The Wild-West Highland Way #2

Tuesday 29th April
Drymen To Rowardennan – 13 Miles

I sat waiting for breakfast with Mrs Ford’s friendly cat looking through the window at me and mewing loudly. It was a bit dull and raining a little outside, but not too bad. I was joined presently by Colin and Jurgen and we set about a very good breakfast.

Colin had complained that his right toe was hurting, and I advised him to try wearing thinner socks, as he described it as though his little toe was being crushed. When we had finished, we settled up with Mrs Ford and started to get wet-dressed and booted up.

We left Gateside Lodge, crossed a field (rare on this walk) and within minutes we left the very short section of road walking and entered the Garadhban Forest. It kept drizzling with rain, and Jurgen’s umbrella went up and down like a sweep’s brush. What we first thought was a daft idea, was now proving to be rather prudent. It probably wouldn’t work as well on a windy day, but today it was perfect. We were umming and ahhing whether to don over trousers and Jurgen was just opening and closing his brolly as and when the rain started and stopped. Eventually it did come a little harder, and we all got kitted up to the full. It didn’t last long though, and soon the sun was out and the sky began to clear.

A great big vivid rainbow formed in the North, and through a clearing to the Southwest the views opened up dramatically and soon the camera was clicking away. One of the greatest views of the walk was next juxtaposed with one of the greatest disappointments. Our first view of the beautiful Loch Lomond from the end of the forest was spoiled by the sight of the notice nailed to a post banning us from going over Conic Hill. Lots of people had told me how great the views were from the top, and a day like today was just perfect.

It was closed because of lambing time, but I walk every weekend in Derbyshire, and there is never a problem there. I know some idiots would act thoughtlessly, but I think the Duke of Montrose goes too far in banning all for the sake of one or two. We reluctantly turned down the track towards the hamlet of Milton of Buchanan, where the delights of road walking, whilst staring longingly at the bulk of Conic Hill, awaited us.

Col’ said his toe still hurt. I thought a minute then I said:

“What size boots do you take?”

“Forty Threes,” was the reply.

“Take your right boot off, and try mine on,” I said.

The idea was that if it gave him relief, we could have the boot a day each and give one another some respite from the discomfort. “It feels great,” said Colin, and his didn’t feel uncomfortable on me. Good, so I set off walking. “Wait a minute, what about the other boot?” he said. But I figured that as he hadn’t got a problem with his left boot, and I hadn’t got one with mine, it would be foolish to swap and risk creating one so we pressed on…. in odd boots!

We called in at the garden centre at Balmaha, as the thought of a rest was appealing and it also meant we could do a bit of moaning about Conic Hill. The cheery chap selling the drinks amused us with a story about Santa Claus (we got on to the subject of Christmas via Scotch Whiskey) who had been booked for the children’s party. Santa arrived early so they sat him in the kitchen and placed a bottle of good Malt in front of him. “Help yourself Santa,” were the fateful words. When they returned, Santa had done just that – to the best part of the whole bottle!!! He stoically pressed on with his duties though, but the sad part is that during the proceedings, he fell from the stage and broke his leg (and a few of the kids’ hearts, no doubt). You can just imagine one of the poor kids going to Glasgow one night and thinking it was inhabited by lots of Santa’s, lurching around the streets at night!

After our refreshments, we finished off the short section of road walking by feeding an extremely ungrateful Swan. If it wasn’t grabbing food roughly from our hands, it was hissing loudly at us. Colin took a good picture of it trying to bite my fingers off! We left the Swan hissing at us and turned to climb up to Craigie Fort. As we reached the top of the promontory, the views really became seriously good. We stopped and took lots of photos.

The Loch looked fantastic in this light, and the surrounding mountains held our attention as they stood stoically looking down on us. These were the first of many such views that you just cannot describe with words. Every turn produced more beauty and wonder, every photo was “the one”. I was spoiled with opportunity, as each time I saw a place with a perfect frame and view, another place appeared. We scanned the little islands in the Loch with binoculars, and saw the remains of a small church along with the most super setting for a house I’ve ever seen. The Bluebells were just starting to come through in the woods. Not as strong as I would like, but we were a bit early and things moved slower North of the border.

Just after Arochymore Point we came upon the remains of a campfire and littered around it was all the rubbish of whoever was here last night. As they had also left a carrier bag I filled it up with all the tins and bits of paper. Luckily it hadn’t been windy, or most of this stuff would have scattered. I walked the short distance to the car park and put it where they should have, in the bin.

We again joined the road for a short while before turning into Queen Elizabeth Forest at the impressive Blair house. In the wood we all sat in a clearing and ate lunch. Jurgen came out with the garlic Pitta again, and Colin and I stuck to sandwiches and flapjacks. The sun was now quite strong and the rays lanced through the branches of the canopy. It was really peaceful sitting here and we enjoyed it in quiet seclusion.

The next bit of woodland stroll didn’t last long and we re-joined the road. It wasn’t busy though, so we didn’t mind. We soon reached the campsite, and decided to pop in to the shop to collect supplies for tomorrow’s lunch. We were lucky, as supplies were running low, and we had the last of the cheese and rolls!

Where we next left the road, there was a big place called ‘Sallochy’. The normally quiet Jurgen proved that Germans have a sense of humour when he read the sign and started singing; “I should be sa-lochy, lochy-lochy-lochy”! Trouble was, I couldn’t get that damn tune out of my head for the rest of the day!

After Sallochy there was some climbing to do. A few well placed puffs and grunts got us to the top where we were rewarded with breathtaking views. I could see already that my descriptive powers were going to be belittled by Scotland’s focal treats! We found it difficult to keep a rhythm walking when the views demanded you stop and take a picture at such regular intervals.

The weather changed its mood and it began to drizzle. It was only slight, but up went Jurgen’s brolly, and on went our waterproofs. Just after Mill of Ross we went to cross a small footbridge. It had got that red and white ‘danger’ tape wrapped around it on the right hand rail, so I took extra care. When I was about halfway across it, I heard a pronounced crack. I stopped dead in my tracks. Had anyone else heard that? It was so sharp and unexpected that we didn’t know what it was or where it came from. Fearing it might be the bridge, we crossed it gingerly and stopped to listen. Nothing! We turned and took half a dozen steps further, and another loud crack was followed by a large branch crashing to the ground, where we had just been standing! We looked at each other, looked at the branch, gulped and moved on.

We met the road again, and as we were walking alongside it, I spotted a young Roe Deer in the trees opposite. As it was spitting with rain, I had put the big camera away, so I didn’t get chance of a picture. She stared at us, turned, and bounded off quickly. There were no further chances to see more wildlife after this, as we were being closely followed by a ‘heard’ (sic) of very noisy school kids.

With Ben Lomond looming large on the right, and the Rowardennan Hotel and ‘phone box coming into view, we knew that day’s end was near. We very quickly reached the Youth Hostel and noticed some demented soul was swimming in Loch Lomond. I have dipped my feet in a few of its feeder streams, and I guessed it to be about -10 degrees. It was cold enough drinking the stuff, so how someone could immerse themselves in it was beyond me!

We made our way into the grand looking hostel to be greeted by Rab (good Scots name) and went up to our room, which had just four bunks and a view to die for from the window! After showering and changing, we explored the hostel. We noted that the “heard” of kids were now playing “bang the door”. This is a game we all played when we were young and requires no skill at all. All you have to do is leave and enter a room several times, for no apparent reason, banging the door loudly as you go. Exponents of this game (fourth year onwards) often intersperse the bangs with loud shouting for extra effect.

At dinner, we were joined by a cycling club (or at least two of its members). They were telling us of their exploits, and I didn’t notice it at first, but the woman who was at the table kept saying “Mmmm, Yeeees,” after almost everything the guy said. I tried talking to her and she kept saying it to me as well. It took restraint to not start to say it back to her, as she said it so often. We christened her “Frank Spencer Woman”, and during the next few days, her catch phrase was used by us quite often.

The hostel manager called for attention and informed us that for some unknown reason he had received a curt ‘phone call from the hotel to inform him they would be closing early at ten o’clock, so if we wanted a drink we were to go early. (We just caught the last words as the door was closing behind us on our way out!)

At the hotel there were a good few hostellers already there, having had a meal. They hadn’t heard about this early closing thing so we decided to press the barman. He reluctantly told us that the hotel manager had had some altercation the previous evening with Rab and his friend, who, “…came in late and only drank a half pint”. Someone (Rab or his mate) had asked for a packet of cigarette papers, and the manager refused him, saying he had already ‘cashed up’. So all this “closing at ten” business was petulance from the previous night’s crossing of swords.

The manager did come and serve a little later, and we teased him a bit about the entire goings on. I think several people latched on to the same idea as me when I asked for a packet of cigarette papers, and within a short while about eight people had bought a packet. Each time he sold one, the look on his face became more quizzical. At ten o’clock precisely I drained my glass, stood up and loudly announced; “Time ladies and gentlemen, please”. The manager quickly corrected me saying he had changed his mind about closing, hardly surprising really, the assembled company were spending quite a bit! It’s funny how some people can’t abide tourists, but just love their money.

We made our way back to the hostel by Colin’s trusty torch light, and I told him I planned to go up to the top of the waterfall behind the hostel in the morning. He said he was up for it too, so I promised to wake him. An easy night was spent, sometimes listening to the other two guys in the room snoring, but mostly in comfortable slumber, before I arose to a lovely morning.