Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 35, June 14, 2022
The ends of long trails usually have a certain drama, none perhaps more than the obligatory Katahdin sign pose at the end of the Appalachian Trail.
The Te Araroa begins with a lighthouse at Cape Reinga but ends at a less impressive signpost at Bluff.
The Camino de Santiago ends in the embrace of St. James, or, even more moving for me, at the waves crashing on the rocks at Muxia.
The Scottish National Trail, in its last days following the Cape Wrath Trail, ends at a lighthouse above crashing waves at the most extreme northwestern point of Scotland. And given you have to cross a Ministry of Defense live firing range (which included climbing a couple of barbed wire fences, which definitely reminded me of my childhood), the drama is even more elevated.
The guidebook I have been following took me first to Sandwood Bay — a remarkable inviting beach— with the end scheduled for the following day, but that same guidebook has been throwing 29-30 km days at me for a week, so when the weather remained ugly, I opted to push on to the end—grateful I did as I avoided a logistical problem I’ll detail presently. I had slept at the Old Schoolhouse Hotel the night before, a comfortable place a mile or two above Rhiconish, so the morning hike already had me ahead of the game. It was an interesting walk—unlike most I’ve had before— as the road wound up through the peninsula and rather than shift to empty pasture land, I continued to pass cottages set out in the landscape facing the ocean that appeared at every turn. An inviting place in the summer.
After a few miles, the path to Sandwood Beach appeared and was also well-graded, so I covered the entire first section by late morning. As it was the last day, I did marvel at the landscape— less imposing as the hills are much lower, but still ripped by the constant winds, and today some rain mixed in. The run-in to Sandwood included some ruins which are now beyond connection by roads and so just deteriorate, but I could imagine life in one crumbling house which was at most a quarter mile from the huge beach. And of course, there were sheep grazing all the way to the ocean. Pressing on the (I thought) last 7.5 miles, the walk changed completely. The landscape was not challenging except a lot of bogs, but the path disappeared for almost all of the section, so navigation was all via GPS. Part of me appreciated that final bit of navigational difficulty before hitting the road and walking the last mile or more to the lighthouse and the Ozone Cafe.
Ends of trails often present logistical difficulties. On the Appalachian Trail, after summiting Katahdin, you have to find transportation to Millinocket (Luckily for me and Bennett, my son Tom came up from Boston, climbed Katahdin with us, and drove back to civilization). I remember I had to hole up for a day on the Tasmanian Overland Track to wait for transport. Cape Wrath is served by a minibus service— the only people who can drive into the area—and I had arranged for transport on the 15th.
Arriving a day early I expected to have to stay over in the bunkhouse, but soon learned that the ferry would not run on the 15th. One reason I try not to plan too far out is that it is easy in the bush to lose a day for some odd reason, but, because of the train strike, I had made a series of reservations that a two day delay would ruin.
Already waiting in the cafe were three trekkers. One, a man from Switzerland, had just finished the Scottish National Trail, the only person the entire trek I met who was hiking it. The bus arrived almost full of tourists, and they had three empty seats—I was #4. I begged the driver, Stuart, for transport, but he could not accommodate me on a full bus (regulations). Then, what on the Appalachian Trail you would call “trail magic,” he exhibited that amazing Scottish hospitality I have encountered since Kirk Yetholm. The ferry was 22 km away, and he had an hour before he had to bring his load of passengers back, so he drove me out 30 minutes, dropped me. I walked hard and fast toward ferry while he returned to pick up his load. Some time later he passed me, dropped his crew at the ferry, then returned, picked me up and, after our ferry crossing, drove me to Durness from the pier (it was raining hard so that was much appreciated).
I remain dumbfounded by his kindness. In some way, that is the fitting end to my journey. Not some celebration of perseverance and fortitude, or another notch on a trekking pole, but instead a deep appreciation of a people and a culture who for the last 5 weeks have repeatedly astounded me by their kindness, generosity, and just plain human compassion. I will miss Scotland.
T. Hugh Crawford