|The West Highland Way|
Nightmares in wax, nightmarish clowns ....
I had a strange dream during the night. I was sitting in a back room of a McDonald's restaurant when Colin came in clutching his face. He told me some drunk had punched him as he stood at the service tills. I was furious and marched out to the front of the restaurant to take it out on the bloke. But instead of a drunken man I was confronted with a large coil of electric flex - yellow and green like earth wire. This seemed normal enough to me and I picked it up, hefted it over my shoulder and banged out through the swing doors into the car park. I threw down the flex with force and watched it bounce and then roll away unsteadily until it fell over out in the centre of the tarmac. I felt avenged.
Analyse that ...
I woke early and checked out the weather. There were grey clouds overhead but they were ragged, and patches of blue were beginning to appear like inverted lakes. The rain had stopped.
Colin had also experienced a strange night. He had woken in the small hours and removed his wax ear defenders as they were irritating him. I was snoring gently but persistently so he decided after a few minutes that he would be even more irritated by that so he reached out in the dark for the little pieces of wax and began to knead them to get them warm. One of them didn't feel quite right and certainly wasn't getting malleable; it was more of a pasty texture. He turned the light on and found that the wax bung had been extracted with a large glob of ear wax attached to it - and by large I'm talking the size of the tip of my little finger. He had left it on the bedside table as a talking point for the morning and I was so impressed that I took a photo of it for the family archives. It actually explained something as Colin had been a little hard of hearing during the week (I asked him to strike a pose on one occasion and he thought I'd told him to wipe his nose) and now that this waxberg had been dug out, his hearing returned to near normal levels again. Colin wasn't sure how long this plug had been growing inside his head - weeks maybe.
The landlady had gone a long way towards redeeming herself for yesterdays surliness by drying all of our sodden gear and placing them in neat piles on our beds. It was sheer luxury to pull on dry warm clothes. She also treated us to the best breakfast we had had all week, and
Colin and me
We were given a lift back down to the village and met Kath outside of the Post Office. We bought food for lunch and Colin bought a half bottle of whisky for our hip flasks. Ronnie and Shugie arrived and Ronnie suddenly began a stream-of-conscious sergeant-on-parade tirade.
"Get yer chins up and stick yer chests oot you 'orrible thengs ye. A'm talkin' tae yoo yer useless,feckless pigs. Arrrrfarrrarrrrarrrrrfar!"
This was to occur every time we met them for the next few days. It was almost like we threw a switch inside of him and he had to perform. Shugie, as ever, just smiled quietly.
"Hey!" said Kath, and pointed. "It's that guy I walked with earlier - the one I told you about. The guy who's sleeping in a bivvy." A tall, slightly dishevelled figure approached us. He looked familiar. It was, in fact, the walker we had met briefly a few days before when we were lost on the way to Conic Hill, the one who had loped off into the trees before we got caught up in the Dutch beetle train. He introduced himself as Bob. Close behind were another two young men, the Germans that Kath had walked with around the shores of Loch Lomond the previous morning. It was starting to feel like a soap opera where all the characters were linked in some tenuous way.
The Germans, Manfred and Matthias, were walking the West Highland Way together before going on to spend a week on the west coast of Scotland. Manfred was from Munich, a place I knew well, so we chatted about beer festivals and BMW's for a while. We were all fully provisioned and so it was time to make a start. There was a choice to be made now. We could either retrace our steps back up into the forest or take a two mile march down the A82 and rejoin the route at a road bridge. The option of some nice flat walking appealed to most of us apart from Ronnie and Shugie who wanted to visit a youth hostel back up in the woods. So we set off, Colin and I, with Kath, Bob, Manfred, and Matthias, down the busy A82 out of Crianlarich retracing our steps and within a mile walking past our guest house. I walked alongside Bob and learnt that he had been brought up in a small town nearby where his father had been the railway station master. He had picked up the travel bug because of the free rail tickets he had enjoyed owing to his father's occupation. He was a now a teacher of English and resident in Tokyo. He had been in Japan for over twenty years, had climbed Mount Fuji once - 'once being enough' - and had experienced a number of earthquakes, the worst one had scared him so much that he had run out into the street stark naked.
BO and QI ....
We left the A82 and picked up General Wade's military road, walking through pleasant sheep pastures which eventually gave out onto a wide track meandering through the Alt Kinglass valley with the steep sided bulks of Beinn Dorain, Meall Garbh and Beinn nam Fuaran lining each side of the wide u-shaped glen. We marched along until nearly mid day. I had noticed something about Bob, maybe it was to do with the rough living he had subjected himself to, but to put it bluntly he niffed. Now I'm not being judgemental here, none of us were at our freshest, but this was in a different league altogether. It was a meaty, yeasty sort of body odour that only announced itself when you were downwind. The first time I caught it I panicked, I thought it was me. The second time I caught it I learnt my lesson and stayed either abreast or ahead of him.
Kath, Bob, Manfred and Mathius
The old military road offered some really decent walking terrain and, with wings on my feet, I decided to put a spurt on and get ahead of everyone. I didn't stop until we reached the remains of an old lead smelting kiln, a desolate place as nothing was growing on the poisoned soil even though the kiln had been abandoned for a century or more. While we were all standing about gazing at this ugly little scar on the landscape Colin's phone rang. It was dad.
"Hi Dad! Yes we're fine. Yes the views are lovely. No we're not walking too fast. That's right, my water bottle's not clunking at all is it. Yes we did get a bit wet yesterday. No Mark hasn't lost any toe nails yet."
We marched on into the small town of where there was a shop that displayed a sign warning us to take this last opportunity to stock up because there wasn't another shop until Kinlochleven. On the way out of the village we passed a cemetery. Nobody was really taking much notice of it apart from Kath. She laughed suddenly, "Crikey - they must be a healthy lot in Tyndrum; there's only one tombstone!"
It was true. The neatly trimmed lawn boasted just one large headstone.
Perhaps it was one communal grave for the whole village.
Perhaps they were all vampires and nobody ever died.
Perhaps they were all zombies and everybody was dead but not buried.
Perhaps we had made a mistake and it wasn't a cemetery at all and the stone merely said 'Kinlochleven 20 miles. Did you stock up at our wee shop?'
We wandered back out into the valley. It was a beautiful place, great hulks of mountain on either side, a gentle river winding through the valley floor like a silver ribbon, a railway line keeping abreast of us to the west. We decided to try a quiz again. It was a little unfair on Manfred and Mathias as they had to think up questions in a foreign language and answer questions mainly related to British events. They did very well considering, and I could only imagine how poor I would have been had the roles been reversed. A quiz held in German relating to German general knowledge and trivia? Nils point!
Colin Kath and I decided to stop by a railway bridge for some lunch. The other three decided to continue the walk. We sat down in the shade of the bridge's old stone wall and enjoyed the peace and quiet. Talk turned to mountaineering and in particular the exploits of one particular guy who wrote a book called 'Touching the void'. Nobody could remember his name. Colin recounted part of the book where the author had survived for three days, badly injured, on a mountain and had managed to haul himself back to civilisation. The song 'Brown Girl in the Ring' by Boney-M had run around and around the guys head until it almost drove him insane. Colin couldn't remember the name of the mountain either. Kath said "Was his name Joe something?"
We ate in silence for a while.
Suddenly Colin said "Annapurna!"
"No," said Kath doubtfully, "I'm sure he had an English sounding name."
"The name of the mountain, you fool."
Ronnie and Shugie sauntered around the corner to see us laughing and the switch was thrown.
"C'mon c'mon get onto yer feet yer lazy pigs! Let's see ye hoofin' it or I'll run ye into tha glasshouse! Arrrrfarrrarrrarrr!"
"Hello guys," we said.
The magnificent Mamores and Bavarian hospitality ....
Ronnie told us that this was a good place to spot and Colin immediately retrieved the binoculars from his rucksack. Ronnie and Shugie sauntered off again, trailing a cloud of smoke from Ronnie's ever present cigarette. "See's ye later."
It was around this time that we began referring to Ronnie and Shugie as the Two Ronnies for reasons which escape me now. But however we derived it, the label stuck.
The track wound on and on and we caught up with The Two Ronnies some three miles later as they had stopped for another fag break. We handed our flasks around.
Ronnie and Shugie
"It's ab-se-loot poss!"
A little further on and we saw a lonely shape swooping and soaring in the skies - a Golden Eagle. We observed it for several minutes through binoculars, riding the skies gracefully. I tried to imagine what it must be like for him, gifted with his power of flight and pin sharp vision. What fantastic views he would be having to himself up there amongst the mountains peaks. Later in the afternoon a young man dressed in camouflage trousers walked past, hands in pockets. He muttered a greeting. Some way behind a second youth was following. He had a slow painful almost mincing gait. He stopped to say hello as we sat on a grassy knoll having a cup of tea. We pointed to his feet and asked him if he was ok.
"Blisters," he said and grinned a wide grin. "Bloody killing me."
"Is that your mate ahead - in the army trousers?" I asked.
"Aye. I told him to go on ahead. I'll be fine"
And with that he walked on, placing his feet with infinite care on the rocky unforgiving ground.
It was late afternoon when we saw the tiny collection of buildings that made up the hamlet of the Bridge of Orchy, including the first public house we had seen since Crianlarich. It looked very inviting, nestled there amongst the hills, white washed walls conjuring up images of good beer and comfortable seating. When Kath suggested a break to stop for a drink we didn't argue.
"Move it on ye lazy buggers, I'll have ye shot you idle pigs. Corporal take that man's name!Arrfarrrarrr!"
The Two Ronnies had caught up with us again.
We drew some curious looks from the guests as we made our way through the dining room and out onto the terrace. Both Colin and I hadn't shaved all week and we looked dusty and slightly tatty. We sat out on the terrace with The Two Ronnies and had a pint of Deuchars. They talked a little about their army careers and where they had been. Ronnie had seen action in the Falklands, Shugie had reached officer status before retiring. They had both taken turns in guarding Buckingham Palace. They told us how they used to prepare new recruits for their first royal guard duty. The traditional Bearskin hats they wore had to end at the back in a neat duck-tail so, during the summer months, they told these new recruits to use a mixture of sugar and water to get the crease pin-sharp. It worked a treat but of course they then had to stand stock still whilst a procession of sugar hungry wasps buzzed angrily about their necks and a sergeant major waited, ready to chew them out for the slightest twitch..
It was during this rest that I became aware that we had another climb in store; up and over Mamm Carraigh before we descended into the Loch Tulla valley and the Inveroran Inn. It wasn't one I had prepared myself for and I felt a little affronted that this unnecessary hill had been plonked across our path.
The river at the Bridge of Orchy
I stood awhile, on the summit of Mamm Carraigh on a clear and balmy summer evening and realised that, for the first time during this walk, I was alone with my thoughts. I turned about 360 degrees. In every direction the peaks marched away stained russet and gold by the setting sun, Beinn Charn, Beinn Dorain, Beinn an Dothaidh, Beiin Suidhe, their glens gathering purple twilit shadows. To the north, the waters of Loch Tulla sparkled; amethyst blue. It was the shortbread tin moment I had hoped for and it was awesomely beautiful. I reached for my camera turning in a full circle and clicking the shutter every two seconds - you couldn't lose up here - you couldn't fail to take gorgeous snapshots. To think that I hadn't wanted to make this climb - in fact had there been another Conic Hill type of choice I might have opted for the easier route and I would have missed out on this breathtaking vista. And then there was the silence. I have never been in such a remote wild place in the U.K. and it was almost impossible to believe that such a tiny island, so teeming with people, so paved over with its sprawling conurbations, could still harbour a haunting, hushed landscape like this. Only the wind murmured occasionally and tugged at my clothing, but it was a playful breeze with no malice in it. I knew of course that more often than not this summit would have been battered by wind, lashed by rain, and hidden in grey cloud and I was so extraordinarily lucky because I had arrived, by chance, at a moment when the mountains were in a gentle, beguiling mood. The Two Ronnies hove into view and climbed to my position and even Ronnie was lost for words. I spied Colin moving at speed up the trail. He was running up the hill, the show-off, and waved as he saw my silhouette against the sky. Ronnie was busy filming as Colin clambered up the last few feet.
"Stopped to film some blokes in a canoe," he panted, "and the bloody camera has run out of tape. Wow! What a view!"
I was mortified. Of all the places to run out of video tape it had to be in one of the most scenic spots we had found. Damn! I should have changed the tape the night before. Ronnie kindly let me film some of the views with the idea that we would swap email addresses later and he could send me the footage via the internet.
The light was beginning to fade and our aching legs and sore feet began complaining that they had been standing about for too long and hadn't we somewhere nicer to go - like a room with a foot spa.
We began our descent down the other side of Mamm Carraigh on a long winding track and far below we could make out the small group of buildings that was the Inveroran Inn. We passed a familiar figure about halfway down, familiar by the way he was carefully placing his feet on the ground and almost mincing down the track. It was the young guy with the blistered feet.
"Still hurting?" we asked rather rhetorically.
"Aye, bloody killing me. Never mind - nearly there now eh?"
"Yeah. Where's your mate, the one in the combat trousers?"
"Oh he's gone ahead. I told him not to wait."
We wished him luck and left him to make his own way down. For once the West Highland Way had treated us kindly, for the last stretch of track was an easy stroll down to the Inn. Kath was waiting for us in the car park.
"What's it like?" we asked of her.
"S'allright," she shrugged. We'd learnt that her expectation of Scottish service was not particularly high. We paused to remove our boots and immediately got attacked by a horde of enthusiastic midges - the first we'd really noticed all week. Once inside the Inveroran Inn we found that it was, indeed, all right, nothing more than that, but then again it was so remote that any traveller who had taken the trouble to get there would have been so weary that a bed, a bar, and a shower made it a Shangri-la.
A view from Mamm Cairragh
Another strange phenomenon - our rooms were getting larger. This one had two single beds and a huge double and you could have swung a cat quite comfortably, unlike Kath's which was so small you were in danger of breaking the bathroom mirror when you put the key in the front door.
The décor was retro eighties by accident; it was the original eighties décor. However I liked the place as it possessed a certain lived in bohemian character, and I was feeling very bohemian and lived in. I showered first; Oh, the folly of swathing my upper thighs in micropore! I had been bound up with this tape since Crianlarich the night before and the adhesive had grafted seamlessly to my skin. I peeled it off along with an inch wide strip of body hair, resembling a fire break, from each leg and then suffered keenly as I pulled the sticking plasters off of my chafed and reddened flesh. Luckily the hiss of the water drowned out my pathetic whimpers.
I wanted to open the room's window to take a picture of the mountain trail we had climbed down,as it was clearly visible from our side of the hotel, however a bright yellow sticker warned me that midges would swarm into the room and suck us both dry if I did. I took a picture of the interior of the room instead and then automatically began to tick all the boxes on 'der breakfast list'.
I phoned Sue just before dinner. "You are enjoying yourself aren't you ?" she asked after I had spent a while lamenting the state of my feet and the aches in my legs. Now here was a quandary. I was enjoying myself immensely but I was missing Sue as well, by rights she should have been there beside me in the foyer of the Inveroran instead of at the other end of a telephone and three hundred miles away. I replied, diplomatically, that I was enjoying myself but wished she was with me.
"That's nice. I want you to have a great time ok ?"
"Ok. Love you."
"Love you too. Oh - Dave wants to know if you've lost any toenails yet."
My entire family seemed to be obsessing about my toenails. I wondered if there was some sort of sweepstake going on.
The Two Ronnies joined us for dinner and by that I mean they moved two tables together, re-arranging all the cutlery in the process, so that we could all be seated together. The German waiter watched this destruction of his carefully ordered dining room with a cold Teutonic stare. Also in the room were the two ladies who had shared our first breakfast back in Croftamie. We swapped experiences from the previous few days and compared injuries (not literally of course as we were in a dining room). At some point they must have identified Ronnie as a person who might just swear like a docker's parrot given enough encouragement and they became a little more distant as a result. After dinner The Two Ronnies went in search of a TV to catch the Scotland game and Colin Kath and I sought out Manfred and Matthias in the Walkers Bar and had a few drinks with them, served by a lovely Scottish lady of indeterminate age who seemed to be utterly terrified of most of her customers. Strangely, a well spoken older man struck up a conversation with me as if I had spent the last three days walking with him rather than Colin. He talked about walking the coast to coast path, the Pennine Way, and how miraculously clean I looked and I hadn't the faintest idea who he was. He had a younger companion, a fair haired lad built like a farm labourer, who beamed broadly at me. I made polite conversation with them and edged away as fast as politeness allowed.
We spent a pleasant couple of hours with Manfred and Matthias. despite Kath asking them why the war couldn't be mentioned in the company of Germans, and it was getting late when they finally retired to their room.
"They are an item you know," announced Kath.
I hadn't really thought about it until that point. They made a lovely couple.
We went to bed pondering what tomorrow might bring. It was DS day - The Devils Staircase, and we had twenty miles to cover.
See Route on ......