Monday, September 5, 2011

John O'Groats to Land's End: West Highland Way

Despite blisters and hurting feet I finally made it to Fort William, the Northern Terminus of the West Highland Way. I really had been counting days until I would get out of the mud and the wet socks and shoes onto the dry trails of the WHW! And it finally happened: On a sunny Saturday afternoon I finally arrived in Fort William. Of course, this being a bank holiday weekend I had been unable to find any accommodation there, but eventually this turned out to be a good thing.

Boat on the Caledonian Canal
The last bit before Fort Wiliam was a nice hike along the Caledonian Canal ending at the big lock at Neptun's staircase. And I could not believe my luck when I spotted free showers there!!!! Of course I could not pass this opportunity and even put on my last and only pair of dry socks for this occasion - and hiked into Fort William as a clean hiker! My first stop was at the local outdoor shop to buy another pair of socks... and of course do some resupply shopping. And to my big surprise there was a Lidl supermarket in Fort William - of course I ended up buying German chocolate there. But still I needed some sort of rest day soon - and everything seemed to be fully booked. On top of all that I had my one and only mail drop (new shoes and maps) in the next place on the WHW called Kinlochleven. I got a first sense of how crowded the WHW would be when I tried to make a hostel reservation in Fort William or Kinlochleven and everything was fully booked for the next couple of days! But somehow I got lucky and managed to get the last camping cabin in a hotel with campsite and this turned out to be godsent. The weather turned nasty and incredibly windy that day while I was lying snug in my cosy little 18 £ cabin with a little heater. My feet started healing and I feeling better.

Old military road on the WHW
Still the WHW was some sort of a culture shock. In the 2 week in the Highlands I had barely met anyone - and on my first half-day on the WHW I met about 70 hikers! The WHW is really incredibly popular and big business. Hostels, B&B and campsites everywhere - and literally hundreds of hikers. More than half of them did not carry any bigger backpack because they were slackpacking. There are actually several companies offering luggage service for the WHW. And the other half were carrying way too much luggage with all sort of equipment dangling from their already overloaded backpacks. And of course half of the WHW hikers were German....

Why the WHW is so popular is a mystery to me: For Scottish standards the scenery is rather mediocre. The route is a very low one that does not give spectacular views. And almost all the way a very busy and very noisy highway, the A82 is very close to the trail so that you can never escape the traffic noise. There are so many other interesting, beautiful and scenic trails in the UK or in Europe and still thousand of people want to hike the WHW. And on top of all that all these masses of people try to be as crowded as possible when it comes to camping. There are tons of free wild campsites all along the way but I have hardly seen anyone camping there. Instead all the hikers congregate in pay campsites or official free campsites that are dirty and crowded.

Well, at least I had dry feet again and made some progress - and I only spent 4 days on the WHW anyways. But if you want some advice: Don't hike the WHW - there are much better trails out there.

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