I am going on a walk! The West Highland Way.
After joining the drinking crowd Saturday night in central Glasgow, the next morning, on Sunday the 15th of August, I drive north seeking out whether or where I could get onto the West Highland Way.
This is a well publicised walk stretching for 150km from just outside Glasgow to Fort William in the middle of the Scottish Highlands.
This sounds interesting to me as I came to see the country by walking it. In Drymen I eventually get all the information and maps needed.
Drymen itself is already some 20km north of the start of the West Highland Way and I find this very fact really pleasing as the total length thus reduces itself down to 130km.
Here are some pictures of the scenery I will get to see over the next week or so.
I start preparing and it takes roughly 2 hours to get everything together: Tent, sleeping bag, poles, food supplies consisting just of cheddar cheese, bread, some bananas and water, photo equipment, GPS, 3 t-shirts, one fleece and a gore-tex rain jacket.
The rucksack feels extremely heavy, I never weighed it but think 15kilos might just be it. Will I falter? I never walked that many kilometres before. Will my back manage the large rucksack, will my knees?
I start out at 4.30 p.m. 13km to Balmaha on Loch Lomond and there should be a pint waiting for me. And this is what drives me forward.
It feels good to walk surrounded by nature, to feel unleveled surface below my feet and to walk on my own. I reach Balmaha just before 8. A delicious steak and Guinness pie and 2 pints of Bel Haven seem like a fair reward. "Scotland, the only country that measures annual rainfall in pints" goes a Bel Haven ad and I should soon find out about the full meaning of this. I decline a room for £45 and walk another 3kms instead to a camp site I identify on my map.
The night brings rain and everything is pretty wet in the morning. Today is Monday and this is August and we're in Scotland. But I am not happy with my ultra-light tent because it seems ultra-useless to provide basic shelter from rain.
Cleverly I use the hand-dryers in the lavatories to dry the tent and sleeping bag to the extent that I would be able to use them again tonight. When I leave camp the rain has abated and I continue my walk around the east side of Loch Lomond.
The drizzle starts again around lunch time when I approach a pub in Rowardennan for a McEwans 60 and a Mediterranean vegetable couscous. My final destination today is Inversnaid,. another 10 km along Loch Lomond. The rest of the day is quite sunny and in Inversnaid there is a semi-official camp-site right on the lake.
I meet Emanuel and Helen a french couple They seem to carry even bigger and heavier back-packs then everyone else,. At least they look taller and heavier and Helen in particular seems to struggle, stumbling along her boyfriend with always a smile on her face. But in contrast to myself they carry a proper tent that keeps them dry under rainy conditions and a stove to prepare warm food and coffee and tea.
A swim in the Loch makes a good substitute for a shower. Later we sit on the beach around Helen's and Emanuel's stove and they invite me for a cup of coffee before we are getting covered in clouds of millions of midgets (very small flies that bite).
The midgets soon start making the evening an unpleasant one and we all retire to our tents early. Mine is still a bit moist from the night before.
No rain this night. The midgets are worst early in the day. So packing up quickly is recommended. Inveraman on the top of Loch Lomond is just 10km away.
Inveraman is my final walking destination today. My back hurts and my knees cry for a break. Need not be a hero, 45 or so kilometres for the first 3 days is more then enough given my fat rucksack.
I prefer 2 pints of McEwans 70 (which is darker then the 60 and 80) and another steak and Guinness pie outside sunny Drovers Inn, an old castle like pub.
The French the night before, well informed as they were had the plan to take the train from somewhere near here for the next 20km up north to Tyndrum. I just enjoying the sun and the pints outside Drovers Inn, have no idea where from and when the train would leave.
When it starts raining severely around 5 I decide to take a taxi to catch up with the French who must have taken the ferry across the lake instead of walking around it, and I think they said so the night before, and thus must have caught the train way earlier...
While waiting for the train and then the bus, which did not come because of a road being flooded due to heavy rainfalls and eventually a taxi I was not alone.
Gitte, Jytte, Katrien and Sanne, 4 Belgium girls, just out of school had even less of a plan and we ended up sharing a taxi at least for the first 10km to Crianlarich.
When I finally arrive in Tyndrum later I check into the Bunkhouse instead of rigging up my tent. The weather has just turned from bad to worse and it would stay like that for a little while.
In the bunkhouse I meet Nadine. She is 32, Suisse but lives in Holland.
She is a scientist and had worked for Nasa before. "I am a gypsy! I cannot stay in one place for too long", she hints at her appetite to travel. She speaks 5 languages. Of course is Nadine a pilot, plays the piano and classical guitar and did I forget to mention she is beautiful?.
We would from now on see each other everyday and sometimes walk parts of the way together. Nadine is also said to always occupy the nicest spots with the best view on the West Highland Way.
Next day is off to a bad start weather wise. Moderate to heavy gales all day make it an all wet experience. Due to the shortness of the section, just 11km to Bridge of Orchy, I make the fatal decision not to put on the my gore-tex rain pants. When leaving Tyndrum the showers are already pretty severe and gusty.
Somebody shouts over: " The smile is not so bad," hinting at my facial expression. Concentrating on my smile for the next 3 hours I fight against the gale and wet. I realise that I and my trousers are getting pretty soaked up here and my boots and socks and the whole back-pack and everything inside. But smile! Luckily the cameras did not suffer to much. Just. a bit moist.
I meet Nadine outside the bunkhouse in Bridge of Orchy which is located right on the platform of the train station. We sip tea, and Nadine mentions that we both like our tea with milk and sugar and that this is fairly rare.
By 1 o'clock, when we are finally allowed to move inside the dormitory our both body temperatures must have had decreased by a few degrees at least or that was how we both felt. A warm shower and a few hours of sleep in the bunks bring us back to life.
This evening we have dinner together in the local pub/restaurant/hotel and I again wear my wet trousers and can only hope that the rest, including my boots would get dry in the drying room until the next morning. But something goes horribly wrong with the drying room, Someone must have switched off the heating, accidentally or not. But I slept deeply and long in the cosily warmth of the bunkhouse.
Next day the weather is better. It is Thursday. I start walking with Nadine but she leaves me after 5km or so. Wants to walk on her own.
I walk most of the day with Mathew. A geologist by education, he now works in Cornwall as a music teacher for children. He has traveled a bit, went onto treks in New Zealand and Bolivia and we agree that it is a very nice thing to walk and meet people day after day, again and again.
And I feel I am doing the right thing: walk, meet interesting people and that I might be doing exactly that for quite some time.
When we sit down to have some food for lunch in the middle of the moor we suddenly hear thunder and it seems not too far away.
A big cloud carriing rain with it wraps itself over the saddle which streches between two hill tops, exactly the direction we are heading to. "Just enough time to get dressed." Mathew concludes. I can only agree, having learnt my lesson on the Bridge of Orchy section the day before, We pack, get dressed and as we leave our lunch spot it starts pouring.
Kingshouse is reached, in a good state but definitely tired after this demanding 20km long stretch of the way. With still a lot of moist baggage from Bridge of Orchy and some good chance for rain in the night I opt for a Bed and Breakfast for £20. I need to get my stuff dry.
After a shower there is just one objective left for tonight:
Get as many beers into the system as possible. So I set myself up on a table in the bar of Kingshouse and start testing the bitters. Suzanna, the bar maid from Slovakia serves me one after the other. Finally I settle with a brew called Calder's, premium cream beer.
Later the french couple Emanuel and Helen walk in. Of course we exchange email addresses followed with a promise to meet up in France one day (why not).
Even later I meet Alan and Dave who were cycling in the area (Glen Coe). They tell me how wonderful it is to cycle the Great Glen and Loch Ness from Fort William to Inverness and back (I might do just that while in the Highlands).
And finally I meet Sjoert and Arda, a young Dutch couple who will be part of the group celebrating at the end of the West Highlands Way in 2 days on Saturday.
But first there is more pain ahead. 2 long and demanding sections are to be mastered.
It is my right knee that is causing most of the problems and pain, and starts rebelling after 15 or so km every day. But the gain is the most beautiful scenery I have come across so far on the trip.
Friday, the weather is sunny, but somehow my brain is slow this morning (did I have a bitter or two too many?).
After breakfast I forget my poles in Kingshouse and only realise after 2km or so. I need my sticks for walking downhill as well as for putting up my tent.
Ok this adds another 4km onto today's distance but it also means that my knee will start hurting earlier and it does. I still believe that it only needs training, a lot of walking until my knee will get used to it. But I look forward to not walking for AT LEAST a week and allow my limps to rest.
Today's section goes from Kingshouse, via devil's staircase to Kinlochleven. And this is "god's own country". It feels like -- definitely "The Highlander" or "The Lord of the Rings", although the latter was produced in New Zealand. The magnificent scenery, the breathtaking view make me forgert about my bad knee as euphoria takes hold of me.
In Kinlochleven I stay on the camp ground. The weather seems to hold and I risk a night in the tent. After all the crowd, the group is taking shape for celebrations on Saturday.
Stephen, Jon, Kylie and Becky, Sjoert and Arda. But there is still one long days walk to be accomplished. Conditions are good and stay good. And the landscape is once more exitingly beautifully. Saturdays section goes from Kinlochleven to Fort William over 23km.
At the end of the West Highland Way there is Jon and Stephen waiting handing out drinks to the rest of the walking folk.
I walked a total of 110km over 7 days and I carried a 15kilo rucksack all the way. My back managed really well. There aren't any blisters. Just a knee problem. Unnecessary to say how proud I am of myself.
I check into a bad, quite large hotel, full of Japanese tourists who just unload of their tour-bus, I forgot to make a note of its name. £50! But I fell I should reward myself with a bath and a shave and a proper bed tonight. Later I wander around the sunset lit town and its shore with Loch Linnhe.
Fort William has a little pedestrianised town center that lives off the tourists who walk around this part of the Highlands. That evening I have dinner with Nadine at McTavish Kitchen, a traditional restaurant with a performance of traditional Scottish dance and music. Nadine - probarbly the most intelligent girl I got to know in my life.
Later we are meeting the crowd. It is Stephen's stag-weekend, he would marry the mother of his boy a couple of days later, and everyone is having a great time - to be remembered for quite some time.
Since that evening I have received many emails and SMS-messages from variouse people from the way, many speaking out invitations to visite or reunite and some stage. It feels like a little family
for special achievements, like loosing ones sticks, etc.
Sunday Nadine and I take the train south, Nadine to Glasgow, me to Dumbarton, where I take a taxi to Drymen.
The Land Rover is still as I left it and drive it north passing many of the places which I can attach very vivid memories with and a feeling that I have achieved something truly remarkable. This past week has propelled my life further then many weeks or even month together before over many years. It was just one week and feels as if I had spent months on the way. The amounts of impressions I had and number of people I met. Time seems to pass slower, life to actually last longer.
Reaching Fort William that evening I meet the whole old gang again.