A Kintail Loop...
OS map 33
The idea for this trip had been with us for a few weeks and the long hot summer of 2003 saw three of us ensconced in a B&B in Shiel Bridge in Kintail. Sure enough, we were blessed with blue skies and as we're eating breakfast, the views down Loch Duich are just stunning. Having run out of excuses, there's no option but to pack up and make tracks along the road past the turnoff to Ratagan Youth Hostel and towards Glenelg.
Of course, those familiar with the area will know that the road over to Glenelg could, by no stretch of the imagination, be considered flat and that the way onward is, in fact, upward and at no mean gradient. This hill is a brute and climbs relentlessly from sea level to a height of 350 metres or so. On several occasions, as you round a hairpin, you're seduced into thinking that the gradient is easing and - as is the way of these things - you are wrong each and every time. By way of compensation, just before reaching the high point, and as the gradient actually is starting to ease, some thoughtful soul has installed a bench upon which to collapse and soak up the surrounding scenery. On this particular day it was as breathtaking as it comes and we were in no rush to move on.
Looking back down the hairpin bends we decide that, difficult as it was to cycle up the hill, to cycle down it really wouldn't be too much fun either and would certainly entail the added cost of worn brake blocks and/or wheel rims. By contrast, the Glenelg side is endowed with a much more amenable gradient and offers a pleasant roll into the valley.
We turn off to the left now and leave the road to follow a good track along the valley floor to pass Moyle House. The remote Knoydart Peninsula is to the south and our route starts to head in that direction though, on this occasion, we're not going quite that far.
As we crossed a bridge over the Glenmore River there is a faint path immediately on the right which leaves the track and aims slightly uphill and over towards Suardalan Bothy. It's probably a better bet, however, to ignore that one and stay on the track for another few hundred metres until the views open up a little more. It's heather-clad moorland to the right and you can pick your own line to contour across it - there are only faint sheep paths in parts. Keep the bothy over to your right and you'll meet a more substantial jeep track as you draw level with it.
The bothy itself is well-used and seems to be kept in good condition, unlike some others that have suffered the ravages of those who care nothing for what - to me, anyway - are very special places. Perhaps its remoteness helps and there's no doubt that the hills and mountains around are nothing if not magnificent. Put simply, it's a fine place to be on a day like this.
Iain's new, fully-bouncy bike - which, incidentally, cost twice as much as my car - comes into its own as we pick up a little speed down the track. It just soaks up the bumps as Keith and I - on our less-than full suspension models - manage to trundle along in his wake. He has hydraulic brakes that stop the machine on a sixpence while we grit our teeth and do our normal white-knuckle ride down the glen. Would I like a go on it? Well yes and no - the problem is that I'd probably like it more than just a wee bit and then, of course, things would never be quite the same again. Maybe I should sell the car?
We pass a junction where a path sets off for Kinloch Hourn and from there another path takes you into Knoydart. It looks like good adventure, but we'll just have to save that one for another day...
The track eventually joins a tarred road and it's just five miles down to Glenelg. On the way, we pass two megalithic brochs. These ancient structures are probably 2000 years old and their design and construction are quite unique and well worth a visit.
Glenelg has a hotel and so we're able to stop for a bowl of soup and a bite to eat. The weather means that we can sit outside and take in the views as well - a real bonus. This has actually been the easy part of the trip and the hard work is still to come. There is a path marked on the map going round the headland to Totaig where it meets the minor road that runs along the south side of Loch Duich. Once there, we're OK but we have no idea whether this path will go or not.
We have to tear ourselves away from our sunny table and leave Glenelg to go round the bay towards the Kylerhea Ferry that plies the few hundred yards across the water to Skye. Because of the narrows here, the tidal streams are quite strong and can be visible from quite a distance.
There's a small car park by the ferry and a narrow path leads from it along the coast and gently upwards. Most of it is rideable apart from a few steeper sections and as it gradually gains height above the sea, the views start to open up. In places there are some serious drops off to the left and you will not want to let your attention stray for even a moment here.
Eventually, the singletrack descends to sea level and follows the flat, grassy shoreline to the bay at Ardintoul. And it's here that the hard work begins...
The map shows a path passing the second of two cottages, crossing a bridge over a stream and rising up through a forestry area almost to the top of a ridge and then along and down to meet a road at Totaig. What the map did not, and could not, show is that the forested area was in the process of being clearcut. So the path had been obliterated and we were faced with having to fight our way across and up slopes strewn with brash and other debris resulting from what is euphemistically called 'harvesting operations'.
It wouldn't have taken much to at least mark the course of the path with coloured tape, or splashes of paint, but the featureless slopes were a nightmare to cross even if you knew where to aim for. We used an altimeter to locate the position where the path was supposed to cross a small stream and did, indeed, find what could be a lead into the dense forestry at that point. Our sense of humour had already taken a bruising by this time and we were really in no mood for further problems.
The path, if that's not to put too fine a point on it, now forced a way upwards into the trees in no mean fashion. We were well past any point of no return so had no choice but to haul ourselves up it. Just as well that this had been a long dry spell because the surface here was far from solid as we slipped and slithered along it.
Eventually we emerged from the trees and came across a helpful notice from the Forestry Commission to the effect that the path had been re-routed and would be restored when the clearcutting operations had finished. Small comfort, we thought. There was no indication of when this might happen or how extensive the logged area was to be. The only thing that seems certain is that the landscape here will have changed considerably and so those who attempt this route now will just have to hope that at least the path will be easily located, if not traversed.
As we came out of the trees we could at last appreciate the grandeur of the landscape as the views opened up to the north and west. Towards the end of the ridge, and before dropping downhill, there is an unusual aspect looking down on Eilean Donan Castle (you know - the famous one...) from the south side of Loch Duich; not the normal picture postcard view, but impressive none the less.
The road alongside the loch back to Shiel Bridge is a breeze and gave us ample opportunity to replenish the depleted stock of humour cells and also to reflect on the rigours of the forest section. Was there another path? Should we have spent more time looking for an alternative route? Questions, unfortunately, to which there are no answers. Our original question as to whether the path was 'doable' or not got a qualified 'yes' but, because of the forestry situation, all bets are off and if you - or anyone else - intend to do the route, then you're pretty well just as much in the dark as we were...
...after all, we wouldn't want to spoil the adventure for you, would we? Oh, and don't forget the bouncy bike.
john b, galashiels
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