It was getting late by the time we had finished being lost and had finally dropped off the camper van at the finish line of the Affric Kintail way. Now we were speeding along the winding country road to the starting point, aware that every second saved was another second of daylight. When our challenge had been cancelled a few weeks before the event, I was devastated. We had planned to run the 44 miles, taking advantage of the aid and refreshment stations to carry very little kit. We simply couldn’t run the full distance carrying everything we would need, as neither of us had run this far before and we had never run with that much weight.
I had been looking forward to the experience of traversing the beautiful Affric Kintail way in the Scottish highlands for almost a year- we had signed up way in advance, and I couldn’t let the event cancellation ruin it. When Ely came up with the plan of walking it, carrying enough food, water and kit to be comfortable I jumped at the idea. Disorganised as always we planned our kit list over the phone the night before we planned to drive up. We had decided to drive up on the Friday and cover as much ground as we could before a short bivvy on the Friday night and a long slog to get it finished on Saturday. (To complicate things further I had a flight to China on Sunday afternoon!)
We got off to a flying start as, after getting lost and very nearly parking the van about 10 miles from the actual finish line, we struggled to work out which way to leave the car park. Ely had just arrived back on a 4am flight and I had stayed up to watch the election results, so we were running on pretty little sleep between us. But as we eventually got ourselves on the right path we fell into an easy rhythm. The first section was through a sleepy fairy tale forest, with massive oaks and pine trees and a carpet of moss. Luckily we actually hadn’t seen much of each other for a few weeks as I had been in Africa and so the miles flew past as we caught up on each other’s news. There was one section of steep ascent which we struggled up under the weight of our packs, but at the top we were rewarded with a stunning vista across the valley. There were one or two houses visible, but no roads or other signs of modern living- just nature as far as the horizon.
We passed one other pair of women who were also attempting to walk the way despite the cancellation. They had booked a caravan to stay in that night, close to where we hoped to reach. They were travelling light and clearly doing things with a bit more luxury- we were petty jealous!
We managed to walk for about 9 miles when we reached a section of road. We were undecided, but in the long summer days of Northern Scotland, the daylight was refusing to be vanquished and we felt we should press on and get in some more miles. It was close to 11pm and still bright when we finally found a suitable camping spot. We had decided the lightest things to carry would be bivvy bags and a basha, which meant finding a specific combination of two trees close enough together to string up the tarp but with flat and dry ground between them. It had been looking pretty difficult to get both of these things together but we did eventually located just the spot in a thicket of trees. After a very undignified (and slightly naughty) clamber over a fence with our packs we settled down to make camp. We spread out my emergency shelter to sit on and changed into our dry camp clothes, which was an incredible feeling! As the midge attack reached critical level we quickly threw up the basha in an attempt to protect ourselves slightly (didn’t really work) and set to cooking our dinner – a packet of puy lentils and some lamb risotto in a hiking sachet. Probably not enough to make up for the calories we expended getting there, but it seemed to hit the spot.
The highlight of the meal was definitely the cherry bakewell desert and the warming hot chocolate. Oh and did I mention the wine? My time spent living in South Africa taught me that you should never go hiking without wine! Tucked up in our bivvy bags, gazing out at the forrests and fields, passing the bottle of wine between us we were feeling pretty damn good! Until we realised it was close to midnight and we had to set our alarm for 5.30…
As we lumbered around at 5am, dismantling our brief camp, stuffing our kit into our packs and slipping our cold, damp walking clothes back on, the midges proved to be wide awake and waiting to prey on our sleepy bodies. We had decided for efficiencies sake to get up and leave straight away, aiming to walk around 3 miles before stopping for breakfast. Having a pretty hefty caffeine addiction as I do, I was suffering as we set off down the road. We estimated that 3 miles would take us close to the only village we would encounter for the rest of the day. Given that we would reach there sometime just after 7 on a Saturday morning, we had little hope of finding anywhere open. None-the-less we kept each other going with thoughts of big steaming cups of coffee, just around the corner.
The village was deserted when we reached it, but there were signs for a cafe and for a Spar store boasting hot drinks. The cafe was a bit out of our way, and weighed down by our packs and our cravings we decided the chances of it being a wasted trip at this early hour were too high. Instead we set off down the road to find the more promising Spar. It too was a detour, but a necessary one. Our excitement levels built as we spied the store in the distance with a sign out front. But alas, when we reached i, it was closed and wouldn’t open for another 50 minutes. We had planned only 20 minute breaks given the 31miles that remained ahead of us, and couldn’t afford to wait that long- even for coffee. Despondent we sat on the pic-nic bench outside the Spar and made our pots of porridge and had a hit chocolate to try and fill the gaping hole that coffee had left in our morning. As we sat there, an angel in a Spar uniform emerged to put out the papers. As we both started gabbling at her at the same time she laughed and revealed that the shop usually opens about a half hour early to bake their own bread. We were welcome to come in to get coffee and whatever else we needed. We could have hugged her! Instead we quickly packed away our dirty plates and took her up in the offer.
Ten minutes later we were back on the road clutching large lattes and laden down with a few extra snacks since we had realised we hadn’t brought nearly enough edible morale for the difficult day that lay ahead. After another steep ascent up a paved road we turned off into another Forrest and plodded on, talking boys, work, the future and generally putting the world to rights.
The 12.1 miles stretch we had planned to cover before lunch passed slowly. It was a monotonous section of Forrest with rolling undulations that were difficult with the heavy bags. It was punctuated by the beautiful Dog Falls waterfall, swollen to a rushing fury by the recent downpour.
Other than this impromptu stop we marched on robotically. According to our Garmin watches the section ended over half a mile further than we had hoped, nearer 13 miles than 12. When we eventually came across the crossroads that marked the end of the second section we hadn’t seen a would for hours. The midges descended as soon as we paused so we frantically wrestled out my emergency shelter and fishing out our food with one hand and beating of the biting insect with the other, we threw the shelter over us. Relief! We had managed to shut most of the midges outside, and we could see them circling the shelter in hoards outside the window, crawling all over the fabric.
Typically, almost as soon as we erected our bizarre, bright orange shelter the intersection became alive with people. Having not seen another living person in hours, at least 25 people must have passed in the 15 minutes we sat there. And each time we were forced to explain our plan to evade the carnivorous insect mob, to varying response.
When we had devoured our sandwiches and long awaited cherry bakewells we were left with no option but to walk on. The boots Ely had chosen to wear were heavy and rubbing badly on her heels. We decided to swap for a while to give her feet a chance to recover. The boots were small on my feet and within the first 10 minutes they began to pinch at my toes. We struggled on, Ely feeling the relief despite the minimal protection my barefoot shoes offered against the rocks on the path. After 2 miles my feet had had enough and we had to change back. The short change had broken up the third stretch which was 8 miles in total. The promise of a hot drink and the dream of a pint of cider with a hot meal dragged out tired bodies along the undulations and through the alternating rains and shines on the remaining 5 miles.
It was a stunning section alongside Loch Affric, but by the time we spotted the roof of the hostel in the far distance we were already counting down the feet on our GPS watches. Exhausted and aching we stumbled through the entrance and fought out of our shoes before collapsing in front of the fire in the main lounge. The sympathetic, if overly-talkative, warden quickly sorted is it with a steaming cup of coffee and a bar of chocolate. There was no bar, but perhaps it was a blessing as after a pint or two I doubt we would have managed to get ourselves back out of the door. As we lingered over our second coffee, waiting on our boil-in-the-bag meals to heat up the small lounge filled with people. The hostel was off the grid and a difficult walk in from any direction. The people we chatted to were all interesting and full of tales of their own adventures. The time slipped past quickly and when we had finished eating we had been there for almost an hour. With difficulty we dragged our soggy shoes back on our feet and hoisted our bags back onto aching shoulders and bruised hips. It was the last stretch.
With 11 miles remaining and the countdown to darkness beginning we decided to split the stretch into a six and then a five mile stint to make the mental burden lighter. We tried various tricks with our GPS watches to distract ourselves – trying to beat the time of the preceding mile, or counting how much distance we covered with each passing hour. But the undulations were increasing hard on our weary bodies and the distance dragged.
At last we reached the bothy we had been promised sat 5 miles from the end of the track and the camper van. We stopped to stuff as much fluid and calories into our faces as we could in the short 10 minutes we had allowed ourselves. The time had now come for Ely to part ways with her boots – the animosity between them had reached unsufferable levels. She would now aim to complete the last 5 miles in just her Sealskin socks.
To the chimes of the ten minute timer we set off to conquer the last five miles in the rapidly dimming dusk. Without her heavy boots, and despite the rocky path, Ely managed to increase her pace significantly. Drawn on by the whispers of the finish line and the support of a few walkers we encountered, the miles began once more to pass at a tolerable pace. The way was flatter – if not quite the ‘down hill all the way’ we had been promised. And soon we found ourselves descending a short track to a tarmac’d road. We tried not to let our excitement get the better of us. We were tired and our emotions were running close to the surface. Our watches told us we still had over a mile to go and so we carried on along the forrest track running parallel to the road. But at last, it was over. An abrupt turn in the road brought us face-to-face with the camper-van that marked our finish line. We had made it. Friendship tested, but intact. Bodies like-wise. Exhausted and emotional, we embraced and set to planning the most important part – where could we get our victory pint of cider?
Have you completed the Affric Kintail Way? Or perhaps one of scotlands many other long-distance trails? If you like what you’ve read, check out my guide to completing the Way (coming soon)