[This walk was completed on the 16th July 2019]
I drive to the Glenelg peninsula, easing The Beast along the narrow shore road, through Ratagan and Letterfearn, until I reach the last parking place on the road to Totaig.
Today, by parking as close at possible to Totaig and avoiding any unnecessary effort and distractions, I hope to focus all my energy and find a way through the forest to Ardintoul – even if it kills me [a thought that almost becomes a prophesy, as I will discover some weeks later].
I check I have my pole, and my personal locator beacon is tucked safely in my rucksack. Then I walk to the end of the road, pass through the gate, head along the familiar track, past the little white cottage (which is all there is to Totaig), and follow the path up the hill.
But here is one distraction I can’t ignore. I turn off the path to explore the old iron-age residence of Caisteal Grugaig, one of the famous brochs that dot this area. I have to bend low to get through the doorway.
The broch is a circular structure, with two outer walls enclosing an inner space. It would once have consisted of several floors and would have been topped by a roof.
I find the staircase, cunningly built into the space between the outer walls, and climb up to what was probably the second storey. Look down into the space where the living quarters once were.
Stare out across the broken walls, over Loch Alsh, to the village of Dornie and the entrance to Loch Long. What a great view. I completely understand why ancient people would have chosen this place to build their castle.
Further up the path is an information board. This explains how Caisteal Grugaig would have taken 200 days to build, assuming 24 labourers worked on the project and all the stones had been gathered in advance.
It certainly was a des-res and built to impress.
Onwards. Up the hill and across the flat open land at the top. The sun is shining and the day is bright and full of promise. But, all too soon, I see the pine forest looming ahead.
I decide not to take any photos on my way through the forest. Technically, according to my rules, I am walking to the beginning of today’s walk, and so I decide to take photos on the way back.
Only one kilometre, I tell myself. You can do it, Ruth.
The ground is drier after several days with no rain and some sunshine, so it’s easier underfoot, and I now understand the meaning of the red and white tapes – they’re guides, not obstructions! Forty minutes of walking, often through mud, which I try to avoid by climbing up slopes while clinging to trees, and I make it through and out the other side of the forest.
Whew. What a relief! I’ve done it!
I stop and sit down on a large, flat area of stone. There is still some way to go before I find the track to Ardintoul, but I’m through the worst, I think. Time for a photograph, and time for lunch.
While I’m sitting there, unpacking my rucksack, I notice something curious. My fingers are covered in tiny little spiders. Little black specks with legs. Ughhh! I quickly brush them off.
A slightly larger spider, about the size of a pin head, is crawling on the rock beside me, heading straight for my leg. I flick it away.
But, then I realise they’re not really spiders at all.
Luckily, last night in The Beast, I’d read an article about ticks, with some really useful photos and animated gifs. I’d always thought ticks were fat little suckers, about the size of your little finger nail. I’d seen them on my dog, and had one on my leg as a child. This is what they should look like…
[I stole the photo above from a veterinary site.]
I hadn’t realised ticks could be so small, only a couple of millimetres across, and so spider-like.
The thought of the ticks crawling across my fingers really puts me off my lunch. I eat one snack bar, and stuff my half-eaten picnic back into my rucksack. I knew that forest was dangerous. Just hadn’t realised exactly where the danger was going to come from!
I’m pleased to set off again, and make good progress down the hill. Soon I can see Ardintoul laid out below me. In the distance, across the loch, is the Skye Bridge.
A movement by my foot catches my eye. A little vole? No, a shrew. It seems stunned by my presence and I have time to catch a quick snap, before it races off into the long grass.
The path down this side of the hill is clear and easy, and the views are beautiful. I begin to relax…
… and try not to worry about the return walk I must make, back through that dark, horrible, tick-infested forest.
I enter a patch of woodland, and the land slopes steeply down to a little stream. Allt na Dalach. It’s green and lush down here, with a series of frothing waterfalls.
My map doesn’t show how you cross the river, but in fact there is a sturdy footbridge. How convenient and how reassuring. Anyone would think this was a popular walking route, but I’ve met nobody on the three occasions I’ve tried to walk this section!
Perhaps they’ve built the bridge for the Lochalsh Dirty Thirty challenge?
Beyond the bridge, according to my OS map, the footpath should turn sharp right and follow the slope down to the loch. But I know, from my past expeditions, that the route used by the Dirty Thirty runners does NOT go down to the loch, but goes uphill to join a track above Ardintoul.
Luckily, the path is clear… to start with… before it deteriorates. What are all these bushes doing here? Where’s the path?
I push my way through the overgrown section and then, for some reason, the path becomes much clearer. To my right, I look down towards Loch Alsh, and realise that I’m looking down the same slope I struggled up many days ago, when I first tried to walk this section.
If only I had turned left then, instead of right, I might have found my way through. But then I remember how overgrown the path was behind me. I would probably have turned back anyway.
Up the slope, following the clear path through the grass, and I spot the familiar red and white tape. Oh, good. That’s the track ahead.
This track forms the only vehicular route into Ardintoul. I’ve not met any cars on it, just a couple of cyclists last time I was here. It’s empty today.
I’m not going all the way down to Ardintoul. It would be a steep climb back up, and I don’t need to, because I’ve already completed that section. All I have to do now is turn round and head back… but I’m reluctant to leave the safety of the tarmac track… come on, Ruth.
My walk really begins here.
I duck under the tape and head back down the path, which swings in a loose curve along the side of the slope. I’m walking quickly, but stop to take a few more photographs of Ardintoul. There’s really not much there. Just a few cottages, the yard which might be something to do with the fish farm, and the ruins of the burnt-out house.
This first section of the path is really clear, as if used frequently by walkers.
But it soon deteriorates, and now I’m pushing my way through prickly bushes, treading carefully as I can’t see the ground beneath my feet. I wonder why the first part is so clear, and this section is so overgrown?
The path becomes clearer again, and I head down through woodland to the stream. There’s the bridge.
After climbing out of the river valley, I leave the woodland behind and walk through an open landscape, possibly created from past logging operations.
Climb up towards the dark-green line of pines. Pass the spot where I tried to have lunch and realised my hands were crawling with ticks. Enter the trees.
I know several of my fellow coastal-walkers found this section really difficult. I think they must have climbed up the steeper slope coming up directly from the loch. Actually, I find this part of the forest is easy to navigate – as long as you find the path and then follow the forestry track.
I cross some logged areas, where new broadleaf trees are growing and where the route is less obvious. Thank goodness for those red-and-white markers!
Deep among pines again, the ground deteriorates. Photos don’t really do justice to the swamp-like consistency of the ground. In several places I nearly lose my boots!
To bypass some of the worst areas, I take to the trees. The ground is drier, but steeply sloping and strewn with fallen branches and old stumps. I have to cling onto tree trunks and twigs – some of which snap off unexpectedly. It’s hard work and progress is slow.
I’m paranoid about ticks, and keep checking my hands. Funny, I thought grasslands were the places you picked up ticks from deer. Not much grass here. And I haven’t seen any deer.
Follow the red-and-white strips through a winding forest path.
In places, I walk across open swards of grass. Quite pleasant really. Nothing to worry about now.
Then I reach a particularly muddy section, where a water course spreads out and turns the ground to mush. It must be carefully navigated.
This horrible muddy patch is the point where I gave up and turned back last time. Several dry days have made all the difference. I’m nearly there.
The path narrows and hugs the side of a steep slope. Last time this section seemed dark and menacing. Now the sunlight filters through the trees, and I can just make out the waters of Loch Alsh below me.
Another section of muddy track follows, and then…
… then I’m out of the gloom. Out of the forest. At last!
I walk across the high open grassland, surrounded by wild flowers, step over little streams, past tumbling waterfalls, enjoy the breeze on my face. How wonderful to have so much space and light around me.
The sun and the breeze keep the midges away. What a beautiful place this is. I stop frequently to admire the view and take photographs. That’s Dornie over there, and the length of Loch Long, and the mountains of Wester Ross in the distance.
I make my way down the slope, past the ruins of Caisteal Grugaig, past the little white cottage which is Totaig, past the view of Castle Donnan…
… and back to The Beast.
I’ve done it! I found a way through and finished the unfinished section of the Glenelg Peninsula. And I survived. Sort of.
I’ve been away for 10 days. Tonight I’ll camp in The Beast on the shore of Loch Duich. Tomorrow I’m going home.
Miles walked today = 7.5 miles
Total around coast = 4,367 miles
Below is a photo demonstrating different sized ticks. The smallest dark one is a nymph tick, and is only a few millimetres in diameter. The nymph tick is actually the most dangerous one from the point of view of catching Lyme Disease.
Don’t worry, this isn’t my finger. The photo above was nicked from Healthline.com
[If you want something else to worry about (other than Covid-19), you can read about Lyme disease on the NHS.uk site]