Today’s section of the walk was expected to be quite tough. The 19 miles from Inveroran to Kinlochleven was formed of 2 distinct sections. The first 10 miles would see me crossing Rannoch Moor to Kingshouse while the second 9 miles would include an ascent of the Devil’s Staircase. In light of this I elected for a breakfast policy of ‘first in last out’. Having arrived on the stroke of 7:30 and finding I had a whole breakfast layout to myself I was only thwarted in my bid to outstay everyone by a Austrian couple of ample proportions who were clearly on the culinary tour rather than the walking tour. I nonetheless managed 2 bowls of grapefruit and 1 of melon, a bowl of Alpen, a full Scottish fry and 4 slices of toast with butter and strawberry jam. Yummy but don’t tell my doctor. Even the Fulsome Frau saw fit to comment on my appetite which I felt was bit rich.
Feeling well stocked for the day I paid the bill, picked up my packed lunch and collected my shoes from the rack where all the footwear of we grubby walkers was stored to prevent the nice tartan carpets being damaged, and headed out into a fresh breeze.
The torrential rain with sleety overtones that was forecast had either passed us by or was yet to arrive, and instead we had a cool, windy and overcast start to the day. No sooner was I outside but a swallow landed on the gatepost no more than 5 feet from me and proceeded to stare with its head cocked inquisitively to one side. I watched inquisitively back for ages and the bird didn’t move. Eventually I thought I would try and take its photo and it waited until the instant before I pressed the shutter and abruptly flew away. The blighter.
The scenery in the area of the Inveroran Hotel was incredible. Turning towards Rannoch Moor 100 yds from the hotel I was presented with the most beautiful view of the river that feeds Loch Tulla and the Grampian mountains beyond from the Victoria bridge.
Heading from open ground into woods, at least for a while, the route picked up one of Thomas Telford’s Parliamentary Roads, built to replace the old military roads that had fallen into disrepair. This road, more realistically a track wide enough for a single cart, was undoubtedly brilliantly hard wearing being made of rock and stone set into a mortar of some kind. However the effect of these protuberances on the undersides of feet, even those properly clad in boots, needs to be experienced in order to gain an appreciation of the level of discomfort experienced.
I was now about to use this road, proudly introduced by a sign on the entranceway as the ‘Drove Road to Glencoe’ to cross one of Britain’s largest and wildest moors; the dreaded Rannoch Moor. The guidebook advises that when conditions are calm it can be a deceptively easy walk, and so it proved to be. While the path was extremely exposed with no shelter, and to stray from it could result in a sinking experience of life-threatening proportions due to the peat bogs, the weather was fine and there was no need to stray.
After a steady climb of several miles during which I passed barely half a dozen people, most of whom were not especially cheery having camped out the previous night, I reached a little oasis of deciduous woodland around the Ba Bridge. Everywhere else in sight was either wet marsh, heather moor, mountain, or occasionally a pine or fir plantation. Ba Bridge marks the halfway point and in the event of bad weather causing safety concerns walkers are advised to turn back from here. Not having any such concerns I pushed on and shortly after the bridge I encountered a very odd couple indeed. I thought initially that I was closing on 2 girls, one tall and one short. However the taller of the two, long blonde hair streaming from beneath a helmet-like wooly hat, half turned as I drew close to reveal a substantial blonde beard. This chap looked as if he could have just stepped off a Viking longship; an impression not weakened by the fact the carried not a walking pole but a boat hook. Yes, really! His walking partner was nowhere near as odd within herself but given his stature and demeanour the fact that she was a very small person of south-east Asian appearance seemed quite a contrast. They were very cheery all the same and claimed to be enjoying this marvellous leg-stretch in blustery conditions as much as I was.
After reaching its high-point at around 450m the path then starts the descent to Kingshouse. During the descent one of my favourite Scottish mountains came in view – Buachaille Etive Mor whose Gaelic name means the Great Herdsman of Etive, followed by the road to the White Corries ski area and café.
I have no doubt that in bad weather the route would be dire, but the path is clear and wide all the way and I fail to see why anyone would need to leave it. Thus navigation is not really an issue and anyone walking in this area ought to be properly kitted out. After all as someone once told me, in the UK there is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing. I appreciate that might sound a bit hard nosed but I strongly believe in people taking responsibility for their own safety in the mountains and having a decent waterproof, hat and gloves, together with a first aid kit, torch, whistle and food isn’t that expensive nor heavy.
Having got off my soap-box …. after crossing the busy A82 trunk road that descends through Glencoe I reached the Kings House Hotel, at Kingshouse.
A very well known coaching inn due to its location the Kingshouse dates back to the seventeenth century. In 1746 it was used as a barracks by the Duke of Cumberland’s troops after the Battle of Culloden. It had been my intention to take lunch here but in the event I was too early. As I had a packed lunch anyway I contented myself with taking a few photographs of the red deer that live around the hotel, and then proceeded onto the second section of the walk. I was vaguely aware that I hadn’t taken a break or even had a drink since leaving my hotel this morning 10 miles back down the track, but as I felt really good I carried on regardless. It was after all only 9 miles to Kinlochleven.
After crossing the bridge over the River Etive I turned left to head towards Glencoe on Wade’s military road. With Buachaille Etive Mor ahead and to my left over the road and valley, and the huge whaleback of Beinn a Chrulaiste immediately to my right I strode through several dozen male walkers who had disgorged from a bus shortly before I reached Kingshouse. Almost all dressed in green and brandishing flash cameras I assume they were part of a club outing. Certainly many were not of the dimension normally associated with long distance trekkers and those who didn’t instantly dash for a bush to provide cover for a pee seemed more concerned with workings of their cameras than the view. For once I kept my cheery ‘hello’s’ to myself and left them to it.
Having followed the military road for about 2 miles though scrub and heather, the grandeur of the mountains a real presence all around the route turned right beyond the end of Beinn a Chrulaiste into a valley. Before long however a wooden bridge was crossed in order to reach the foot of the ‘Devils Staircase’. Not having researched this, and having heard several people in recent days refer to it being tough, I was expecting a real challenge. However the guidebook just about has it right, as follows: “Despite the forbidding name, the path is very clear and zig zags make the going easier.” It wasn’t actually hard at all. Sure it’s necessary to take it slowly and with shortened steps, and a breather every now and again to admire the magnificent views would be a good idea, but it isn’t that hard, at least it shouldn’t be for any competent Way-walker.
Part of the way up I met a middle aged man gazing at Buachaille Etive Mor across the valley. He was olive skinned and dressed mostly in green although not from the party I mentioned earlier as they were still fiddling with their shutters or similar down below. He wore a small blue rucksack. I greeted him in customary fashion and only when he turned to reply, his face seemingly very peaceful, did I notice that he had earpieces in his ears connected to a music player of some kind. Apologising for disturbing his reverie I turned to leave him in peace but he stopped me saying: “I have wanted to do this all my life. My mother was Scottish and my Father Indian. My mother died when I was young and I lived all my life in India. But now I’ve come to see her country. I am listening to Scottish music”. I asked him if it was pipes and drums and he replied, ever so quietly, “yes – bagpipes. It’s Flower of Scotland….”. We both looked back towards the mountain, dark and foreboding, lost in our separate thoughts. After a few moments I gently touched his arm and slipped quietly away.
Up the Devils Staircase I strode, aware that my pace on this section was causing heads to turn. I turned once more and the man was still there. Taking a quick photograph lest this moment be forgotten, and which I share with you here, I faced-front once more and blasted to the top. In fact I only stopped blasting when my toes were sore. Needless to say I passed several people during this time, one of whom was a late-teenage girl with the most glorious silver-dyed hair shot through with streaks of metallic kingfisher blue and bright pink. I actually said “great hair!” as I scooted past. Eventually I heard her call “thanks!”; the delay probably being due to her not being entirely sure who had spoken.
The route down to Kinlochleven was uneventful and, after the glory of earlier vistas, relatively boring. For most of the way the route was on a rough-made road that was quite steep and due to loose rocks and pebbles it was unforgiving on the feet. Eventually however I reached the town and found my hotel, the Macdonald. I’m not sure if there is a farm nearby but at least the food aught to be served quickly. Ha ha. No? Me neither. The story of the Indian man at the foot of the devils staircase affected me too.
I do hope he listened to Highland Cathedral. His Mum would have liked that.