Monday, 29 August 2011

John O'Groats to Land's End: Northern Scotland

Me at the start of the hike

My trip started turbulent enough. I was supposed to fly on a Tuesday morning and already a week earlier German air traffic controllers had been threatening to go on strike early next week - and that could be my Tuesday. And sure enough: Monday morning I read on the internet that a strike was scheduled for Tuesday 6 am to noon. Great! That was not only threatening my flight but all my onward travel connections, too. I started biting nails and watched the internet as the employer side went to court in an attempt to prevent the strike. When I went to bed Monday night I still did not know whether I would actually be flying the next morning. But when I got up Tuesday  morning things had improved: The strike had been adverted in the very last minute due to mediation and my Ryanair flight was even early!

Cliffs near John O'Groats
Everything went according to plan: I got my prebooked train ticket fromt the ticket machine in Edinburgh train station, my train was on time and even my internet youth hostel booking had worked out. I spend the next day in Inverness sightseeing in pouring rain - at least I did not have to walk through that crap weather.

And then on August 11th I started my hike with bright sunshine at John O'Groats. Little did I  know that this was to be the last sunshine for a very long time... But to already sum it up: My hike through Northern Scotland has been the worst hiking I have done in a very long time. I guess some of it is due to mistakes I made myself with planning:

Peat bogs
First of all I definitely underestimated the terrain. The sketch map of my Cicerone guidebook showed mostly pathes and trail and only about 15% cross country walking. I quickly realised that the cross country walking usually turned into a trip to hell. No matter where I went, the terrain was boggy, soggy and waterlogged. I was in mud up to my ankles and looked like a pig with dirt all over me. Even worse you could not usually tell beforehand how deep the mud would be. So often I just stepped onto what looked like solid ground and took a fall covering myself with more mud because it turned out a peat bog again. On top of all that the terrain got really steep and rocky (in between the muddy bits) once I was in the Highlands. My feet have not been dry for two weeks straight and started showing it. Not even on the Florida Trail have my feet been that bad. I had blisters and raw spots from rubbing all over my feet. Sometimes I just had to stop walking early because I could not stand the pain anymore. I usually average about 35 to 40 km per day, but on this stretch I was lucky to do 25 km....

Thousands of midges on my tent
Next big problem were the midges. I had known about them but I did not expect them to be that bad end of August. They were actually even worse than all the mosquitoes in Alaska!!!! There is a big difference between mosquitoes and midges: DEET works against mosquitoes, but does not seem to have much effect on midges. Mosquitoes are also relatively big - even if you get some in your tent you just kill them and then have a good night's sleep. But midges are so small  and they are so numerous that you actually breathe them in. They get everywhere and once inside your tent they are too many to kill them all. Things got so bad that I actually started cooking inside the tent - not in the vestibule, but inside the tent - something I have never done before. Packing things in the morning was a great logistical effort because you want to minimise your exposure to the midges as much as possible. It was difficult to even get a break, because I would be eaten alive by the midges as soon as I stopped moving. Therefore also no chance of airing my feet which did make my foot problems worse.

In hindsight another big problem was that I did not bring any overview maps. I just brought the Cicerone guide book sketch maps and the GPS. Unfortunately the GPS maps for Scotland were really bad and hardly showed any trails or tracks. Sometimes even roads were lacking. And therefore I could not make up alternative routes in order to avoid the dreaded cross country sections. In the end I was just counting days: Only 4 more days in this shit, only 3 more days and so on.

There are some very nice bothies (shelters) in Scotland which are maintained by the MBA (Mountain Bothy Assosciation). But unfortunately, due to vandalism MBA has asked all map makers and guide book authors to remove the locations of their bothies!!!! So neither my guidebook nor any map showed the location of a bothy - I would just come across them by coincidence. I have great difficulty understanding this secret policy for bothies that can be a life saver in emergencies - if you know where they are!

Scotland can be nice...
After one week it was already apparent that I could not keep my schedule. Luckily I had met another long-distance hiker who had given me the OS map for that area and by that stroke of luck I was able to work out an alternative detour route through Ullapool. I urgently needed to resupply. I had started with 9 days worth of food but being already 2 days behind schedule I was running out. By another stroke of luck I was even able to get a reservation at the youth hostel there. Right now is tourist high season and everything seems to be fully booked all the time. And so I had a bit of well needed rest in Ullapool and could let my feet heal a day. Unfortunately, I had the worst fall of my whole trip in Ullapool - I slipped in the shower and fell right on my tail bone which is still hurting now 10 days later and makes it awkard to sit. But from Ullapool onward I started counting the days until I would reach Fort William, the West Highland Way and REAL trail again.

But things would get worse before they got better and that brings me to the last problem: the weather. The weather has not been very good (3 days of sun in 15 days) but not very bad either. It is drizzling most of the days but there are not too many torrential downpours. But it is much colder than I expected. One morning I woke up and found ice on my tent. And this was August 25th and the altitude only 300 meters....

To sum it up: Scotland is a place where I definitely do not want to hike again in the near future. And I find it hard to understand why Scotland is such a popular hiking destination especially for Germans. Yes, the landscape is very beautiful and remote, but you pay a very high price for that. And personally for me it has not been worth it. I would rather go to Scandinavia where you have similar landscape, but easier terrain and footing - and no midges!

But things are going to improve now: I have made it to Fort William and this means the start of the West Highland Way with hundreds of fellow hikers, decent trails and a shop around every corner. And soon I will be out of Scotland and on the Pennine Way which I have hiked before and really enjoyed. Things will only improve from now on...


Anonymous said...

How much does 9 days food weigh?

Anne said...

Hallo Christine! Yes, Sounds like the Scottish highlands all right! I was there long ago (more than 20 years) but my experience resembled yours a lot! especially the midges, and the experience of thinking you step on solid ground and ending up in hip-deep mud. Hope the weather clears up! It's really nice here in Norway!