I hiked the West Highland Way back in September 2005. It was my first hike ever and I had no clue what it was all about, carrying both heavy gear and needless gear. I did however keep a day by day journal, which I now - after completing the Pacific Crest Trail - decided to rework, translate into English and put online.
Day 1 - Sept 18 - Milngavie to Drymen
Together with Bram and Tine we took the train from Ghent to Charleroi, which really feels like a gray and industrial city. There we take the bus to the airport. Check-in was still closed so we just linger around for a moment. All seems well, backpacks not too much above 15kg. When suddenly throughout the airport is heard, "Attention, will mister Hendrickx, Sander hendrickx, report at the information stand". Turns out you can't take a gas canister on the airplane.. It shows how well versed I was in the world of hiking at the time.
We grab some breakfast and soon are boarding the plane. After taking off, we read the message Leen wrote us. She had to cancel the trip at the last moment. We land at Prestwick airport 15 minutes ahead of shedule. And turn back our clocks another hour. Find our backpacks and try to stuff our hand luggage on top. Next we take the bus to downtown Glasgow to get some supplies and find a new gas canister. We randomly get off when two other people with a large backpack do so. Turns out we're now at the Glasgow train station. Great. We purchase a ticket to Milngavie, the starting point right away.
We also soon find out that English and Scottish is as similar as Antwerps and West-Vlaams. As in, quite hard to understand. Glasgow train station also more resembled a mall, where the occasional train passes. We grab a quick bite at Burger King and head out into town around noon, finally trying to find some supplies. Even though it's Sunday, luckily some shops are open. We don't really know what hikers eat so we end up with some water, canned soup and some apples. In retrospect, all terribly heavy.
Back to the train station, where we are able to hop on a train to Milngavie right away. Originally, we planned to stay the night there and start our hike in the morning. But upon arriving there around 17h in the afternoon, everything was closed. We take some pictures at the starting point of the West Highland Way and debate what to do. The nearest campsite is a few kilometers out of town. Even though this isn't all that far, we decided to just start hiking and see where we end up for the night. Stupid idea as we hadn't had a decent nights sleep in days - or well nights - but it did kind of save us a full day in the end.
After walking for about 3 hours through moslty forest and moor, we stop at the Beech Tree Inn for a decent meal. By now of course, it was fully dark outside and we had the slightest idea on where to spend the night. Soon after we started walking again, a friendly Scot who had dinner at the table next to us pulls over and offers us a ride to the closest village Drymen. Yes please. Drymen turned out to be the largest town we'd see until reaching Fort William at the end. It has a population of about 800. We found a bed and breakfast that still had some room for us late evening. The owner immediatly started explaining to us where we could find the local pub, but soon realised all we wanted was a shower and a bed.
Day 2 - Sept 19 - Drymen to Balmaha
Wake up late, even though 8h isn't all that bad given we're on holiday. An hour later, while enjoying our first real Scottish, the first raindrops are already falling down. Most definitely won't be the last. After breakfast, we finally managed to buy some gas canisters, given the original ones are still in Charleroi. A short stop at the local supermarket - a Spar - to get some sugar. And given the rain, we also buy some postcards and spend the morning indoors writing them. Always nice when they arrive before you are back home. But a bit before noon, it really was time to go for a hike. It would become a day to remember, thanks to the wind and rain. We started out walking through pine forests and moor, followed by going straight over Conic Hill. We're really not used to climbing and descending like this.
According to our travel guide, Conic Hill will give you the first magnificent views of Loch Lomond. And although we didn't have a clear view of the loch, I thought the rain and clouds made the scenery only more beautiful. A true loch covered in clouds with small islands scattered around, with the highlands in the far background. All of this viewed from the top of a nearby hill. (I)conic Hill. Somehow it was charming and for a moment I forgot about my heavy backpack, the wind and rain. During our descend Bram made a nice slip downwards. Lucky for him, his pack broke his fall. I guess it's good for something.
Early evening we arrive at the Milarrochy Bay Campsite, at the banks of Loch Lomond, about 1.5 km past Balmaha. We put up our tents and before going for a shower and dry clothes, we needed some dinner. A can of tomato soup with some slices of white bread. Life can be good. We didn't say a single word while consuming our star meal. It wouldn't be the last time on this trip. A simple meal looks a lot more appealing after toiling a heavy backpack through rain all day. To make our happines complete, we had an almost warm shower afterwards. We play some cards and call it a night around 23h. By far the latest we ever went to bed.
Day 3 - Sept 20 - Balmaha to Inversnaid
8 in the morning. Time to get up after a relatively quiet night. Pack up our tents, establish we don't have anything for breakfast and hike out. The campsite had a little store but given we are sligtly outside of season, all they had were some triangle sandwiches, slightly past expiration date.. It'll have to do. In times of need, one can't be too picky.
A nice 11 km walk later, alternating the banks of Loch Lomond with forest, we arrive at Rowardennan. Given there is a youth hostel, we decided to check it out. Nice building with a great view over the loch. Unfortunately they only open at 17h late afternoon. We decide to fill up our water and have lunch. Before heading out again I decided to check the entrance of the hostel again regardless. Which led to the discovery of a candy machine. Not sure how we missed that the first time around. Cheers were heard. We grab some chips and candy bars for a quick sugar rush, and onwards we go! Rowardennan to Inversnaid.
Pretty soon we come at a spot described as bench with a nice view. Excellent spot for some pictures with our praesidium sash. Didn't carry it all this way just to leave it at the bottom of my pack. After a dry but tough walk, in which I had some close encouters with the Scottish soil due to an unfavorably located trunk, we arrived at Inversnaid early evening. The entire village consisted of a hotel and an abandonned boathouse. The hotel restaurant was packed with seniors. I wonder how they got here. We order some simple take-away. A burger with some fries and a coke and sit down on the kerbstones next to the hotel. Another dinners shrouded in silence. Apparently, walking is intensive labour.
After dinner, a short walk to where we will camp, next to the boathouse. We put up our tents as good as we can given the uneven sloped ground of the small patch of grass. The two other Belgians we met earlier this day, already had their tent up on most likely the only somewhat decent spot. During tent construction, we had our first real introduction to the infamous Scottish midgets. Extremely irritating flying little buggers. But we were tough now, after our day at Conic Hill and after some effort, our tents were up!
Accompanied by the other two Belgians, we went back to the hotel for a decent toilet break and to drink a beer. We didn't make it past one coke and heading back to our tents to go to bed. We decide to get up at 7 instead of 8 the next day. Because that's what you do on vacation. Getting up early.
Day 4 - Sept 21 - Inversnaid to Crianlarich
As mentioned, we get up at 7h. Pack up tent. Can't remember if we had something for breakfast this time. We wait for our Belgian companions Kris and Laura to get back from the hotel and ready for another day on the West Highland Way, past the bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. Today consists of two major parts. First 10 km to Inverarnan and then another 11 to Crianlarich. Right after starting off, we pass Rob Roy's cave, but given how done we were with our heavy packs and our travel guide telling us there really isn't much too see, we decide to leave the cave as it is and just hike on.
Bit after 10 we take our first break and somewhat before noon, we spot a nice place at the end of Loch Lomond to have a small ceremony to celebrate the famous loch. We take of our packs, grab our codex, open at page 358 and sing about Loch Lomond. Other tourists passing by give us the strangest looks. Crazy Belgians. We bless our codices with holy loch water, take some pictures of this memorable moment and with high spirits, we continue our high road towards Fort William.
Well our high spirits didn't last very long. The next part proved tough. Really tough. Climbing and descending on narrow rocky paths. Or as our trail guide puts it; Trail squeezed between boulder and tree; rock-strewin craggy ground through hazel; large boulders on open ground beneath crags; climb ladder to bridge over rock slab and waterfall. And of course, the backpack. This probably was the moment we decided to take the bus to Crianlarich in Inversnaid and re-evaluate our plans. We clearly had no idea what we were doing. Our stop at Loch Lomond also took up more time than we intened. We arrive at Inverarsnaid around 14h. We fill up our drinking bottles. A bit needless as we were about to take the bus. But hey. And grab lunch at the self-declared world famous Drovers Inn. Afterwards we go stand by the road at what is supposed to be the bus stop. It looks like any other part of the road but the owner of the Inn ensured us the bus would come and stop. It was one of those villages that are comprised of just one or two buildings.
Half an hour later we had seen a handful of sheep cross the road, one of them lying down in the middle of it, but no bus. Another half hour later, the bus arrived. Our Scottish accent is clearly still underdeveloped as the bus driver didn't understand where we wanted to go. So weended up just pointing it out on the map. Basically we just needed to go to the next stop. Trying to point out where to go probably take as much time as the actual bus trip. A mere 15 minutes later we were already sitting down in the hostel in Crianlarich. We go for a quick trip to the supermarket, again enjoying some good Scottish rain. We take a shower and contact AMS Backpack belivery service. You fill in a form of where you plan to go each day and they make sure your pack gets picked up in the morning and dropped off early afternoon at your destination. Probably the best decision of this entire trip. More time to really enjoy nature given we don't need to worry about all the weight anymore.
We cook some spaghetti and play some poker with some make do poker chips in the form of M&M's. We call it a night at a very respectable hour.
Day 5 - Sept 22 - Crianlarich to Bridge of Orchy
7 in the morning. As our alarm goes of, it is still raining. We pack up and drop off our packs for AMS in the lobby of a nearby hotel. From now on, we just carry one small pack for the three of us, with some food and rain gear. At the local supermarket, we pick up some bread and filling. Today we hike to Bridge of Orchy.
After a short trip through forest, we arrive at the ruins of an old priory. I really like the atmosphere of the old graveyard. It reminds me of the haunted house in The Efteling playing La Dance Macabre.
After another short hike through a pine forest, we arrive at Tyndrum well before noon, halfway between Crianlarich and Bridge of Orchy. We enjoy a soup and bread at the Green Welly Stop. Right when we wanted to leave, Kris and Laura popped in, so we too stayed a little longer.
A bit after 13h though, it was time to cover the remaining 11 km to Bridge of Orchy. Right after Tyndrum, the West Highland Way runs along an old Roman military road. Easy walking, especially compared to the previous days. Thanks Romans. It's still raining though, but we don't care too much. We are freed of our backpacks. Ahead of us, we have a nice view on the conic Munro - a hill above 3000 feet - Beinn Dorain. Late afternoon, we arrive at Bridge of Orchy. Given our stay in a hostel last night, we decide to put up our tents today, right next a bridge over a river. Must be the bridge of Orchy as it is featured an numerous postcards. By the time our tents are up and dinner is ready, Kris and Laura also arrive. Afterwards, the five of us went for a drink in the Bridge of Orchy hotel.
Night was rough with rain and strong winds. I was happy to see in the morning my tent was still more or less upright.
Day 6 - Sept 23 - Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse
Easy getting up at 7 given the weather. We decide to hike out with the 5 of us given the even for Scots bad weather. Quick trip to the hotel to drop our packs and toilet break. First 5 km consist of a nice walk, if the weather would be nice that is, to Inveroran. We make a short detour for a nice view on the surrounding along the way. Given the extra exposure to wind and rain though, we didn't stay long and we walk almost straight on to Kingshouse. No point in taking breaks when the weather is bad and there is nowhere to take shelter. There are a few skislopes at the Glencoe Ski Centre. I really wonder who wants to go skiing here.
We didn't book anything and the hotel only has one 4-person room available. Luckily, the lady is kind enough to host one of us in a neighbouring building. None of us wanted to pitch his or her tent in this ghastly weather. Last night was terrible and the weather didn't really improve.
We spread out all our stuff to dry in our room and have some tea and coffee. After a most welcome shower, we hang out for a while trying to postpone dinner as long as possible. We do laundy in the hotel and go to dinner afterwards. Shower, laundry, some drinks, good dinner and a roof over our head. This must be one of the best nights so far. We still go to bed early though as we are all exhausted. The rowdy Canadians also didn't help.
Day 7 - Sept 24 - Kingshouse to Kinlochleven
Given it's only a short day, we decided the night before to sleep late, in relation to what we were used to. Around 9 we manage to get up and put on our freshly washed clothes. We were too late for breakfast though so we bought some candy to make up for it. Today we reach the highest point on the West Highland Way at the top of Devil's Staircase. It sounds worse than it actually is, especially in this direction, given Kingshouse is already halfway up. The descend towards Kinlochleven was much worse. The first part is parallel to the A82, a big road from Fort William all the way to Glasgow. When we turn away from the road, there is a post indicating the 120km mark of the trail.
Right after, we start the Devil's Staircase. It's a steep path up the hill with a fancy name. A bit after noon we are enjoying the view on top. Which also means exposed to nature. But for once only wind and no rain. Without taking more breaks, we walk straight on to Kinlochleven. A long descend to the valley floor. In Kinlochleven there was a small but nice campground where we put up our tents. We make a trip to the supermarket where Bram ends up buying Salt & Vinegar Pringles. Eeww. And we order some real Scottish breakfast at the Tailrace Inn while enjoying a hot chocolate.
Early evening we cook some macaroni with cheese and go for a drink in a local pub. At which time it started to rain again.
Day 8 - Sept 25 - Kinlochleven to Fort William
Wake up at 7h30, pack up and drop off our pack for AMS for the last time And sprint over to the Tailrace Inn for a great Scottish breakfast. A bit before 10 we finally head out for the last stretch to Fort William. Of course, enjoying a good dose of rain.
22 kilometer is still a fairly decent distance to cover. We start of with climbing 250m. At the top though, we go back to the old military road and hiking becomes easier again. About 9 km further, the Roman road ends and the trail continues on a small path through the forest. We pass by some spots of heavy deforestation, to replant the original species of tree. In the background we again see Ben Nevis, this time heavily shrouded in clouds. The trail continues climing up through a very dense dark pine forest.
Right after these forests, there is an old fortress from the iron age to our right. Given it is our last day, it seemed worthwhile to take the short detour. According to the sign it was only 400m. It looked more like 4000. The sign also forgot to mention it was 400m of climbing and descending. The fortress itself consisted of a U-shaped earth wall. Architecture wasn't a thing in these parts 3000 years ago. The view though was magnificent. Fort William in the far distance, Ben Nevis straight ahead. From here, the West Highland Way descends gradually towards Fort William. The last couple kilometers seemed to last forever. Late afternoon though, we made it to the official terminus. We take some pictures and browse through the giftshop. We say our last goodbye to Kris and Laura and take a taxi towards the youth hostel at Ben Nevis. We hoped to climb to the top but weather is just too bad. We decide to sightsee a few days in Glasgow instead. Thus ending our hike of the West Highland way.
Sept 18 - 25, 2005