North - The Pack Wrath Trail
Longer journeys and challenges in the UK are nothing new, there are many excellent long-distance trails from the well-established West Highland Way to the increasingly popular Cape Wrath Trail. In fact, finding a long-distance journey that hasn’t been done could be almost impossible – almost…
On a holiday to the West Coast a few years back, I’d stumbled upon an old ‘coffin road’, between Lochs Morar and Nevis, the stone slabs and cobbles appeared out of the mist and provided a welcome respite from the squelching steps that had themed the day. That night I’d sat in the lodge wondering how many more of these ‘coffin roads’ and other paths were crossing the hills between long-cleared communities. Over years since, I’ve been fascinated by how these remote communities utilised both land and water as a means of connecting and living within those rugged landscapes. A couple of winters passed back home in Wales, studying maps and making summer plans, the idea to search for and link up these old pathways began to form and after much scheming, the plan was hatched: a route up the West Coast of Scotland, from Fort William (or close) to Cape Wrath, journeying over both land and water. A sort of semi-aquatic Cape Wrath Trail – the Pack Wrath Trail.
In mid-Jan 22 we finally set dates, early in the year as we run our own outdoor adventure business and after Covid we just couldn’t afford a gap in our season. Of the multiple iterations of the journey researched we finally agreed upon our route; south to north, hoping for prevailing wind on our backs. Finally, tide times were checked, food resupply points were arranged and packages posted out. We set upon beginning on Apr 1st, estimating 14-18 days for the approximately 350km journey. Sitting at home in the heat and dry of the blocking high pressure system that bathed the UK late March, we hoped it would last.
3 days later – April Fool’s Day – Rich, Millie, my 4-year-old Collie, and I stand on the side of the A830 watching the first snowflakes fall; the irony is palpable. Undeterred and eager we stride purposefully north from Arkaig over the hills to Meoble and on to Loch Morar. On the shore, our transitioning from land to water for the first time on this journey is slow, yet relaxed. The sun is out and, with not a breath of wind, we’re soon across and at Tarbert. The short walk over to Loch Nevis, begs us not to deflate our boats, and so, we fix them to our packs and trudge, turtle like over the trail down to the shore. By mid-afternoon we’re on the water again, the wind now lifting from the west, pushes along through the narrows as porpoise play in the neck. Soon the weather turns, rain is falling, half sleet, wind cold and biting. We exit the loch and stride along the glen; camp found, we retire. Cold, burying into our bags.
After a night well below zero, the next day across Knoydart we’re blessed with calm conditions; cold in shadows, broken by blazing sunshine. We move on well-trod paths and cobbles up Glen Carnach till, just past a ruined croft, the mapped trail runs out. Scanning upwards for the track that traverses across Coire an Lochain to Mam Unndalain – preferring to scale the steep slopes over the miles round to Lochan Nam Breac. “Surely, the crofters would cross over to Barrisdale rather than picking the long haul west?”, jokingly, I continue to mutter, what was to become the navigational maxim of the whole trip, “If I were a crofter, where would I go?” and, shortly, squinting, our eyes begin to pick out the tell-tale zig-zags that wind up the hillside. Broken, but seen, following natural ledges where possible and occasionally stone bolstered elsewhere, a trail, long-lost from maps appears from the hillside. In reverence for the communities that built these roads, we climb, imagining, reliving their steps, their views. Picking landmarks by eye, rediscovering and reconnecting with landscape and land-lived. A long descent finds us shore side again. We change, drysuits on, and tide flooding east contrary to our route, we must ferry across.
We climb out and clamber now, west. Stepping, ducking twisting along the slabbed shore path, hard-built by hands and backs, long ago rested; toiled to connect community against nature’s plans. The water eddies and swirls below as we pick along the path. Surface-broken, heaved by root and water, the walled buttresses bulge round crags and, forcing through hazel and birch, we trace the sea-way.
In time, a bay appears and so, our camp. Sitting on soft grass above a shingle shore we stare at blue come gold skies atop Ladhar Bheinn. Its snow peak, rose stained and then, below, the dark slopes and crags descend, framing the sea’s mirror-calm, which in turn, reflects all above.
Dawn rises with us, calm and bright. We head off, electing to paddle down Loch Hourn and north up the Sleat of Skye. As we round Sandaig our packrafts are rolling in the swell, the weather has turned; wind and rain now. Grey wave-walls, raising, falling. Sinking into the deepening grey troughs we blink out of sight.
Beaching, cold and wet in Glenelg, we snatch a pub meal, a break from the torrents, and then set north once more to Loch Alsh. Shoreside the racing, boiling tide and winds forbid progress and so we settle for a cold, wild camp.
Next day, over Alsh, in Balmacara, as the otters swim in seaweed, a food parcel awaits with Sandra. Then, onwards to Plockton, where, the tide rising around our feet, we rush. A 3km race to reach camp at Reraig, before the flow forces us east to Loch Carron. The rain remains as we climb out the following day through to Kishorn and then upwards to Loch Damph. Damph by name and by nature; grey clad skies sink, squeezing colour from the slopes. Hid cold behind rain-lashed brollies, we sail and paddle down the loch, Millie hiding now, shivering below the boat’s deck. Over soaked moor, we trudge, burns overflowing. Our camp by Loch Torridon flooded, as is all ground abouts, so, reluctantly, we slog the miles east to Torridon campsite and elect to sit the next day out in the café.
Allowing the rain to ease and the burns to empty before we set North again through Torridon and down to Loch Maree. With a bright dawn and pleasant stroll along the lochside, we see snow now beginning to accumulate above 600m and large squalls sail east through the glens, blotting the brilliant skies and sun as they dump their burden on the peaks and passes. Glens grow out before us, the land-scale grows, as we shrink beneath imposing sandstone giants. We’re lucky, the first snows only find us below Sail Mhor. Here we take a brief pause, the Zdarsky Sack shakes in the cold wind, as do I, and then off again, descending along Allt Coire Mhic Fhearchair to Bridge of Grudie we trudge the road to Maree’s edge looking out to Eiliean Ghruididh.
A fraught crossing awaits us. Strong winds and matt grey waves heave east up the loch, white brows broken as the wind shoots spray up into the sleet air. As we leave shore, we ferry, angling up wind an oblique to our destination; there glimpsed longingly over our right shoulder. “Stay 2m apart, copy my angle!” I call reminding Rich of our plan, coaching, egging Rich along as we ferry across, flaring out as waves ease. A capsize here is just not an option. Half-way, held between wave and wind, stares transfixed on the pitch and heave of the wind etched water. Every few minutes, dark faces appear, rolling waves steep with deep troughs, “Slow, deep blades! Relaxed waist!” I call, angling up wind burying our faces into it, the boats heave over the walls. This cat and mouse continues for an hour and finally as we enter the calm of the opposite shore, snow begins to fall once more. Quiet fatigue takes hold as we lay camp SE of Furnace.
Snow squashed tents, the fly pressing my face breaks sleep, so as the light appears I’m tired, snatching another snooze through dawn. Rich, makes second breakfast, and slowly we head off. We ascend the lower slopes of Slioch; near white-out and my brain’s fatigued-fuzz make navigation hard, finally the dark-cut notch of Bealach Mheinnidh brings a brief relief. A nervous and hasty descent follows, stumbling, sliding. Sun now hinting between the rolling snow squalls, we spy the causeway and Loch Dubh. Across, beating a pace, sweating up the Easain, we follow the snow sunk coffin trail over the Clach na Frithealaidh. I’m nervous, if a squall chances to find us here, the land already blanked white its features erased, we’ll be forced to wait, to hunker, shivering hours in the orange Zdarsky Sack. Been there, done that, not good; urging Rich on I push the pace, and finally, with relief I’m lurching down the Frith’, Gleann na Muice opens below, its wide u-form, collecting snow-melt into white frothing burns. Soon we’re back on turf, and at Larchantivore, our legs are begging some refrain. Here the sight of the emergency shelter as rotten as ever, bids us ‘go on’. With fatigue and failing light we alter our plan, no longer to paddle down Loch Sealga, but onwards, east to Sheneval.
Decision made, with the bothy in sight, we slog sinking through the knee-deep bog. Wading, we carry Millie across the rivers, too fast for her to swim. And, arriving, fall through the bothy door and into the dark room. Alone, save for a bag of coal left by an un-thanked soul, we sit warm, sated, silent, staring. Below, bathed in flame light, Millie twitches through dreams.
East now with dawn, lower trails less held by snow we stride through Achnelgie as eagles soar over the Strath. Then, climbing, we cross the barren scape of Sail Liath. Passing unenvied along the grey-brown stone gouged track. Soon enough, we begin to descend. Textures deepen as we pass along the birch flanked trail as slowly the lushness of Dundonnell envelops us. Warmth welcome as it spreads through, the green come grey edges, all topped by brilliant blue sky. Spirits seem to lift and urge us along as we climb, still North. As the horizon falls into Bealach Loch na h-Airbhe, I feel emotion swell; a new view, a long view; North. Lines of clouds cross my gaze, below them, Summer Isles, Coigach, Inverpolly… Below still civilisation awaits.
In Ullapool, Rob is joining the march north. Eager, he’s inquisitive about the journey so far, and his tent pitched already, he’s busying himself helping us do the same. Pushing pegs into even green ground feels novel, as do hot showers. Soon we’re in town, a couple of pints and a mountain of chips we bid goodbye to Rich, he’s heading south, tomorrow, home to Wales via an exploratory paddle around Knapdale.
North at dawn we climb out of Ullapool, fighting through gorse, the paths long over run, legs bounding through Strath Mor, we pass through Achlaise Lochans and pick the old road to Drumrunie. Northwest past Loch Lurgainn we then cut up between Stac Pollaidh and Cul Beag and North through to Loch an Doire Dhuibh in mirror calm evening light. Eager to ‘make hay’ and avoid crossing Loch Sionascaig in the winds forecast for the next day, we push past our planned camp – paddling east along the loch, the island campsites all occupied – private school groups we guess, eyeing all the flash tents and gear – with the sun low to the horizon we force on, scrounging camp on deer bit heather at Clais below Cul Mor.
Next I know it's early and wind rattles the tents, cold seeps in as I force off my bag. Gear away, we’re soon striding up the Clais. Unenviable eyes cast back to see the canoes on the grey wind-flicked loch, hoping the kids have an epic free crossing; our minds then throw forward to the Uidh Fhearna, who, gorging on water from Veyatie, soon spits us through to Ffion Loch. Suilven looms as we transition back to land, clapping wet hands to warm in bitter northeast winds. Picking our way up stone flatted ribs, brings forth vague recollections of poems by Assynt man Norman MacCaig, we ascend past the Pillar’s scar cut by Pilkington’s Gully, spying grass flattened by a quad’s tyres. We scan the landscape, offering Rob the Maxim, “If I were a crofter…” he smiles, picks the obvious line. As if in agreement the quad tracks follow us and, picking along, we soon begin to find evidence of an old path; winding now, down the Alltan Dubh finally fording the Abbainn na Clach Airigh at the lochan’s throat. With wet shoes squelching, we’re soon on a seat outside Suileag bothy. Regaling at our good fortune and the efficacy of our navigational aphorism, we sit sun-blind, sipping cool peaty water. Early still, we elect to reject our bothy night for the lure of a few more miles; more now for spare to come.
North once more, we pick our way linking the slabs and cobbles left bare by grass and heather, soon strength ebbs, as, fighting raw legs, we climb up the Achadh an Ruighe Chonich. Creeping regrets about the bothy begin to swell, the wind, now from the north, buffets and drives into our faces. Through the wind noise I hear Rob curse, spinning round I see he’s almost blown off stepping-stones into the burn, as I poke fun, his smile strains tired on his face. Knee deep peat through deer gates frustrates us more – patience is failing now. We push, head-down and silent over the burn gorge, scanning for campsites. Nothing, save curtilage and roadside of the A837. We trudge along the old road, still no luck, and so, later still we force our legs north a few more K’s, to seek the shelters off the Loch na h-Innse Fraoich. Rob swears again, his water filter has fallen, lost. He steals himself, drops his pack at the shelter and runs back while I pitch camp. The dog shivers, as do I, she presses herself against me and wrapped in my coat, she sleeps. Rob returns now, filter in hand, smiling, water brewed we eat laugh at our foolishness to push on, and as we stare out at Canisp capped by cloud, we nod; before dusk we’re asleep, dog tired.
The sky brightens as we rise, packs lifted easily, eaten lighter each day. Millie bounds through heather her pack brushing it aside, we climb west of Quinag past the sheilings and over the Belach Leireag. An appointment with an outgoing tide awaits us at Loch a Chairn Bhain. Over the barren head of the Sidhean Ard we follow the coffin trails edges, bulging from the peat down to Ardbhair. Past the estate house and along the duck boards, long broken and peat soaked we skirt the Lochan na Dubh Leitir and as the path is lost from the map, we follow our hunches and soon rediscover it winding through to Kerrachar Bay. Standing on a cliff top vantage, the easterlies rush, down through Loch Chairn Bhain, surging through the narrows, our crossing point. Forcing against the tide, sending waves peaking, spraying up over the boils and swell. A maelstrom of rock, air and water. With our planned camp across the water a mere kilometre away; our frustration is tangible. “It looks a bit rough”, Rob offers, wryly understating. I’ve paddled in worse, but so far I’ve only seen Rob in relative calm conditions, no way to know how we’ll fair together. With tired bodies and brains, now’s not the time to find out. “Aye, we’ll wait”, the decision is made, “Give it a couple of hours, let the flood ease and we’ll think again”. Picking our way along the cliffs we find a cove, slide our way down, sit and nod off in the tick infested grass.
Waking the water seems softer, less fierce, though the wind still gusts, the waves are lessened as the tide moves to slack. Sun catches the boats as we cross, Millie fidgeting, moving from one side to the other, she's watching for seals as we enter the shelter of Loch Shark. Camp pitched in trees, we watch the sun bathe Coigach, the red-orange glow fading to darkness.
Pre-dawn we shift, early to catch the ebb tide on its journey, soon we’ve hitched a lift and we paddle North, along the coast. Fog bathed, the air is damp and chill, we portage the boats over a narrow spur – saving at least a couple of hours paddling. Pushing North still, we reach Badcall Bay. Then ashore and following the old road we’re soon gorging on chocolate from our food stash – buried by Rob some days earlier. Bags full again, we move heavily along the road. Scourie soon and then, fighting through gorse, with Handa island off to our east, we trace the trail over to Tarbet and then to Fangamore. Northerly winds fight us as we pick our way across Loch Laxford, geology confounding things more, as it funnels the air’s opposition. Finally, making landfall at Portlevorchy, we haul our gear up onto sheep shorn grass, too good to pass up, Rob knocks the door of the croft, and welcoming, they bid us camp.
A later start sees us push hard along the road to Loch Inchard and soon we’re heading out on the ebb watching otters and seals as we catch the tide to Kinlochbervie. Now ashore with our last water crossing behind us we force along the tarmac and track to Sandwood Bay. Tourists here and there are novel compared to the deer and sheep we’ve met until now. As we reach the dunes I’m sore, a swollen achilleas has plagued me for a few days, but the soft sand makes it throb, Millie, eager to run in the surf is becoming irksome. I reflect, recognise, I’m tired, impatient, in pain. Tomorrow we’ll see Cape Wrath and I just want today to end. Recognising the foolishness of these thoughts I must accept them all the same. And so, leaving Rob to walk barefoot in the sea, I push, forcing up through the dunes. Making myself acknowledge the beauty, I cast an eye back to the bay and the finger of Am Buchaille, then turning North I cross the shoulder and bogs to Strathchailleach. There, I shed my pack and sit, wait. Rob soon arrives, we light the fire and, watching its light dance across Sandy’s paintings, we settle in for the night.
A dreich dawn and for the first time no trail to follow; no sign, nor spoor. Stepping North, rough ground, soon gives back to firm peat, coated in short-cropped heather. Picking our way through the hags, we pass signs and a fence giving warning that we’re entering the Cape Wrath Military Range. No bullets or bombs here today though, so we keep on. As we cross below Cnoc a’ Ghiubhais, a dog fox bolts across the horizon, and pausing, he stands proud, pushing up to taste us on the air and then diving into a cairn, he’s gone. Down now, passing the sheilings, we stride, then up and onto the broken lighthouse road, and rounding the headland our goal is in sight. Cape Wrath. Passing through the lighthouse’s whitewashed walls I stop; finished.
Sitting in the drizzle and wind, I marvel at the Duslic tidal overfall, the cliffs and arches. Wheeling soaring birds call and fall out of sight. I tie Millie to my bag – she’s too inquisitive on the cliff edges – and I sit; stare. Rob arrives and we congratulate each other, take photos and have a snack. A sense of underwhelming is building, despite the stark beauty around. I reflect back on my view above Ullapool, the new land to come, the questions, the uncertainty; before now we were doing something ‘novel’, ‘new’; a journey undone so far. Now over, we ‘did’ it, it’s ‘done’; the past tense seems less impactful somehow, even in its immediacy. A cliche comes to mind, “the journey, not the destination”, it seems to belong right now. The wind picks up, still from the north, and hoods up we turn. South for the first time.
Back along the potholed road, Kervaig bothy awaits; a palace. As the custard coloured sands are whipped by waves; we walk, finding flotsam while Millie chases surf. A pallet laboured over dunes by Rob provides heat for the night. We sit, in dying light, recounting the days. A pair of eagles, mocked by crows breaks the dusk outside, we stare, standing, silent, still; even after they pass out of sight. Then as the fire ebbs we sit and discuss our next day; last day. We’ll start early along the road to catch a slack tide at the Kyle of Durness. Around us, darkness floods in to the sound of the breaking northern sea.
The Pack Wrath Trail – as christened – is a self-powered journey over land and water. It runs from the line cut by the A830 (Fort William to Arisaig) north to Cape Wrath. It crosses some of the wildest and most rugged terrain in the UK as well as many large, exposed bodies of tidal water. The aim was threefold: To complete a new journey; A journey that made sense and finally, to re-connect with history, landscape and place. The latter being the inspiration and motivation for the completed route; to walk and where possible re-discover the ‘coffin roads’ that crossed the watersheds and joined the loch-side communities of the Scottish West Coast. 4 years of research, studying maps both old and new, as well as various sources of satellite imagery, highlighted many possible iterations. The route I finally settled upon was approx. 320Km to Cape Wrath, the route we followed was 335Km. It took 14 days to walk and paddle with an additional day where we were ‘weather bound’ in Torridon. A further day was required to walk and paddle out to Durness. To the best of our knowledge and research, at the time of our completion, it has never been done before. Throughout the journey I was accompanied and aided by: Rich Sumner (A830 to Ullapool) and Rob Duncalf (Ullapool to Cape Wrath). The journey wouldn’t have been possible without the immense kindness of Hannah and Sandra, who arranged for and held our resupply parcels, and who’s hospitality knew no bounds. Marianne, as always, was in the background, organising, driving and listening - often for unrelenting hours - to the plans. Thanks also goes out to Ben of Roam West who put us up the night before and dropped us at the start. Millie, the Collie, wags her tail lots when we mention the “big walk” and when asked about the quality of the trails she replied “Ruff!”.
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The route described crosses and navigates extremely remote mountainous terrain where high levels of mountaineering and navigational skill are essential. The stretches of water described are equally remote and are often significantly effected by wind, tides and swell from the open sea - rescue in these locations will, at best, be prolonged and difficult, at worst, potentially impossible. Anyone planning to undertake this, or a similar journey should do so in full knowledge that they, and they alone are responsible for their own decisions and actions. They should also ensure that they are competent to paddle their craft and are skilled in self-rescue in extreme conditions . Mountains, lochs, rivers and the sea are constantly changing and, therefore, the author does not accept any responsibility for inaccuracies in this article. Anyone choosing to packraft should accept that the responsibility for their safety is theirs, and theirs alone.
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Photo Credits: R Sumner, J Taylor and R Duncalf. Illustration: L Taylor