Day 3: West Highland Way

After a nights’ sleep and a full (fried) breakfast, we gritted our teeth, ready to trade country trail walking for the Lochside scramble. We knew this was one of the long days, 13m/22km, and tough walking at that. But the sun was shining, and we were buoyed by confidence of two good days already completed, so set off in a good mood.

Honesty box (cupboard) at Rowardennan

The walk started off nicely enough through the forest and past an honesty box then down beside the loch where the beaches looked so enticing a few hours in. We even stopped for a late morning break and I took the opportunity to stick my feet in the water. It was cold, very cold.

Break time by the lochside

The path splits in two – the ‘unofficial’ way following a forest path higher up the side of the hill; the official path following the side of the loch and all its ups and downs. We had decided to take the lower, official path, and sighed at the << and >> markings in our guide book which indicated steep uphill and downhill stretches ahead of us.

Walking bedside Loch Lomond

Yes it was rocky and yes the waking was a bit challenging but it wasn’t too bad. There was some having to think about where you put your feet, but we felt we had done well at meeting the first challenge of the day when the path turned uphill into the forest to meet up with high road. There was some more up and down, some more rockiness, and we reached the Inversnaid Hotel where our guidebook had promised all day food.

Inversnaid Hotel is in sight – time for a lunch break!

The Inversnaid Hotel caters to its hiking clientele with a water tap provided outside, and a big empty room where hikers are welcome to sit and eat and rest; but to enter the main hotel building, hikers have to remove their boots and rucksacks and walk about in their socks.

I offered to go get some food.

“Just get me a sandwich or something,” Husband said. My socked feet enjoyed the walk on carpet through the hotel interior.

“There’s no more food,” said the man at reception. “You can get cakes, crisps and chocolate at the bar.” I was too tired to engage in an argument with him about when and why they had stopped serving food. It was just after 2pm. I didn’t want to find out we had missed lunch by five minutes.

At the bar I ordered two cans of soft drink, two packets of crisps and two pieces of cake. Husband looked puzzled when I came back.

“This is all there is,” I said.

Husband dug out the guidebook. “But it says here…”

Hikers’ room at the Inversnaid Hotel

Many other hikers came in and we watched them trail hopefully into the main hotel in their socks, only to return with sad faces and pieces of cake on plates. The good thing was the cake of the day was Lemon Drizzle, one of my favourites. But it wasn’t the full and satisfying meal we had hoped for to set us up for the second half of the day’s walk.

It was edging on towards 3pm when we left Inversnaid, again with a sinking feeling that our morning hike that we thought we’d done so well, had taken us more than five hours. The second half of the walk was an almost equal distance. We felt dismayed at the enormity of the distance still ahead of us.

We left the Inversnaid Hotel in the heat of the afternoon sun, both of us down to just one layer. Here the lochside scramble began in earnest. Every step was a challenge as we had to calculate where to put our feet as the path climbed up and down over rocky surfaces. In some places the word “path” was a generous term, as we stared at a stretch of boulders, with no obvious indications of how to get across.

Sometimes over the rocks, sometimes between a rock and a hard place

The sun shining on Loch Lomond and the pretty beaches we passed by would provide short term distractions but mostly our eyes were fixed downwards to make sure we didn’t slip, didn’t snap an ankle or otherwise injure ourselves falling over.

We were tired and exhausted. It was beginning to feel like this section was never going to end. We met a young man with a full backpack coming the opposite way.

Rocks and shadows by the lochside

“You don’t have far to go,” he said, “maybe one more steep climb and then you’re done with this section.” We thanked him profusely and spurred on by his encouraging words, we picked up the pace, hoping to get the hell out of these rocks.

True to his words, after fifteen minutes, we scrambled down one pile of rocks and found ourselves facing a green field.

“Is this really it?” we wondered. “Is this really the end?”

We consulted the guide book and saw we had another two hours of walking ahead of us. It was now after 5pm. We checked the sunset time – after 8pm. This meant we could still complete the last of the walk in daylight although it would be getting dark by the time we reached our hotel. We pushed on across the field.

Finally off the rocks and up across fields

There’s nothing quite so bad as being tired and exhausted at the end of a long walk and having the path throw a steep climb at you. This was a dirty West Highland Way trick. Almost every day, late in the day, we would have a steep climb at a point where we had not a lot left to give to a steep climb.

But we made this steep climb, grateful it was on a dirt path and didn’t require too much thought. We were able to look around more, turning back to look along Loch Lomond as we gained height, and spotting a small island in the distance, tried to figure if that was the island by the Rowardennan Hotel (“Have we really walked that far today?”)

Cresting the hill we saw the buildings and ruins of Doune Bothy come into sight. The bothy was pumping out smoke and a few men were clustered around the building. The bothy is a rough shelter, with some basic cooking facilities and a sleeping platform. It’s a little more solid than a tent, and it’s free to stay in.

Ruined farm house on the left, Doune Bothy on the right

We hiked downhill past the bothy to the lochside again, to Ardleish. I had seen the boat crossing this narrow end of Loch Lomond on our approach and explained to Husband how the ferry worked with a red ball you raise to signal your intention to cross to the hotel at Ardlui. I was wishing we had booked the hotel at Ardlui. We would be just about done with walking if we had.

The day was growing darker as the sun started to sink behind the mountains. Sunset might not be until after 8pm but we could see in half an hour it would we edging towards night. And we had another steep uphill ahead of us.

Say goodbye to Loch Lomond

We paused at the top and looked back as advised by the guidebook, to enjoy a final sighting of Loch Lomond, which I have to say looked lovely under the blue slopes and in the late afternoon golden light.

As the sun sank behind the mountain and the day grew darker, we revised our estimated arrival time to 8pm. We realised just how wrong our original guesstimate of 5pm had been. As we marched on across the field, hoping to see our hotel around the next bend, the jolly faces of the primroses lit up by the last of the sunlight seemed to be smiling encouragingly.

Go on,” they said. “You can do this, you’ve got this.”

The primroses got me through that last hour.

Just at the point where the valley with our hotel opened up beneath us and all we could think of was that today’s walk would soon be over, just we had been speculating that we were so slow, we must be the last people out in the trail, that was when from behind us, a female voice sang out, “The hills are alive with the Sound of Music.”

We turned to see a group of four Scottish women marching at a fast pace and gaining on us. Not the last ones on the trail then.

We marched with them on the final leg off the hill and into the village, where the Drovers Inn awaited us. We checked in and immediately sat down at a table to order food. We were drained. It was almost 12 hours since we had left Rowardennan in the morning. That seemed to be another lifetime away.

Having scoffed down a bowl of Scotch Broth, we heaved ourselves onto our feet and walking like invalids, made our way over to our room where we crawled into our beds, letting our bodies rest at last.

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