran Hotel

Looking back towards Loch Tulla

Information board by the old military road

The clouds were not far away and I silently hoped they stayed where they were. It was an easy and well trodden route to follow, and there were plenty of other hikers both ahead and behind me. With hills in every direction, and the flowers and birds of the peat-filled bogs beside me, there was plenty to keep my attention. I watched a little chaffinch for a while near a small plantation whilst sitting on an old arched bridge. A collection of lochans reflected the clouds above on their surface, and they grew dark as the surrounding skies grew dark.

Chaffinch on the WHW

Rannoch moor

Lochans on Rannoch Moor

Hikers walking the WHW

Lochan near the WHW

Another lochan in Rannoch moor

Boggy Rannoch Moor

Peat bog in Rannoch Moor

I found myself at Ba Bridge rather quickly, and passed the groups of people that had stopped there for a rest. One of the larger rivers of the moor ran through here, but beyond it, the marshland, streams and mini-waterfalls next to the path were calling me, as was the solitude that I craved away from this busiest of sections of the WHW. The route of the day’s hike really skirts the edge of the moor, with the bulk of it spreading off to the east, intersected by the A82 road, and the West Highland railway line to the far east. On paper, this section of the route looked immense, and I found it to be staggeringly beautiful in its wildness. However, I had been looking forward to traversing this section due to what I’d seen of Rannoch Moor from the drive south from Fort William, and I was disappointed to discover that I wasn’t getting to see the vast lochs and heather-clad peat bogs that I’d spied from there. This truly was the edge of the moor, and in no time at all, I reached a small peak, and rounded a corner to find myself in sight of the Glencoe ski-field and the Kingshouse hotel, a 10 mile (16km) walk from the Inveroran hotel that I’d left that morning. As beautiful as it had been, the road gives a better view of this stunning moor, and as I later discovered, the train ride gives the best opportunity to admire it in all its glory.

River running across Rannoch moor

waterfall next to the WHW

Rugged beauty of Rannoch moor

Rannoch Moor rolls east into the distance

Now, I was looking up Glencoe, and the clouds ahead looked foreboding. Sneaking into view was the distinctive peak of Buachaille Etive Mor, one of Scotland’s most famous and photographed peaks. I picked my way down the hillside, and left the WHW briefly to head up the track to the Glencoe Mountain resort where the cafe at the base of the ski lifts served me a gigantic mug of hot chocolate piled high with marshmallows. It was just what I needed. There was a surprising amount of people at the ski resort considering both the time of year and the weather. As I crossed the large car park to head down the track to rejoin the WHW, a kindly soul stopped to offer me a lift. But there would be no cheating on this hike, and I thanked her then declined.

Rannoch Moor meets Glencoe

Buachaille Etive Mor comes into view

Buachaille Etive Mor

To my left, Buachaille Etive Mor dominated the skyline, looking dramatic as ever with the looming dark clouds that hovered over head. Crossing a river, the track greets the A82 by a large sign and a trio of flags that billowed crazily in the wind. This is the busiest road crossing of the whole hike, this section of open road having a speed limit of 60 miles per hour. This is not a crossing to do whilst distracted. Once on the far side, it was an easy walk to the Kingshouse hotel. This historic hotel is a popular stopping point both for drivers on the road and hikers in Glencoe. The WHW skirts round the side of it, and over a bridge before turning left onto yet another old military road.

Buachaille Etive Mor at the head of Glencoe

Mountains flanking Glencoe

River running through Glencoe

Glencoe Resort

Scottish flags framing Buachaille Etive Mor

Crossing the A82

Glencoe

Buachaille Etive Mor near Kingshouse

Kingshouse Hotel

Information board at Kingshouse

Buachaille Etive More behind the Kingshouse hotel

From here onwards, Buachaille Etive Mor shows its famous pyramidal outline, and ignoring the traffic that thunders past its base, it is a beautiful accompaniment to the hike. I’d spent the whole day on the look out for red deer, thinking this was my best chance of spotting them, but now so close to the A82, it seemed that my chances were waning. Passing more lochans and peat bogs, the path climbed a little, withdrawing itself from the busy road below, before sadly descending back to its side, where the WHW hugs the road side for a while. There were plenty of cars parked near a copse where the A82 curves up another valley. By now Buachaille Etive Mor looks very different, and a walking track up the munro leaves from here. There was a flurry of activity here as tourists paused for photos, and I was keen to get back to the wilderness and solitude again.

Glencoe past Kingshouse hotel

Glencoe's famous road bridge

The pyramid of Buachaille Etive Mor

The changing face of Buachaille Etive Mor

The WHW through Glencoe

Buachaille Etive Mor from the roadside

The A82 snaking from one glen to the other

The WHW leaves Glencoe behind by traversing the hillside and winding its way up an altitude gain of 259 metres, on a section known as the Devil’s Staircase. Depending on who you speak to, or where you read, this has a reputation as being one of the most gruelling sections of the WHW. As a regular mountain hiker in New Zealand, I really didn’t think this section was as bad as it had been made out. Certainly after a long day of hiking, I could see it could be tiring. My brother walked all 96 miles of the WHW for charity in just 48 hours, and I could see how this would have been a gruelling climb for him and his friends at this stage of the walk. As it was, it zig-zagged up the hillside, the biggest annoyance being the mountain bikers who were attempting to negotiate the rocky path at the same time.

Leaving Glencoe behind

Mountain biker sharing the path

Nearing the top of the Devil's Staircase

On reaching the summit, I paused to take in the view and have a bite to eat, but just as I turned to bid Glencoe goodbye, the heavens finally opened and I was forced to kit up in my waterproofs for the long descent into Kinlochleven. Supposedly from this summit, Ben Nevis should be visible, but between the low clouds and the falling rain, I had no idea where it was supposed to be. Like Rannoch Moor, this section was fully exposed to the elements with not a whiff of shelter in sight. I had been lucky to avoid the rain as long as I had, and thankful that whilst the shower was heavy enough to be a nuisance, it was relatively short-lived, wearing itself out after just 15 minutes. A light drizzle remained for a little longer, but the clouds on the mountains across this new valley looked dramatic as they hugged the summits.

Final view of Glencoe

Final view of Buachaille Etive Mor

The long descent ahead

Wispy rain clouds

Picking its way down the hillside, a pretty little footbridge across a river is reached, and then the track curves round the contour of a hillside. It felt like Kinlochleven was within reach, but still it remained deceptively out of sight. The odd building here and there could be spotted, and some pipelines scarred the landscape below. There was the sense that civilisation was about to be reached, but growing tired towards the end of a 19 mile (30.5 km) hiking day, this final section felt like it would never end. Passing a dam, it then curled in a large arc within a woodland, and through the trees, there were glimpses of green in every direction. Occasionally I could spot signs of quarrying and digging on the nearby hillside. Finally though, the path joined the route of the large pipes of what used to be an aluminium smeltering plant, and headed directly towards the buildings of Kinlochleven.

Footbridge in the moor

River under the footbridge

Mountains on route to Kinlochleven

The long road to Kinlochleven

Dam outside Kinlochleven

Green as far as the eye can see

Reaching Kinlochleven

Ignoring the turn-off to my accommodation, I opted to stick with the WHW until reaching the village itself. The track crossed the river Leven and quickly I found myself walking along a residential street past people’s houses. It then cut through a little woodland nestled on the river bank, and in a matter of minutes I found myself at the bridge in the middle of the village. Whilst the WHW turned right, I crossed back across the river to the left, and snaked round the road past the Ice Climbing centre to the Blackwater Hostel, my stay for the night. I’d booked the cutest little pod for the night which consisted of a mattress, a microwave, a fridge and tv, all packed tightly into a cosy wooden log-shaped cabin. It was compact but it was all that I needed, although I had to hire a sleeping bag as I’d not carried any bedding with me.

River Leven

Kinlochleven

Industrial remnants in Kinlochleven

Blackwater pod

Inside the pod

Putting my feet up

I had a brief wander around the village, stocking up on breakfast supplies at the nearest grocery store, and then joyously found a local takeaway serving delicious pizza that I took back to my cabin. Finally resting my feet, I snuggled up in my pod with the tv for company, and felt at ease, if not a little saddened that I had just one day of adventure left. There was just the last night of sleep between me and my final destination.

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West Highland Way: Crianlarich to Inveroran

It was a rude awakening as the hordes of schoolkids rose from their rooms and started thundering down the hallway. I lay in bed for as long as I could before finally getting up myself for a shower. I’d booked breakfast with my room, and had to queue for the buffet with all the hungry teenage boys that had stayed there that night. I often use hiking as a good excuse to eat lots of food, and now on day 4 of the West Highland Way (WHW), my stomach was starting to protest a little. I forced the cooked breakfast down, but slightly regretted it, opting to hang around the hostel till checkout time, feeling a little nauseous. With all the school kids off an a local hike, it was eerily quiet with everyone gone. Whilst day 3 had been the longest day of the whole hike, I still had a solid 16 miles (25.5km) to hike that day, so eventually I had to kick myself into gear and get going.

Rather than retrace my steps back to where I’d left the WHW, I opted to use the other part of the Drovers Loop from Crianlarich which meant following the A85 under the railway line and out of the village slightly onto the A82 before entering the same woodland I’d passed through the evening before. This route turned out to be quite muddy and not as distinct a path. It was also steeper, but before long I found myself at the marker back at the WHW junction. Turning right, I was destined for Tyndrum where I planned on having lunch. A large sign indicated that the path was entering Forestry Commission land and immediately the rocky path began to climb. It was another overcast day but despite this, the visibility was still very good with the cloud level high, so on reaching a slight lookout, it was still possible to see the hills rolling away for quite some distance.

Drover's Loop into Crianlarich

Walker's crossroads at Crianlarich

Ewich forest

Stirlingshire countryside

On route to Tyndrum

Somewhere within this undulating forested section was the halfway point of the hike. With no marker, there was no way of knowing it at the time, and apart from pausing wherever there was a break in the trees to admire the view, I kept up a reasonable pace. There were a scattering of other walkers who I passed as I went, and eventually, after what felt like quite a protracted amount of time, the path turned to head down the side of a burn and pass under the arch of the Caledonian Railway line. Sandwiched between the railway line and the A82, it isn’t far before the route actually crosses this main trunk road, and soon after this a bridge spans the expansive River Fillan. Now I was back in farming country, with sheep filling the paddocks by the path.

Railway arch

Caledonian Railway line to Oban

Road crossing ahead

River Fillan

River Fillan

Pasture land by Kirkton farm

Lambs at Kirkton farm

Next door to Kirkton farm was the remains of St Fillan’s church and cemetery. There is little left of the church itself, with the crumbling wall shaded in green, but the cemetery still carries many tombstones as well as some uniquely marked stones. There were a few walkers milling about here, some of which I’d see repeatedly across the morning, catching up with them or being caught up by them, depending on where we chose to take a break. Moving on from here the farm track led through a series of gates and fields till it came out at Auchertyre farm where there was a toilet block, shop and wigwam-style accommodation. The farm track led onto an access road where a steady stream of traffic regularly pushed me into the vegetation, before I found myself back at the A82, crossing it once more.

Information board at St Fillans

The remains of St Fillan's church

St Fillan's cemetery

Special gravestone at St Fillan's cemetery

Following the river again, the vegetation was quite open, and I found myself at a sign denoting a battle site from the 14th century. The Battle of Dalrigh involved Robert the Bruce and his men who suffered a heavy defeat, sending the man himself into hiding. A little further down the track, a lochan is reached which is purported to hide Robert the Bruce’s sword, having been thrown in here following the battle. The water was still, reflecting the trees that swarmed the far bank, and giving away no hint of what treasure might lie below.

Battle of Dalrigh information board

West Highland Way sign

Lochan of the lost sword information board

Lifesize depiction of the lost sword

Reflective waters of the lochan

Lochan

It was an easy meander through the young trees until it was time to hit the forest again just south of Tyndrum. Historically, this area was mined for lead, and I remember visiting here on a school excursion when I was in high school, but nothing within the trees looked familiar. Passing through the gate in the deer fence, it was then a well graded path again, following the river once more passing the local caravan park, then skirting round the back of Tyndrum, passing the train station for the Caledonian line, and curling behind some houses before crossing the stream bed and up past a row of cottages. Once more back at the A82, the WHW crosses this heading north, but I, like several other of the hikers, walked into Tyndrum.

South of Tyndrum

Lead Mining Information board

Caravan park at Tyndrum

This is a popular service village to stop at on the road from either Oban or Fort William, with a handful of eateries, tourist shops, accommodation and a petrol station. It is popular with truck drivers as well as bikers, and I remember many a childhood holiday stopping here to stretch the legs. The Green Welly Stop is particularly well known here. I’d driven through here on my way back from Ben Nevis a few weeks prior and had noticed a new and intriguing cafe of the edge of town. I’d decided then and there that that would be my lunch stop for this day of the WHW, but I was immensely disappointed to find that not only was it crammed, but when I actually was able to see a menu, it was simply glorified fast food. So I back tracked to the cafe next to the petrol station and sat outside eating lunch at a picnic table surrounded by bikers. By now into the school summer holidays, as well as being the height of the tourist season, it was a busy little place to be.

Leaving Tyndrum behind, the WHW entered a very long exposed section for mile after mile. I was grateful that the rain had kept away as from now onwards, there was going to be little in the way of shelter. Passing some wood carvings on the edge of the village, civilisation was left behind once more, although the A82 was never far away. As the main trunk road to Fort William from Glasgow, there was always traffic in sight. Despite this, it felt wild and barren. Following an old military road, it was a reasonable quality track to hike, nestled within a valley, and before long a light drizzle had started. Initially between the West Highland railway line and the A82, the WHW crosses under the railway line after a while to keep them both to the left. Thankfully the drizzle was short-lived, and passing under the shadow of a cloud-draped Beinn Odhar, I caught up with a mother and daughter hiking the WHW at a waterfall gushing down the mountainside.

Squirrel tree carving

Fox tree carving

Owl tree carving

Beinn Odhar in the cloud

West Highland Way north of Tyndrum

Passing under the West Highland railway line

Beautiful West Highland Way scenery

Waterfall down the cliff

By now, the road and railway line had separated far apart, and the valley opened up once more. The peak of the dominating Beinn Dorain wore wisps of clouds, and the path underfoot was wet in places. Crossing the Allt Kinglass river on a little stony bridge, I found myself on the far bank of the river to a herd of Highland cattle. These are one of Scotland’s most distinctive and recognisable animals with their long coats, fringe and large horns. They are a hardy breed, capable of weathering the harsh and wild Scottish winters, and are bred for their meat, which is lower in cholesterol than standard beef breeds. With the first known mention of their existence being in the 6th century, they have been around for a very long time.

Highland cow

Highland cow

After a while, the path crossed over the West Highland railway line and this was the section of the day’s walk which was almost silent. The road was far enough away now to be ignored, and the railway line was quiet. Dark clouds gathered along the neighbouring mountain tops as I crept ever closer to Bridge of Orchy. Passing the train station and cutting down into the little village, it was rather deserted. Little more than a collection of homes and a hotel, there was nobody around until I reached the hotel itself which sat proudly on the A82. Crossing this main road once more, I popped into the hotel for a less than welcoming conversation with the receptionist that saw me walk straight back out again.

West Highland line south

West Highland line north

Approaching Bridge of Orchy

Behind the hotel, the road went downhill to the bridge over the River Orchy and then the WHW left the road behind to quickly pick its way up the hillside. It felt like a decent uphill slog through the trees after miles and miles of easy track on a relatively level gradient, and now, as I reached the crest of the hill, the rain that I had seen threatening in the distance, was finally overhead and it was time to don the waterproofs again. The expanse of Loch Tulla filled a lot of the view as I made my way from the crest down the hillside. There were several groups of hikers ahead of me – the most I’d seen on any section of the WHW until now. As the rain continued, my stop for the night was visible the whole way down the hillside and I focused on this as I zig-zagged down the path.

River Orchy

Looking back towards Bridge of Orchy

Loch Tulla

Rain heading up the valley

Rain over Loch Tulla

Inveroran and Loch Tulla

Loch Tulla

The Inveroran hotel can be reached by road from Bridge of Orchy, but there were plenty of hikers both staying there and visiting the bar that night. Although it was so busy that I had to wait a while to check in, I was grateful to get shown to a lovely cosy room on the top floor. With nowhere else around, I headed downstairs for dinner after resting my feet for a while, and was seated in the little dining room with a handful of other guests. Due to space, all the guests had to book a sitting for dinner at a set time, but after several days of overindulging in large meals, I found myself finally defeated here.

The welcome sight of the Inveroran hotel

I’d pre-ordered a 3-course meal when I checked in, and was disappointed to find myself full after just the starter. The beautiful warm soup had filled me up, and I was sad to see my salmon main course go to waste as I forced as much of it down as I could before giving up halfway through. I hate seeing food get wasted, and felt embarrassed about leaving so much, but feeling bloated, I cancelled my dessert order and waddled up to my bed for a much needed lie down. By this stage in the hike, my feet were beginning to ache and blister having traversed over 62 miles (nearly 100km) on some rather rocky and stony terrain, and every time I lay down, my legs throbbed incessantly. But the room was so cosy, and the bed so inviting, that it wasn’t long before I had drifted off to sleep.

West Highland Way: Rowardennan to Crianlarich

Inevitably on a multi-day hike, there will be a day that is either longer or more strenuous (or both) than the others, and for me, day 3 of the West Highland Way (WHW) was it. For 33km (20.5 miles), there was quite a bit of ground to cover that day, leaving Rowardennan behind on route to reach Crianlarich to the north, and I was only halfway along the length of Loch Lomond at the start of the day. Thankfully, I’d had a restful night’s sleep at the Rowardennan Hotel, and breakfast was included in the room rate, so I made the most of the cooked buffet to fill myself up in preparation for the long day ahead. I kept a sideways glance out for Kevin Bridges in case he was still around, but then it became time to push onwards.

Immediately outside of the hotel, there was a sign requesting people kindly pick up their litter, something I had been frustrated by the mess of on route to Rowardennan the previous day. But shortly after leaving the hotel behind, the road peters out at a car park where the hike to Ben Lomond begins from, and from here northwards, it is hiker’s country, and this made a big difference to the litter level which was much more pleasing. It was another cloudy day, but with the path hugging the bank of the loch, this did not detract from the ongoing scenery as it was passed. I passed the end of the Ptarmigan route that my brother and I had descended Ben Lomond from just a few weeks prior, and beyond here, the path is quite easy going.

Sign outside Rowardennan Hotel

Rowardennan Hotel

Waterfall at the end of the Ptarmigan route

For the length of the path up Loch Lomond, there were reams of little waterfalls spilling over the rock face to the side of the path. It was a nice distraction from the occasional monotonous section where the trees hid the loch from view. Deep within the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, the path meandered for mile after mile. A lower track that divides and goes down to the shoreline past Rob Roy’s prison was closed at the time of doing the hike, but this did not stop some hikers ahead of me going down this route. I didn’t see them again after that, so have no idea if they had to turn back or made it through, but the route had been deemed as dangerous, hence the closure. The forest was thick in places so I found this part of the track rather uninteresting. I kept a good lookout for red squirrels but saw none, and was eager for every break in the foliage to give me an uninterrupted view of the loch. At one such spot, a bench had been provided to soak up the view of the Cobbler on the far side of the loch.

Waterfall by the WHW

Break in the trees

Waterfall next to the WHW

Another waterfall by the WHW

Looking across to the Cobbler

Where the two paths rejoin, the path quality is quick to reduce, and continuing through the forest, it was rougher and narrower under foot although still an obvious and easy path to follow. When at last the forest opened up a little, and curved up past a very isolated house, I was intrigued to see a little stall by the fence line and wandered over for a look. The home owners had very lovingly provided home made edible treats and juice with an honesty box for hungry walkers to fill their stomachs with. It was a lovely idea, and had I not been full from breakfast, I would have purchased something, but I had more than enough edibles to carry already. Thankfully the route past here was more interesting than it had been for the previous few miles, with some large rocky outcrops and a change in vegetation.

Loch Lomond beach panorama

Local snack stop

Large rocky outcrop by the WHW

After 7 miles, I had crossed the river to reach the Inversnaid hotel where the ferry to Inveruglas on the far shore of Loch Lomond leaves from, and a few walks can be accessed from here too, including a route that leads to Loch Katrine to the east. I’d foolishly thought I was close to the end of the loch, but in reality I still had a third of it’s length to go, although it gets narrower and narrower the further north you walk. My brother, who had walked the WHW in 48hrs for charity, had warned me not to eat at the Inversnaid hotel, having had a bad experience there himself. I had no intentions of doing so, having another place in mind for lunch, but I did stop to rest my feet briefly, and there were a few other people enjoying some food and drink outside whilst I was there. The hotel does have road access, but it cuts down from Loch Katrine, rather than following the route of the loch or the WHW.

Way marker near Inversnaid

Waterfall at Inversnaid

Inversnaid hotel coming into view

Inversnaid jetty on Loch Lomond

Inversnaid hotel

The sky was threatening to rain, but leaving the hotel and the road behind, the path plunged back into the trees again which provided relative shelter. There were a few other people on this section of the walk out for a local stroll, as this section of the path also leads to an RSPB reserve. After the RSPB path splits off, the WHW became quite rough, and this was the section I had been warned about, where it undulates up and down, negotiating boulders, tree routes and rocky crags. At least it wasn’t monotonous, and when I stumbled upon a cave that was purported to be a hide-out for Rob Roy, a famous Scottish outlaw in the early 18th century, I took the opportunity to have a snack stop on the large rock balancing above it. Unfortunately, just as I was finishing, the rain finally decided to arrive and it was time to kit up in waterproofs before heading on. The trees at least provided some shelter as I continued to navigate through the rocky terrain, and at one point the path passed through a gap between a tree and a large boulder that was just big enough for a hiker and pack to get through.

Rocky terrain

Rob Roy's 'cave'

Squeezing between a boulder and a tree

When the trees opened up to a patch of fern, the far side of the loch looked exceptionally close as a small island was passed by. Not only could I see the traffic winding its way down, but I could hear it also. Not far from here, a ladder had been provided to navigate a jump in level of the hike, and as the route continued, the surrounding vegetation became more and more open, with close access to the loch side for a while, before cutting behind a headland, and then rejoining the loch past a cluster of buildings which included a public bothy. Bothies are the Scottish version of a mountain hut, usually an old cottage or building that retains its watertightness but is usually bare inside apart from a deck to sleep on, and an area to cook. As basic and dark as they are, these bothies, scattered across the Scottish countryside, can be a lifesaver or an overnight haven to hikers out in the middle of nowhere. I’ve slept in a couple in the past on hiking adventures, and I popped inside for a nosy.

Walking through tall ferns

Looking north up Loch Lomond

Looking across Loch Lomond

Ladder on the WHW

Waterfall

Looking south down Loch Lomond

A Scottish bothy

Fireplace inside the bothy

Sleeping area of the bothy

Beyond here, it was like walking through a meadow, the fern at chest height for the most part, and I became consciously aware of the fact that I was in tick country. When I used to live in Scotland, I always carried a tick hook, a small device to remove ticks, when I went hiking, but having lived in New Zealand for several years now, a country which doesn’t really have ticks, I’ve become complacent. It hadn’t even entered my head to get a tick hook to take with me, but suddenly it was all I could think about. No doubt I was being rather melodramatic, but I did my best to avoid touching the ferns as best as I could.

Panorama through ferns

Beach panorama

North Loch Lomond panorama

Passing a small jetty where a ferry crosses to Ardlui on the far shore, the route finally started to leave Loch Lomond’s shore behind, and suddenly I found myself feeling sad that this section of the walk was over. Despite the cloudy sky, the intermittent drizzles and the occasional monotony of the hike in this section, I’d actually really enjoyed having the loch as a constant companion, and I realised that leaving the loch behind was the beginning of the change in scenery, whereby I was heading more into the wilderness, and more into the mountains. As the path began to creep uphill, I turned back regularly to catch a glimpse of the loch disappearing into the distance, but finally, it slipped out of view, and a valley of green opened up ahead of me in the form of Glen Falloch.

Passing under a fallen tree

Nearing the tip of Loch Lomond

Heading away from Loch Lomond

The last sight of Loch Lomond

Glen Falloch

Hiking through Glen Falloch

By now mid-afternoon I was tired and starving. I had planned on going to the Drovers Inn, across the river Falloch from the WHW, and on the side of the A82, for lunch, but as I got nearer and nearer, I realised this was quite a diversion off the path, and I was in two minds whether my tired legs were going to win over my hungry stomach or vice versa. My dad had told me that a campsite near the WHW had a cafe, so I held out hope for this instead, and as the WHW drew nearer to the Beinglass Farm campsite, I was overjoyed to see a sign advertising hot food. The rain was beginning again as I stepped inside what was effectively a very busy little pub, and I settled in to dry off and fill up with a much-needed meal. My feet were aching, and the ongoing rain made me reluctant to get going, but my bed for the night was still 6 miles (9.5 kms) away so I had little choice but to wrap up and get going again.

Following the course of the river Falloch, the road and railway line are not far away on the other side of the river, so the regular noise of traffic down this busy road intruded slightly. But there was plenty to look at with some impressive waterfalls, and then finally hitting stock as farmland was reached, with sheep ambling about the pathway, and then cattle as a little farm was reached. A large bull watched me pass as he chewed the cud, and there were cows littered all over the place, a group of which got a fright as I approached the bridge that crossed the river, threatening to scatter in all directions. Having worked on a farm when I was younger, I knew how frustrating scattered stock could be, so I didn’t want to get in their way. In the end I had to hide in the bushes, just so that they would come across the bridge without scattering, before I was able to get past myself. Now I was immediately below both the road and the railway line following the broad, bubbling river upstream.

Scottish blackface sheep

Bull chewing the cud

Glen Falloch

Cutting under the railway line through a tunnel meant for stock, meant having to crouch down to get through, then along what used to be the road, another tunnel directs the WHW below the A82, the main trunk road. Now, I was in prime farming country, walking along what used to be an old military road, a really uncomfortable rocky path under the watchful eye of some sheep. In sections it was incredibly churned up and muddy, especially as the farmhouse itself was reached. In the distance, a woodland grew closer and closer, and I passed through the gate into a large conifer plantation to see the sign I’d been longing for: the turn-off for Crianlarich. It was then a long descent through the woods to reach the A82, crossing it and cutting down to the Crianlarich train station. Nestled behind here was the YHA hostel where I was booked for the night. On arrival, the person at the front desk was almost apologetic about the fact that a large school group were also staying at the hostel, and there were teenagers draped over every available surface of the building and grounds.

Sheep tunnel under the railway line

Tunnel under the A82

Scottish Blackface sheep

Farm in Glen Falloch

Glen Falloch

Walker's crossroads at Crianlarich

Drover's Loop into Crianlarich

There’s not a lot of choice for eating out in Crianlarich, but down on the main street, I found myself at the Rod & Reel where I was served the most enormous portion of chilli con carne I’ve ever seen. Like the previous nights, the UEFA EURO football was playing at the bar, and I was excited to see it was Iceland playing. Having watched them beat England whilst I was in Iceland, I was happy to watch them again, until the goals started rolling in for the opposition. After filling myself full with a well-deserved meal and cider, the game soon became embarrassing, and I didn’t bother staying till the end. Waddling back to the hostel with sore feet and a full belly, I crept into my bunk bed, trying not to disturb my roommates, and fell into a broken sleep.

West Highland Way: Drymen to Rowardennan

As much as I like my own company when I’m hiking, I was looking forward to my brothers joining me for day 2 of the West Highland Way (WHW). I’d had a restful sleep at the Kip in the Kirk, and had a good chat with my American roommates over breakfast in the kitchen. With my brothers driving separately from Glasgow then meeting up to strategically place their cars to get themselves home, I had a bit of time to kill whilst waiting for them. I hung around in the town square of Drymen watching the world go by until finally they appeared rather later than anticipated. But under the grey sky, once everyone was kitted up for the hike, we set off on route to Rowardennan, 15miles (24km) away¬† on the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond, Scotland’s largest inland body of water.

The Clachan in Drymen

Drymen Square

There are two routes out of Drymen to rejoin the West Highland Way: the more direct Rob Roy Way which is a short cut, or to retrace my steps from the evening before back to the A811 which is what we did. There was only a short distance along this road till the path took a 90 degree turn towards the woods of the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park. It was an easy meander with good company as we caught up with each others’ lives. As much as I love living in New Zealand, the distance from my family back in Scotland and the sense of feeling like I’m missing out on family gatherings is a hard sacrifice that I can accept sometimes better than others. It had been 3.5 years since I’d last seen my family, and time was running out before I was to head back to the Southern Hemisphere.

This section of the walk may be changeable depending on how the tree growth is going, but we were able to see down to Loch Lomond which grew larger and larger as we approached it. Nearing the end of the wooded section the path splits in two: a woodland track that cuts down to the B837 with the road then being followed into Balmaha; or the more scenic track that summits Conic Hill. This latter track is closed during lambing season, but in July we were good to go, and there was no way I was skipping this section of the track. Considering how few WHW walkers I’d come across the day before, there were plenty of people trudging up Conic Hill that day, and for the first time on the hike, I was reminded how much over-indulging I had done on my holiday, as I lagged a little behind my brothers as we trudged our way up the 361m (1184ft) hill.

Queen Elizabeth Forest Park

Loch Lomond behind Queen Elizabeth Forest Park

Conic Hill by Loch Lomond

The West Highland Way snakes up Conic Hill

Loch Lomond visible on the climb up Conic Hill

We got a cracking view of Loch Lomond from the summit which is just a slight side trip from the WHW itself, but it was very windy, and the clouds were quick to close in on us. We could see a sheet of rain moving in from further up the loch and as we started our descent to try and beat it, our luck ran out and we got wet. Stubborn to the last minute, I was left trying to put my waterproofs on with the wind whipping them around me, in a repeat of what had happened on our ascent to Ben Lomond a couple of weeks prior. Picking our way down the track, then some steps, we found ourselves back in another section of the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park before emerging out in Balmaha, a small settlement on the shore of Loch Lomond, and a popular spot for day trippers from the city. We headed to the Oak Tree Inn, a beautiful and popular inn filled with locals, walkers and visitors. We were lucky to get a table with the crowds there, and enjoyed a tasty meal as we dried off a little.

Conic Hill summit panorama

Looking back at the road already travelled

Loch Lomond panorama

Descending from Conic Hill

Queen Elizabeth Forest ParkThe Oak Tree Inn at Balmaha

Unfortunately, my eldest brother had received a call that meant he had to leave us there, so after he caught the local bus to get back to Drymen where he’d left his car, my other brother and I continued on the WHW. Passing a statue of Tom Weir, nicknamed the Mountain Man, the track skirted the shoreline, passing boats moored at a little marina and round to a jetty where some local ferry services ran from. Heading up the hill to Craigie Fort, the sun was starting to push through the clouds and from the lookout we could see along the length of Loch Lomond and the mountains that flanked its sides. Soon joining the bank of the loch itself, we chatted away, taking photos often as the view of the loch changed constantly as we followed its shore.

Tom Weir MBE

Balmaha marina

Balmaha jetty panorama

Inchcailloch island on Loch Lomond

Looking up the length of Loch Lomond

Loch Lomond panorama from Craigie Fort

Inchcallioch island

In sections, the path skirts the road before separating from it, dipping back into the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park briefly before returning to the roadside again. Being a Saturday, there was a regular stream of cars driving along. Whilst the road on this side of the loch is a dead end, there are plenty of camp sites, holiday homes, and a few eateries to tempt visitors to travel along it. Although the path was separate to the tarmac, the noise was a little distracting having come on this hike to get away from it all. Even on the loch itself, there was boat activity ploughing along the water too, and there were plenty of people at various spots along the track. Frustratingly, this popularity led to a major problem with littering. In the past, the local council banned freedom camping in this area, limiting it to designated campsites in an effort to reduce the desecration that has taken place, but with every little beach or inlet we came across, we found garbage stuffed amongst tree branches and dumped on the grass. Such a beautiful part of the country has fallen foul to the ingrates who come to play there.

Bonnie banks of Loch Lomond

Banks of Loch Lomond

Loch Lomond shoreline panorama

Rubbish - the scar on the Loch Lomond landscape

A longer hike than day 1, I was getting tired as we continued the long walk along the loch, but there were so many little beaches to look at. On one such beach I stumbled across a rather rusty set of 9 keys with what looked like a mixture of car, boat and household keys. Clearly it had been there for a while, but somebody somewhere would have spent a lot of money replacing a lot of locks! I carried them with me anyway, and handed them in when finally we reached Rowardennan. Despite booking my accommodation 6 months ahead, I had been unable to secure a bed at the local youth hostel and was forced to splash out for a room at the Rowardennan Hotel. Whilst I could have done without the expense, I was grateful for the large luxurious bed and posh bathroom, as well as the welcoming snacks and tv that came with my room. My brother continued the short distance along the road to the public car park where he had left his car, and from there he headed home to Glasgow.

Keys on a beach

Pebbly beach at Loch Lomond

Loch Lomond shore

Loch Lomond's rocky shore

Sun shining on Loch Lomond

Bonnie banks of Loch Lomond near Rowardennan

At the far end of the Rowardennan Hotel was the pub where I was lucky to get the last table, squished right in the middle of the very packed bar. Saturday nights anywhere in Scotland are busy, but it was peak holiday season, the schools were finished for the year, and both locals and tourists filled every square inch of the place. One of the down sides of dining alone meant that I had to leave the table to order my meal at the bar, and this led to a rather heated exchange when I returned to find a couple had sat themselves at my table. Tired and hungry I wasn’t giving in, and despite them being evidently annoyed, they relinquished it begrudgingly and I settled in to wait for my food whilst indulging in a well earned cider.

A commotion drew my attention to an alcove across the bar where a familiar face sat amongst a group of friends watching the football. Kevin Bridges, one of Scotland’s best comedians was enjoying a few drinks, and I wasn’t the only one who had spotted the celebrity. I was highly amused eavesdropping on a neighbouring table who kept whispering about him, and were evidently trying to find an excuse to go and talk to him. I was neither presentable, nor extroverted enough to consider going anywhere near him, and respected his down time also. After filling my stomach with a tasty meal, I retreated to my cosy room to vegetate on my bed watching tv before another thoroughly good sleep in preparation for the longest day of the whole hike.

Rowardennan Hotel room

Rowardennan Hotel bathroom

West Highland Way: Glasgow to Drymen

For 96 meandering miles (154.5km), the West Highland Way (WHW) traverses a range of landscapes leaving the suburbs of Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow behind for open pastures, rolling hills, lochs, and then mountains before reaching Fort William in the north. Repeatedly lauded as Britain’s best long distance walk, and certainly Scotland’s most well known, and most popular, it was a walk that had eluded me for quite some time. The usual recommendation is to walk it in 7 days, but depending on drive and fitness, it can be walked in as long or as little time as you like. My brother had even completed the mammoth task of walking it in less than 48hrs for charity, but for me, with a slightly tight schedule at the end of my 6-wk long trip, I had 6 days to complete it. I was beyond excited, having waited many years to reach this point.

I had had immensely good luck with the weather for the initial few weeks of my trip round Scotland, and then the rain and cloud appeared before I hopped over to Iceland for 10 days. On my return, just the next day, I was packed and ready to head off, but outside the clouds were crying over Glasgow. It was a little disheartening to have to start the walk in full waterproofs but I was grateful to my brother for driving me to Milngavie, a northern suburb of the city, where the WHW officially begins. After grabbing a hot snack from the nearby Greggs, and posing for some obligatory photos at the obelisk in the town centre, I could not wait out the rain much longer and with my brother in tow, I set off in the early afternoon of day 1.

West Highland Way obelisk in Milngavie

In full waterproofs at the start of the West Highland Way

Underneath a signed archway, the track immediately leaves the city life behind, to follow the river, Allander Water, as it snakes its way through the emerging countryside. It doesn’t take long to reach Mugdock Woods, an area known to me from many a school visit here when I was younger, but a place that I had not been to for a very long time. Here, there were a myriad of local walks, and it was one of these that my brother left me for before heading home, whilst I continued to follow the distinctive sign of the WHW: a thistle. Thankfully the showers were already clearing and it wasn’t long before the layers could start to come off. I shared this section of the walk with a lot of locals out walking their dogs or out for a stroll, and it wasn’t until reaching the far end of Mugdock Woods after 2 miles (3.2km) did I start to feel like I was getting away from it all.

WHW in Mugdock Woods

Signage near Mugdock Woods

My destination for the night was Drymen, which the sign at the end of the woods told me was 10 miles (16km) away. With the sun now shining, it quickly became a very beautiful walk through grassland surrounded by trees, and then along the bank of Craigallian Loch. This was the first time I came across fellow WHW hikers in the form of two friends who appeared laden down with camping gear. Due to chronic back issues, I had long ago made the decision that I would stay in accommodation during the hike, meaning I only needed to carry about 6-8kg weight as opposed to the weight of a tent and camping gear. The weight difference meant it only took the length of the loch to catch up with them and then overtake them.

10 miles to Drymen

Walking the WHW

Craigallian Loch

The whole walk follows a mixture of old drovers roads, military roads or coaching roads, but especially on this first day, there was a regular need to cross or follow modern day roads. For the most part these are not main roads so traffic was light, and after a brief foray along a section of tarmac, I was soon back in pastureland, walking amongst cattle and heading towards the distinctive hump of Dumgoyach. Following the farm track, I was surprised to come over a ridge and be accosted by a man looking for money. Purported to be raising money for the local mountain rescue service, I was in two minds how to approach his request. With the walk itself being free, he was particularly targeting hikers on the WHW, and I wasn’t convinced he was genuine. But being as he was in the middle of nowhere, he had at least made some effort to be there, so even if he was scamming, I decided to give him some money anyway to justify his effort.

Entering farmland

Crossing pastureland

Cows next to the WHW

The WHW snaking through the lowlands

Soon though, I was back on my own, at least for a while before I was joined by some sheep as I skirted Dumgoyach. Then having by now walked 5.5 miles (nearly 9km), the WHW turned to join an old railway line which it followed for a good while, passing a turn-off to the Glengoyne Distillery. I was tempted to pop in for a wee dram, but with the afternoon wearing on, and the sky once again becoming overcast, I opted to push on. When eventually a break in the old railway line was reached, a welcoming sign for the Beech Tree, a local business, greeted me on my brief return to habitation.

Typical WHW signage

Dumgoyach

Scottish blackface sheep

Lamb walking the WHW

Distance marker

Glengoyne whisky distillery

WHW at Glengoyne

Beech Tree signage

WHW History information board at the Beech Tree

Crossing the road, the path again denoted the old railway track but this time was narrow, and as it meandered northwards, I met the odd person out walking their dog from the nearby villages. With houses peeking out of the trees at regular intervals it felt like a long time before I was leaving civilisation behind again, and even then it was only a brief respite before the path met head on with the A81 road. I could hear it before seeing it, and this was the first of a few main road crossings on the walk. Once safely across, it was only a short meander till the path petered out, and I found myself at a quiet tarmac road.

Following the old railway line

Mr Slug

Old railway line

Crossing the road

Following this road left, it crossed a weir at the hamlet of Gartness, and then it was a long tarmac trudge as a drizzle began. This quiet road links a few farms and small-holdings with Drymen to the north-west. In case I was feeling homesick for New Zealand, there were some random signs referencing Hobbits and the Shire which I found quietly amusing. Then, just as my feet were getting sick of the tarmac, Loch Lomond, the largest inland body of water in the country, popped into view for the first time. This spurred me on a little as I hate walking on roads, and only when Drymen is vaguely in sight, does the route finally veer off the tarmac.

Weir at Gartness

The never-ending tarmac trudge

Hobbit country

This way to the Shire

First sighting of Loch Lomond

In a small but muddy field, a worn path led through a herd of cattle. One of the cows was using a WHW sign to scratch an itch and I watched it, smiling as I passed by. Soon after, I found myself at the A811 road where I left the WHW behind to follow the pavement into Drymen. I was staying at Kip in the Kirk, an old church on Stirling Road that had been converted into a bunkhouse and B&B. I was welcomed with a mug of tea and a freshly baked scone which was a lovely touch, and I was very happy to get my hiking boots off my feet.

Cow with an itch

The Ten Commandments at Kip in the Kirk

After a brief respite, and on the recommendation of one of my hosts, it wasn’t far to reach the Winnock in Drymen’s square, where I parked myself up for the night. The UEFA EURO 2016 football tournament was still in full swing so with this on the television in the bar and being a Friday night, there was a decent crowd there. I got a table easily though and it was warm and cosy. I requested a dram of the most local whisky (which turned out to be Glengoyne, the distillery I had passed on the hike), and happily tore in to a steak pie. As the evening wore on, and the other drinkers grew merry, I found myself talking to a very drunk local who used to live in Glasgow. His banter brought back so many memories of nights out in the city of my birth, and he was good company whilst the match played on in the background. But tired from the fresh air, and with another day of hiking ahead of me, my bed was soon calling me, so shortly after the full-time whistle was blown, I retreated to the bunkhouse for an immensely comfortable night’s sleep.

Winnock in Drymen

A dram of Glengoyne whisky

Steak pie at Winnoch in Drymen

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