Bernhard at A’ Chull Bothy
I’m not much of a bothy person myself; I much prefer the warmth and privacy of my tent. But there are times when these isolated shelters — heroically maintained by volunteers — come into their own.
The first night of the recent trip was spent at Inverie Bay sitting out a pretty nasty storm. The first day’s walk ended at Soulies bothy although I had originally intended to walk much further. We walked through some pretty unpleasant weather. Everywhere the ground was completely waterlogged. Every path was not silly a stream it was a bog! Crossing the boggy ground in the estuary at Soulies was a nightmare. We took refuge in the Soulies bothy at 2.30 and as soon as we did the storm began to rage again. That was it; we stayed put! That evening we had the company of two young guys who had splashed in from Glenfinnan spending a night at A’ Chull. In normal conditions I like the walk between Soulies and this bothy but their descriptions of the walk were not too enticing! We were then joined by two walkers who had aimed for Oban bothy; they had found the bothy closed and had been forced to endure a pretty gruelling crossing across high ground before making to Soulies. We had a good night. During the night the sky cleared and in the morning we were all greeted by a dazzling sunrise.
As we climbed east out of Soulies Bay it became pretty clear that our progress would be a lot slower than hoped; the conditions were every bit as bad as the two lads had warned us. The trick in these conditions though is to forget stretching goals for the day and to settle back into a gentle pace and simply enjoy the surroundings. We re-calibrated and set our sights for Glendessary. I remembered a wonderful wild camp spot that I used on my first Challenge.
For most of the day we walked in glorious sunshine and as we made our way through the Glendessary forest we were walking in base layer T shirts. Excitement built as I approach the camp spot but we were greeted by a rather horrible reality. Everywhere was a bog. So, off we trotted to spend a second night at a bothy.
At A’ Chull we were quickly joined by Bernhard from Amsterdam. Bernhard has also started walking at Glenfinnan although a day later than planned; he had sat out the storm of our first day at the railway carriage hostel. This was Bernhard’s first time in the North West Highlands and his first night in a bothy.
It was a delightful privilege to spend the evening with Bernhard. He was a lovely man, full of good cheer even though his gas canister had failed. He was determined to have a full bothy experience. Someone before us had dragged almost half a tree into one of the bothy rooms and we quickly got a fire blazing. Berhard’s only regret was that neither of us was carrying any whisky!
Bernhard was walking to a route from the new Cicerone Cape Wrath Trail guide. During our first two days we met three groups of Dutch and German hikers also using the same guide. Bernhard was aiming for Barrisdale the next day and then for Loch Shiel the day after. After hearing of his thoughts of the walk from Glenfinnan we quickly convinced him that this was a bit much and we helped him replay his walk to end at Inverie. He would have been aiming for Glasgow at thens of his walk and the train from Mallaig seemed a better bet. We ‘sold’ him the joys of Inverie and the Old Forge!
Earlier in the day we had met a younger Dutch hiker walking to the same book and aiming at much the same itinerary. He was delighted to see us as we were the first people he had met in two days. He spent ten minutes expressing amazement at the bogs. He had seen bogs mentioned in the book but had no idea what they were. Now, I know what bogies are he explained! Although younger and fitter than ourselves it seemed unlikely he would make his itinerary either and we ask helped him think about walking into Inverie.
The guidebook had given the journey time from A Chull to Barrisdale as 1 or 2 days. However, the boggy conditions were I reckon almost doubling walking time. And neither of thee hikers had appreciated that it was getting dark at 6.00 pm. I was easily able to console both of them with the notion that they would be back again and the mountains wouldn’t have moved. Both had seen enough in a couple of day of walking to agree that they would certainly be back!
These encounters reiterated just how important it is to share routes and local knowledge with walkers who are new to the area. I’m not sure how the Cicerone guide describes itineraries but of course there is a big difference in walking long when sunset isn’t until 10 in the evening and trying to the same when you are probably looking to pitch at 5.00.
But back to A’ Chull. Bernhard, Kate and I dragged out a few chairs to the front of the bothy and enjoyed the late afternoon sun illuminating Glen Dessarry.
We sat and watched a group of four walkers plodding around on the other side of the glen. They seemed to be looking for a campsite and struggling. After an hour and a half the group found its way to our bothy. They were German and also walking to the new Cape Wrath guide. Their ‘leader’ told me that it had taken them 9 hours to walk in from Glenfinnan. Bernhard and Kate were a little confused but this bit I realised that as we’d seen them on the far side of the glen that they had probably been seriously lost.
The ‘leader’ of this group was not a particularly pleasant man and I noticed he treated Bernhard with more than a little contempt. He told me the group was walking to Strathcarrron to catch the train to Inverness. Ia sled him how many days he had factored in. As I said to Bernhard later there one thing I can guarantee is that they won’t be making Strathcarron in that timescale!
The group were simply not interested in any local knowledge, even tough they had just spent 9 hours thrashing around in bogs! The group sniffed around the bothy. I told them there was more than enough room and began to create space for them. They were not impressed. It was beginning to get dark. The ‘leader’ told me they were king to camp. I express surprise and asked where? I sniffed at me and dismissively pointed out towards the glen; anywhere he replied. He seemed to have forgotten that he had already spent over an hour thrashing about in the same landscape. He also hadn’t put any value on the fact that he’d offered that none of his group had walking in Scotland before!
I’d tried my best to help but to be honest had no real interest in dealing with such an arrogant and dismissive man. A couple of hours later — in the complete dark of night — we watched a lot of head torches thrashing around; it seemed they had still to find the right pitch. First light in the morning revealed a huge 4 person Hilleberg tent pitched precariously on a rather uncomfortable looking hillock.
We returned to our cozy room, the fire blazing fast and warm. I thought about this group on several occasions over he next few days. Almost certainly they would have to change their plans dramatically and I suspected this would not be a completely painless change!
It just goes to show that it is worth taking the time to be warm and friendly to the people you meet along the trail. Sometimes your temporary comrades can gain good advice from you and sometimes you can really benefit from their greater coal knowledge. To plough on through wild landscapes without rough or preparation means not only unpleasant days but an increased risk of danger.
Anyone reading this who has picked up the Cape Wrath guide for the first time should appreciate that while the trail does not walk along the tops it is nonetheless a very challenging one. The trail’s days are long but in the autumn the hours of sunlight are very limited; and when the ground is waterlogged like this progress can be slow.
But I prefer to end by thinking of hikers like Bernhard, a thoroughly nice man who threw himself into the experience as much as possible and was just a delight to spend an evening with. There’s no doubt, that on this occasion the bothy had properly worked its magic!