[This walk was completed on the 7th July 2019]
I turn my back on Ardintoul Point and follow the track around the edge of the bay. The track divides, and the branch running closest to the shore is cordoned off with red and white tape. I take this as the equivalent of a ‘no entry’ sign, and walk along the beach instead.
Keep checking my Garmin, because I know I must soon head inland and follow a path to the edge of the forest. From there I’ll walk through trees, along a route that takes me roughly parallel to the shore, until I reach a place called Totaig. At Totaig, I can join the road and return to the campsite at Shiel Bridge where my van is parked.
After walking a short distance along the beach, I spot an old track leading inland and up past a little white cottage. To reach it, I have to climb a fence and wade around the edge of a pond, pushing through reeds. This is harder than I anticipated, but I make it through with only slightly damp feet.
Beyond the cottage the track fizzles out. My Garmin suggests a path leads up a wooded slope behind the cottage, but there is no sign of a path, only a vague trail through long grass between bushes. Is this really the way?
At first I’m climbing up through grass, and then I enter an area of thick bracken. I keep going uphill, puffing and panting, and nervously feeling my way with my walking pole before placing each step. By now I’ve lost sight of the cottage below (which I think was empty anyway), the ground is irregular and spongy, and I worry I might twist an ankle.
I realise I’ve lost the path, so I just keep going upwards, picking whichever route seems the clearest. It’s tough going and I begin to sweat.
Stop for a rest, and turn around to take a photograph looking back down to the waters of Loch Alsh. That low flat island out there is called Glas Eileen.
Then upwards and onwards. It’s tough going. Eventually, pushing my way through another barrier of tall bracken, I stumble onto a clearer patch of short grass. Oh, it’s a path. A path! At last! This must be the path I was looking for.
I check my Garmin and my OS map, but there is no path shown here. Never mind. The Scottish OS maps are often vague, often incomplete and, sometimes, just plain wrong.
But which way should I go? To my left, and downhill, the path is overgrown and disappears among the thin trunks of young saplings. To my right, and uphill, the route looks much clearer. So, of course, I go uphill.
The path winds and tries to double-back on itself until, at the top of one last steep climb, I see another barrier of red and white tape. Beyond the tape is a signpost.
My heart lifts – a signpost! I almost run up the final slope, duck under the tape, and reach a wide track. Yes, this IS the Lochalsh Trail. I’m definitely back on the right route now.
The red and white tape must be a sign that my little path is closed for some reason. Well, no need to worry about that now. I can follow this wonderful track, the official Lochalsh Trail, and the way should be easy from now onwards.
To my right, the track would take me steeply downhill and back to Ardintoul, so I know I must turn left and continue walking upwards.
On the right track. My feeling of relief is so sharp, it nearly makes me cry. The climb is steep, and my calves begin to ache. But I don’t mind. At last I am heading in the right direction.
A whirring sound above me, and a male cyclist appears over the crest of the hill, riding a mountain bike, and flying down the slope at some speed. Shortly afterwards, a second cyclist appears – a young woman this time – a she hurtles after him, hanging onto the handles as the bike bucks and bounces beneath her.
I hope they both make it to the bottom in one piece.
The track climbs and begins to curve around and away from Loch Alsh. I keep checking the landscape to my left. Soon I will find another track, or maybe a path, to take me over and into the trees.
I’m hot from the climb, and glad the track has flattened out a little. I’ve temporarily lost sight of the loch, but I keep looking out for the path I need to follow. Should branch off soon.
It’s nearly 3pm and I’m very hungry. So I also keep a look out for a convenient log, or rock, to sit on.
Now, I’m walking through pine plantations, where the trees stand dark and somewhat menacing, but the verges are pretty. They’re covered by bright yellow flowers that look a little like dandelions, but probably aren’t, and further back stand proud columns of purple foxgloves.
I still haven’t found a log, and there are no rocks in sight. So, in the end, I sit down on the grass among the flowers. This is lovely…
… for two minutes. Just long enough to spread my coat, pull out my snacks, and open my water bottle. Then the sun goes in and the midges arrive.
I quickly spray more Smidge onto my face and hands. The stuff works very well, and I don’t pick up any bites. But midges are attracted by carbon dioxide – present in every outgoing breath – so they cluster round my mouth and nose. This makes eating a little difficult.
After a hurried meal, I set off again. But now a horrible truth is beginning to dawn. And, after rounding another curve in the track, I spot water ahead, and I can’t deny it any longer. That’s not Loch Alsh. It’s the Sound of Sleat. I’m heading in completely the wrong direction!
The thought of turning back flashes across my mind. Did I miss the path? I’m pretty sure I didn’t. Maybe the closed off path (the one blocked by red and white tape) was the right path after all? Maybe I should have turned left along it, instead of right?
But, what if the path has been shut because of logging? Or landslips? Or… perhaps there IS NO PATH at all.
I hold a fierce internal debate with myself. To turn back, or not to turn back, that is the question. But, all the time this debate is raging, my legs keep working and taking me further along the track, and further away from Ardintoul, until I admit to myself that I have no intention of turning back. Not today.
The track takes a lazy, meandering route down to Glenelg Bay. Yes, the view is beautiful. It’s just not exactly the view I was expecting to see.
On the way down, I meet a walker coming up. The first person (apart from the cyclists) I’ve met all day. He is Scottish, a big, fit man carrying a rucksack and accompanied by his dog. We stop for a chat and he asks me where I’m heading. I explain what I was trying to do – walk from Ardintoul to Totaig – but that I couldn’t seem to find the path.
He seems to think I wanted to follow the route of the Dirty Thirty. At first, I have no idea what he is talking about, but he explains the Dirty Thirty is an annual challenge event for runners. It’s called the Dirty Thirty because it is thirty miles in length and it is also very, very muddy. As he hasn’t done the race himself, he isn’t sure where the path goes from Ardintoul.
I continue on down the hill, picking up speed. I meet nobody else, apart from a group of young cattle on the path. This one is particularly beautiful., but has no intention of moving.
I give him, or her, a wide berth, which involves some mud wading, before rejoining the track, and soon reach the coastal road.
There’s a signpost at the end of the track, pointing back the way I’ve just come. “Ardintoul Bay (non coastal route).” Yes. I know, it’s the wrong path.
At least Glenelg Bay looks beautiful in the sunshine, with deckchairs out on the sands and people enjoying the beach.
There’s no other choice but to complete the circuit and return to the Kylerhea ferry port. I’m going to have to cycle back to Shiel Bridge and my van. (Well, I do have a choice, I suppose. I could follow the road and walk the 11 miles over the Ratagan Pass and reach my van that way. But it’s too long and too tough, and the bike seems much the easiest option.)
By the time I reach the ferry car park, I’m feeling irritated and frustrated, and also pretty hot and tired. The ferry café is still closed, so I head down to the ferry slipway, where you can supposedly buy drinks and snacks from a little ‘shop’ in the old lighthouse.
Needless to say, the shop is about to shut. It’s run by the two guys who man the ferry, so is only open when the ferry is on the slipway, and they’re just about to leave. They only offer tea and coffee anyway, while what I crave is a cold drink.
I climb back up the road to the closed café, and sit on a bench to finish my lukewarm water and eat my remaining snacks. The ferry is loading up for the last crossing of the day. Just two bicycles waiting.
My cycle ride back seems a relentless uphill slog. The Ratagan pass isn’t so steep from this approach, but it does go on forever and forever. I turn the electric power on my Scooty up to maximum, and grit my teeth, and keep going. I’m about a mile from the top, when the charge indicator drops down from two bars to one. Thank goodness there’s one bar left. Just enough to get me up to the top…
Scooty comes to a sudden and abrupt halt. If I’d been going any speed, I would have flown over the handlebars. But, as I’m only going at about 1 mph, I just feel a jolt as the pedals seize up and the bike slides sideways onto the tarmac.
My thoughts, as I push that damn, heavy bike up the last mile are unprintable. At least from the top, it’s a cool glide down to the campsite.
Walked today = 9.5 miles in a circle
Cycled and walked and pushed = 22 miles
Total distance around coast = 4,289 miles
black = morning walk,
red = afternoon walk,
purple = bike ride over Ratagan Pass.