The John o’Groats Trail

Volunteers are constructing a trail along the coast from Inverness to John o’Groats. The Trail will allow End to End hikers to avoid road walking in Caithness as well as opening up spectacular scenery to those of us with lesser ambitions.

The Trail is not a path. Where landowners have given permission, stiles are being built but the underfoot conditions offer slow going. Tussocky vegetation and cows with calves in summer mean that the Trail is best undertaken in early Spring. March, when days start to lengthen, might be best.

Last weekend, I hiked the final two stages, from John o’Groats back to Wick, thoroughly enjoying myself in the process. My first wildcamp of the year also took place.

John o’Groats was much nicer than I remembered and surprisingly busy for April. Several other groups were hiking towards Duncansby Head and, at the Bay of Sannick, a man was flying a drone. He was photographing a seal from a respectful distance but the seal was fascinated by the drone and craned its neck for a better view.


Once past the Stacks, I left other walkers behind and headed along a path through heather over the Hill of Crogodale to Skirza. A road up from the quarry at Skippie Geo offered an alternative to the Trail. I’m not entirely convinced that my conscientious line to Thistly Hill was rewarded. To be honest, the Haven of Skirza was a bit of a let down.

The lovely sands of Freswick Bay soon restored my spirits. Then the scramble by the mill at Freswick Mains gave a fun introduction to the next stretch of cliff, which has more than it’s fair share of ruined castles and brochs. It’s not a stretch to rush, which is a good job, because you can’t. Even in Spring, the vegetation makes walking a slow process. In fact, at Bucholly Castle, I was quite tired and gave some thought to pitching.

Just 9 miles in, I couldn’t bring myself to stop. As the best pitches were not quite flat, not quite dry and not quite out of sight, pressing on was the best option. A pork pie and a cinnamon bagel gave me the energy to continue.

After a messy corner next to a pig farm, the Trail eased and was very pleasant in front of the houses at Auckengill. This harbour, unlike Skirza’s, is a visual treat and, fanfare, there is a short path along to the Mervyn Tower monument and broch. More slow going near the quiet, main road led to the spectacular, cliff top ruins of Keiss Castle.


After two more brochs, I reached Keiss harbour, with its big, stone breakwaters and pretty, little boats. The old warehouse appears to be flats now. I didn’t look closely. Instead, I climbed the stairs up to the village green and made a complete hash of finding the path back to the beach. As my route was dreadful, I won’t describe it.

My excuse for the error was concern about the River of Wester. Tide out – it’s ankle deep. Tide in – chest deep. The tide had turned so, once on firm sand, I motored along Sinclair Bay. The bay is spectacular and popular. Walkers could be seen in small groups right along the 3 miles of sand. I hurried past all of them and paddled straight through the river without needing to roll up my trousers.

Wick golf course looks a dream campsite and the clubhouse was closed but I had a sweeter, wilder pitch in mind so on I went. Through a field with sheep that followed me, by two camper vans at the end of a long, dirt track, past the very posh Ackergill Tower and into Ackergillshore via a children’s playground.

The light was fading fast as I finally pitched on perfect turf above the silver sand of a bay popular with eiders. ViewRanger claimed my 32km jaunt had included 1400 metres of climbing even though the Trail had never taken me above 80 metres. I slept well.


Next morning, my early start was rewarded with birdsong, notably from larks on land and eiders off shore. A short walk brought me to Girnigoe Castle and the best bit of the walk, around Noss Head. Numerous black guillemots added their squeaky whistle to the continuing bird chorus. Beyond the lighthouse, with all of the last stretch in view, I stopped for a second breakfast. While I enjoyed my final mini pie and bagel, a fishing boat clanked close by as a crab pot was lifted.

The alarm calls of oystercatchers and herring gulls around me suggested the birds here are more familiar with fishermen than with walkers. I hope the John o’Groats Trail encourages more walkers to enjoy this glorious coastline. My weekend hike was over but I’m giving serious thought to doing the entire Trail next year because the bits I’ve seen are excellent.

The Trail has its own website and WalkHighlands also has a complete description of the route. However, the most inspirational resource I’ve found is the Facebook page of Gavin Paul Bird. His Caithness Images, with drone footage of the Trail, are utterly seductive.

Filming with an iPhone 7 Plus

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Apart from enjoying a lovely morning, the aim of today’s hike was to find out how well an iPhone 7 Plus and a Gorillapod work together as a video filming set up for backpacking.  Sadly, I can’t show you the results as this blog doesn’t accept video so you’ll have to take my word for the acceptability of the product.  It’s plenty good enough for me and would look fine on YouTube.

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However, my interest lies in a set up for backpacking and there is a problem.  Filming on a cold day absolutely demolishes the charge in the battery.  Viewranger claims I was out for 2 minutes under 4 hours.  Filming occupied the first 3 hours and, in that time, the battery charge dropped from 100% to 21%.  For the walk home, I put the phone inside my jumper and listened to a podcast.  For this leg of the walk, the charge dropped from 21% to 20%.  So, for backpacking, the iPhone and Gorillapod set up would need to be used sparingly even though my Anker battery pack is pretty huge.

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The Gorillapod is part of the problem.  It’s head is stiff and not easy to deploy.  Getting the tripod out of a rucksack, attaching it to the phone and setting it up would be tedious enough to keep me from shooting video except when highly motivated.  Today, I kept the iPhone locked into the Gorillapod and held the phone in my hand.  The legs of the tripod lay along my forearm.  This set up was convenient and very easy to use but exposed the phone (and my hand) to the cold wind.  A permanently attached tripod could also be a problem if I chose to take a side trip up Suilven on my next hike.

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I’m hoping my next trip will take no more than 5 days between power sockets.  Even so, discipline will be crucial.  Using my iPhone, a Gorillapod and an Anker power pack will get me the results I want so, failing a lottery win, that’s what I’ll be taking.

 

Kale crisps

Two powerful hikers who eat more interestingly than most when backpacking are Aria Zoner and Liz Thomas. Both have mentioned kale crisps as a source of veggies for wild camps. I like kale and miss green vegetables when walking from one remote pitch to the next so I decided to give kale crisps a try.

The recipe is really simple but I’m not going to provide it here. After eating half of my test batch, I experienced nasty, sulphurous belching. I dread to think what the farts are going to be like. A recipe strictly for wilderness walks, I think.

Ben Macdui – the Munro for families

 

Ben Macdui used to be a hill with a reputation.  Its distance from roads meant that any problems could become serious.  Now, the funicular on Cairngorm and the easy mountain biking approach from the south have opened the summit up to families – three on my visit.  Its not only the hill which has become tamer.  One of the mums chatted to me, which suggests solitary men in their sixties don’t look as scary as they did before their few remaining tufts of hair turned grey.

I had started the day at Bob Scott’s Bothy and finished under my Trailstar in Coire an Lochain.  The formally permanent snow patch has gone but the coire is now home to large numbers of ptarmigan.  Next morning, I hiked down to the ski centre and arrived just in time to use my free bus pass for the ride down to Aviemore.

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Food for Thought

In a recent Guardian article, Martin Robbins wrote about weighing himself hourly for three days.  The article is well worth reading.  This paragraph caught my eye.

“The first surprise was just the sheer amount of mass involved. In three-and-a-bit days I consumed a massive 14.86kgs of stuff – about 33lbs. That was made up of 3.58kgs of food and 11.28kgs of drink (including 700 grams of a nice red). That’s way, way, way higher than I expected.”

That mass is roughly what my rucksack would weigh in total, including a tent and a stove, at the start of a six day hike without resupply.  Assuming I consume a similar mass when at home, two conclusions are obvious.  First, an awful lot of a backpacker’s daily consumption comes out of streams.  My second conclusion is that my lighter, backpacking diet is so different from what I eat at home that I really should treat myself to more, better, restaurant meals when I hit town.

A short walk in the Cairngorms

19 October

A long train journey got me to Aviemore after 2 hours waiting for a connection in Inverness.

During my wait, I visited a couple of phone shops and then went to Morrisons for an early lasagne lunch which made its presence known in some malodorous emissions later in the day. I asked for salad with the lasagne. It came, neatly displayed, on a separate plate, in a plastic bag, as if it was being kept for a special occasion. The salad was half coleslaw and the coleslaw was mostly mayonnaise. The mayo was pure white and probably safe for vegans. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my meal – at the time!

Arrival in Aviemore brought unwelcome news – snow on the tops. Clouds too. With the wrong shoes for snow, Roclite 295s, it looked as if this was going to be a low level trip.  Such heavy traffic on the road to Coylumbridge that I was glad to get on up the track beside the caravan park. Soon there were no more walkers but mountain bikers came by sporadically.

The Rothiemurchus forest, which as a biologist I had been looking forward to, soon became boring. The trees and shrubs were all the same age and largely devoid of birds.  This forest needs bison and wild boar to tear it up, producing a greater diversity of plants in the process.  Of course, if the Rothiemurchus was properly rewilded, I’d be the first to complain.

A family came by with their bikes set up for bike packing. I saw them pitching shortly after the Cairngorm Club footbridge. They must have known where they were going as few pitches are visible from the Lairig Ghru track.  The ground between the trees is covered by heather, bilberries and juniper, again all of the same age.

The track started climbing and still I was unable to spot any decent pitches. The heather moor above the forest was sodden and tussocky. Finally, when I had started to wonder whether I would find anything before dark, a pitch appeared. Sadly, it was on the other side of a healthy burn. And then the Trailstar was reluctant to fit the small patch of dry grass. One peg went in gravel over the edge of the burn’s bank and another was on the far side of a small, wet bog.

a-damp-pitch-for-the-trailstar

This morning is taking ages to brighten up because of heavy clouds. The Trailstar proved a hero. Enough rain fell to have the tiny bog under one corner of the tarp flowing but there was no condensation inside. By a stream, in Autumn!

The write up continued when I reached Bob Scott’s Bothy

Going back over the burn was no nicer than the first crossing had been and then the weather deteriorated. I put my poles away as my hands were cold and wet. Fortunately, the foul weather was hitting my back.

The summit turned out to be 2 kilometres of boulders with occasional grass and a couple of lochans. Green grass made its first appearance on the descent. Pitching a tent would be much easier on this side. The burn running south from the Pools of Dee was too boisterous for a visit to Garbh Coire bothy to be tempting so I decided to go to Corrour to try out the new facilities. Still the rain continued and each little side burn spewed across the path.

A walker emerged from the drab background. He was possibly Scandinavian and seemed a thoroughly decent chap. As we chatted a fast walker in black and red waterproofs descended from the murk hiding the Lairig. He overtook, telling me it was an hour to the bothy.

When the bothy came into view, I spotted one person in pale clothing as well as the fast walker in red. After an ill-advised shortcut to the bridge, I discovered that the two men were there to change the toilet bags. A couple of Germans were also in the bothy, waiting for a clearance in the weather for an ascent of Ben Macdhui. They must have spotted a patch of blue because they set off. The two workers burned their overalls in the fireplace and we settled down for tea and a blether. Malky, the fast walker, had to head back through the Lairig so he soon left, too.

The two of us left continued talking until a hiker, who had climbed the Devil’s Point joined us.  He was the sanitation expert’s son. Then they and their Labrador headed out. I followed after a civilised dump into the brand new toilet bag.

Writing up my adventure, using the Day One app on my phone, has halted again, this time by visitors to the bothy.  More in the next post.

Campbeltown to Claonaig

This 55.4 mile stretch begins with a road walk to Lussa Loch.  The road becomes a forest road at the loch and, after climbing away from the loch, becomes a bit tedious.  Rain started the moment I left the trees.  Luckily, Ifferdale Bunkhouse was close by.  It is excellent.

To Torrisdale Castle
First part of Day Four uses newly made paths

A feisty cow with a calf provided entertainment shortly after I left the bunkhouse.  Given how clearly it stands out both in Apple Maps and on the ground, you may be surprised to hear that I missed the new path descending to Torrisdale.  There was no missing the vast, dirt road which has now wrecked this little glen.  Luckily, the onward route to Carrisdale is an absolute gem.

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The Halfway Mile Post and wind farm infrastructure
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Not far off high tide
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Approaching Carradale

I messed around in Carradale long enough to miss the shop, which seems to close on Saturday afternoons.  The Kintyre Way leaves the Carradale area through woods then winds between heathery knolls before descending to Brackley.  A windfarm road leads from here to the other side of the peninsula.  It is smooth enough for locals to use as a short cut.  On Saturday evening, it was busy with vehicles driven by well-dressed locals off for a big night out.  The ditches either side of the road were deep and steep, making it difficult for a walker to get off the road.  This stretch became a slog in unpleasant weather with little in the way of decent camping opportunities.

Day Four

The weather was even worse next morning in Tayinloan, which has a shop, although the hotel looked to have closed down.  I gave up on Gigha but enjoyed a snack stop in the cafe by the slipway.  A long stretch along the beach followed.  I enjoyed the last bit despite poor weather and the nearby road.  The Kintyre Way leaves the coast to go through the grounds of a large house.  There is a lovely gorge here with butterburs but it leads back to the main road.

Day Five (a)
The stretch beside the road is nowhere near as bad as it looks on the map
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Last bit of Kintyre’s west coast

The path out of Clachan wanders up through a wood before using a pleasant valley to reach Loch Ciaran.  Felling with large machines has churned up the path to the standing stone.  I found a dry pitch out of sight, under the trees on the gentle slopes of Mullach Dubh.

Day Five (b)
A grey day with some very nice bits of walking
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New path through forestry
Day Six
Day Six
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Lohan Fraoich

Day Six uses new paths to exit the forestry past two lovely lochans and to cross moorland to the peninsula’s east coast.  At Claonaig, I took the ferry to Lochranza for a good meal in the hotel and a laundry session at the campsite.

First steps from Kintyre to Cape Wrath

Days One and Two: Machrihanish to Campbeltown (31.8 miles)

Travel from Perth to Machrihanish took most of a windy day, so I walked only three miles to a sheltered pitch on the first evening.  Sadly, this was to be the best pitch I found in Kintyre.  Note that I hiked the Way in the wrong direction so these notes refer to Sections Seven then Six in the description on the Kintyre Way website.

Pitch by stream
Out of the wind, dry and with water to hand
Macrihanish to Campbeltown
Some thoughts on the first two days

Innean Glen is glorious but it lies just outside a nature reserve which had many spring flowers and impressively slumped cliffs.  Lime-rich geology is the reason for designating this coastline as a reserve.  The zigzagging waymarkers took some spotting in the mist.

Innean gorgeous but not the Nature Reserve
Thanks to iGeology for the information

The road bash to the south coast was too long for my taste but quiet.  To be honest, I was more impressed by the shellduck in a rockpool than by the hermits’ caves and St Someone’s footprints.  Rocks here appear to have relatives in America.  Did they form before the Appalachians and the Atlantic split Southend from Basin Street?

American rocks!
Dunaverty is spectacular and American!

Let’s just say the Southend Campsite has issues and move on.  A lovely stretch of coastal walking followed, taking me through ageing but entertaining caravan sites.  Look out for the Ark.

Coastline east of Southend
Ireland is out there, somewhere.

Another road bash follows the coastal jewel and this is a long one.  The scenery is good, with views to Arran, and, if this was a footpath, I’d recommend it.  But it’s a road and it robbed me of the enthusiasm needed for an Island Davaar visit.

Walking near cows

Between 1993 and 2015, cattle killed 13 walkers in Britain.  Given the sheer quantities of cows and hikers sharing access to footpaths, that might not seem too worrying.  People who work with cows are at much greater risk than walkers.  However, I’ve had a greater number of awkward encounters with cows in recent years which makes me wonder whether farming practices are changing, at least in the Highlands.

Cows can be unpredictable.  One small herd I lived near and which were loose on open ground would ignore me most days, threaten me occasionally and run away from me in terror every now and then.  The two most concerning incidents came when I walked across the front of cows with calves.  I was trying to give them room but the mums decided the distance, 10 to 15 metres, wasn’t great enough.  Turning my back on the cow and walking directly away stopped the advance in both cases.

This technique also worked in New Zealand when I made the mistake of approaching shade which already contained a massive, Hereford bull.  I do appreciate that turning your back on an advancing bull requires fortitude but it seems to work.

A television programme from quite a few years ago described how to deal with angry dogs.  If you look down and round your shoulders, the dogs think you are a wimp who just wants to get past.  I have tried this method with horses and it seems to relax them also.

Two things guarantee disaster.  Trying to rescue your dog from cows or water and staring at large, anxious animals.  Swivelling eyes allow humans to appear to be looking away while actually keeping abreast of developments.  Sadly, your dog will just have to sort things out for itself.

Getting fit for backpacking

Prepare to hike.  Hike!

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could get fit for walking just by walking.  Ray Jardine has an excellent chapter on physical conditioning in Beyond Backpacking, now updated as Trail Life, which bases training largely on hiking.  I like the way he talks of building up slowly and regularly until he is comfortable carrying 35 pounds for 12 miles.  Given some of his accomplishments, this might seem modest, but his target is in the context of logging 500 miles over the 5 months before turning up at the start of a 2000 mile journey.

He also writes of the importance of training on uneven ground and suggests a little gym work for those who have no hills to train on near their homes.  Ascending while carrying a backpack is one of my few strengths.  I’m slow on the flat, concerned on scrambley bits and uncertain when descending*.  All of these attributes I owe to the miles spent cycle touring.  Cycling strengthens the thighs and helps make light work of walking up hills so there is no need to go to the gym for barbell squats on a sunny day.  Just ride a bike.

Too much of a good thing

Unfortunately, for those of a certain age, and particularly for those who have walked over all of the Munros, spent eleven months tramping in New Zealand and enjoyed several trips to the Pyrenees, overuse injuries mean that reliance on preparation solely by walking can be problematic.  Will the plantar fasciitis flare up again?  Is the scar tissue in my calf muscles going to stop me?  Will the damage to stretch receptors in my ankle ligaments caused by previous sprains contribute to another serious sprain?  In other words, will walking stop me from walking?

A lot of anything will eventually harm anyone who lacks a perfectly symmetrical body and whose performance is other than perfectly stylish, which is why getting fit to walk just by walking isn’t a great solution.  Sadly, symmetry and style are two qualities I cannot lay claim to.

Why bother?

In the Autumn I put on a few pounds while visiting friends and my BMI hit 24.9.  Another stimulus for getting some proper training done came from memories of the difficulties I had experienced starting my Kintyre to Cape Wrath hike.  I had prepared by catching shingles, moving house and failing to break in my footwear.  This meant not having a clue how far I could walk each day and so being unable to plan effectively.  Finally, when I met other walkers who had trained before starting, they made coping with the demands of the Cape Wrath Trail look far easier than I was finding it.

In a previous post, I mentioned the initial benefits of doing a few minutes of physical jerks before breakfast.  For once, I have persisted.  Improvements continue.  I used to walk like a cyclist, with a fairly rigid torso.  I feel far more fluent now even though the exercises I have been doing have little to do with walking on the face of it.  I don’t know yet whether I’ll be backpacking more effectively in the summer but I’m a minute per mile faster while running than I was in the Autumn, my BMI is down to 23.9 without dieting** and I’m in a great mood.  Even if the exercises turn out to have no value for backpacking, which is unlikely, they have already proved worthwhile.

Resources

Apps I have found valuable for workout guidance, advice on style and timers include

  • Mark Lauren Bodyweight Training
  • Adrian James Boot Camp
  • Adrian James High Intensity Interval Training
  • Johnson and Johnson Official 7 Minute Workout

Warning!  Only the last is free.  I paid for the others.  One type of app has not helped at all – yoga apps.  Their fondness for the downward dog is completely at odds with the muscle damage in the top of my calves so I’ve given up on yoga.

I don’t just do exercises!  Of course I include walking in my preparations for backpacking, although I will not reach the 500 miles recommended by Ray Jardine at my current rate of progress.  Measuring routes on maps and counting contour lines have, as the Americans say, become very old so I use apps to record walks, runs and rides.  Logging in before an app will work or having to turn off social media is unacceptable to me so I avoid MapMyAnything, Nike+, Strava and Runtastic.  Yes, I’m a curmudgeon.  The apps I enjoy using despite having handed over money are

  • iStepsPro
  • iSmoothRun
  • Cyclemeter

Crossed fingers

Note the word enjoy.  I enjoy all of this stuff.  That’s why I do it.  I’m hoping that once the walking starts, I’ll see a greater ability to cope with carrying a backpack over the hills and that I’ll suffer fewer injuries but benefits are already clear.  Most aspects of life are a little bit easier and people are accusing me of looking younger so the time and money seem well spent.  I acknowledge your right to disagree.

Notes

*Ray Jardine includes  a paragraph in Beyond Backpacking on improving balance.

**Despite their doctorates, the experts who claim exercise cannot help with weight loss are wrong.  Quantity matters and backpacking is ideal.  After all, we are the ape species which evolved to walk around carrying stuff.