Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Walk 218 -- Durness to Keoldale

Ages: Colin was 67 years and 40 days. Rosemary was 64 years and 182 days.
Weather: Rain at first. Brighter later, but then we got caught in showers again.
Location: Durness, via Faraid Head, to Keoldale and the ferry across to Cape Wrath.
Distance: 9½ miles.
Total distance: 1977 miles.
Terrain: Grassy paths, dunes and beautiful sandy beaches. Very undulating, and quite challenging in places.
Tide: Coming in.
Rivers: None.
Ferries: None.
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: No.189 at the entrance to the ruined church in Balnakeil (the gate had been temporarily removed in order to allow the mower man to take his noisy machine into the churchyard, but that was no excuse for not having a kiss!) No. 190 just past the golf club at Balnakeil. No. 191 where we came out to the ferry.
Pubs: None.
‘Historic Scotland’ properties: None.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: None.
How we got there and back: We were staying in our caravan in Durness. This morning Colin drove the car to the ferry point and parked it there. Once again he intended catching the school bus on its way past, but as it was raining he started walking and thumbing. No one picked him up, so he walked all the way — it was only a couple of miles.
At the end, we drove straight back to the caravan and made a proper pot of tea there.

We started today’s Walk from the caravan site in the rain. We exited the site on to the clifftop path at the same gap in the fence where we had entered at the end of the last Walk. There were flowers everywhere in the grass, brightening up a grey and miserable day. The good weather seemed to have deserted us.
There is a path along the cliff edge outside the fence, so we followed that westward. A rocky promontory sticks out above the beach, and it had a fenced and boarded path leading up to it. We assumed that paraphernalia had been put on there for health and safety reasons, but the wood was slippery in the rain and some of the boards were loose so it gave a false sense of security.
Beyond the campsite we crossed over a stile, then the path went back towards the village. We decided to go on as that was the way we wished to go and there was a path of sorts. It had nearly stopped raining by then, so we sat in the lee of a hill to eat our slices of quiche (a change from pies).
We came to the end of the fields, and the ‘path’ swooped down a very steep slope to join a track at the bottom. We edged our way down next to a fence, passing lichen-covered rocks encrusted with stripy snails. I don’t normally like snails, but these were beautiful!
Looking back we could see the sparse and scattered settlements of Durness and Balnakeil—bleak enough in the Summer with plenty of tourists around, but a cold and dismal place to live through the Winter I would have thought. Looking out to sea we observed dipping rocks which I identified as quartz-feldspar granulite, a metamorphic rock, from my geological map.
It seemed as if we were in the middle of nowhere, but there was an arrow on a gate down there. We came to the conclusion later on that it was leading us to an ancient site labelled Seanachaisteal Dun in funny writing on the map. We didn’t know what it was about, so we walked over to a rocky promontory to find out. Colin seemed fascinated by a hole in the mound, I didn’t find it very exciting. But I did look it up later on the internet (how did we manage in the days before Google?) and discovered it was probably a prehistoric fort. Well the Army are still there, as we were to find out later on the Walk.
We followed a lichen-covered wall down to the dunes where it was a bit like a maze and we had to guess our way through. It started to rain again, and for about half an hour it was really quite nasty.

We came out of the dunes on to a rocky clifftop, and were surprised to see cameras trained on a rocky promontory. A young couple appeared, it seemed from nowhere, and made their way down a precarious ridge to have a closer look. We realised there were puffins nesting down there.
Colin wanted to follow the couple and have a closer look, but I persuaded him not to. This was because I didn’t feel confident enough to walk the ridge myself and I didn’t want to hang about waiting for him in the rain. There was no shelter anywhere. I pointed out to him that he hadn’t brought his camera today because of the rain, and he didn’t have his binoculars either because he keeps them in his camera case and forgot to transfer them. I only had my pocket camera, again because of the rain, which is fine for general snapshots but pretty useless to zoom into wildlife. “Why don’t you come by yourself on one of our ‘rest’ days?” I persuaded, “the weather might be better too!”
So he did, three days later, and he took some excellent pictures of the puffin colony from a distance using his zoom so he didn’t disturb them.
We came to a wall which was too high to climb, so we followed it across the narrow neck of the peninsula to a road which had somehow magically appeared and went through the wall at a gateway.
On this side of the peninsula we could see the mountainous terrain of Cape Wrath rising gloomily into the mist. We prayed for an improvement in the weather in two days time when we intend to tackle that challenging Walk!
The road continued up through some more dunes which were quite spectacular. It sort of stopped raining at last, and later on it brightened up. We were caught up by a young German couple, so we asked them to take a picture of the pair of us in the dunes.
The road became covered in sand so that we could hardly tell where it went. We didn’t want to follow it anyway, so we veered away to the clifftop. There the path became quite dodgy, we found ourselves walking along the side of a steep slope. But we were out of the wind, it was fairly calm and not raining — so we sat on said slope to eat our lunch. Afterwards we climbed to the top before continuing because we, especially me, didn’t like the path.
We were still walking through dunes which seemed full of steep ups and downs — quite tiring. One sandy bank had holes in it like miniature caves. They were too big for sand martins, and we wondered what animal had made them. We saw skylarks and wheatears very near, they were quite unafraid in this remote place.
Eventually we climbed up to an MOD fence where we were told to KEEP OUT ! We were not allowed to walk to the end of the peninsula, it is completely cut off by the Army. We couldn’t help noticing some bombs standing upright, we think they were being used as ornaments! We walked along the fence towards the gate where “man-with-strimmer” (who seems to follow me about all over the world!) was hard at work making a lot of noise — only this one proved to be “woman-with-strimmer”! But why? At such a remote spot. She was surrounded by rough, untamed land which had been left to nature. Another odd thing was that she completely ignored us as we stood right next to where she was working, reading an information board about Cape Wrath and the Army activities over there. Normally when you meet a stranger in a remote place you at least acknowledge their presence if not greet them and hold a conversation. But not this woman who completely ignored us — it was as if we were invisible to her. It sent a few shivers down my spine, so we moved away quickly. We felt much more comfortable out on a rocky headland all by ourselves.
We turned west, but then decided not to go right to the end of the other peninsula because it was narrow and rocky, and we would only have had to climb back up again to where we were — actually we were knackered! So we counted it as a dead end.
We turned south, and descended to a beautiful sandy beach. Bliss! It seemed a long time since we have walked on a beach because the north coast of Scotland is so rocky. We made the most of it, striding along the sand next to the waves! Colin swore he saw a car driving along the other end of the beach, about a mile away.
We had views of the Cape Wrath peninsula opposite. I had to admit I was a trifle nervous about our next Walk over there which will be the most challenging Walk of the whole Round-Britain Trek. We had made meticulous plans and were determined to succeed, but I was still apprehensive.
We came across increasing numbers of people as we walked along the beach, because there is a car park at the southern end. But half way along we found a rocky cliff barring our way. If the tide had been out we would have been able to walk round the outcrop on the sand. But the tide was right in, so we had to climb over the top. We noticed a group of people trying to have a beach picnic, but they were crouching behind a small rock to get out of the wind.
We climbed up to the top of the rocks and came across the road, which of course leads to the Army base at the far end. This road then plunges to the sands on the far side of the rocks and runs along the beach to Balnakeil. So Colin had been right when he thought he saw a car driving along the beach! We had been puzzled about that for some time.
We reached Balnakeil where there were a lot of people. There are not many places to go when you stay in or around Durness because it is sort of the end of the world! So Balnakeil is quite popular as it is nearby. Along the road is Balnakeil Craft Village which we visited on a very windy day when we were up here back in May. It is housed in huts which were previously used as accommodation by the Army. I suppose Craft Villages aren’t really our thing — we didn’t think much of it. Nice stuff and way-out stuff, but all stuff which we can’t afford and can very well live without. We didn’t buy anything. We prefer to spend our money going to places, not on stuff to fill our house.
We sat on some rocks at the southern end of the beach to eat our chocolate. We watched another car drive along the beach, and this time we knew it was for real! The sun came out so we were very brave and removed our over-trousers, hoping it wouldn’t rain anymore.
Before we moved on, we had a look at the ruined church and churchyard. The graves go back several centuries. One we found in the church wall had all sorts of symbols on it and was dated 1619, nearly four hundred years ago. The church may be a ruin, but the graveyard is well looked after. In fact “man-with-strimmer” was there and it was very noisy!
A signpost told us it was three miles to Keoldale, and we thought it would be a doddle. But it turned out to be three and a half miles of very difficult terrain. We didn’t see any waymarks, so it was anybody’s guess where we were at times. We kept losing the path, and couldn’t find it easily — I don’t think it was there for a lot of the route. Perhaps it was a practice session for Cape Wrath!
The first bit was OK, past the golf course. Then it got more difficult as we rounded the corner to enter the Kyle of Durness. The dunes were the worst — very steep up and down, and we couldn’t see where we were when we were low. We clambered down to the beach at one point. That was nice, but it was only a short bit of sand, and it was a heck of a climb up out of it again. It rained when we were in the dunes which only added to our troubles.

Colin thought we ought to go down on to another bit of beach, but we couldn’t because it was too steep to get down there. So we went up instead, but we couldn’t find the path anywhere. We came to a deep cleft where the path was extremely steep and dodgy. Surely Cape Wrath is not as bad as this?
It seemed very sudden when we came off the rocks on to a half-decent path. At last! But we were only a short distance from Keoldale by then.
We had been able to see the Ferry House on the other side of the Kyle of Durness for a long time while we were struggling through the dunes and over the rocks. We had seen the last minibus return from Cape Wrath and watched the last ferry come across to Keoldale, but by the time we got to the ferry slipway everyone had packed up and gone home.
There was a signpost by the slipway pointing back the way we had come, telling us it is three miles to Balnakeil. It also told us the Kyle Route follows the coastline and is not waymarked. Now they tell us!
That ended Walk no.218, we shall pick up Walk no.219 next time at the ferry slipway in Keoldale. It was quarter past five, so the Walk had taken seven hours. We were quite excited and a little apprehensive about the next Walk, via Cape Wrath, which we plan to tackle in two days time. We got straight in the car and drove the short distance back to our caravan to have our tea.
The weather the next day was not good — windy, stormy and spectacular rainbows. Oh dear!

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