The West Highlands Way

A more appropriate title would be; how me and my sister managed to spend ten days together in the wilderness and not push each other off a fell. Joking aside, we came close. My wonderful sister Abigail. Older than me by a mere eighteen months. Our similarities begin with us both having brown hair and that is also where they end. Though she is the older of the two of us, I have always felt strangely protective over my sister. So this autumn when she found herself with some spare time and I found myself with itchy feet again, searching for a new adventure I wanted to bring her along with me. I am not sure how, but I managed to persuade my sister to come along to the Scottish highlands with me for a ten day stomp across Scotland, wild camping along the way. I had to promise my parents that yes, I would look after her, nothing bad would happen to her and no, I would not push her off a mountain if she annoyed me. Before our yomp up to Scotland I am not sure that me and my sister have spent more than two days together in the last ten years and certainly not alone.

My adventure started with a gruelling MegaBus trip from Bristol to Glasgow with a three hour layover in Birmingham centre in the dead of night. I awoke strewn across the old man next to me at about 2am and hence could not sleep after that. I thought I was being smart and saving money however I would not recommend this form of transport unless there really is no other option. Beginning a ten day hike after barely sleeping on the bus is so not worth the savings! Abigail’s train was super delayed coming into Glasgow too but hey ho, by 2pm we were leaving Glasgow and heading up to Milngavie to start our adventure. We went to M&S and stocked up on some veggies and hummus for the day as we didn’t know when we would see our next fresh food and off we trotted.

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September 16th 2015, the start of the West Highlands Way

We made it five miles on the first day as we were both tired from the travel and we found the perfect spot of flat land next to a small stream for our first night of wild camping. We pitched our tents, filtered water and made dinner. Don’t hate me for telling the world this Abigail… my sister is somewhat scared of the dark. I used to hate sharing a room with her when we were kids as she insisted on keeping the door open to allow the light in. I was expecting to be awoken by her numerous times that night, but guess what happened?! I soon heard the sweet sound of her quietly snoring. I was super pleased with her and she slept soundly until the next morning. Did I mention we were also in seperate tents? Also rhe fact that Abi has not camped for years and never in a tent alone?! Us northern gals are tough cookies you know.

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We struck lucky with the weather on the West Highlands Way.

The next day as we ambled along, we met a very tall guy with a strange accent. He stopped to ask us some questions about where to camp. We told him we would be wild camping and didn’t know much about the campsites. We wished him luck and parted ways. However those long legs soon caught up to us and he asked if we wouldn’t mind him joining us. We made friends with Guus from the Netherlands and he walked the rest of the way with us from there. He entertained me by telling me all about the plants and trees, we picked so many wild blueberries and helped each other out along the way. Heck, he even made us coffee to coax us out of bed in the morning, what a guy.

That night we stopped just short of the no camping zone on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond and the man in the coffee shop advised us to camp on the not-so-wild local football pitch!

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Photograph by Guus. Camping on the football pitch.

By the next day, we spent meandering along the shore of Loch Lomond which we would walk along for the next 23 miles. We were forced to stay in a proper campsite right on the shore of the loch, which was a blessing in disguise as we were all quite disgusting by that point (especially me with my extra layer of sleeping-on-a-bus stink).

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Sunset over Loch Lomond

The next day’s walk was again along the shoreline of the loch. We were all getting pretty excited about our first ever bothy experience. For those of you who are thinking what the heck is a bothy?! A bothy is a small hut or cottage for use as a mountain refuge. Essentially it is a very basic cottage with a fireplace, and space to lay your weary head after a hard days walk or to hunker down in whilst you wait for a storm to pass. Don’t enter a bothy expecting a holiday cottage, most don’t even have a toilet – just a shovel and instructions to go 100m away from the hut. Bothies are found throughout the Scottish highlands. We entered a very full bothy, however as we found out, there is always room for one more! Everybody scooched up and we soon had a wee space on the mezzanine to roll out our sleeping bags. This is where we made our other friends, two germans and two canadians, Scott and Graham who we went on to hike and camp with for a few days.

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Rowchoish bothy – a very busy bothy

The next day started with an adventure, as we all took turns helping the polish man with his bike, child carrier and child as it soon became apparent that the trail was no good for even the best of mountain bikes, let alone this contraption! It took us a few hours to carry this thing the three miles to the main road, where we were all rewarded with a drink from the ever thankful man. Coffee! A good cup of coffee was few and far between on the route (and might I add extortionately priced) so I savoured every sip and once again regretted not bringing my AeroPress with me.

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Saying farewell to our friend Mr Loch Lomond

I was pretty sad to see the end of the loch. It had accompanied us for some miles and to be honest, I was pretty gutted that I didn’t get to skinny dip in it as that had been on my list of things ‘to do’ whilst on this trip. It just never felt like the time was right.

We enjoyed a hiking with our new buddies. We found the most beautiful woods to camp in with them. I absolutely adore the woods, I feel super safe and at home in any woodland come night or day. I’m not sure why as we grew up miles away from any woodlands but I just feel so peaceful and grounded when I’m surrounded by the safety of trees. My sister didn’t enjoy the woods as much as I did and she had slight freaky deaky moment in the middle of the night as she could hear the deer walking near our tents. To be honest it is always a little disconcerting if you hear something outside your tent at night. I’m totally fine if I know it is an animal – it’s the humans that I worry about!

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Camping in the woods with our new buddies.

Unfortunately the Germans got super sick and had to bail and go and stay in a cosy cabin for two the next day so we didn’t see them after that. Abigail was not so secretly pleased that we had technically beaten the German ex military boys to the finish. We hope you are both well out there guys! We continued along with Guus and our Canadian buddies. The Canadians kept me occupied by sharing stories of their super cool outdoors adventures. I literally couldn’t ever imagine camping in bear territory but these guys did.

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My sister and the Canadians.

We had so far had brilliant weather the whole trip. Until the day it rained. We experienced about twenty heavy ‘showers’ in one day. I learnt something that day. Ever time it rains in Scotland there is a rainbow. I have pictures to prove it. I have never seen so many rainbows in a single day in my whole life. Towards the afternoon my excitement for the rainbows even dwindled a little which has never happened before. I guess you can have too much of a good thing.

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Rainbow in Scotland

We camped with the boys next to a fast flowing river which the midges also seemed to enjoy. I also regretted the fact that I had forgotten my midge net. We all shared a cup of cocoa and hit the hay early as we were tired from the walking, getting soaked a million times and too much talking.

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The view from camp. Every cloud has a silver lining.

We had some nice days hiking with the boys. We stopped at one more campsite and had a real shower again which was delightful. There is something wonderful about a simple shower when you’ve spent a few days in the wilderness shower dodging.

Throughout the hike we saw the most beautiful, rugged landscapes every single day. We saw many sunsets but I am sorry to say I didn’t witness as many sunrises as I had intended. Next time I promise to myself to make the effort to get my butt out of bed to watch the sunrise every day.

There’s a sunrise and sunset every day. You can choose to be there for it. You can put yourself in the way of beauty.

Cheryl Strayed

One thing that there was a distinct lack of on the West Highlands Way was wildlife. There were millions of sheep, which is fine if that’s your thing, but we didn’t see a single mountain goat, deer, nothing to write home about. The Canadians were fortunate enough to see a mountain goat one day. They were fooling around making goat noises and lo and behold, two crossed their path. The lucky devils.

Another point I wish to make is that although we were in such a beautiful, wild landscape, there was something somewhat tame about the way. I think it was due to the fact that you were always somewhat near a road and we saw cars every day. This and the fact that the way has over 50000 hikers each year which unfortunately meant that the way was quite littered, especially with toilet paper. Me and my sister packed out every single piece of loo roll and every minuscule piece of litter we made. I know some less hardened hikers may be a bit grossed out by this but there are litter bins in every village you pass through so you really don’t have to carry any litter for more than 24 hours. It is so important for me personally to respect the Earth especially in such amazing places.

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Respect nature. Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.

As our hike was coming to it’s inevitable end I felt sad to be leaving the highlands. We spent an entire day in a rainstorm which forced us to spend a night in a hostel. I love to camp out but sometimes for practical reasons and group morale you must run for cover when necessary. The final day hiking saw us entering the quaint but very touristy town of Fort William where this guy greeted us to mark the end of our Scottish adventure.

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The end of the West Highlands Way

Some useful tips we learnt along the way;

  • Take a midge net! Even in the ‘off’ season for midges. You will be near water for much of the way and the midges bloody love the lochs!
  • If wild camping, take a couple of creature comforts. I hugely regret not taking a proper coffee maker once again. I felt like there wasn’t room in my bag but next time I will make room! I was also under the illusion that everything was cheap in Scotland which it was not. An americano was the extortionate price of £2.80 upwards along the way.
  • Take a water filter and filter all water. Be careful not to drink any water from streams with managed forest. It is likely that the water will be contaminated with fungicides near planted forests and you really, really don’t want to drink those. If unsure, most pubs and coffee shops will happily give you tap water for free.
  • Take all natural toiletries. If you plan on washing in streams you don’t want to pollute the water with chemical nasties and things such as aluminium from bog standard deodorant. Lush does a great solid shampoo and deodorant. Heck, if you’re wild camping you will stink anyway so leave your deodorant at home and let your armpits breathe! We stopped using it on about day 3 as it just didn’t make a smidgen of difference to our odour.
  • Think about what kind of stove/ fuel will work for you. I took a mini trangia with meths for me and my sister. We ended up sharing this with Guus too as he brought a Kelly Kettle and dehydrated food. A kelly kettle boils water using a wood fire inside but after a few days there was no dry kindling to be found anywhere so the fire didn’t work. The Canadians had a great stove which I believe was an MSR dragonfly. That worked really well for them.
  • I didn’t use my emergency battery / phone charger once. All pubs / cafes along the way are happy for you to charge phones so long as you are having chips / a drink.
  • Food in cafes / pubs along the way is really expensive. Vegetarian food is pretty much none existent. We mostly ate campstove food / sandwiches and if we did go out we had chips. Not an ideal diet at all but we were on a tight budget.
  • If going with inexperienced hikers, carry some of their gear to lighten their load for the first few days until they get used to the weight of the bag. Be prepared for plans to change.
  • For girls going hiking and for everyday life I highly recommend a mooncup for dealing with periods. Carry baby wipes too and tissues for any emergencies.
  • Take good quality waterproofs. I lent mine to my sister and borrowed my friends ancient waterproofs. When it rained I got wet. Very wet. Lesson learnt.
  • Use drybags. Either one large rucksack liner or several smaller ones which I prefer. You can have different coloured bags for easy identification of kit. One for clothes, food, cook set, first aid, toiletries etc. Keep your sleeping bag in a dry bag!! A wet sleeping bag will ruin your fun.

I would highly recommend this hike for people with little hiking experience as the terrain is easy to walk on and a lot is on old military roads. There were only two ascents to speak of which are easily managable by all. There are plenty of hostels, B&B’s, hotels and campsites along the way if wild camping is not your cup of tea. You do not need navigation skills as the whole way is waymarked. I would reccomend buying the West Highlands Way guidebook. It was super useful for planning days and it lets you know crucial information such as where the next pub and shop is.

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Happy Hiking!

 

Olivia ♥

 

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