Tag Archives: instituteofwander

More lessons from the Lea Valley Way, April style.

 

So, what will actually happen when I finish the Lea Valley Way? Will there be a tiny deluge or will the river itself disappear? (No, no one is suffering from illusions of grandeur in here, no one.)

Lea Valley Way is the 50-mile long-distance walking route following the River Lea from its birth spring in the suburbs of Luton to the Thames near Limehouse.

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It can be pleasantly walked in 4 days or so the Internet says. When I was planning to walk it in one go last summer, there was only one proper description of all stages available online.

I’ve walked the Lea Valle Way:

Lea Valley Walk, Stage 1 / 17.07.2015 / ~ 36 km; read about that stupidly lucky walk here

Lea Valley Walk, Stage 3 / 19.07.2015 / 23 km

Lea Valley Walk, Stage 4 / 26.09.2016/ 7.9k km

– And on 16.04. 2016, S-L, G and I set out to do the Lea Valley Walk, Stage 2 (25.9 km)

Stage 2 of the walk stretches from Hatfield to Broxbourne. By all accounts it should be pleasantly doable in one day, during the warmest sunlight hours. “I can’t believe I’m finally finishing it today!” I told my lover, my friends and my housemates when leaving for that last stretch that Saturday morning.

The first half of the walk was cloudy, but after leaving Hatfield behind and lunching in Hertford, the skies lit up and our step got faster. (Sadly, G actually had to go home, since his foot had managed to seriously convince him it was too exhausting to move.) I also witnessed my goldenest golden hour during this stage of the walk. Everything was going brilliantly.

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Lea Valley Walk, from Hatfield to Broxbourne. Hertfordshire, England, April 2016.

We continued on, following the lovely water. The darkness had long-ago fallen when S-L and I reached Dobb’s Weir – a location separated from the Broxbourne train station by a few kilometers. Finishing the Lea Valley Way was going to happen tonight. Suddenly, all the tiredness was gone from my legs as we started to cross the canal (the river has been directed into a canal around those parts already), I could clearly imagine reaching the station within the next half an hour and… and… and… The road was closed. Blocked (even cordoned off, maybe?; can disappointment also create false memories?) off by a large road works sign. Somewhere not far off in the darkness we saw the orange working lights of the industrial vehicle. But. Not all was lost yet!

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I dashed off to talk to a security man. And yes, all types of roads were closed. However, he directed us to a path in the forest which would take us straight to Broxbourne train station. So we entered the dark forest-like area with the help from the flashlights on our dying phones. We walked to the railway (“When you’ve reached the railway, you’ve gone too far,” the man had also said). Upon then retracing our steps we found the path. Also to be blocked off.

And we decided to call an end to our day.

I asked for local cab numbers but the security van gave us a lift to the train station. (Reminder to self! Always carry chocolate around to give to nice people!)

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I still have roughly 3 km to finish, which I will do at some point this year. How else can I ever say that I’ve followed an entire river, right?

Lessons learned:

1) Never underestimate a journey;

2) If destination becomes a goal the journey will lose a bit of its magic;

3) Passing a race track in the dark makes you feel like a character in a James Bond movie;

4) Trips can be undertaken that take you to a beginning of a journey which itself is actually shorter than the trip to get there. (Which part of the journey is the real journey? she asks in an ominous voice.)

My dear and much-esteemed last kilometers of the Lea Valley Way,  I’m coming to find you in 2016.

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7 reasons to cross the Rannoch Moor in March

The trail from Bridge of Orchy to the Pass of Clen Coe is one day’s journey on the Scottish West Highland Way – the 96-mile trail starting in Milngavie and ending in Fort William.

It is – by far – one the most magnificent parts of the journey (don’t judge! It includes a moor and the mountains, what else would one ever need?!) and gives you just a glimpse of one of the last wildernesses in Europe.

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When K and I walked the West Highland Way in October 2015 (check the archives for stories from that time), the Rannoch Moor part of the journey turned out to be a rare stretch without full sunshine.

I’ve read descriptions of people getting lost in the rain or crossing the moor in scorching heat, so getting an opportunity to cross it in another season and specially in March, was a chance not to be missed.

Why is it wonderful to cross the Rannoch Moor in March?

1. It is is quiet.

At first, you can guess the traffic sounds in the background, but as you get further into the moor  you’ll start finding pockets of silence where only a littil bird of a flowing river is adding their notes to the ambiance.

Silence, just like the feeling of real fear, has become rare in 2016. (Disclaimer: I wrote this text before the EU referendum.) But only one of them is a luxury we should stretch after. And nature, even moor nature, is definitely quieter in March than later on in the year.

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2. You can get very lucky with the weather.

Locals have said that the Highlands tend to get a fair weather spell around Easter. Whether it was due to the early Easter this year or just a lucky chance, the day became fit for a T-shirt.

(The same weather stretch magic applies to early October – I’ve heard it from the locals and tested it myself.)

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3. You can have the moor to yourself.

The usual West Highland Way crowds start appearing from April onwards. In March, you can still feel like walking in remote parts of Alaska in here, literally meeting no one the entire way.

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4. A chance to taste all the seasons.

If you can’t return to Rannoch in every couple of months, March will be a wonderful time to see snow either on the ground or on the mountain tops.

Yes. It is wonderful to try to escape the moor when being annoyed to oblivion by midges in summer and to see it cloud-covered in autumn, but if you don’t have proper winter clothes to wear, March can still give you a little taste of the winter season as well.

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5. No. Midges.

Just like during the first days of Paradise.

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6. Flexibility with hotels.

The hotels at the start and end of your journey are less likely to be fully booked. And if your destination is set around Glen Coe, you can start off from the Bridge of Orchy Hotel (meaning that you can fuel yourself by one of their glorious breakfasts). Mmm.

7. You can hear that bird!

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, relish in your luck. (Ok, I’ve also heard that bird in October. Sue me and leave me alone next to a solitary birch tree!)

Walking down from the moor (location pictured below) to be greeted by a sudden, invisible mock-laughter is just one of those reasons to go and wander around in this wilderness that Europe still holds.

I will not look that bird up. Something that sounds freeing and demonic at the same time should remain a mystery.

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And this is just a short list of reasons to return to Scotland as often as possible. ❤

A quick recap with toes on La Via Francigena

May is in full swing in London. I have no need for music with all the windows open and all the birdsong streaming in.

Things that will have blog posts dedicated to them in June:

  • “7 reasons to walk the Rannoch Moor in March”
  • “More lessons from the Lea Valley Way, April style”
  • “Why should everyone return to Istanbul?”

 

Two days ago we visited Canterbury. It was full of magical gardens, bridge arches made of books, guinea fowls and curious trinkets from bygone centuries. It also featured one of the most amazing cathedrals in the world and luscious amounts of ice cream. It did not feature a lot of walking but this shall be amended very very soon.

There was also a small stone sign/plaque next to the cathedral, signifying La Via Francigena – the medieval pilgrimage road that lead from Canterbury to Rome (or vice versa, depending on your chosen destination).

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Thinking of starting interviewing people about their walking habits, to add more flesh to the book I’m slowly writing. Luckily, I’ll have plenty of opportunities coming up.

Will interview a digital jewellery artist in Istanbul next week, a composer-actor in Tallinn in June and a wayfaring playwright-dramaturge in Madeira also in the next month.

The summer looks like freedom (if I finish my PhD thesis in 13 days, that is), with a real mountain on the horizon! And hopefully, a book as well.

Where did we walk in February? Bushy Park.

February is the dark month of my heart. It is a busy month between seasons where you can only guess and wonder about the next change. On February 28, we all set out for a stroll in London’s second largest Royal Park, Bushy Park (located in London Borough of Richmond upon Thames).

We were all a bit quiet that day, somehow still getting used to the fact that also this time, the winter didn’t fully get us.

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We saw birds hammering away at the ground, saw daffodils and crocuses stretching themselves out, the sun playing a childish game of sorts and the rose bushes holding on to their closed blossoms. No deer, though.

But it was going to be all right, once again.

All Februaries are difficult in a similar manner: they are filled with heavy waiting. There’s no space left for anything else. I believe their purpose is to make any March feel light, raw and liberating. Which is exactly what happened this year, when walking across the Rannoch Moor just a couple of weeks ago.

I wish I was built in a way that I could see miracles everywhere. I am not. But I’m giving my everyday best to seek them out and to lift some folded covers.

The next post on Institute of Wander will be about walking the moors. Luckily, those places are never short of magic.

So that I wouldn’t forget January

I did get out of town during the first month of this year, I swear! And I did leave the  city in February as well. But two months without a real wander is as long as I can humanly stretch it. If not for any other reason, then to stop myself from staying up until morning to search for all the possible tracks and paths on this island. (And off it.) You know, those if onlys, if onlys

I do prefer to keep my books and magazines more or less intact and *not* to crumple their pages up every time I see a photo of place that looks just too… mmmmmppffff. Origamis of desperation, those.

But I have such good news! March marks the change! And updates on this blog start appearing more regularly again, which is only a good thing!

Until then, here’s proof of the only bit of snow I managed to see in January. Spotted in the Epping Forest District, Essex.IMG_20160117_162658

Wye Valley Walk and the last sun of November

The walk from Chepstow to Llandogo took around 6-7 hours. It was the very beginning to the Wye Valley Walk which runs from Chepstow to Plynlimon. A beautiful 136 miles all together. We did about 22 km of it.

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Just three weeks earlier, Ashdown Forest in East Sussex had welcomed us with the last wave of autumn’s strength. The leaves were still hanging on, the ferns still looked pointy. It had been a darkening but friendly welcome. The time in Monmouthshire was completely different. We had stepped into the silent part of autumn.

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Everything around us had the feeling of having given up. (Not having been conquered; that’s the feeling you get during the third week of winter or so. Difference!) We still managed to walk in sunshine for the better part of the day, however. And no! There’s no magic to us always catching the sun, it’s just the layman’s luck. Or we actually come with a blessing from the Gods of the Woods.

The path we took mostly meandered up and down a valley bank. No grand views but loads of close meetings with gnarly trees. And a passageway through a massive boulder where at least one bat had taken up its residence. This was my first time being inside a boulder together with bats. I’m guessing there were many.

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Wales must be the gnarliest place on Earth, though. I think that part of its mythological charm might actually stem from the gnarls. But we were not in deep Wales, though. Just like the cave entries inside the valley bank that didn’t lead us very far, we kept getting hints of things to come without allowing ourselves to go and fully find out.

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For a little while we walked very close to the river. That part of the valley was covered in the prettiest trees imaginable, every branch and twig so utterly alluring that I nearly left my companions and ran off to see those things from up close. I did, however, suspect a trap and kept following our set course. This willpower is probably the only reason I got back to the the city again.

The border walking kept mentally pulling me away from the valley and more towards “the actual” Wales. I have been to Wales only twice and a certain feeling has lifted its head at both times. It’s the feeling of “if you practice feeling scared, you’ll remember your very first dream”. You know, that type of strange shit that feels too epic to be real.

You don’t need grand cities if you have nature like this. And if you have returned from the actual nature, you might find a small (and locked) village church from the far corner of a tiny cemetery. And if you are lucky, you can peek in through the keyhole and see colours you cannot name. Because you shouldn’t be seeing bright colours in a closed church that is not lit from the inside. And yet to do. And it is twilight outside. But if asked to describe the objects the colours were attached to, I’d really owe you an explanation.

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Borderlands make me restless. They are too rich in light layers of meaning. Every time you want to follow a thought deeper, you’re left with a choice to completely change your course or to give up on the thing that caught your attention. This part of the Wye Valley walk left me hungry. It left me hungry to step deeper over the border, to walk west from where I was, and from there, to go up north again. At the end of the day, it’s the north that wins in most cases.

 

The embodied philosophy of London fog

It is getting close to the end of 2015. Since all types of endings are either bigger or smaller borderline rites, they need some sort of celebration. If not celebrating, than just being noted. Noted and noticed.

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The two first days of November marked a new beginning for the last stretch of the year. Those were the days when London became covered, smothered and embraced by its famous fog. As a rather young Londoner, I’ve seen my share of fogs in here, but never anything like that. Never a carpet of fog that would last for 48 hours.

 

I spent most of the waking time within those 48 hours walking the Wanstead Flats and part of the Epping Forest. Sometimes alone, sometimes with my lover, sometimes with a bigger group of people.

During those hours, each meter of the Flats was turned into a playground I had never encountered before. I knew I was not there on my own, yet every time when the fog revealed yet another person, the glimpse of a human figure arrived as a soothing realization of not being alone. In that sense, fog is like philosophy. It reveals that you are not alone in the space you are inhabiting. Not often does philosophy take physical shape in such a grand manner.

Of course, everything becomes ridiculously romantic in this type of ephemeral, temporary landscape. From photographing strangers exiting a white wall to trying to decipher where the sitting heron ends and the tree branch starts. And then trying to decipher whether it was a heron at all and what became of the strange man squatting on the lake shore.

Fog Philosophy would make for a gorgeous essay collection subject. The collection would touch on topics of accidental holiness and patches of ground created for dancing and dancing only. It would speak of the ritual joining of the visible and invisible space, of depth, about the landscapes of air and of walking into possibilities. In this type of world, mythologies would become the everyday.

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Wanstead Flats, London. November 2015.

 

Ashdown Forest: the bats, owls and mists of Samhain

On the last day of October, a small group of us set out from London Victoria on a train to East Grinstead. From there, we a took a bus to get closer to a certain forest. I did not carry a camera this time, so all the pictures posted today are in courtesy of Mr Rainer S.

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Ashdown Forest is located in East Sussex, on the the highest sandy ridge-top of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. When not knowing where to go, you can spend a bit of time wandering in rather civilized areas before fully reaching it.

At the start of our walk, we sauntered along an old railway track for a while (oh, how it really, really reminded me of the Ayot Greenway trail between Wheathamstead and Ayot St. Peter! –> my unplanned detour that shaped the real outcome of my Lea Valley Walk’s first day this summer: the road where I started limping and the reason I got stuck on a field of beans (the full story is here). After the old railway and some nibbles on the roadside, we decided to go and find the Poohsticks Bridge (a famous bridge from a famous children’s book) and wave the houses good-bye.

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Having easily found the bridge after a bit of walking next to fields and across them, we crossed it together with some horses (or donkeys in disguise?) and finally found ourselves in the beginning of the forest.

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There were leaves, everywhere. There should be special word for the way leaves smell on the autumn forest floor before the the first night colds. Hopefully, at least one of the languages has it. On the small paths, on the soon-to-be naked trees, in the creeks that had to be crossed and between the mythic looking ferns – the leaves where everywhere, bringing with them the feeling of carelessness known to people before they reach the age of 20.

Ashdown Forest needs time. In order to fully roam around there, a day is probably not enough. At least not in the season when the light starts fading rather early. But in our case, the day almost was enough. It left all of us with that bitter-sweet taste of wanting more, just an hour, two or tree more or time, yet not making us feel as if we had not had any time at all.

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We wandered deeper into the forest when noticing that the sunset was a mere two hours away. The plan was to go as deep as possible and then find our way back to civilization again.

This was the happiest I had been that entire week. Thinking about it now, October was a deeply happy month on all levels. (See, how I just avoided at least a one worthy mountain pun!) October was also a month that started and ended with a walk. As every month should, I say.

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Walking in Ashdown was calming and exciting at the same time. A small practice in zen, a small exercise of looking at the leaf patterns. The ferns rustled although there was almost now wind. When we got deeper into the forest we met no other people.

After the clear and sunny day, the darkness started to gather fast. The bats came out and the owls started hooting.

Only when the tongues of mist started crossing our road did we understand that all the sheep we had seen during the day had been black.

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More owls started to hoot.

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And more trees appeared that looked like they had been brought here from the 19th century. (Probably that’s the last time they did have leaves, when I think of it.) The darkness fully took over when we had walked through the mists and encountered our last flock of black beasts. This was pitch dark countryside darkness, the proper kind where you forget that cities exist. And in the middle of it, someone found a pub with a living fire. I can’t remember who but I’m very grateful to him or her. I would have taken that window for someone’s living room.

But things shouldn’t be too easy. And because life doesn’t want you to miss out on all the possible courses for one day, we had to leave that beautiful coziness quite soon and step into the deep darkness to make our way to the bus stop.

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No street lights, no house lights, no moon light. Just the stars, the occasional passing cars and the hope that the bus would come, not miss us or not run as over.

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More owls hooted. The old church spire was still there, probably looking as pastorally perfect as it had done in the fading light. More owls. More darkness. The most simple Samhain evening one could wish for.

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West Highland Way: 4/4

DAY 7, from Kinlochleven to Fort William, 28,2 km.

When shopping for lunch snacks in the morning we noticed the food shop selling… cherry pie. (Check the last sentence from the post titled West Highland Way: 3/4.) It was time to get moving, fast.

The feeling of aberrantly romantic forlornness left me only after I had looked up at a tree and seen animal skulls and bicycle cogs formed into an art piece. You know, to send walkers out on the last day of their journey.

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Both the atmosphere and the landscape of the first part of Day 7 were shaped by fir trees. For a long time, we walked between hills and mountains covered in ash white tree stumps, giving the sizeable bit of our journey the feel of crossing an ancient cemetery. Looking ahead, you could see a carpet of skulls covering the mountain sides in both directions. Only an hour or two later did this type of scenery get replaced by living fir trees: first with very fat, then with very tall ones, both of them bringing about changes in the air temperature around them. And then – we caught our first glimpse of Ben Nevis.

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For the rest of the way, I was walking with an idiot’s grin on my face. (There was still quite a way to go, mind.) Ben was there and tomorrow’s forecast was close to an ideal. Apparently, the top of Ben Nevis is cloud-free in one day out of six and today turned out to be the day. (With only some hours, though, not in full length.) When getting closer to the highest mountain in the United Kingdom and the British Isles, our path converged with the old military road again. These roads are the greatest (oh, they really are!) – they always meander under the most magnificent of trees.

File3725 After having crossed the last river of our walk and having climbed up a tiny hill, I saw him! A troll warrior with wild ginger hair throwing logs into his van!

I did check with K later and she confirmed my mythological sighting: there had indeed been a sturdy (almost gnarly) man with more than a foot long red beard lifting heavy logs. Oh, I forgot to mention: all his beard hair was magnificently braided. This is when I knew for sure.

I had seen much more than I ever planned for this journey.

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Fort William came into our sight very suddenly. I was hoping for it to be some other settlement, although I already knew. The heavy feel of truth was settling in in my belly.

Soon we were next to a bigger road, then already walking across Cow Hill and directing our steps to that old bit of town which now holds the new end to the West Highland Way. There was no obelisk. There was a sign, though. We took a picture of it and a moment later, found ourselves in a pub with a huge wolf-like white dog embellishing the cosy décor with its best canine looks.

We had done it. And although the ending had indeed come very suddenly, it was a little bit welcomed as well. Not much, but a little.

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The biggest thing I learned? Seven days is a ridiculously short time for a long-distance walk. You actually get into the walking mode during your fifth day or so, so what you really really get, is three days of walking.

Walking these 156 km/96 miles taught me that I could set my sights on much longer and harder walks if I wanted to. And for that, I need to brush up on my navigation skills. Because I do want to.

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DAY 8, taking the Mountain Track up Ben Nevis (16.5 km)

Tongues of mists were hopping and slithering around the fir tree tops around our bunkhouse when I woke up. Noticing them caused my second outburst of joy that morning. The first one was brought on by the realization of being able to wear a clean bra after 8 days. (You thought it was going to be mountain related, weren’t you?)

I thought about the fogs and the clouds and the mists on my way up the mountain. All of them are part of nature’s philosophy books. Just like philosophy, they make you realise there are many other people out there who feel, think and live like you. But they (the fog, the clouds, the mists) bring that realisation to fore when stepping away from you. It’s the other way around with philosophy. But now we are only talking about directions.

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The Mountain Track was a satisfying and easy way up Ben Nevis. Mind you, the weather was adorable. Being able to quench my thirst straight from a cold mountain stream also stopped me blaming myself for not having taken any cold water with me. (I only had hot black tea.) For five seconds, a tiny rainbow also formed on the mountain side I was walking on. And as a proper Finno-Ugric wanderer, I counted that to be an outstandingly good omen.

The entire way up was a pleasant walk with a couple of calf-caressing stops. During one of these I noticed a man straight out of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting sitting on a steep mountain side and drawing something (a dream, a vision?) into his sketchbook. Scotland truly is full of legendary creatures.

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On the very top, I met our German for the very last time (with me screaming into the cloud at the top of my lungs: “I knew it! I knew it would happen!”), and looked into a crevice that still held some of last year’s snow. That sight reminded me of a location from a Soviet children’s film. Go figure.

Once or twice, the sun came out very briefly. Well, the sun did not come out, the wind tore a hole into the cloud. Suddenly I was able to see many people again. People and contours. And get a sense of the elevation.

I started on my way back quite soon and descended the first 100 meters or so with a little help from the cairns. Even with my nose getting redder with the lower temperatures near the top, it was still quite romantic.

I was also very glad of my clouds. OK, I meant to write “gloves”. I was very glad of both. (And of the fact that I could drink from the mountain stream once more on my way down.)

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As on my way up, I kept wishing people “good morning” also on my way down – until one of the men brought my attention to the fact that it was not morning any more. I thanked him. He saved me from a lot of possible embarrassment.

It took me 6 hours and 15 min to walk up and down Ben Nevis.

The mountain was still shaped like a sleeping dragon. You could see that when approaching it, but you could almost feel it when walking on it. Most people call it a mountain down in the south, still.

I know better now.

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West Highland Way: 3/4

DAY 6, from Kingshouse to Kinlochleven, 15.9 km

Every time when I go for a walk, I wake up as a dog on that day.

I usually open my eyes a little after 6 am and a friendly voice starts the disco mantra of “Can we go now, can we go now?!” in my head. Until we finally do.

We took a bus from our hotel to Kingshouse. Our plan had worked! So far, we had been walking every inch of the way. Oh! And the local transport routes in here are nearly as ridiculous as the Snowdonian ones. I know that driving a bus is never a hassle-free job, but these routes must be amongst some of the most relaxing ones in the world. (In good weather, I point out.)

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Day 6 was all about walking the Devil’s Staircase and getting ourselves to Kinlochleven as a result. (The internet was right. People had described Kinlochleven as a town that does not get closer when you approach it. As exact a description as there ever was.) You can see Kinlochleven for more times than you can count, but it will always remain there, silently signalling your arrival, almost as if it’s not caring. You just walk and foolishly put on and peel off your rainproofs many times in one go without even seeing proper rain. And yes, during all that time, Kinlochleven is still waiting.

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Devil’s Staircase, the path across the Aonach Eagach ridge, is special. It is the childhood playground of clouds. I’m guessing this is the place whence they go into the world to bring awe and new ways to look at things to all people. The clouds are alive on the Aonach Eagach ridge. Their games are innocent, whimsical and intolerably pretty. And up here, I finally (and I *mean* finally) understood why I have never been drawn to the Alps. (I’ve been drawn to all other mountains as long as I can remember, but never once to the Alps. I do find that suspicious, by the way.) I’m not claiming that it is the legally acceptable answer, but for me, the Alps are not alive with any sort of mythological life. I look at them and I see beautiful mountains, there to be admired and climbed by all levels of outdoor lovers, enthusiasts and all types of locals. But you are not coming home with an invisible friend from them, no.

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With the beginning of our descent, the sun came out again in its absolute splendour. (Of course, by that time we both knew Scotland consisted of nothing else but the sun, shh!) I was taking many pictures and was often so entranced by my surroundings that I found myself standing in various creeks. It is dangerous not look at your feet when walking down a mountain and walking into creeks is the most innocent lesson you can learn.

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It did happen, eventually. We did reach Kinlochleven. It was a small mountain town (a village, technically) with the sound of gushing water prevalent in the darkness (the village is home to one of UK’s largest hydro-electric power stations). Kinlochleven held all the crucial shops and all the necessary places to eat. There were at least two pubs and also a brightly lit fish and chips shop that held an outline of one dark silhouette in its neon midst.

There was aluminium industry in here too, once, but now Kinlocheleven lives more of a quiet life. (Except for the gushing water, of course.) After arriving, we soon headed to the pub for some dinner of soup and ale. The streets where empty but you could feel life surrounding you behind every wall in the darkness; maybe smiling, maybe just keeping an eye on you.

Never in my life had I been in a place that felt more like Twin Peaks.