My previous blog described the circuitous journey from Derby to the Knoydart peninsula (further than Paris and longer than Tunisia). That’s to say it chronicled the final interesting hour or two and not the preceding automotive slog which, while not without its moments of curiosity or beauty, could never rival On The Road for literary attraction unless you’re the type of person who senses the spirit of adventure at Scotch Corner service station.
Needless to say I haven’t come all this way to (just) sit in the pub and there is the small matter of an expedition into the wild interior of this unspoiled and uncharted (by me) wilderness. The original plan had been to climb all the Munros and Corbetts in the region and then complete a 30 mile circular walk around the peninsula coastline while eating only things I could catch and cook but since everyone else I have met seems to be doing precisely these things a change of plan is urgently needed. While “the crowd” take the high road I’ll take the low road and yomp from Inverie to Loch an Dubh Lochain on a notoriously treacherous 4WD path that ascends as much as 170ft above sea level and has, for the most part, no protection from the rain.
The morning skies show some degree of promise in defiance of the near useless weather forecast as I set off from Inverie along the coastal road bordering Loch Nevis. Yesterday as I walked from ferry to bunkhouse I saw some bird of prey with an immense wingspan hovering near a rocky outcrop and I’m taken with the notion it was a sea eagle. Apparently there are golden eagles here also but that would be hoping for too much.
The loch also attracts exotic creatures including dolphins and porpoises while even whales have been spotted further out. As the path heads inland I would settle for a red squirrel sighting but so far they have proved elusive.
The low morning light seems to creep through the passing clouds so slowly as to land just softly on the exposed rock face of the opposite shore. Certainly there is insufficient drama to distract a horse nearby from breakfast, but I’m impressed.
A temporary detour to the Kilchoan estate near my bunkhouse provides sight of some wildlife at last. Some Highland cattle peak out from behind a barn. It occurs to me that their location offers them particularly good grazing – not that I’m supremely qualified to judge such things – but if I were of bovine stock there would seem to be a lot of space and a decent variety of grass upon which to ruminate.
Welcome though this sight is it’s the deer that I’ve really come this way to see. The problem is that deer know you are coming well before you know they are there so I’m unlikely to get close to them. Antlers appear over a hill and I’m downwind of them but they soon realise I am in the vicinity and my photo opportunity turns out to be – limited…
In fact I do get a good view of a sizeable leash of deer through my binoculars but without good quality photographic evidence you will have to take my word for it. It’s back to the main trekking path again, through a wooden section and into the hills.
There’s a busy stream beside the path and it is fed at regular intervals by frothing torrents of water that spill down the hillside following last nights torrential rain. There is no shortage of flowing water around here and by a stroke of fortune a small hydro-electric station sits at the foot of the valley fed by water from the loch I’m headed for. It generates all of the electricity required by the residents of Knoydart and is backed up by a diesel generator in case of failure or maintenance. There’s a ranger led tour of this facility tomorrow but for now I have a route to walk.
Portentous clouds hover in the distance over my intended destination but the breeze is now behind me where the skies are clearer. The landscape has a drama that befits my noble solo ascent – unaided by oxygen or sherpas – so it’s a little irritating to meet an elderly lady coming the other way who claims already to have reached the loch. No flag no claim I tell myself.
Finally one more summit and there it is – Loch an Dubh Lochain, as prophesised on my map. But something tells me that neither I nor indeed the elderly lady has planted a virgin sole on these shores. A quaint fishing boat is tethered to a stake in the turf alongside which lay an outboard motor and wooden oars. Nobody is here and it is tempting to drift out into the centre of the loch and doze beneath the slow-motion cloud cinema. I settle for a waterside lunch before turning back for Inverie.
On the return journey I chat to a few walkers heading in the same direction. They are members of an organised tour and have been dropped off by private boat at Loch Hourn about 5 miles to the north. Their route has taken them over some quite steep slopes and one or two have taken the opportunity to chalk off the 3346ft summit of Ladhar Bheinn. This seems somewhat pointless to me given the very poor visibility. Others in the group are less hardy and one American lady in particular complains that “the track is muddy further up and they should put some duck boards down”. Her spotless gaiters tell me everything I need to know and I restrain myself from breaking the news that there is no Starbucks in Inverie.
Progress is rapid but not dull as it is nice to see the landscape from a different perspective. The route is alive with birdsong and an abundance of stonechats appear to be deeply immersed in the business of nesting. I’m encouraged to observe a healthy variety of butterflies and they seem to like resting on the shiny exposed mica-rich rocks that store heat from the day’s sunlight. The streams attract huge dragon flies and I spot a couple of otter setts although no signs of their inhabitants.
Today’s walk has been simple and very fulfilling. I have taken a lot of time to bumble around, absorb the views and stalk the wildlife and this feels more rewarding in contrast to all the route-marching high-roaders I have bumped into. I’ll knock off a munro on my next visit but for now the visual drama of this special place has been my reward.
The clouds have returned bringing a premature end to the daylight and as I approach the bunkhouse it seems that the horse I saw this morning has done nothing but chew grass all day, seemingly oblivious to the visual feast about it.
My outdoor credentials haven’t been tested on this gentle walk but I’m determined to make up for this in the well equipped bunkhouse kitchen tonight. I picked up fresh venison sirloin from Inverie this morning and together with some groceries I purchased further south plus rosemary from my garden I attempt to plant a culinary flag of sorts.
Dinner tonight is pan seared knoydart venison on a bed of wilted watercress with sweet potato and red onion mash, accompanied by a summer ale. It looks and tastes superb and this is comfortably the best quality venison I have ever come across. Yes I’ve a tinge of guilt as I consider the shy local deer population that contribute to this meat supply and a more tangible guilt as I watch much harder walking co-habitants dine jealously on bread rolls and twix bars. I guess it’s just a question of priority but that’s the beauty of Knoydart – whether you take the high road or the low road you’ll have a trip to remember.