Dispatch from the Highlands: Part Three

In June 2017, Tom decided to hike the West Highland Way. The result, other than copious blisters and a bad back, is this series of articles. The names of all involved have been changed.

The four or so hours it took to get from Inversnaird to Inverarnon were difficult. The rain continued to fall, the path was bumpy and slippery at times, at others non-existent. Add to this the fact that the terrain was rolling, constantly going uphill or downhill, and I was practically crawling into Inverarnon when I arrived there that night. The only upside was that I wasn’t alone: Rik and Seb were with me.

Inverarnon, like Inversnaird, could not be justifiably called a town, and calling it a village would be stretching it too. When walking the Way you enter it through its main attraction, the Beinglas campsite. My map had showed this campsite as being slightly past the town, a fact I discovered while in the site’s shop.

“Rik, Seb, I think we might have walked past Inverarnon, but I’m happy staying here.”

Before either man had a chance to respond, a gruff, bald, angry Scotsman startled me by saying:

“This is Inverarnon!”

Since Inverarnon was nothing more than this campsite and an inn for those smart enough to book ahead and not attempt to camp in Scotland, walking past it without noticing would have been relatively easy. The list of things to do for a place that hosts just a campsite and an inn would only be two items long, both of which I’m pleased to report I managed during my brief stay:

  1. Get drunk.
  2. Leave

*

I grovelled to the gruff Scotsman behind the counter, bought myself a tent pitch, and took far too long to put it up, hampered as I am with a distinct lack of ability to do anything remotely practical, and the fact that Dean, who actually could assemble the tent, was somewhere between Glasgow and Leeds not being rained upon. Nevertheless, I did manage to assemble my tent, and Rik, Seb, and I quickly established the plan for evening: go to the pub and get really drunk.

It was successful, and we looked like we were having more fun than a European couple who were sat across the room from us. We had bumped into them a few times on the trail. The woman was sat, head in hands, quietly crying, probably wondering why she had just spent three days walking nearly forty miles in Scotland, and why she was about to spend four more days walking another sixty, when she could have spent a week on a Greek island. The man was animatedly imploring her to do something (continue, I should imagine), but was clearly not having much success. Two other men, who had been sat with them, were peering into their beers, looking anywhere but at the couple.

“I’ve seen them a few times,” Seb said, “and they were doing this every time.”

They retired early, but we drank into the night, and so by the time I returned to my tent I was far too drunk, and far too unprepared, to deal with the situation presented to me. I opened my tent to find my belongings swimming in a shallow pool of water. My tent had leaked.

“Bollocks.”

Seb and Rik didn’t seem to have had the same problem.

“Seb,” I shouted, “come and have a look at this.”

“What’s up?” he asked, before looking into my tent. “Oh, shit.

“Yeah oh shit is right,” I replied.

“We’re gonna have to tip it,” Seb said, motioning at the tent.

I went around to the back of the tent and took out the pegs, and while Seb controlled the front, I tipped it. A worrying amount of water cascaded out from it. The inside of the tent still looked damp, but better. I took some of the wetter clothes into the dry room, and laid down to sleep, cursing the tent, the Scottish weather, and the very idea of camping as I did so.

*

I woke at four in the morning, surrounded by water. My tent had leaked again, only this time, it had leaked and had made me wet, as well as my belongings.

“Oh for fuck sake,” I shouted, before bounding up from my sleeping bag to take some of the more soaking wet items, which was everything, into the dry room. The Scottish midge made sure that even this wasn’t easy. After I had dried myself off in the shower room, I walked outside to be greeted by a blanket of midges all simultaneously landing on my face. I swatted and clawed at them, but the bastards kept on landing, and in the morning I discovered several new bites to add to my ever mounting collection.

*

I managed to get a couple more hours sleep, and after a huge breakfast the Dutchmen and I set off for our next destination for the evening: Tyndrum. Mercifully, apart from a short shower early on, it didn’t rain, and we left Loch Lomond behind and started to climb into the highlands in earnest. The going was much easier than the third day, and the path was a dusty track that was easy underfoot.

Then, suddenly, we were presented with a section of path that would not be easy underfoot. In front of the three of us was about ten metres of path that had turned completely into mud. There were no dry patches around it. On the left hand side of the path, there was a steep hill, on the right, there was a steep drop. We were going to have to walk through the mud.

Rik negotiated it first, carefully picking a course on the more solid bits of path, making it across. I should have just followed Rik. He is over six-foot-tall and a bit heavier than me, so it would have made sense to follow his path. But I decided to pick my own route, and I quickly realised I had made a mistake. I veered to the left of where Rik had walked, and my left foot promptly disappeared below the mud. My right leg swiftly followed, only it was buried up to my knee.

“Are you ok, Tom?” Rik asked.

I was fine. The only thing dented was my pride.

“Are you getting out?” Seb asked from behind me.

I tried to move, but both legs were firmly set in the mud.

“I can’t.”

Rik had to come back along the muddy path and heave me out of the mud, my boots nearly falling off in the process. Both my legs were caked, and I made a mental note to always follow where Rik walked. I was glad that I wasn’t alone.

*

Lunch on day four was taken in Crianlarich, a village that sits about half a mile off the Way, but is the official halfway point. I arrived still caked in mud, and received a hearty laugh from a German couple sat eating their lunch by way of greeting. Lunch was to be whatever we could scavenge from a local Spar, and I tried not to get mud all over the floor as I carried as many carbs as possible to the till.

While we were eating and talking to the German couple, a woman and her dog walked over to join us. She was part of the rescue team for the West Highland Way, and was the latest Scot to take the piss out of my pronunciation.

“You’re not walking to Tyndrum,” she said with more than hint of derision, “you’re walking to Tinedrum.”

“Oh, right. Well, then we’re off to Kingshouse after that.”

“Aye, you have to do the long day at some point.”

I had been working on persuading Rik and Seb to shorten their walk down to seven days, the length of time I was walking the Way, so that we would walk all the way to Fort William together. This meant persuading them to walk 20 miles on day five, rather than splitting the day in two, as they’d intended. To my relief, I was succeeding. I didn’t want to walk 20 miles alone, especially considering I had just got myself stuck in a foot and a half of mud and had to be hauled out.

But, I was also beginning to realise, I was enjoying myself. I could have followed Dean home from Inversnaird, and been sat at home in Leeds. But while sat waiting for Dean in the rain, I realised I had been enjoying the experience. I didn’t mind the walking, and every night we would sit and eat and drink with fellow walkers from all over the world. Each day you had nothing to concern you but putting one foot in front of the other, and getting to the next landmark. It was, if you ignored the ever-growing pain in your feet, shoulders, and knees, quite therapeutic. The two Dutchmen had made this experience even better, and I was hoping to be able to walk and get drunk with them to the end.

*

We wandered into Tyndrum earlier than we had expected after an easier afternoon. I had decided during the day that another night in a tent: almost surely another night getting soaking wet, was not for me, and that I would hunt for a bed. This proved easy, as the first campsite and hostel we came across offered an inviting proposition for the three of us. A polite Australian woman (how the fuck she ended up in Tyndrum, I never asked) told us we could have a hiker’s hut for 25 pounds between us. I would have given her £250 for a bed with a solid roof.

*

We got settled in the hiker’s hut, and one after another, went for a shower. Each time one of us returned, we made the same noise, a high pitched ‘ooofft,’ and screwed our noses up. It stank in the hut. It was only at the end of the fourth day of hiking that I realised just how damp and muddy most of my belongings were. A day of rain, and a night spent in a leaky tent, coupled with Scottish mud, had left my hiking clothes covered. I smelled like a farmer’s field on a summer’s day. So we decided to leave the hut and go to the pub, hoping that most of the other hikers in there would stink too.

They didn’t, but we started drinking, and didn’t care anymore. We were joined by Alex and Sara, the German couple I had chatted with briefly on day one. They smelled nothing like they had been hiking for the past four days. They had booked all their beds in advance and had decided not to camp, so had not been leaked on in the night. I was envious. We got chatting, and made friends, and suddenly my journey along the Way was not marked by one flatmate, since departed, but by two Dutchmen with boundless enthusiasm, and a lovely German couple. I got very drunk, and passed out in the hiker’s hut, ready for the day that was 20 miles long.

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