Wild Walking UK

LEJOG Chapter 16: Inverness to Helmsdale

The pressure of the challenge is definitely getting to me in this chapter, and I am feeling the result of high daily mileage and lack of decent food. This section takes me north from Inverness on to the A9 to Helmsdale, and finally starting the John O’Groats Trail.

You can read my adventure from the start here, and my rough route plan and gear list here.

Day 56 continued: Friday 12th April 2019

I had a really nice day today in good weather. The walking was easy and varied, from path to track to road, and ended with a lovely path into the city of Inverness. This is a place I love. Everywhere I went, from the Ness Islands to leaving the city, people were so friendly and happy.

Arriving in Inverness on the Great Glen Way

However, I had a meths problem to solve and this involved miles of walking in Inverness. I first called in to Go Outdoors, which was a mile or so into the suburbs, only to be told that they don’t stock meths. They gave me directions to Toolstation which was back in the city. So off I tramped back to Toolstation, but they told me they were out of stock. Luckily, as by this point I was losing the will to live, I found a Tiso Outdoors shop nearby who had some. £3.50 and they were extremely helpful.

Not a sight you want to see at the end of a long day’s walking.

I found an Iceland store and stocked up on my food shop. My kitchen roll stock was low so I needed to buy some more, but they only came in packets of two. I couldn’t carry both rolls so I had to throw one away, which was hard as I hate waste.

My next chore was to find a post office. I needed to send a parcel home to lighten my load, and as the weather was now warmer I could afford to lose some layers. My soft shell jacket, Icebreaker vest, sit mat, down gloves, Rab convertible gloves, Ronhill hat, balaclava, map case and two waterproof bags went into the box, which was a great feeling. My pack was definitely lighter, and I needed it to be at this stage of the walk. The only trouble was that I forgot my headband was in the pocket of the softshell I returned, and I like that headband to keep the wind out of my ears. I sent the softshell jacket home as I wanted to test my down vest and windproof jacket.

Looking back over Inverness

Once I had completed all my jobs in Inverness, I walked on for hours until I found a camp spot by the estuary with views over Munlochy Bay and the Moray Firth. I camped about 8pm but it wasn’t dark until 9pm, which really helps for both my mileage each day and the battery life of my head torch. I always slept better when I stopped a bit later, too. As soon as I had the tent up I made my coffee. I have possibly been away long enough, or have had too many coffees, as every time I put exactly the right amount of water in the pan to heat and fill my mug exactly. Little things!

Camp spot overlooking Moray Firth

My feet were looking and feeling pretty good considering the mileage done on hard surfaces today. The new socks possibly helped and my boots must be breathing reasonably well as my feet weren’t too sweaty when I took them off today.

Day 57: Saturday 13th April 2019

I woke early as usual, and was treated to an amazing sunrise over the estuary at about 5.30am. My camera just didn’t do it justice, but I tried!

A beautiful sunrise. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

It had been a very cold night, during which I’d had to blow up my pillow and air bed again. I added all my layers, too. There was no wind, and all the condensation had frozen solid on the tent.

My frozen tent

Breakfast consisted of coffee and fruit bread, and me cursing myself for not picking up and more dehydrated meals whilst I was in Tiso Outdoors in Inverness. Idiot. Buy food!!! I was in too much of a hurry to cover the mileage, I think.

It was a nice walk through the woods, then a fair amount of road walking until I reached the Cromarty Firth bridge. Once over this, I followed tracks and back roads into Evanton and the Novar Arms Hotel for lunch. It was friendly and comfortable in here, with reasonably priced beer and food.

The Novar Arms Hotel in Evanton

I asked the bar staff if they minded if I charged my phone, which they were happy for me to do. However, the socket wasn’t working, and when I told the lady behind the bar, she said she’d get the electrician to take a look at it. Literally 10 seconds later the electrician was taking a look at it – he had been sitting at the bar.

Day 57 camp

On leaving the pub it was more road walking, then a climb up to follow a forest track and I found a camp spot near the river. This spot was close to a car park which worried me, as I have found remote car parks can be busy with various comings and goings at odd times. However, it was quiet here and I didn’t see a soul, but there was a pile of rubbish left. There must have been 30 bottles and beer tins, carried in by people too lazy to carry them out again. A sad sight.

Day 58: Sunday 14th April 2019

It was a cold start this morning, clear and still, which developed later into another stunning day. It still felt a very long way to John O’Groats, however, and this wasn’t helped by the fact that I had swapped maps for the last part of the walk from my usual 1:50,000 scale to 1:40,000. A result of this was a struggle to predict times and distances. I tried reverting to using the mapping on my phone, but that didn’t have my route on so it was tricky. I was pretty sure I was on track to get to John O’Groats at the end of the Easter weekend.

Breakfast was coffee and fruit bread, celebrating my dry-ish tent. I was packed up and away by 6.45am, and followed the path and track to join the A9. I stayed on this main road over Dornoch Firth Bridge. I stopped at a cafe for breakfast at 10am, and decided to bypass Dornoch itself to save some miles. This decision gave me more time on the coast path further north, and more time with my family up here once I finished.

Dornoch Firth Bridge

The A9 was really quiet at this time of the morning, and OK to walk on with a nice verge, but later on in the day it got much busier. The verge also disappeared, so I was glad when this stage was done. My iPod got a lot of use today.

LOTS of road walking today. It looked like this.

I was just stopping for a wee behind some bushes when a chap pulled up beside me in a car and asked if I’d lost a boot, as there was one lying in the middle of the road! Lovely of him to ask, but I hoped I would have noticed…

Finally I left the A9, and walked through woods and fields (there was no path) to the beach. It was then a mile walk along the beach to Golspie, where I managed to find a pub with no food and no wifi. They did have beer though, so all was not lost. The walk from here along the coast path took me past Dunrobin Castle, which is such an impressive building.

Dunrobin Castle

Through some cow and sheep fields after this to camp a mile or so before Brora near the path and the sea. I camped at 6pm, totally exhausted, which was probably due to the lack of decent food today (dinner was a Naked Noodle, a bread roll, fruit pot and chocolate bar).

Some new friends I gained on the way

Day 59: Monday 15th April 2019

The day started cloudy and windy. I woke up feeling cold but sweating, so I knew today would be tough. I headed along the stony beach from where I had camped the night before, heading for Brora.

Camp spot for night 58

Unfortunately, I had timed it badly and so there was nothing open when I walked through Brora. It was then road walking all the way to Helmsdale. This was hard work as the road got steadily busier, and often there wasn’t much of a verge. I found it difficult to get out of the way of the traffic. Most vehicles were really good, either stopping or moving out into the road to give me room, even if I was on the verge.

Following the A9 towards Helmsdale

There were pubs in Helsmdale, but none of them served food at lunchtime. I had to go into a posh-looking and expensive cafe (La Mirage) as a last resort, but it actually turned out to be quite good value. My pot of tea was huge and came with extra water and tea bags. Little things that make me happy! I later learned that I had been served a pot of tea for two, as the lady thought I needed it when I walked in. She only charged me for one. My meal was so big I only just managed to eat it all. Highly recommended.

My delicious meal at La Mirage cafe

On leaving the cafe, I joined the John O’Groats Trail, initially along the coast which kept disappearing and reappearing. It was then rough up and down through gullies, finally ending up in the deepest valley after the broch (about 5 miles on from Helmsdale). The descent was definitely not for amateurs – it was extremely steep. It looked like steps were being built down some of it, but unless the steps go all the way down it will still be a rough descent here.

Steep descent -definitely not for the nervous

I had to stop and find a camp spot at about 4.45pm as I was so exhausted. I hoped tomorrow’s route would be easier going, otherwise I would have to take to the A9 / A99 all the way to John O’Groats. I was feeling the pressure of a set finish date, too, and I think that had stopped me enjoying the walk. The pain and exhaustion wasn’t helping, either. I had struggled with a lack of pubs serving food when I needed it, and bad timing walking through villages before anything was open.

I got into my sleeping bag at 5.30pm but didn’t feel truly warm until 7.30pm, and suffered a bit with a sore throat. Hopefully I can shake this off tomorrow.

My camp spot for day 59 – chosen through exhaustion rather than aesthetics

You can read the final chapter of my adventure here very soon.

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