So I’ll try and be fair with my review of the west highland way but honestly after just returning from Paklencia national park in Croatia the WHW seems comparatively dull AF. Ok ok maybe that’s not fair. I’ll try and be nice. The original plan was through walk from Milgavie (pronounced mull-guy if you ever want to find the starting point) to Inverness completing both the west highland and great glen ways but after a week on the WHW we decided to end our journey early. So what happened?
- Being unprepared for both weather and midges
- It was pretty dull
So Jack and I haven’t really been multi day walking since completing round the mountain in Taranaki as our post TA hike 3 months ago. It is incredible how fast you loose your thru walker physic and I’m starting to understand why there are so many thru walkers who walk trails back to back. With new shoes and cocky TA thru walker egos we started our trail in sunny weather in Mulgavie walking through the leafy Mugdock county park. A few bits of road led us to the Gardahban forest where we set up our tent near a curious weasel den and its sole inhabitant that we named Juan. Juan the weasel. Hmmm dry pine forest camping my favourite. It didn’t last. the next day we had drizzle all the way over Conic Hill to Loch Lomond. It got heavier once we reached Balmaha and we sat out the worst of it in a village cafe. The good news is that the WHW makes the most of the towns who have built their livelihoods off the walkers that pass through each year. As the rain cleared in the afternoon I made Jack sing ‘bonnie banks of Loch Lomond’ and we found a campsite after Ptarmigan lodge ( in the legal camping zone) spotting a pine marten on the way. The rain had stopped but this was midge happy hour. Having never experienced midges before I figured they would be something like the sandflys at home. Easily managed with some insect repellent right? They are not. Midges are like if sandflys and the devil had a baby. They still land on you despite being slathered with insect repellent and when they hunt they hunt in packs. We got to Beinglas farm before shelling out 6 quid for a bug net. Midges are stressful and their bite stings hard.
Rowchoish bothy was our first bothy on the trail and when we walked in I was glad we camped where we did. I believe the bothys are best enjoyed from outside. Surprisingly the bothys do not have adjacent pit toilets or long drops so consequently the surrounding area smelt like a urinal littered with toilet paper. I’m very grateful that toilets near huts in NZ is something that DOC does well. If you ever wonder why kiwis have such strong feelings about people shitting outside its wrapped up in a lot of common sense i.e don’t shit where you might sleep but also Maori protocols. Land is often considered as a sacred wairua (spirit) and/or a living being so you’d never disrespect it. But I digress. I just wish people were a bit more considerate when it came to toileting in the outdoors.
We had a great day of walking in the sunshine to upper Loch Lomond passing Doune Bothy and decided to pitch our tent at Beinglas farm. They had a great bar and facilities and lots of friendly folk at the campsite. The rain was quick to return the next day and it was a miserable combination of wet damp and cold but we kept moving to save ourselves from midge bites. I can’t say I took in much of the trail to Tyndrum as my head was down and sheltered by the rain but the Lochan of the lost sword and learning about its history was a highlight. But the persistent rain meant we stopped early in Tyndrum and shelled out for a hobbit house at the campsite. Soaking wet and miserable we were in no mood to keep going. I’ve always found it difficult to keep peppy when the weather is not playing along. The hobbit house was not cheap but dry and midge free, well apart from the thousands of dead ones littering the window sill.
We started the next day with the promise of sun and it delivered. No surprises this was my favourite day on the trail. I am unashamedly a fair weather walker and the views from Bridge of Ochry to Gelncoe were incredible. We also had the trail to ourselves for most of the day, a rare occasion for the WHW and we wondered if yesterday’s rain had deterred walkers. We ended the day at one of Scotlands only ski mountains, Glencoe. It was one of the few accommodations that was actually run by Scottish people. But they don’t seem to be overly enthusiastic about having customers and are missing a trick by not opening until 9am. No cooked breakfast for us then. So we grabbed coffee from the port a cabin cafe in place while the kings house hotel undergoes renovations. I was looking forward to our ascent up via the devils staircase. Finally I thought, a climb! But when we reached the top I was surprised and turned to jack. “Oh we are at the top. Is that it?”. The views were good and the descent was a gentle one into Kinlochleven but I couldn’t help but shake the idea that the west highland way was just too easy. I know that might sound condescending but when something is named devils staircase I expect something challenging, not tunnocks caramel bars and Pepsi for sale at the top (Yes there was actually a tuck shop at the top). We stopped for a few hours at the Kinlochleven pub. enjoying a few beers in the sun on the picnic tables outside. It was Saturday and a roudy bunch of lads were getting competitive over a game of pool before all leaving for a football game down the street. Although it was tempting we didn’t want to stay in Kinlochleven. We didn’t want to stay in anymore paid accommodations. We came out here to experience nature right? But we had only spent 2 nights in the wild. We climbed away from Kinlochleven and found a lovely spot next to the Larig mor river to pitch our tent. In fair weather we finally felt like we had some sort of trail grove back. We went to sleep to sound of rushing water and crickets singing.
I woke up at 5am to the sound of rain which got heavier and heavier. It was persistent hard patter on the roof of our tent and I noticed the sound of the river was more like a roar. I groggily sat up. The floor of the tent was a gigantic puddle. I leant over jack. “Wake up. The tent is flooding”. I felt unreasonably cranky. It was our last day on the trail and the weather was shithouse. Packing up our wet tent as we were descended upon by a pack of hungry midges was a nightmare. The rain poured in thick sheets soaking the earth and bringing a white low cloud that settled over the trail. The soggy sheep rattled away from us bleating loudly as we walked through the eeiry valley with ruins of old farm houses . Finally once we reached Blar a’Chaoraiin the rain eased. Hiking through cut pine plantation and into Ben Nevis there was no way I wanted to keep going on the great glen way. It was simply all a bit blah. Another consideration was that I had my period. What delightful timing. It was my first period in almost a year. When I was on the TA they completely stopped. I think this had something to do with daily physical exertion. But my point is this. Girls are badass and can do anything but sometimes when we bleed we just wanna netflix and chill and packing out used tampons on hiking trips is never going to be pleasant.
I researched more on the great glen way and noticed that the first 3 days was nearly all canal walking. After spending a season on a cruise barge in France I had done my fair share of walking and cycling canal ways. They don’t change much, just like the WHW, and I knew to continue would be a poor choice for us. So when we walked into Fort William we quit. We finished at the ‘sore feet’ statue feeling deflated after nearly 7 days. We checked straight into the Travelodge, literally 1 meter away from the finish line where we showered, dried out our tent, made our room reek of soggy hiker stench and netflixed and chilled. We spent the next 4 days in a car exploring further a field to the northern highlands including Loch Ness and Applecross peninsula where we comfortably day walked in the sun. The best possible end to our highland adventure.
So would I recommend the West highland way? For an easy meander and cruisy walking trail with lots of plush resources yeah sure, If you like that sort of thing. Just be prepared for the incremental weather, douse yourself in a repellent called Smidge and buy a bug net. To be honest I think I jumped the gun on picking such a popular trail and after our exploration of the highlands I found out about another trail called the Affric-Kintail way which sounded a bit more our style. So their was a lesson in all this. Do your homework and be prepared.