Stage 119, 8th July: Sound of Kerrera to Benderloch
After the last few days of mental fragility, boredom and motorist anger leading up to my birthday blues I was hoping that the scenery might open out as I reached Oban, the gateway to the isles. I really needed a change as I felt Scotland had hidden far too much of its spectacular scenery from me by pushing me through forestry and along the main roads.
The three-mile walk along the shore hugging lane edging the Sound of Kerrera was full of interest with ferry and boat traffic bustling in and out of Oban. The road into town was wet from heavy early morning rain and sported a long foot wide iridescent stripe of diesel flowing down its entire length. Someone had been leaking expensive liquid and I wondered if the local environment officer had woken with an expectant twitch. The familiar smell reminded me of work, a now distant and depressing but also strangely comforting thought. Note to self: If diesel smell becomes vaguely comforting seek psychiatric help!
Oban was a busy town and local hub with visitor attractions galore and plenty of harbour activity to watch. The place was full of transient tourists heading for the wild islands further out to the West or the highlands to the North and some of the clearly alien visitors seemed to have come from all parts of our very accessible planet.
Rounding the headland out-of-town the next bay brought me to the ivy clad ruin of Dunollie Castle (photo) and then on to the upmarket “exclusive” development (mini housing estate) surrounding Ganavan Bay. A brand new cycle path then took me inland and over towards the A85 and Dunbeg. On reaching the A85 I was relieved to find a nice safe wide verge to walk along towards the Connel Bridge and back off-road around Oban Airport. It was a coat on, coat off, coat on day and I would have preferred it if the weather could have made up its mind one way or another.
By the time I reached Benderloch the sights around me were all beginning to look a little different, a little more open, a little more rugged. Somehow, almost imperceptibly, I felt as if I was finally arriving in the highlands.
Stage 120, 9th July: Benderloch to Port Appin
I had a bit of a lie in after Germany had trounced Brazil 7-1, but there was no hurry as I only had a short day and the weather was glorious. Today I was expecting yet another verge hopping session, this time along the A828. However, I was now in ‘outdoor country’ and a cycleway through Barcaldine Forest eased the burden of concentration and simmering distrust of all motorists.
I met up with two women from the U S of A on a pair of recumbent bicycles. If I thought I had lost the plot, they were clearly barking at the moon as they had just packed their things, left their families and headed out for two years to pedal around Europe with little more than a tent, a sleeping bag and a few sets of clothes. Nonetheless – we chatted enthusiastically about various midge deterrents before heading off in opposite directions, completely oblivious as to the questionable sanity of our two ventures.
I crossed the relatively ‘new’ road bridge over Loch Creran to Creagan, saving a few miles of loch-side road in the process. As I did, the highlands seemed to open up before me. The grand, rugged, snowless peaks were completely clear of cloud and undeniably grand even if they lacked the imperious snow and cloud capped foreboding they held when I last saw them in November last year when training for this walk.
I dropped off the main road and took to the lanes of the Appin Loop towards Port Appin with its tea rooms, craft shops and stunning views across to the peaks of Morvern (photo above), my destination next week. The warmth of the day and the confirmed arrival in the highlands deserved a reward and with the change of scenery I had a change of heart and went for a Strawberry Cornetto. It wasn’t unpleasant!
Stage 121, 10th July: Port Appin to Onich
Scorchio! Twenty degrees on the West coast of Scotland feels like thirty degrees when walking along tarmac or through still woodland, but with the scenery having now changed and new sights such as the historic but also comedic (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) Castle Stalker, it was actually very pleasant all round.
I crossed the rather rickety, yet brand new, Jubilee Footbridge with a backdrop of mountains, proper ones, and a vast expanse of open water in the form of Loch Linnhe. A quick bacon and sausage sandwich at a roadside van was paid for by a very English, very well spoken and extremely kind local marina owner who I had already bumped into earlier in the day when he offered me a lift near Appin. We chatted with the bacon butty vendor about the business prospects for his brand new loch-side lay-by haunt and the merits of cooperation and mutual understanding with the marina landlord. The marina owner was highly skilled in the art of diplomacy and gentle reminders and I left with a wry smile on my face.
Again the roadside walk was mainly cycleway, but occasionally it deserted me and I could feel my blood pressure rising as I dodged the traffic. Eventually I escaped to the horseshoe shingle bay at Cuil and ventured across country around Ardsheal Hill through boggy tracks and paths to rejoin the road at Kentallen. Happily the cycleway reappeared all the way to Ballachulish Bridge and the wide open views East towards Glencoe and back West towards Morvern were just stunning.
Pavement took me to Onich and onto familiar territory for the first time since Gretna. Onich is a place I have passed through on many occasions and harks back to field trip days from 1983 where I admit to over indulging myself at the local hostelry. I’m not sure if my memory is that good, but I do remember not feeling too good the following day as we trudged up in to the hills to do some mapping exercises in a typical west highland drizzle surrounded by clouds of midges.
Rest Days, 11th & 12th July: Onich
Like anything else, being a day ahead of schedule has its ups and downs. The up was that I could take an additional day off. The down was that I could quite happily have walked on and chosen a future weather stricken day to voluntarily sit out. Unfortunately the logistics of support driver change dictated that I should stay in Onich and not disappear off into the wilds of Morvern and complicate things enormously. So two days off it was.
A day off never feels like a day off and once I had uploaded some more photos and worked out how to tweet photographs it was time for a brief interview and a couple of photos with the local paper. We compared notes about the strength of the two Scottish Independence campaigns, an easy topic to grab any Scot’s attention and keep a conversation moving. My roving straw poll has come along nicely and is available to any politician for a small or preferably large donation to charity.
With Simon still on board till the 12th I took the chance to do some mutual nerdy stuff with an equally nerdy outdoor kit lover and the added bonus of a cooked brunch in Fort William. My family would have cringed as we browsed the kit shops and I was rather pleased to talk Simon into buying a new rucksack, just like one of mine. I invested in the future and bought some new waterproof gloves if only because the only pair I owned failed miserably when I was in need of dry warmth back in Cornwall.
It was then back to the bus for a good curry evening and bed – oh what party animals!
I dropped Simon off at the bus stop with warm thanks for being brave enough to spend three weeks in my company. I knew that I had made a new friend. He had a long journey back to the South and wouldn’t be there till the following morning and I didn’t envy him the trip one bit. I returned to the van to tidy up a bit and wait for Sue and her dog Diesel to arrive. The smell of diesel around Oban would probably be nothing to the smell of Diesel in the van and I had been warned about his hatred for people wearing a hat. So when he arrived I was expecting a wolf and instead got a softy, even if it was still a smelly one.
We nipped into Fort William for a quick shop and to try to catch the passing of the Queen’s Baton as part of the run up to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. So far on my journey I had managed to miss every single local event by passing through the town or village either a day or two late or a day or two early. It was good to actually catch something even if it was all of sixty seconds of someone I didn’t know walking past with a big stick in their hand.
So back to camp it was for a catch up, food and preparation for the week ahead. On we go.