Monday, July 26, 2010

Walking in the Highlands of Scotland

The year is 1692. The place is Glencoe. It's dark, it's cold, it's misty and fresh snow lies on the ground. The MacDonalds and their guests the Campbells are asleep. Suddenly the night is filled with screams. The Campbells are murdering the MacDonalds. Women and children are not spared in the carnage which follows. Those clansfolk who do escape, freeze to death in the surrounding mountains. The Massacre of Glencoe is history now but it is very easy to picture the scene as you walk through this most haunting of Scottish glens.

Glencoe still retains much of this aura and is one of the most popular destinations in Scotland. Unfortunately most people just glimpse it as they speed through on their luxury coach. They will stop at the visitor centre, buy their postcard and sign the visitor's book before driving to their luxury hotel in Fort William knowing they had at last 'seen' Glencoe. However, to experience the real Glencoe, the weather, the atmosphere, the remoteness, you have to don your boots and backpack and follow the peat coloured burns, through the blooming heather and up into the lonely corries.

The West Highland Way is Scotland's first long distance footpath and passes through Glencoe on its way north to Fort William. The walk starts on the southern shores of Loch Lomond and whether you take the high road or the low road the path contours majestic Ben Lomond through forests of birch and oak and takes you along the 'bonnie bonnie banks' of this immortal loch.

Crianlarich, pronounced exactly as it sounds, lies at the base of Ben More (3825ft), and is a popular stopping point for walkers, as well as motorists and train enthusiasts. Two major roads, the A85 and A82 meet here and there is a train station, Youth Hostel, campground, hotels, and many bed and breakfast establishments. Enjoy good home cooking followed by a beer or a dram in the friendly 'local'.

The path then follows the railway line and the road northwest through the narrow confines of Strath Fillian to Tyndrum. Both road and rail split here. One line follows the A85 west to the seaside port of Oban and the other line follows the A82 north and immediately climbs across open heather moorland toward the desolate Rannoch Moor. However as you contour below Ben Challum (3354ft) you can't help think how fortunate you are out there in the open challenging the elements knowing that most visitors to Scotland never experience this unique outdoor experience.

Despite their comparatively low altitude, the Scottish mountains are potentially hazardous and subject to rapid weather changes. Such changes can make a simple walk up an easy hillside into a serious undertaking requiring a high degree of mountain skill in route finding with both map and compass. The weather of the Scottish mountains should never be underestimated and makes proper clothing and equipment essential.

The countryside becomes bleaker as you continue ascending to the hamlet of Bridge of Orchy below the conical peak of Ben Dorian (3524ft). You are now on the edge of the Rannoch Moor. Further on the route passes the popular Inveroran Hotel which offers food and overnight accommodation. From here to the Kingshouse Hotel you are on your own with only the other walkers for company. You pass Forest Lodge as you contour around lonely Loch Tulla toward the Black Mount. The silence is almost deafening as you take in the beauty and the remoteness which surrounds you. Photographs can't do justice to this timeless landscape.

A strong northerly wind on this section can make it one of the hardest and perhaps most rewarding day on the walk. Scotland has four distinct seasons and it is very possible to experience them all in one day, if not in one hour. Snow can and does fall at any time of the year even though people could be playing on the beach relatively close by. The weather pattern is generally from the west with the Gulf Stream and the mountains creating a very high degree of precipitation. Generally speaking, northerlies bring cold air from the Arctic throughout the year and easterlies can bring cold in the winter and warm in the summer.

It is important that all walkers/climbers are aware of the potential dangers in the Scottish mountains and are properly prepared and equipped to deal with them.

After many hours of walking, you will see the welcome sight of the Kingshouse, probably the loneliest hotel in Scotland and, like a sentinel, guards the entrance to Glencoe. With the thought of steaming hot broth and a glass of whisky you quickly descend to the hotel.

The Kingshouse was built in the 17th Century and is believed to be one of Scotland's oldest licensed inns and is as much part of the landscape as the mountains themselves. It has an atmosphere all of its own and many a tall tale has been told at the bar. If the weather is kind to you, you can sit outside and watch the climbers on the cliffs of Buachaille Etive Mor (3345ft). Whether you spend a night here or just pause for a cleansing ale you will never forget this place for as long as you live.

The actual township of Glencoe is further on down the glen on the shores of Loch Leven. Here you can find a Youth Hostel, several bunkhouses offering accommodation of all kinds, campsites, hotels and of course the ubiquitous Bed and Breakfast. To experience Glencoe and all its moods a few days should be spent here enjoying the scenery, the people, the culture and the history.

The Devil's Staircase will take you over the hills to Kinlochleven which literally translates into 'the town at the head of Loch Leven'. The Mamore Forest Lodge is situated high above the township and offers some superb views down the loch to the impressive peak of Ben a' Bheithir (3361ft). Again it is possible to spend a night here or just break for lunch before the last fourteen miles to Fort William.

The mountain range you cross to reach Glen Nevis is called the Mamore Forest, an unlikely name considering there is hardly a tree in sight. Once in Glen Nevis you can wander down the river of the same name until you reach Fort William. After seven days of walking through some of the wildest country in Europe you can now have a rest before tackling the challenging ascent of Scotland's highest peak, Ben Nevis.

At 4406 feet "The Ben", as it is known amongst the local walking fraternity, requires respect whether walking up the 'tourist' track or climbing on its precipitous north face. The temperature on top can be as much as 20 degrees lower than in Fort William. This is a potentially very dangerous mountain and extreme care and precaution are required at all times. For six days out of seven the summit is shrouded in mist. Of course you can't pick that illusive day but if you do, you will be rewarded with one of the most memorable views in the world. However if you are unfortunate with the view console yourself with the thought you are not alone and that the ascent itself is a rewarding challenge.

Wherever you walk in Scotland, whichever Ben you climb, whatever the weather, you will return home having experienced some of the most rewarding walking in the world.

For more stories and travel advice go to my homepage at

A walk in the Tatra Mountains

"One person on a chain at a time, three points of contact and just don't look down!". The zig zagging path up the scree slope had stopped. Above us towered 500 feet of cliff and as I ascended, I thought of the song 'A Stairway to Heaven', only our heaven was a saddle where we would stop for a well deserved picnic lunch. And just as our guide, Jacek, had said, it was easy; just take a step at a time, move your hand up the chain and, of course, don't look down. The adrenalin was pumping and the excitement rising. I was too busy concentrating and enjoying the challenge to worry about any fear I had. Twelve people snaking their way slowly upwards.

Climbing up the cliff face became easier as we found our rhythm. When one person stopped, we all stopped, just like cars in peak hour traffic. Eventually our group of six Britons, one Irishman, one American girl, myself and our three Polish guides arrived at the saddle. A sheltered spot was found and as we hungrily ate our picnic lunch, I couldn't help take in the beauty and the peace of the surrounding peaks. They reminded me of a misspent youth climbing and walking in the haunting Cuillin mountains on the Scottish island of Skye.

This was our fourth day of a two week walking holiday in the Tatra mountains. These rocky limestone and granite mountains straddle the border of Poland and The Republic of Slovakia with the highest peak, Gerlachovsky Stit, 2655m above sea level.

A few days earlier we had arrived into Warsaw during a heat wave. It was 36 C with the mercury still climbing. Immigration and customs were unbelievably easy and once the group was gathered together by Jacek, we were on the express train to Cracow.

What a wonderful city Cracow is! Ancient castles, world-class museums, beautiful art galleries and towering churches were all within walking distance of our hotel in the heart of the old town. Well this was a walking holiday and what better a way to begin than by walking around town although we must have seemed an odd sight wearing our heavy boots in the 38 degrees.

The huge equestrian statue of Count Tadeusz Kosciuszko, above the ramp into Wawel Castle, reminded me of Australia's highest mountain, which was named by Count Strzelecki because it resembled the large earth mound over the tomb of Kosciuszko.

En route to Zakopane, our base for exploring the Polish Tatras, we stopped at the small industrial town of Wieliczka. Here we explored a 1000 year old underground salt mine where many of Poland's art treasures were hidden during the war. We investigated the many theme chambers including the St. Kinga Chapel, which took 30 years to carve, measures 54 by 17 metres and is 12 metres high. A change of pace from the usual museums and art galleries one normally visits when travelling.

Our lodge in Zakopane was very reminiscent of a Swiss Chalet. All bedding was supplied throughout the trek and most meals, including pack lunches on all trek days, were included. The meals were plentiful, high in carbohydrates, typically Polish and even the hungriest of us couldn't eat everything put in front of us.

Every day we explored a different valley, climbed onto the rocky ridges and descended into another valley for the walk back to the chalet. As in many other parts of Europe all paths are colour coded and are very easy to follow even during inclement weather. It was forbidden to walk off the trail and signs in Polish warned of the consequences. None of us argued with this and it seemed the locals didn't either.

Like all mountain ranges throughout the world the weather in the Tatras can change at any time and did just that on a number of occasions. We experienced blue sky, sunshine, rain, hail and blizzards all in one day. From shorts and t-shirts to woollens and waterproofs within the hour.

One special night was spent away from Zakopane in a beautiful mountain chalet nestled amongst tall pine trees next to a little glacial lake. This mountain chalet, like the many we were to stay at in the Tatras, had dormitory accommodation, served hot meals and drinks, was well heated and even had hot showers!

Our single 'rest' day came from a rafting trip down the Dunajec river. Not exciting thrills and spills usually associated with rafting but a very pleasant journey in traditional rafts through narrow limestone gorges. The river wound its tortuous way along the border with Slovakia and on several occasions our captain explained we had illegally crossed the border. He also talked about the old days when people were shot while trying to escape from one country to another. We were all quite thankful times had changed and that the Iron Curtain no longer existed.

The official border crossing into Slovakia was easy. Three years ago this would have taken many frustrating hours but 'Glasnost' had stopped the bureaucracy and red tape. 'Plan maximum', as Jacek explained in his endearing English, was for a very long walk up a valley and then over a high pass to Szielsky Dom Chalet. However due to the incessant rain and very low cloud cover we had to revert to 'plan minimum'. This involved taking a bus around to the southern side followed by a short walk up to the chalet.

As we ascended, the rain turned to sleet, the sleet to snow and before long the path had disappeared under a pure white blanket. As we all donned our Goretex waterproofs, Jacek and the two other guides pulled out their umbrellas! I have this great photo of Jacek huddled under his umbrella protecting himself from the elements with only a pair of sandals protecting his feet. It was a little hard to accept that we all had the modern high tech gear which they just could not afford.

I was breaking the trail with visibility down to about twenty feet when suddenly the chalet just loomed out of the blizzard. As we walked through the door covered in snow it was a tremendous relief to see our baggage waiting for us. The brochure description was reading well!

Once allocated to our heated rooms we indulged in wonderfully hot showers followed by hot tea and coffee in the restaurant. Walking in the mountains wasn't meant to be this easy but then again what's wrong with a little luxury now and then.

Gerlachovsky Stit was our objective the next day but the mountains were still shrouded in mist and snow was still falling. As the ascent involved the use of chains and ladders on the more difficult sections, Jacek deemed it too dangerous an expedition. 'Plan minimum' again came into operation and we spent the extra time building snowmen, or should I say snowpersons, with the odd snowball fight thrown in.

The last five or so days were spent in the mountains walking from chalet to chalet. However there were two overnight stays at more rustic chalets where we didn't have access to our main baggage. Even though our daypacks were heavier, this was more than compensated for by the charm of the beautiful mountain settings.

The mist still clung to the high peaks and we all enjoyed the fun and stimulation of breaking trail on the lower level paths. Rather than going up and over to the next chalet we contoured around the mountains. Plan minimum was operating again but we had no complaints as we were all experienced walkers and were used to the vagrancies of the weather.

As we descended out of the High Tatra the mist lifted, blue sky appeared and the peaks shone in their new winter coating. I have spent most of my life walking in the mountains of the world and it is amazing how often this phenomenon happens as you turn your back to go home. However there wasn't one of us who would have wound the clock back to start again. The feeling of camaraderie amongst the group was greater than what could have been at a different time.

Our penultimate day was spent enjoying a relaxing walk in the beautiful Slovensky Raj, a National Park located a few kilometres away. The weather was just perfect and the path followed the meandering river across footbridges, up and down ladders and along catwalks clinging to the cliffside above the river. The different shades of green contrasted so much to the white landscape we had just left.

After a shower and a meal it was time to board the overnight train to the magical city of Prague. This city is pure history and survived both wars almost unscathed. History is everywhere as you walk along well worn cobbled streets looking at the wealth of Gothic and Baroc architecture. Remove the cars and it would be easy to imagine you were living 200 years ago!

All good things come to an end and as the group took off for London I was boarding the night train south to Vienna for the next stage of my holiday. Walking is a wonderful way of staying fit and combined with a holiday it cannot be bettered. However, add to it the novelty of a new culture and you have an experience you will treasure forever.

For more stories and travel advice go to my homepage at