Tag Archives: trekking

The Days of Drinking Peat Water or Walking the Affric Kintail Way in Summer Boots in Late Autumn

Affric Kintail Way (AKW) is the newest long-distance walking trail in Scotland. Albeit being only 44 miles (71 km) long, it manages to offer a sense of wander together with a crunchy chunk of wilderness! All you need, is a tiny bit of patience to get out of civilisation and into the more remote areas. But patience is something all walkers have. Right?

Due of my previous engagements (trekking in Uzbekistan :)), my friend and I could not leave for our adventure earlier than at the very end of October. Which is a tricky time when it comes to packing. Winter kit would obviously be over-doing it, but summer kit does not offer enough protection any more. Our main concern was our boots – we are both dearly attached to our “summer alpine” style walking boots which offer about 20-35% protection from the rain only when arduously sprayed with the waterproofer in the morning. And our budgets banned us from getting waterproof boots before our hike, so… Off we went in summer ones!

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Day 1, October 28. From Drumnadrochit to Cannich: 23.34 km

This is the day the internet described as the “boring slog” and the “I should have just skipped this part”. Frankly, I have no idea what those people were going through when out on their walks, since day one was nothing but boring. Just now, when writing this up, I again came across someone’s walking diary where they admit to hating the first 25 miles on AKW. Hmm!? I think it is one of those “it is not what you are going after, it is what are taking with you” mindset things, for sure. Or something more mysterious. But because of all the warnings, we kept a keen eye out for the boring bits to surface and met with none.

We started our walk under the lovely Scottish sun (Kadri and I still are subject to a spooky weather luck every time we cross the Scottish border) (and I am aware it will end one day soon), only to run into a giant redwood within the first half an hour. My very first redwood! And we were just talking about visiting the States only because of them. Their bark was incredibly soft. But above all, they just felt old and strange and happy. What a start!

I managed to see a red squirrel later on, but actually spent the most of my day staring at the clouds. There was something happening which I had never seen in my life – massive rolls of apocalyptic carpets were twirling and floating above our heads, opening up a completely new level of wide for me. They changed the space, somehow, making me feel as if we were completely alone and the world had decided not to collapse yet but was thinking about it.

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You do have to walk on a lot of forestry tracks on day one. At one point, the living trees started howling behind the massive stacks of their felled companions. The howled similarly to a curious wolf or to a dog sentenced to patrol a very small territory. It was scary and heartbreaking. Later, when we were already starting to near Cannich, the forest once again started wailing, and accompanied us with the sound of windows and doors creaking open, as if a slow-motion art movie was taking place around us. Thinking about it later, I obviously understood that it is technically the other way around – doors and windows carry the sound of the forest with them, within them. But still.

In summary, the first day offered good straightforward walking. No chances of getting lost but definitely fewer people than on the first day of West Highland Way, for example. Also, fewer waymarks.

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Day 2, October 29. From Cannich to River Affric Car Park: 19.94 km

Day two of AKW is all about the forest. And about getting the first glimpses of the stunning Glen Affric with little islands poking out of the water and people casually gliding between them in their red kayaks. I was looking at them when walking amongst the trees, wondering whether they lived close and would they be out here in the rain as well. If I knew how to drive I would drive here just for this glen. And their kayaks!

As a side remark: lots of people mention not seeing much of the glen on their way on day two. I think none of them walked it so close to November when a lot of the leaves have already fallen. Because we certainly saw the glen constantly to our right, making our camera sensors buzz with its blue waters.

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Luckily, there is a spot marked as Classic View on the trail, so you don’t have to take detours to see the majestic glen when it first comes into view. I’m pretty chuffed about that spot. Just because I’m such a mountain/hill/forest person, so I never go out of my way to take in the beauty of glens, valleys or waterfalls. But luckily, the older you get, the more beauty you start noticing, so am looking forward to widening my intake of marvels.

The going is once again pretty straightforward but our journey was made magical by having to walk on silvery ground for quite a while. We even suspected frost at places but finally understood that it was just good old pyrite giving the ground the look of an Elvish rug.

All in all, the day starts with quite a long walk on a forestry track but when that is over and you can turn left to descend into the glen, things start getting pretty. First you are greeted by some of the healthiest ferns you will ever meet, and if lucky, dragonflies will take a flying break on your belly as well. And then there are the tree beards – thin moss and lichen curtains hanging from the tree branches. There is also an excellent lunch spot just in the middle of the way at Dog Falls with tables and a river view.

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In the setting sun, we set up camp at the very edge of River Affric Car Park, now also called the most glamorous camp spot of my entire life! Here you have real toilets and picnic tables at your elbow’s reach! I climbed to the viewpoint to see the last shades of the orange light, and once again concurred that life looks magnificent. Soon, the moon was shining bright and the temperature dropped below zero. What else would you want from a night out?

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Day 3, October 30. From River Affric Car Park to Camban bothy: 16.36 km

It took a long time for my friend to fall asleep – her sleeping bag was a bit too thin, as was her mattress. Eventually, she got the survival blanket from her bag and wrapped it around her. Nothing carried should go unused, right? I, however, woke up with a sweaty back in the middle of the night. In my moment of utter cowardice, I had put on too many layers before falling asleep and now had to start lowering the temperature inside my bag. I think the two of us combined probably reached the optimal sleeping temperture. Not a perfect consolation, but almost!

When I zipped open the tent in the morning the world was covered in frost. The outside was warmer than I had guessed. We cooked some porridge under the salmon pink skies and watched the double rainbow lose itself in the glistening trees. I had not planned on waking up in Rivendell but I was not going to run away.

It did take us a lot of time to get going. While this was the most glamorous camping spot of my life, it was also the longest time between waking up and hitting the road. I think we got lost in staring at the sky and trying to capture all the changing shades of it. 🙂

But finally, off we went, with the Alltbeithe Youth Hostel (the remotest youth hostel in the mainland UK) as our lunch spot in mind. Once again, the weather rolled over to the sunny side and the going became straightforward. Today we also met the first people on the road! (We had a little bet going on about this.) Apparently, they had had their tent nearly ripped off by the harsh winds of two nights ago – something we had no idea about (they were walking from a different direction).

There was a single small wind turbine standing not too far from the hostel. Seeing an odd man-made object in nature makes me think of eternity every time.

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After a very nice lunch (today we munched on things Kadri had prepared) things started turning boggier. We kept our eyes on the road, trying not to step on the wrong type of green moss. Soon, I found myself walking in the hoofprints of a deer who had probably used a similar bog avoidance system. There are no waymarks in this part of the trail but you can’t really get lost since most of the forkings lead back to the main trail, so the best thing is just to choose the path that offers the driest ground. And check the map if you feel like your gut and mind are starting to argue.

After all the delightfully winding paths, the Camban bothy came into view. But only after both of us had started seeing mirage houses in the highlands! I know there are records of legendary optical illusions which people see in the deserts, but nothing on the granite stacks making themselves seen as houses, right? I’m pretty certain it is a common occurrence among people with weary legs, and only needs to be researched and written down into a book.

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Aaaand – there was no one else in the bothy! Reading through the logbook we soon came to a realisation that what we were walking in, were probably the only three consecutive non-rainy days of this autumn. And that we had both been talking to the weather gods with the same favour in mind: if you give us dry days at first, we can take anything you show us on the last one. * gulping sounds *

Fair enough, though, Kadri’s boots were properly soaked by now, and there was not enough coal to light a fire, so we did what any normal person would do: a slightly adjusted re-enactment of Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I. There are few things some plastic bags and foot warming pads can not solve!

Day 4, October 31. From Camban bothy to Morvich: 16.76 km

So! The Camban bothy kind of has a double roof at places, creating a wind tunnel that magnifies some of the sounds. I woke up only once but was then certain that we would be stuck in this bothy for a long time, hiding from the storm. A creepy start to the morning of All Hallows’ Eve, for sure!

But the entire All Hallows’sinister vibe flew out of the door the moment I opened it. Because there was barely a drizzle and absolutely no wind outside! I don’t know about the sound mechanics of the bothy’s roof but it sure does fill your dreams and your reality with some special layers of imagination.

We had our porridge when sitting at a table, this time browsing through the bothy logbook, and me reading Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Place. There is valid geeky peace in reading books in locationally suitable settings.

The packing, of course, went quicker indoors, and we were soon on our way. The weather gods had indeed heard us. But at least they had not taken us too seriously. Our last day of AKW was a day of soft, drizzly rain, with a bit of real rain at the very very end of it, when buildings were already in sight. (Eewh, that strange feeling!)

The drizzly rain accompanied us when we crossed all the tiny mountain rivers and walked on the mountainsides covered in fast-moving clouds. These are the night-time dreams of my teenage years, so time gets blown open every time I walk in the clouds. And then there is the feeling of freedom – feeling hunger and contentment at the same time. I think this is my definition.

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The drizzle traveled along with me when I had to climb 20 – 30 meters up hill to find a single crossing point for an especially wide mountain river. Of course, I could see it from afar but did not start planning much before reaching it. I think what nature (and yoga, funnily enough :)) have taught me, is to deal with the things/obstacles/issues when I get to them, and not worry about them too much beforehand. It is not a professional attitude yet, but it seems to be expanding, yay!

The narrow path next to Allt Grannda waterfall finally made me realise that looking at intensely vertical waterfalls from above and below is now definitely pulling me into a vertigo-like state. Especially when that bubbling water comes into your view quite suddenly. So, just to get a picture of the whisky-coloured cauldron, I had to drop my rucksack against the mountainside and press myself very strongly against the mountain as well, and only then reach for the camera.

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Everything changes in seconds in the mountains. The clouds, the wind, the light. For a second, I saw a row of bunnies chasing after each other in high spirits. Silly me! That was just a frothy and bouncy stream with tiny white waves jumping out. Soon afterwards, an actual heron did glide above the River Croe just before the Glenlicht House, so I counted my wildlife spotting a success. The porch of the Glenlicht House provided a lovely spot for lunch, but also notified us of the journey coming to an end. I did not know of the Five Sisters of Kintail yet. Nor that they have beautiful ridge walks on top… This day made me promise that I would return to Glen Shiel.

The last part of the Affric Kintail Way meanders between the striking towers that are the Five Sisters of Kintail. They feel like some oddly powerful children of the mountains of Glen Coe and the Liatach of the Torridon Hills. They are munros, officially, but they send you back towards civilisation in the most awe-inspiring manner.

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So, if I were to write a 4-day hike description about the AKW, it would go as follows:

– Day 1 – stuff looks nice

– Day 2 – everything is getting nicer

– Day 3 – things are getting really beautiful

– Day 4 – omfg, omfg, omfg, omfg

On the last night we slept under a (high and real) roof. Hazel (at Ruarach Guest House) gave us whisky and cake, and a lift to a bus stop in the following morning. The people you meet, eh?

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“Our years hold the times where all and everywhere is always beautiful”, I wrote then turning 30. I don’t know whether it was the release of the inner hippie, but that is time where the most maginificent times of my life started. Even if they mean drinking peat water.

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A glimpse into the vastness of the Tien Shan mountain system, Uzbekistan

So… It happened! Nic and I traveled to Uzbekistan with Adventure Clinic (#Seikluskliinik), and slept on windless mountain plateaus, escaped poisonous snakes, walked in wolf paw prints, woke up to donkeys braying in the night, trekked in the mountains for 5 days, wandered in the great cities of the Silk Road touched by Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, snuck into crumbling mosques, witnessed wild date trees shedding their sun-yellow leaves, saw colours that I did not think possible, and ate tomatoes that were inherently life-affirming. Not to mention the plov. Yup! Kind of exactly as amazing as it sounds!

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There were tiles that were more turquoise than the dreams I carry under my heart, and some giant birch trees growing together with the cypress trees. There was a young mountain guide who should have listened to an older one; there were moments when we had no gear for the night with the sun starting to set and no one having a real idea as to were our donkeys were. There were men up in high walnut trees gathering their early autumn treasures, and horses transported in the blue, open kamaz trucks. I felt nostalgy for the first time in my life (which means I am getting old) – for can openers and cars no one in my family ever had.

There was the 5-day-trek in the Ugam-Chatkal National Park, with Greater Chimgan often in the view. It was also the mountain that our older guide used for navigation to get us into our camp before the nightfall. We (almost) touched 3000 m in altitude, and did touch some petroglyphs on our way down. (Or was it up? Sometimes you can’t tell these things very well on the long road.)

We slept, but rather rough, for the mattresses being thin. But there were mattresses and dinner tents and vodka and local wine and fresh water and no rain. And there was peace. It always finds you in the mountains despite whether you are tired, travelling with strangers, or just very far away in your own small thoughts. It always finds you. And that for me, is a reason enough for getting out of my comfort zone.

PS. It does help to not immediately fly home. It helps when you see the cities of the Silk Road coming up on the road in front you, almost making you feel like you are entering Middle-Earth because the layer of legends is so vast and heavy.  It helps to see symbols of strength, love, and patience. Step by step, we shall go through this dark season.

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5 summer memories of the Polish High Tatra mountains

Growing up in Estonia during the Soviet Union and in the time that followed its demise, one would hear three mountain ranges mentioned the most: the Caucasus mountains of Georgia, the High Tatras of Poland/Slovakia and the Pamirs of Central Asia. These were the places the mountaineers could travel the easiest (= at all), and the places with the most glamorous stories. Well, the latter probably depends on your style.

Last summer I went on my first summit expedition to the Caucasus mountains. And last week, I could finally do my first ground testing in the High Tatras of Poland. With some meters of Slovakia included. 🙂

I had no specific expectations of the High Tatras. All I wanted was a ground that slanted upwards, some sun and deeply sigh-worthy views. I got them all. But also more.

  • The mountain lakes

Whenever in the mountains that have lakes, I tend not to fully notice them.  I know, I’m just not a poet. They are beautiful, by all means. But usually form such an integral part of the scenery that my brain does not fully differentiate them from the rest of the space. Not so in the National Park of High Tatras. In here the lakes stand out. They are cold and clear and dark and ominous, and pull you to their shore.

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  • Mountain architecture

I don’t mean the shape of the mountains. I mean the actual human built houses of the Zakopane region. Fair enough. At first everything looked like a well-planted butaforie. But seeing how the architecture had traveled from the past to the present, and how its angles chime to the outlines of the mountainscapes on the horizon, the Zakopane style started making a lot of sense. Apparently, the style is most visible in architecture but it is also recognisable in furniture, something that I did not have a chance to witness during my trip.

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  • The mixed feel of the Alps and the English Lake District region

The first day in the mountains reminded me a lot of the Alps. Relatively speaking, the High Tatras are also young mountains, so they have retained their youthful craginess, pointedness and steepness. It is hard to explain but walking in the mountain valleys or trekking up the mountain paths really conveys the feeling of the landscape being young. (I think this sense and feel is officially called “the lay of the land”.) The High Tatras are actually surprisingly small for their name (and when compared with the altitudes of the Alps) but still give you the sense of a proper ascent when needed.

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The Lakes feeling came from being able to see houses from the ridge. So far, the hills of the Lakes and the High Tatra mountains have been the only summits whence I could catually spot houses and towns. This plays with my head a bit just because I’m not used to having the border of civilisation so close to my climbing routes. A tricky feeling but you can always look away. 🙂

  • Missing Orla Perc

Somehow, the time in mountains was over quicker than I could think. This meant that I could not trek the Orla Perc trail, one the most interesting and awe-inspiring trails on the Polish side of the mountains. Without knowing what I was looking at, I was actually drooling over the beginning of the trail one day but the time was too late in the day for going forward. The stories and the pictures of this trail are actually so sweet that I would consider returning to the Tatras just for that and for some other trails.

  • Somersaults for the imagination

Although the High Tatras reminded me of many places and mountainscapes, they were also very new to my eye in their entirety. This does not mean, however, that I stopped the game of “This could be…”. I think the words Alaska and Arctic Sweden came to my mind most often.

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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.

West Highland Way: 2/4

DAY 5, from Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy + from Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse, 30 km

Our original plan was to make Day 5 a short and Day 6 a long one (around 36 km). The frantic weather forecasts made us lose interest in the horizontal scenery and focus more on the skies instead.

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We got to Bridge of Orchy around noon. Yet it hardly felt like having left the bed at all. Doing a 12 km walk and trying to call it a day actually makes you rather anxious. Your body gets confused and tells you to keep moving or something strange and unexpected shall follow. And so you become more restless with each person passing. We saw the German guy (with whom our road had crossed a couple of times already) reaching Bridge of Orchy and taking off with his ankle having gained a bit of support from our day-saving ibuprofen gel. We saw people coming from our morning direction, crossing the road and heading towards Kingshouse, straight up the tiny hill behind our hotel. K was drinking coffee at the hotel bar and we were both feeling horrible at having to stay put. We had known it was going to be a short day, but not this short, not really. Also, there was no sign of the promised downpour. The weather report was actually changing now. Now it merely promised rain and wind.

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And this got us thinking. Should we try to get a room at Kinghouse tomorrow and postpone everything in our itinerary by one day? We did have an extra day counted in at the end. (That clever, eh?) Or, should we take half of the journey by bus tomorrow and… come back some other time and finish the unwalked bit? I can’t fully remember the reason behind our reasonings but there must have been a very bad weather report, that’s all I’m saying. Also, K’s toe(s) were getting quite aggressively painful by that time, so we were a bit concerned about the 36 km day ahead. I then called the Kinghouse hotel and learnt that they did have the last vacant room left, but only that one and only for today. That would have meant an extra £170.- for our trip, since Kingshouse is not a budget hotel and our room at Bridge of Orchy could not be cancelled without paying the entire fee.

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We sat in the the small bar and looked out of the window only to see more backpackers pass. We thought. I was crunching numbers in my head. Technically, it would be doable. But would it be reasonable? Promising to myself that yes, there will be a thing I’ll do differently on my next long distance trek – I’ll make sure I’ll have proper emergency reserves for changing my mind and itineraries on the go without having to take a thinking break. Yes, extra reserves and a razor, the two things I’ll take along when stepping out of the door again.

Then, she fucking did it! K figured out how we could walk the entire way without giving our budget a spastic fit → we could start walking right now, crossing the Rannoch moor today, still reach Kingshouse in daylight and then take a bus back to our hotel. All we needed to do tomorrow, would be to take a bus from our hotel to Kinghouse and then continue our journey from there, thus making tomorrow’s distance half shorter as well.

All the happy bells were ringing in my head!

I ran to the reception to ask for local bus times. The bus schedules fit in with our plans with near-eerie perfection. We jumped up from our table, counting the blessings from the couple sitting next to us and looking a bit worried. They asked whether we had enough lunch on us to run off to the moor. With the crazy haze in our eyes, we shouted “Yes, of course!”, to which I ran to the hotel bar to buy some carrot cake and then, having luckily gotten the key to our room hours earlier, dashed upstairs to re-pack. Now, we could only take the rainproofs and some food items we would need for a half a day.

This is the moment when you have a look at you and your friend and think who are these people who, upon hearing that gales have been downgraded to wind and rain, throw candies into their backpacks and rush out to the moor. Suddenly we had become children going out into the forest for the first time – lunching on cake, candy, cookies and chocolate.

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The magnificent Rannoch moor was a moor surrounded by mountains. Being a flat-land creature in my days of youth, these things still come as a surprise. A moor between mountains! A moor where you step over heather roots and look at the clouds play with the hill tops around you – a very different sight from the marshlands where the marsh pines are the tallest beings surrounding you. (I come from the North, I’m allowed to call trees “beings”, ok?)

We walked the second half our day very quickly, reaching Kingshouse already around five in the afternoon. Upon nearing our destination, the craggy Buachaille Etive Mòr came into sight. While it was mostly covered by cloud in the rapidly falling daylight, it had everything I had expected to see without having known of it existing. This is how you recognise a dream having come true.

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Slowly, my whispers turned into a mantra of “I’m coming back here, I’m coming back for you, I’m coming back to you”. I am walking the West Highland Way for the joy of walking and not for gathering locations for secret parties in the future, but I’m definitely taking my lover here next spring, oh god, yes. Because today was the day when I fell in love with a new mountain.

At the end of the day, we did not even have to take a bus back. We got a lift from a Dutch extreme survival instructor who was just returning from his four-day trip to the forest without having taken any food with him. He had survived on mussels and fish. He looked very untroubled.

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We are living the times where all places and moments are beautiful.

West Highland Way: 1/4

There were times when the parents of my friends forbade them to play with me when I was five. The same happened when I turned seven. And when I was basking in my official teenage years. All these parents shared a common fear – the fear of me taking their children to the forest. That fear was not based on a random flight of imagination, however. I did take everyone to the forest with me. I made them spend nights there. And build houses and rafts with me. Sometimes, we all fell into the bog water together or forgot which bridges were fake and slipped into the peaty rivers. There was no reason for those mothers to be worried. We were always having fun.

So, I was very glad when one of my best friends, K., nodded along to my plan to walk the 96-mile long West Highland Way early this October. (Even when her parents had known me for a long time already.)

We decided not to carry a tent (I don’t own a lightweight one, yet) and to sleep in hostels, hotels, bunk houses and camping pods. My 35L backpack got a tear next to one of its zippers already on a train to Glasgow. Otherwise, nothing else broke or needed mending during our journey. Except for K’s toe. It also did not break but did cause noticeable foot-related harm after having been introduced to a rock through an intense encounter.

My backpack held the following:

– a sleeping bag

– 3 pairs of socks + underwear

– 3 tops

– light trousers for sleeping

– an extra fleece

– blister plasters + a tiny first aid kit + a tiny personal hygiene kit

– a travel towel

– a thermos and a bit of instant coffee

– a map, a compass

– a walking diary, a pen and a mascara (yes)

Loch Lomond in sunshine.
Loch Lomond in sunshine.

DAY 1, Milngavie to Drymen: 22.5 km

Day 1 started brilliantly: in the foggy Glasgow where we missed our planned train to Milngavie. All good, though, since those trains are very regular. Milngavie also welcomed us shrouded in the fog and gave me enough time to go and buy some gaffer tape from Poundstrecher. We were ready to get going.

Most of the day took us on a very straightforward course. Both emotionally and path-wise. This was a cute part of the way that has also been the quickest to slip from my memory. (No disrespect to the road.) We walked on wide paths with houses or bigger roads nearly always in sight. However, this did turn out to be the only day when we actually deviated from our path. For a little while, we trotted along the John Muir way instead and ended up walking on a high and narrow bridge across a wide river as an award. One should never underestimate the Way of the Civilized. The Way of the Civilized can make you lose focus.

The bridge through air.
The bridge through air.

Searching for the hotel in the falling daylight without an access to the map – not exactly knowing where you sleep for the night – is the feeling I can’t get enough of. This is how I remember Drymen – a place with all the options open. (The sign of true freedom, ha-ha!) We had been promised a bed in a hotel lobby, that was all we knew. Yet, at the end of the evening, the lovely Frances from the Kip in the Kirk actually put us in a real room. What more could one ask for?! Well, home-made scones, perhaps. But she had those covered as well. All we had to do then, was to enjoy our warm showers and admire our sun-burnt shoulders from the day. (Yes.)

Day 1 of the way was a sweet day. It also came with a honesty box for ice cream on the road, an edible metaphor for the hungry.

The way of the day one.
The way of day one.

DAY 2, Drymen to Rowardennan: 22.5 km

One of my favourite things about travelling is starting walking in the morning when having received directions from someone else. This is how our morning started, and as a firm believer in travelling omens, I took it to be a good day at that very second. I also know that I wouldn’t actually mind just walking, walking, walking towards the hedge at the end of the world (I mean, the road), only to figure out whether that direction had been correct a little later. The freedom to step into the morning fog is indeed even sweeter than the fudge bars left for the sugar-deprived travellers.

Day 2 turned into another day of scorching sun. (I guess no one would believe that we had travelled to Scotland if there weren’t for the pictures.) After having walked through all our morning mists we set our course towards Conic Hill, under which we met an English French horn player now working in Germany. He was the first official walker we met on the road. We never learnt his name, as was the case with literally all the people we met and talked to. We only learnt where they had walked from and what were their plans for the coming day. (Sometimes, life is just poetic.) He was one of those people, though. You know, the munro baggers. He didn’t even have to mention it, he had that glint in his eyes. One can tell. (He was meeting his daughter somewhere down the road, so he was going to the meeting point across the munros. Of course.)

Just for the record, I’d like to point out that sitting on top of the Conic Hill in October has been the least windy hill top experience of my entire life. And also one of the sunniest. This has left me with a conspiracy suspicion about Scotland actually being a sunny place and the local councils spreading stories of the opposite to keep the eager masses out. You know, those people who are only willing to walk in the sunshine. People very different from us, of course.

Day two of the way.
Day two of the way. K getting  familiar with the loch.

The second half of the day was spent walking parallel to the shore of Loch Lomond. And we did it while walking in the sun, making friends with the birds, gasping at the lake. K did take off her boots and tested the water. She had her swimming clothes on her and she was not afraid to use them! But since our next stopping point (=accommodation) was quite a while away, she decided against walking into the fresh waters of the Great Britain’s largest inland water body.

I don’t have any memories of the dinner we ate in Rowardennan. Maybe we survived on the mist.

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DAY 3, Rowardennan to Inverarnan: 22 km

I remember the morning as a state of awe at the completely placid Loch Lomond. The scenery looked like something out of mythological Japan, with the old pier posts standing sentinel in the water and the mists consolingly crawling around the crooked pines. I also remember this day as the first one of the West Highland Way when I really started tapping into the joy of our walk. A lot of this day’s path was bordered with walking pole piercings and mountain bike lines in the mud, remnants of the all travellers who already had passed by. All those patterns were definitely filled with joy as well. The path was also getting slightly steeper and more interesting as it sloped between large oak trees and slightly smaller boulders. As I’m saying – all the reason to feel more joyful.

The path of day three.
The way of day three.
The way of day three.

Today also brought me face to face with Truth: long-distance walking is the most sensible way to spend one’s time. I’ll be taking this to the Academy of Sciences one day. Here’s just the shortest explanation as to why:

– you are surrounded by some of the best scenery in the world

– you are in the fresh air

– you are in the best of company (either just you or your well-chosen companions from the same or different species)

– you have to eat at least 3500 kcal a day

– all the people you meet are deeply happy, as you chance upon them when they are doing the thing they love the most (you can recognise the faces who do not want to be in theatres and cinemas, oh yes, you can)

– your mind is forced to rest while your body is applauding you at every step

It is a mystery why everyone has not already abandoned everything. I shall enquire into this as well before turning to the Academy.

Day three of the way.
Day three of the way.

And after having moved pass the magnificent oak trees bending their branches into lake water, and having passed Rob Roy’s cave (meeting your teenage heroes in real life is always a strange moment out of some forgotten cross-media narrative), we walked on a lentil soup coloured road until reaching our chambers for the night at Beinglas Farm. And if that doesn’t win a bad description award, I don’t know what will. (Just for the record, we slept in a camping pod.)

Notes taken: you know you are trekking when:

– the moment when you take out a clean pair of socks for the next day makes you squeal

– you don’t want the 5p change because you would have to carry it

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Day three of the way.

DAY 4, Inverarnan to Tyndrum: 19.5 km

The first half of our fourth day’s walk had me transfixed on the milky fog hiding and disclosing a large group of fir tree tops on the horizon. What we saw was a form of dancing glue, magically moving through that very air we were about to step into. On day 4, we finally came to some mountains that reminded me of their relatives in Snowdonia. I had not known I had walked with that wish in my mind, but apparently so. (It is a worrisome thing, discovering that you had secrets from yourself.) The much-blessed sun actually shone on top of one of the mountains in that very exact manner it had dome on top of another mountain in Wales. That made me realise that 14.02.2015 has been one of the happiest days of my life so far. And that I’m still living in this year.

The old military road, day four of the way.
The old military road, day four of the way.

Keeping to the tradition, it did not rain. We walked a lot on the old military road that meandered through and under ancient-looking fir trees. During these kilometres, we finally understood that we were getting away from the civilization.

It was Sunday. K’s toe was not feeling very well but the ibuprofen gel did help. We thought about the 30 km day ahead of us in the coming week (Tuesday!) and got slightly worried about the possibility of rain (I said rain, right? I actually meant what the forecast said: severe downpours and a hail storm). In the evening, we managed to control ourselves in the biggest (and almost only) shop in Tyndum and not buy a magazine (I’m talking about me), and met the French horn player again, and then spent most of our time looking at people trying on their rainproofs. We had rainproofs as well, new ones, even. And we also wanted to see how they kept out the elements. What we didn’t have were rainproof boots. But we had sprayed ours with all the possible sprays. So, we had given our best.

On our way to the camping cabins we took a path that was fringed by the yellowest birch trees on this side of the Scottish border. Every step on the path felt like walking in the first dream of my childhood. This is how our fourth day slowly turned itself into a friendly beast from story books: it brought the first mountains into our sight and showed us paths into many parallel narratives within our time.

At some point at the very end of our road, we saw movement through the trees to our left. And there they were, a group of people, most of them old gentlefolk, sitting in the low river, panning for cold.

Day four of the way.
Day four of the way.

Places are like magic. In all the places you go to, you don’t find anything more than just the things you have taken there yourself.