Monday, September 23, 2013

Caledonia (Part II)

The Journey Continued...for Part I see here


I’d been worried about the weather for this long day, but it was nothing short of sublime.  In this more remote stretch of country, I passed only two other parties during the day, and they all remarked on how lucky we were to experience this very un-Scottish weather.  The sun shone without a break all day, but the warmth was offset by a pleasant breeze.  It got a little too warm at one point in the afternoon, and so I jumped in the river to cool off.

That’s actually not true.  At one point I began following a tributary instead of the river itself, and by the time I corrected I was some ways from a place where I could jump across.  So I twirled like a hammer thrower (perhaps slightly less elegantly, but no one was around to judge me) and got my bag and boots across before fording the river.  I slipped on my first tentative step in and got soaked.  But the cold mountain water actually felt nice, and long before I began the descent towards the shores of Loch Trieg I was dried out.
By this point I was feeling the effects of all the miles.  My body and mind had a fearful row, and proceeded to spend the next several hours trying to sabotage one another, leaving me to mediate and make sure that I didn’t wander off the path.  Eventually I reached the point from which I knew it was only a few miles further, and as I was a bit early (the hostel didn’t open up until 5pm) I sat and soaked my feet in a stream and ate some shortbread. 

On the last uphill stretch, having crossed the line of rail that wound weirdly through this otherwise totally vacant chunk of land, I was given a sudden pause as twenty yards ahead of me a group of some 30 stags came trotting down a hill and, upon seeing me, went racing down a small valley before disappearing over the crest of the hill.  Red deer are Britain’s largest mammals, and they are around the size of an elk.

Over the next hill I finally got a look at my destination, and even if it had not come at the end of a long day’s walk it would have seemed like a little piece of paradise.  Loch Ossian is a comparatively small Loch (it required only a couple of hours to walk around it), but is rimmed in on its two sides by hills, and by larger mountains in the distance at its northern end.  At its south western edge, the small hostel sat in a grove of trees, near several tiny, tree-topped islands.  It has a slightly worn look, but inside proved to be well-kept.  Lights in the main rooms were powered by a small windmill, and the fire was lit each evening to heat water for the basins (there were no showers).  There were outhouses, but no rubbish bins, so walkers carried out all waste.  The two bunkrooms were also unlit, and the wood walls of the common area were filled with artefacts of the hostel’s history and geographic surroundings.

The warden was Jan, who kept things tidy and offered a fulsome greeting.  “Come in out of the midges”, she said as I approached the check-in desk waving at the air and spitting swarms of the near-invisible carnivorous insects, and so I stumbled into the open air office where the miserable little critters were, if anything even thicker.  There was a Scottish couple hill-walking, a student couple from Glasgow, and two Germans working in the UK, and in the evenings we chatted in the common room, sharing our days’ experiences and taking turns making our suppers on the stove. 

The next morning, it was foggy out, and a thick mist hovered over the lake, giving the islands and trees a ghostly feel.  The midges were out in force, and appeared to be lying in wait in the outhouse for early morning visitors.  I cooked breakfast and then planned my itinerary for the day.  I fortunately had purchased some “Smidge”, an anti-midge solution which promised to “throw the little bleeders off your scent”.  Needless to say, it did no such thing, and if anything seemed to attract them in even greater numbers with the result that I was the only one who did any bleeding!  But my near escape from the midges was to come later, and on this day there was just enough of a breeze to keep them at bay. 

My aim was to make a circuit of the massive horseshoe-like hill I had seen across the line of rail the previous day.  This morning it was wreathed in clouds, but they quickly dissipated as I made my way across the tracks, up through the marsh, which gave way to heather.  By the time I was half-way up Sron an Lagain Ghairbh, as the hill was called, the sun was out in force, heralding another beautiful day.  I later discovered that there was an unmarked path on a different point of the mountain’s flank, and that I needn’t have spent the final half hour hauling myself up through the heather hand over hand, but my grumbling ceased at the top when confronted by the sweeping views: back across the highland valley I had traversed the day before; across Loch Trieg; over miles and miles of deserted heather; over to Loch Ossian and the looming peaks beyond, all of it drenched in distinctly un-Scottish sunshine.

I wandered across the mountaintops for a while, coming up short at sheer drops, peering into still tarns, watching the grass shiver in the wind while the heather remained still, and at one point freezing as a herd of at least 50 red deer came in two stages, running all-out across a slope below a cairn-capped peak, each pausing briefly at the edge of the mountain, momentarily silhouetted against the blue sky, before plunging down the other side of the mountain.  I tried to follow them for a while, the wind being in my favour and the slope of the mountain acting as cover.  I must have looked faintly absurd when I came around the corner, crawling along in the heather, my red rucksack protruding very obviously, and soon the herd was off again.  I later spotted them far away on another mountain-top which gave them a wide view and plenty of warning if another silly walker tried to sneak up on them.

In the hour or two on top of my little world, I didn’t see a single other person, and I was a bit sad to begin the descent (much easier, by way of a marked path on which I met my German hostel-mates), but I wanted to make a circuit of Loch Ossian in the afternoon. 

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