MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the month “January, 2017”

Queen Charlotte Track: Ship’s Cove to Furneaux Lodge

I woke a little after midnight unaware of the time, only noting that it was still dark outside. I silently cursed that I had awoken, was about to turn over and resettle when the familiar sensation of the room rocking signalled an earthquake was rolling through. New Zealand is situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire and spans two tectonic plates. With 15,000 earthquakes on average per year, the country’s nickname is the Shaky Isles. Having lived in the South Island of New Zealand for 5 years I’ve felt many quakes of varying intensities rattle through and several nights’ sleep have been disturbed by the sensation of the room moving. So as my brain acknowledged the quake through a fog of tiredness I woke up more fully to release it was still going. Normally they are so short that they’re over as soon as you’ve acknowledged that they’ve begun. And yet on it went. And on, and on. For about two long minutes, the house rocked back and forth accompanied by the banging of the Venetian blinds against the wall, and the realisation hit that this was something big.

It was November 14th and as the city awoke in the darkness, social media went rife and amongst the drama unfolding about what was going on to the north of Christchurch, hour after hour we waited and wondered what would come next. Then the tsunami siren went off and all in all it was a sleepless night. But in the morning the destruction unfolded and as an unseasonal storm broke sending a deluge of rain down to the north of us, my plans to drive north through Kaikoura to Picton in just 5 days time were suddenly unlikely as the main routes north were shut.

Nestled in the stunning Marlborough region in the north of the South Island is one of the country’s best known multi-day hikes, the Queen Charlotte Track. Co-managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC) and a private trust, a well-maintained 71km (44mile) track winds its way from Ship’s Cove to Anakiwa along a peninsula sandwiched between the Kenepuru Sound and the Queen Charlotte Sound. I had been looking forward to the hike for a while as well as the weekend relaxing in Kaikoura afterwards.

 

As the days passed, and phone calls and enquiries were made, it was made clear that as long as I could get to Picton, where the boat to Ship’s Cove leaves from, the hiking trail was open and waiting to welcome me. So with the inland road reopening without restrictions a few days after the earthquake, I set off on the longer-than-normal drive north with trepidation. I had a hitchhiker for company and I stopped a couple of times on the way up to show her some scenic sights then after a night catching up with a friend on route, I arrived in Picton less than a week after the earthquake and storm had hit. And it looked just how I remembered it: pretty and twinkling in the sunshine.

Maruia Falls

Lake Rotoiti

 

Picton is a common place for locals and tourists to pass through as the inter-island ferries berth here but out amongst the bays and coves of the majestic Marlborough Sounds are a collection of homes and baches  (holiday homes) dotted amongst the bush. With some only accessible by boat, there is more than just the inter-island ferries ploughing these waters. I’d bought a ticket for the mail boat, one of a few boat companies that offer transport to the start of the Queen Charlotte track. It is possible to have your pack moved each day between accommodation if you buy the appropriate package but as my pack was reasonably sized, I opted to carry mine the full 71 km.

Picton harbour

 

I’ve been through these sounds a few times but it is always a beautiful place to be and Ship’s Cove was no exception. So named because the explorer Captain James Cook anchored his ship the Endeavour here in 1770, a monument has been erected there and the white behemoth stands out against the green of the surrounding bush. We berthed at the end of the long pier right next to a landslip from the recent storm, and the boat unloaded. A few of us were heading off on the track, but most of the people on the boat were just out for a day trip and they were given some time ashore before reboarding to start the return journey to Picton.

Queen Charlotte Sound

Sailing through the Queen Charlotte Sound

 

There was a Maori totem pole and some Maori carvings next to a picnic spot on the green grass. Across a little bridge was the monument to Captain Cook and some information boards about the history of the place as well as the early explorers. The view out to sea was staggering and with a blue sky up above, the sea glistened. A weka wandered along the shore and despite the other people milling about, it felt peaceful and serene.

Maori totem pole

Tiki carving

Maori carving

Cook monument at Ship's Cove

Ship's Cove panorama

 

At the far end of the cove, a sign pointed into the bushes marking a route to a waterfall. It was a little muddy underfoot, but I followed it through the thick vegetation round the curve of the coastline before cutting inland to follow a river upstream to the waterfall. I had the place to myself, and the double waterfall was pretty as the sun sparkled through gaps in the foliage. As always, DOC signs are over-generous and I was back in Ship’s Cove in no time.

Waterfall track leaving Ship's Cove

Double waterfall

Waterfall tier

 

I then didn’t want to leave. It was just too beautiful, and even though I knew I had several hours of hiking ahead of me, it was really hard to say goodbye to the place. Especially after the boat crowd left and I found myself on my own. I took my time slowly wandering around, watching the weka, staring out to sea and wandering along the pier to look at the landslide. But eventually it was time to get going, and I readied myself to start the Queen Charlotte track.

Captain Cook's visits to the area

Pier at Ship's Cove

Walking the pier at Ship's Cove

 

A distance board and 71km marker mark the start of the track and immediately it goes into the bush and starts climbing. Near the start some warning signs detailed the use of poisons in the area. As New Zealand struggles to rid itself of a tyranny of introduced pest species that threaten the native wildlife, these controversial methods are a common spotting when out bush at certain times of the year. But the noticeable lack of birdsong in the thick bush was enough of a sign to know that something needs to be done.

DOC sign at the start of the QCT

71km to go...

Poison, poison everywhere

 

The track itself was beautiful to walk through and snippets through the vegetation gave hints of the views to come. After a steady climb, the first viewpoint on the hike was reached and it was crammed full of people who refused to budge to make room for me. After waiting for them all to leave, I got some alone time, soaking up the view on the first ridge before shortly after starting the winding descent towards Resolution Bay. Having crossed from one side of a headland to another, the vista was already starting to change.

The path climbing out of Ship's Cove

A common sight: humane pest trap

A sneaky peak of the view to come

Hiking through the New Zealand bush

Resolution Bay from the lookout

Motuara Island with Kapiti Island and the North Island on the horizon

Bellbird/Korimako

Winding down the hillside to Resolution Bay

 

I passed a few mountain bikers tackling the uphill as I came down, several of them having to get off their bike to push it up the slope. The Queen Charlotte track is a shared use track, although the section from Ship’s Cove to Kenepuru Saddle is closed to bikes in the height of summer. When the track had lost most of its altitude, a side track headed off to Schoolhouse Bay campsite. Here I saw what turned out to be the first of many landslips on the track. It was still passable though and I was glad as this was a stunning spot. There were some cyclists having a break and I waved hello then headed along the shoreline for some solitude.

Resolution Bay

DOC signage at Schoolhouse Bay junction

Resolution Bay

 

There are plenty of accommodation options along the Queen Charlotte track. It is possible to camp if you carry in all your gear as there are plenty of campsites and shelters, or there are a variety of lodgings on route. You can walk as much or as little of the track a day due to the number of options, and you can even do sections as individual day walks, by getting the boat to one of the various piers along the way. Following a back injury in 2013 and a shoulder injury in 2016, I made the decision to stay in lodgings along the route, meaning I could just carry a day pack without a lot of excessive weight on joints that can no longer withstand the strain.

There wasn’t a lot of space to set up camp here but the view was worth the detour alone, and although it wasn’t a long walk from Ship’s Cove, I could easily see why people would want to stay here. This cove was another of what was a recurring theme with this hike: not wanting to move on because it was such a beautiful spot. I had a snack whilst contemplating the clouds, but eventually I bid the cyclists goodbye and left them behind.

Schoolhouse Bay panorama

Panorama from Schoolhouse Bay campsite

Beach at Schoolhouse Bay campsite

 

Back on the Queen Charlotte track there was a section on private land behind some lodges before the track began climbing up towards another ridge. There were a few streams to break up the monotony of the trees whilst there was no view, but as the track climbed up the hillside, the trees opened up once more to show off the lie of the land and demonstrate the expanse of the forest. The last views over Resolution Bay were as stunning as the first had been and then the track disappeared into the bushes once more. I used to find forest walks in Scotland a bit boring as the trees were usually either pine or birch with little variety, and with a rather cultivated feel to them. On this side of the world, the forests feel wild and untamed and the variety in plant life is exciting. From low ferns and bushes to tall palms, vines and tree ferns, there is constantly something interesting to look at as you walk along.

Red fern leaves

QCT crossing onto private land

Fork in the track

Waterfall next to the track

Waterfall next to the QCT

Looking back towards the previous ridge behind Resolution Bay

Further round Resolution Bay

Cabbage tree

Leaving Resolution Bay behind

 

Shortly after another landslip,  Endeavour Inlet comes into view for the first time and a recently erected picnic bench provides a seat. A drop toilet in the bushes is one of the few toilets on the track that is outwith accommodation spots. I stopped for a break and a top up of sunscreen. The New Zealand sun is harsh and with such constant exposure, sunscreen is a must on this trek. I was convinced I was near the end of the day’s hike, but in reality, I still had most of the length of the arm of Endeavour Inlet to hike.

Landslip blocking most of the path

Looking out over Endeavour Inlet from the viewpoint

 

From the benches though it was downhill. Passing some more landslips, I reached the 61km (38mile) mark and onwards the track made its way down to the shoreline. With regular breaks in the trees it was an ever-evolving vista. The blue water sparkled in the sunshine and I felt a million miles away from anywhere and anyone. A few stony beaches scattered the shoreline, and even when I came across a pier there was nobody around.

Descending down into Endeavour Inlet

Hiking through the trees

Endeavour Inlet panorama

Beautiful blue water

Curled up fern frond

Panorama of Endeavour Inlet

 

I came across a sign that detailed my accommodation for the night was just another 25mins away. After a little longer among the vegetation, the track came out at a collection of baches known as The Pines. Suddenly I was walking through well maintained grass and looking out at boats moored off the myriad of piers. Yet still there was not a soul about.

Nearly at my night's accommodation

Walking through The Pines

Looking towards the head of Endeavour Inlet

 

After passing house after house after house, the track wound back into the bushes and a sign pointed to a spur track leading to a Rimu viewing platform. I assumed this meant a viewing platform overlooking the sea, but in fact it was an area to admire a rather large rimu tree, a tree endemic to New Zealand. It was certainly a decent size – I couldn’t fit the whole tree in one photograph – but it was a brief distraction from the main track which shortly after brought me to the much-awaited sign for Furneaux Lodge, my accommodation for the night. It had by now been about 5 hrs since I left Ship’s Cove behind.

Rimu viewing platform

Sun sparkling through the branches of a rimu tree

Furneaux Lodge sign on the QCT

 

Furneaux Lodge couldn’t have been more idyllically set if it tried. A central homestead containing a restaurant and bar with a scattering of cabins amongst the trees, all just metres away from the sparkling ocean lapping the shore of Endeavour Inlet. I had booked myself a hikers cabin: a bunk room with shared bathroom. I was quick to dump my stuff, take off my hiking boots and explore the grounds in my bare feet, the soft grass easing my sores. This was Heaven on Earth. I ate at the restaurant which was rather expensive for its less-than-filling portion sizes, and after making myself a hot chocolate with the provided equipment in my cabin, I took my mug down to the bench on the shore to watch the sun set, silently swatting away flies as the sky changed colour. Then it was just a short distance to retreat for a good night’s sleep.

Endeavour Inlet from Furneaux Lodge

Furneaux Lodge

Furneaux Lodge panorama

Sunset at Furneaux Lodge

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Wildlife of Scotland

It is said that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. After spending over 28 years of my life living in Scotland, it took moving to the other side of the world to really appreciate some of my homeland’s special qualities. As brimming as it is with beautiful scenery, it is also full of wildlife, both urban and rural. Over the last few years I have become a bit of a bird enthusiast, and I’ve found myself paying more attention to the feathered creatures that flit about around me. Whenever I go abroad, I’m very conscious of the wildlife that lives in that foreign land, and now when I go back to Scotland, I see the wealth of wildlife with fresh eyes. From cities to lochs, and mountains to the coast, there is something to spot everywhere. Special mention goes to the otter, red fox, red squirrel, hedgehog, minke whale, harbour porpoise, bottlenose dolphin, basking shark, white-tailed sea eagle, buzzard, kestrel and osprey which I have had the joy of seeing but haven’t been able to photograph.

MAMMALS

Reindeer

There’s only 1 herd of reindeer in the whole of the UK and they roam the mountain tops near Cairngorm, many of them coming down daily to hand-feed from visitors.

Adult Reindeer

Reindeer calf

 

Red Deer

The ‘Monarch of the Glen’, the male deer in full antlers and rutting mode is a sight (and sound) to behold. Spotted in the mountains and moors.

Red deer in Glen Muick

 

Roe Deer

The shy and solitary member of the deer family. Much harder to spot than the other deer species. This one was spotted in Caithness.

Roe deer

 

Grey Squirrel

An introduced species that has played a major part in the decline of the native red squirrel, these guys are a common sighting in parks and gardens, and are easy to spot without even leaving the city.

Grey squirrel

 

Rabbit

Seen as a pest by some, rabbits are often easy to spot in farmland and open fields.

Rabbit

 

Common Seal

From a distance, the common and grey seal can look very similar. Usually spotted hauled out onto rocks up the west coast or on the islands.

Common seal

 

Grey Seal

Newburgh beach north of Aberdeen offers near guaranteed sightings of these seals. They usually haul out on the protected north side of the Ythan river there, and can also be seen swimming in the river itself watching the beach goers and dogs go by.

Grey seal in the Ythan river

Seals hauled up on the beach at Newburgh

 

Humpback Whale

A seasonal visitor to Scottish waters, they can be spotted for a very short time in the waters around the islands of the west coast.

Humpback whale off the west coast of Scotland

Humpback whale fin slapping

 

White-beaked Dolphins

Feeding pods can be spotted around the islands off the west coast if you are lucky.

White beaked dolphins in Scottish waters

White-beaked dolphin leaping

 

Common Dolphins

These deep sea feeders are my favourite species of dolphin. They can be spotted off the west coast if you are lucky.

Common dolphin

 

BIRDS

Pied Wagtail

These are commonly spotted garden and pasture birds and are widely spread across the country.

Pied wagtail

 

Chaffinch

The colourful male is easy to spot in gardens and green spaces. The female blends in more and is less distinctive, but the species is well spread across the country.

Chaffinch (male)

Chaffinch (female)

 

Blackbird

Another common visitor to gardens and green spaces. This juvenile was trying to grab the attention of its parents.

Blackbird (juvenile)

 

Wood Pigeon

This is the porky version of the common run-of-the-mill street pigeon that plagues city centres. Although they will occasionally be seen amongst their scrawny city-dwelling cousins, they are more usually seen in the suburbs or near woods.

Wood Pigeon

 

European Robin

The recognisable robin redbreast that adorns many a Christmas card is best spotted in gardens.

European Robin

 

Starling

A common and easily spotted bird in both urban and rural areas. These birds often flock together in mesmerising murmurations in the evening as they prepare to roost in large groups.

Bedraggled starling parent

 

House Sparrow

Another common and easily spotted garden bird.

House Sparrow

 

Song Thrush

These are the birds that I fondly remember from my childhood, singing away in the trees behind my parent’s house. They have a beautiful song, and are best spotted in areas with trees, but this includes many public green spaces and gardens.

Song Thrush

 

Carrion Crow

One of the county’s most diversely spread birds, they don’t seem fussy with their habitat and can be spotted in both urban and rural areas either singly or in groups. They are adaptable and have a varied diet, and are also known to be intelligent.

Carrion Crow

 

Swallow

Less spotted than the more common and similar-looking swift, these birds love to fly over high-insect zones such as farmland and waterways. They are exceedingly agile on the wing and are amazing to watch in action. It is also rare to see them on the ground and uncommon to see them perching as most of their life is spent on the wing.

Swallow

 

Common Linnet

This is a bird I never knew existed until I was going through my photos after my most recent trip home and wondered what it was. I’m certainly not aware that I have ever seen one before. This colourful male was spotted near the coast on Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands.

Common Linnet (male)

 

Mallard Duck

Anyone who has ever fed bread to a duck in a city park in Europe and North America has likely been feeding these guys. They are everywhere, and have been introduced to many other countries outwith their original range.

Mallard Ducks

 

Mute Swan

Another common occupant of urban waterways as well as coastal estuaries. I grew up knowing nothing but white swans, and remember a news story from my childhood about a black swan that appeared in the river in the town of Ayr south of where I lived. There is something very majestic about these creatures, although they can be very vicious if you get too close, especially when they have youngsters.

Mute swans on the farmland

 

Common Redshank

A lover of dampness, these birds are best spotted around marshes, meadows and lakes. Despite its name, its not as common as it used to be.

Common Redshank

 

Northern Lapwing

It is usually their cry that draws your attention to these birds. Although they are wading birds, they are best spotted on farmland and cultivated pastures. Unfortunately, population numbers are showing a decline and they are classified as a threatened species.

Northern Lapwing

 

Great Grey Shrike

I photographed this bird but didn’t know what it was at the time. Their preferred habitat is grassland with shrubbery, and it is uncommon to spot them. This particular bird was spotted near the coast next to some open farmland in summer time which is unseasonal as they usually migrate to breed elsewhere.

Great Grey Shrike

 

Pheasant

Native to Asia, the pheasant was introduced historically as a game bird. Many a painting adorning Scottish castles and mansions will depict dead pheasants hanging in a kitchen or off the arm of a shooter. Even today, these birds are still popular to shoot during the right season. To shoot them with a camera, they tend to be found in the countryside where they like to dash out in front of cars on rural back roads, and are occasionally spotted when out hiking in the glens.

Pheasant (male)

Pheasant (female)

 

Red Grouse

Another bird that is still shot in Scotland during the beating season. They are very difficult to spot, hiding in amongst the heather of the open moorland in the highlands and some of the islands. It is easier to spot them on a bottle of whisky where their image has had a worldwide audience thanks to the Famous Grouse brand. I came very close to standing on this little grouse chick that was easy to overlook and refused to move when I got close. I’ve never seen an adult in the wild.

Red Grouse (chick)

 

Eurasian Oyster Catcher

With their distinctive call, they can be the rowdy accompaniment to any beach walk and are one of many bird species that wander around the tidal zone looking for a meal.

Eurasian Oyster Catcher

 

Ringed Plover

These pretty little birds are another common sighting at the beach, feeding in the tidal zone, and often seen in small groups.

Ringed plover

 

Common Sandpiper

These migratory birds are only seen in the summer months but are beach goers that forage in the tidal zone, and are more solitary in their habits than the ringed plover who they share a habitat with.

Common sandpiper

 

Curlew

The largest wading bird in Europe, the curlew is sadly a threatened species. Usually seen on their own, they can be spotted either on the shoreline or inland.

Curlew

 

Temmincks Stint

One of many similar looking shore birds seen around the tidal zone.

Temmincks Stint

 

Common Eider

These large ducks are sea-dwellers, living along coastlines of Europe and North America. They are an easy spot in Scotland due to the distinctive colouration of the male and their size.

Eider (male)

Eider duck (female)

 

Red-breasted Merganser

This migratory diving duck breeds in Scotland, and this particular female was spotted in Loch Lomond cruising near the shore.

Red-breasted Merganser

 

Black-Headed Gull

A commonly spotted gull near the coastline.

Black-headed gull

 

Common Gull

As the name suggests, these are a common sighting, mainly on the coastline but can be spotted in cities and farmland. They are bigger than the black-headed gull but smaller than the black-backed gull.

Common gull

 

Black-backed Gull

The big bully of the gull world, there is no shortage of these gulls around Scotland and they will happily scavenge in urban zones as much as the coastline.

Black-Backed Gull (juvenile)

 

Fulmar

These birds are wanderers of the sea, only coming to shore for the sake of breeding. They are a loud and common sighting along many coastlines in the summer months.

Fulmar

 

Great Skua

Also known as Bonxie, these large birds are the robbers of the bird world. Why obtain your own fish when you can steal from another? They can be spotted at rest on land or more commonly seen swooping and mobbing at other sea birds in the air or on cliffs.

Great skua

 

European Shag

Shags and cormorants are terms used differently for different birds within the cormorant family. They are best spotted on rocks where they like to spread their wings wide to dry. This nest with juveniles was on Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands, but they are widespread along the Scottish coastline.

Shag parent with chicks

 

Gannet

This is one of my favourite sea birds and are most impressive when seen diving at great speeds from the air to catch fish. A flock of diving gannets can be a good way to find feeding whales and dolphins as they will often track feeding pods where the fish are pushed nearer the surface.

Gannets

 

Puffin

One of Scotland’s most special birds. Unfortunately their numbers are in decline as they are selective feeders. I remember seeing great flocks of these when I was younger, and now they are in small clusters. Despite their petite size, they spend most of the year at sea, returning to land only to breed where they nest in burrows. The cliffs on the west coast of Mainland Orkney, Faraid Head in Sutherland, and the Isle of Staffa are recommended places to spot them in the summer months.

Puffin

 

Guillemot

A similar size to the puffin, though much more populous, and often seen hanging around in the same places.

Guillemot

 

Razorbill

Another cliff-loving sea bird, they are often seen milling around near guillemots.

Razorbills

 

OTHER – THE OFTEN OVERLOOKED INSECTS, AMPHIBIANS AND FISH

Six-Spot Burnet

This pretty moth was spotted amongst the dunes on the Aberdeenshire coast.

bug at the beach

 

Hairy caterpillar

One of many reasons to watch where you tread. This guy was crossing the hiking path on the West Highland Way.

Caterpillar

 

Blue Damselfly

A pretty little dragonfly, their colour is mesmerising. Spotted near a loch in Sutherland.

Blue damselfly

 

Golden-Ringed Dragonfly

A beautiful and large dragonfly, I spotted this one whilst out hiking in Cairngorm National Park, although they are more widespread in western Scotland.

Dragonfly

 

Snails

Slugs and snails are a gardener’s pest but I like snails, and think the ground-dwelling creatures of the world are under-appreciated. This group of snails were hanging out on a post in Barra, in the Outer Hebrides.

Group of snails hanging out

 

Black Slug

The ugly slug of the slug world.

Black Slug

 

Brown Slug

The not-so-ugly slug of the slug world.

Mr Slug

 

Frog

The famously wet climate means amphibians can find plenty of habitat to choose from in Scotland. Unfortunately several species are on the decline due to predation, disease and habitat destruction. This frog came into a mountain bothy I was staying in whilst out hiking in the Cairngorm National Park.

frog

 

Blue Crab

One of many crabs that can be spotted on Scottish beaches. This one was at Faraid Head in Sutherland.

Blue crab

 

Sunfish

Also known as the mola, this is the heaviest boned fish in the world. It is really rare to spot these in Scottish waters, but they occasionally pop up due to the ocean currents. I was exceedingly lucky to spot this impressive fish off the coast near Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, many years ago.

Sunfish

 

Moon Jellyfish

One of the more common jellyfish in Scottish waters.

Moon jellyfish

 

Jellyfish

Another jellyfish in Scottish waters. To some people, jellyfish are horrible creatures, something to fear. Whilst I don’t want to swim amongst them, I certainly like looking at them move around the water.

Jellyfish

West Highland Way: Kinlochleven to Fort William

It was a joy to wake up to sunshine on day 6 of the West Highland Way (WHW), but having seen the forecast the night before I knew it was to be short-lived. I’d hiked mainly under a grey sky the whole walk so far so I was determined to get up and get going before the predicted rain moved in. Unlike the previous 5 days, there would be no civilisation between Kinlochleven and the end of the WHW 16 miles (25.5km) onwards, so with a grocery store in town, I made sure I had enough supplies to keep me happy for the day. I clearly wasn’t the only WHW hiker with the same idea, as there were several others setting off as I left my little cabin behind.

Kinlochleven

Although the sky was blue above, there was some low cloud over the mountain tops as I passed through the main street of Kinlochleven. Just as the buildings are coming close to ending at the head of the loch, the path heads into the trees near the school, and a short distance later begins to zig-zag up the hillside. The attained height is similar to the Devil’s Staircase on day 5, but yet strangely isn’t talked about by hikers in quite the same way. The view as it picked its way up the hillside was stunning, as Loch Leven came more into sight, and the buildings of Kinlochleven grew smaller and smaller. I regularly caught up with and overtook the same hikers time and time again on this section as we all stopped regularly to admire the view.

Clouds behind Kinlochleven

Statue in Kinlochleven

Heading out of Kinlochleven

The Lairig

Green hillside as Loch Leven creeps into view

Loch Leven panorama

Kinlochleven

Stunning view over Loch Leven

This route is known as the Lairig, and once the upper reach is attained, the view west showed the distinctive Pap of Glencoe as well as a sky full of clouds that were an omen for the coming change in weather. As the gradient flattened out, the other hikers and myself started to spread out across the landscape, and I ended up leaving them all behind. I knew the rain was coming, and wanted as much of the hike out the way as I could before the inevitable drenching. It was a beautiful section to hike, surrounded by green mountains and the loch sparkling below. As the loch disappears out of view, the track continued into a broad valley, and so it continued for a few miles. It was far from monotonous though on such a sunny day, and there were a couple of old ruined farming cottages to spike some interest. The first was relatively intact minus its roof, and there were the rusty remains of farming equipment scattered around in the nearby field. The second was rather worse for wear, with the walls crumbled into stony heaps. A little stream bubbled past nearby, and another walking route headed off up the nearby mountains.

Rain clouds to the west

Looking west to the Pap of Glencoe

Hiking below the green slopes

Panorama across the Loch Leven valley

Tigh-na-sleubhaich farmhouse

Tigh-na-sleubhaich farmhouse

Lairigmor farmhouse

After crossing a few streams, it became clear that the valley took a sharp turn and it was a near 90 degree shift in direction from heading west to heading north. The blue sky was behind me now, and I was back to the familiar grey skies that had been my company for the previous 5 days. At least it was still dry, but there was still a lot of ground to cover. The stubby remains of woods were visible and beyond that a sign denoted where the victorious MacDonalds chased the defeated Campbells of Argyll following the battle of Inverlochy. A stone cairn lay next to the sign, and the instructions were to either add a stone or to remove one depending on your allegiance. Through my mother’s side of the family, I am of the clan Campbell of Argyll so I dutifully removed a stone and tossed it away.

Ford in the WHW

Changing view as the valley curves

The pursuit of the Campbells

From this point onwards, the theme of the day was woodlands, whether felled or still standing. But the path by now was broad, and there was not another person in sight. After a while though, the track came to a junction where the broad track dipped down to become an actual road leading to Lochan Lunn Da-Bhra to the west and Glen Nevis to the north. The lochan is visible from here as the WHW turns off the broad track and starts to climb once more. There were a lot of bees here and despite seeing the looming clouds getting nearer and nearer, the view was still very open, and before I knew it Ben Nevis, Scotland’s (and the UK’s) highest mountain came into view. It had been a few weeks since I had summited the munro in the cloud, and I could see a little more of the mountain on this day than I had on the day that I hiked it. Still though, the summit was shrouded again.

Track through a woodland

Lochan Lunn Da-Bhra

Looking back at the road already travelled

Ben Nevis finally comes into view

As I approached the main section of woodland, I was overtaken by a runner, and once in the woods, I crossed a large stream, and then was surrounded by tall conifers. This would be my last chance to spot red squirrels and I looked upwards ever hopeful only to be disappointed. The track was rough and undulating under foot, and I could feel the temperature dropping. In a brief gap in the trees I saw that Ben Nevis was disappearing under a veil of clouds, and as I continued to march through the woodland, the rain started to fall and as it grew heavier, I was forced to kit up in my waterproofs. I was glad that there was plenty of trees to offer some light coverage, as the morning’s section of the hike had been so exposed. I was overtaken by another hiker in the middle of the woods, and as the path took a bend I was struck by an immense feeling of deja vu. I discovered later that I’d never been there before so I don’t know where the feeling came from but a small section of walk that dipped and curved round a hillock had felt so strongly familiar as to be almost unsettling.

Waterfall in the woods

Ben Nevis visible in a clearing

Walking through the forest

A fence denoted the boundary of the Nevis forest which covers the hillside of Glen Nevis. Here a track lead up a hill to an old iron age fort. Dated between 500 BC and 100 AD, I had argued in my head whether I wanted to make the detour or not. By now my legs were getting very sick of walking, and the thought of going uphill again was really putting me off, but in the end it was the ongoing rainfall that sealed the decision for me. A group of cyclists had come up the hill from Glen Nevis to visit the fort and I left them to it, deciding to skip it on this occasion. I eagerly stuck to the WHW which finally began the long and slow descent into Fort William. In the rain, I hated this section. Whilst I love forest walking in New Zealand, I’ve always hated forest walking in Scotland, where the diversity is much more limited and the fauna less apparent also. It felt like this track would never end, and my legs were working on auto-pilot as I dreamed about the hot coffee that would greet me in Fort William.

I knew that there would be a path to the Glen Nevis youth hostel before I would cut down to the road, and even this felt like it would never appear. When it did, I did a silent cry of jubilation and got a second wind to speed up a little. Finally the WHW cut off the forest track and picked its way down to the road that leads from Glen Nevis to Fort William. For 2 miles (3km) the WHW becomes the pavement next to the road and the rain continued to fall as I trudged alongside passing traffic, counting down until finally the first houses appeared. At the Nevis Bridge roundabout, a large thistle sign denotes that this was the original end of the WHW. The nearby Ben Nevis Woollen Mill (effectively a tourist shop) provides free certificates to hikers so I popped inside for a respite out the rain to collect mine.

The first houses of Fort William

The original end of the WHW

Now, the WHW ends in the main street of Fort William, another mile away. It is still signposted, although they appear more subtle amongst the road signs and buildings, but the way continues along Belford Road before cutting across the green space of the Parade and heading down Fort William’s semi-pedestrianised main street. I’ve visited Fort William many times before, and it felt so familiar to be here with the same old shops lining the high street. There was barely a soul outside when I reached Gordon Square with the statue and sign marking the end of my 96 mile (154.5km) hike, and after sitting in the rain briefly to acknowledge my achievement, I had to dawdle for a while to grab a passing stranger to take my photo. It seemed fitting to end it geared up in waterproofs, just as I had started it in Milngavie, but once the photos were taken, I was quick to head to the nearby Costa Coffee for a well deserved and much needed hot drink.

No explanation needed...

Posing with the statue at the end of the WHW

I had a few hours to kill before my train back to Glasgow, and I took my time perusing my favourite local stores, and doing a bit of shopping. The rain never let up for the rest of the day, and eventually it was time to make my way to the train station. The train was packed and I felt sorry for the two girls who had to sit opposite me, as I was pretty confident that I had acquired a delightful post-hiking aroma. I was initially confused when the train headed north but as it turned out it took a sweeping arc north then east before curling south, and this in fact took in some of the most stunning portion of the Rannoch Moor. I had been a little disappointed with my passage through the moor on day 5, having felt that the moor from the roadside was more stunning. Now though, the moor took on a wilder and more expansive sweep as the train hurtled through, and having seen none on the hike, we passed multiple red deer. The low cloud and mist added to the romance of the place and I fell in love with Rannoch Moor once more.

Eventually though, around 9.30pm, the train crawled into Glasgow’s Queen Street station and my adventure was over. My partner had arrived from New Zealand and he met me in the city ahead of the last few days of much needed family time before my long transit back home to Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island. I was ecstatic to have completed the hike, having desired to do it for many years. Although I am a seasoned hiker, the WHW is perfectly achievable for people of average fitness, but due to the locality to many settlements, it can easily be divided up and walked in isolated sections. With the exception of the section within Loch Lomond’s boundaries, camping is allowed anywhere along the route, meaning those who want to sleep under the stars have the luxury of walking the route in as little or as long as they like. Otherwise, there is plenty of accommodation to choose from along the route, and in the summer months, you can pay for luggage to be transported between your night’s accommodations. In other words, the WHW is truly a walk for everyone.

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