Sutherland – bongo and bothies in the far north part 1

by backpackingbongos

It was dark and raining when I arrived in Aviemore. After nearly nine hours in the Bongo I was tired and hungry and needed a good long break from driving. Reuben did not look very impressed when I left him and sat in the fish and chip shop for half an hour. Thankfully all the outdoor shops had closed which meant that no unnecessary damage was done to my wallet. Reuben had the glamour of his dinner in a lay-by and a wee on the side of the A9.

The lights on the Bongo are pretty poor which makes driving in the dark a bit of a chore. I was constantly being dazzled by high-powered halogen bulbs or people who left it late to dip their lights as we made our way north. Not much fun with tired eyes. Twelve hours after leaving home I finally pulled off the road near the summit of the single track road through Glen Loth. I would love to say that when I got out of the van I was mesmerised by the star filled sky. Instead I was greeted by drizzle and even Reuben was not that keen on a quick leg stretcher along the empty road.

 

Ben Griam Mor – 590 metres

Nothing beats opening the blinds of the Bongo in the morning when you have arrived in the dark the night before. The rain during the night had passed and the air felt fresh and clean, a weak sun shining through the remaining clouds. As I sat and ate breakfast in the van there was a mini rush hour on the single track mountain road. It’s an obvious short cut between Strath Kildonan and the busy A9.

It was a scenic drive north to the small village of Kinbrace, which boasts a railway station on the Inverness to Wick line. The place has a real frontier feel about it, surrounded in every direction by bleak open moorland. I continued west along the single track B871, parking just south of the Garvault Hotel, often touted as the remotest on the mainland. It truly is in a wild and woolly spot, miles from anywhere, only a narrow strip of tarmac linking it to the outside world. It took me a while to work out what was missing, there were no power lines or telegraph poles along the road. The only man-made intrusion being a block of commercial forestry.

A rough track led us uphill, Reuben relishing being off lead after spending the day before cooped up in the van. The weather forecast indicated that this would be the best day of the week, the usual sorry tale of wind and rain for the days after. However it was not quite good enough for the big hills due to the wind. The Griam’s were a worthy alternative. They are perfect pyramids rising from the otherwise flat moors, not reaching the magic 2000ft but dominating the area for miles. I thought that they would be great viewpoints over the Flow Country.

The track was soon left for a direct assault across boggy tussocky ground and then the final steep slopes. The view from the summit was as good as I had anticipated, one of the wildest areas of Scotland lay at my feet. It was the Flow Country that really caught my eye, its vast flatness is truly impressive.

A couple of showers rattled through on the strong wind, the sky alternating light and dark with rainbows providing colour. I had planned to climb Ben Griam Beg as well but I decided against it, giving an excuse to return to this magical place (actually more down to laziness). Instead I descended to the north down very steep grassy slopes to Loch Coire nan Mang, the rough track then gave easy walking back to the Bongo.

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A car park is marked on the OS map south of Dalvina Lodge in Strath Naver, along a track roughly a mile from the road. There was no actual sign indicating this when I turned the Bongo off the road later that afternoon and I was a little nervous as I drove down the track. The well hidden car park did actually exist, the starting point for a walk to the clearance village of Rosal. Unfortunately darkness was quickly approaching and I did not get time to explore. However it was a perfect spot to spend a peaceful night in the Bongo.

 

Loch Strathy Bothy

I last came to Sutherland in 2011 and walked into Loch Strathy bothy with Pete from Writes of Way. This wonderful bothy is located right at the edge of the Flows Nature Reserve, slap bang in the middle of one of the UK’s most unique landscapes. I wanted to visit once more before this area is industrialised, buried under miles of tracks and the concrete foundations of numerous giant wind turbines. Since I last visited the Strathy north power station has been consented and is under construction, although the turbines themselves have not gone up yet. The more damaging Strathy south is currently with the Scottish Government awaiting their decision. One more visit for me before the area is bristling with giant spinning machines.

I parked close to the access road to Rhifail, a track taking us past the numerous buildings and directly onto the moor behind. It was a bright and sunny morning but the wind was very strong, making walking difficult. A very wet argocat track went in our direction for a while before deserting us in the middle of some impossible bogs. Alone I was cautious as I slowly walked east towards the block of forestry in which the bothy sits. The final obstacle was a high ladder stile over a deer fence. This proved to be very tricky to get Reuben over on my own, luckily he just froze and let me do what needed to be done.

Being a Saturday I was pleased to get the bothy to myself, although I could not imagine what sort of person would want to trudge out there at the end of October! It was evident from the bothy book that some of the contractors from the wind farm had been living there over the summer months. Not really the intended use of bothies and it was clear that the Maintenance Organiser was not very happy about the fact. The MO is none other than Ralph MacGregor, he has a cracking column in the Caithness Courier and some lovely books on the area. A big pile of those books kept me occupied during the long night in front of a roaring fire. Bothy bliss.

It was interesting to note in the bothy book that it was three years to the day when I had visited with Pete. Further reading made me nervous about going out to the loo in the dark. There had been several recent sightings of a large black cat in the forest. Scare stories or not, the vast remote plantations could easily hide such a creature.

I had carried 5kg of coal over the moors with me, typically there was enough fuel already at the bothy for several nights. I left my contribution to the fire when I set off back to the Bongo the following morning. I wondered to myself if I would ever return, Ralph had made comments to the effect that the bothy would be abandoned if Strathy South gets the go ahead.

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My unlined leather boots had due to some miracle got me to the bothy with dry feet. They totally gave up on the way back to the van. I was totally saturated from the knees down. Reuben also did not look too impressed with his walk across the flow country. With night coming early in the far north there was not much time for any more outdoor activities that day. I drove the Bongo into the Borgie forest following a signpost for the ‘Unknown’ and a night of wind and rain.

 

Strabeg bothy

The plan for the following day had been to walk to and spend a couple of nights in a very remote non MBA bothy on the north coast. I pointed the Bongo in the direction of the village of Tongue where I purchased what is possibly the worlds most expensive diesel. The fuel gauge on the Bongo gave up working a couple of years ago which means that I am over-cautious in an attempt not to run out in remote places.

Half an hour later I parked on a high pass, the starting point for the walk to a bothy that has long been on my ‘must visit’ list. The van was rocking alarmingly, rain sheeting down with even the lowest hills being hidden in a world of murk. My map showed a few rivers that needed to be forded along with a cliff top walk. Reuben gave me a nervous glance from the passenger seat. I drove off in search of alternative adventures.

The MBA Strabeg bothy is located a couple of miles south of Loch Eriboll, looking like a perfect alternative to my original plan. Opening the van door it was torn from my hands and nearly ripped from its hinges. I had to exit from the other side, the wind being so strong. I got my pack together and added a bag of coal and kindling. Nights are long and I did not want to spend one without a fire. Reuben was coaxed out from his warm and comfortable spot during a brief break in the weather. He had earlier refused to even go out for the toilet.

What I thought would be an easy straightforward walk turned into a nightmare. The good track soon turned into a boggy ride across very wet ground. The first stream on the map was totally flooded, I could not even get within twenty metres of the crossing point. I sloshed upstream and found a knee-deep calm section which I crossed carrying Reuben. I really should have turned back at the stream just before the bothy itself. It was a foaming torrent of white water. I found the widest point, dumped my pack and set off with Reuben in my arms. The water was just below my knee at its deepest but a combination of the force and an uneven stream bed made the going very difficult. I deposited Reuben and returned to collect my pack, then made a third crossing. My boots made squelching noises as I climbed the last few metres to our home for the night.

I quickly made myself comfortable, changing out of wet clothes and lighting the fire and some candles. I was very impressed to find that the bothy has a proper flushing loo. A warm and relaxed night was had, wind and rain battering and shaking the bothy. As the rain continued to fall all night I would be lying if I said that I was not worried about getting back to the van the following day.

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32 Responses to “Sutherland – bongo and bothies in the far north part 1”

  1. I just love those expansive views you get up there and the setting of that second bothy looked particularly scenic.
    Looked just a touch on the damp side underfoot though….

    • It was about as wet as it is possible to get Chrissie. It really is big sky country, isolated hills with views for miles around. Love it.

  2. Another excellent piece, James

  3. I love the great wide open spaces. Fine writing and photos James, looking forward to part 2

  4. A great read, thanks.

  5. What stunning views! (The words were, of course, pretty good too!)
    We must get ourselves up that way again. It’s been far too long.

    • It’s a perfect place to take Colin for a holiday Gayle, loads of great out of the way places to park up and spend the night.

  6. All very interesting James, but what moisturiser is best to keep your skin in best condition… And how can I continue to look elegant on the hills?

    Joking aside..

    Great set of photos.
    And a rather fine trip.

    Time for Mr Rye and myself to head out somewhere remote once I have finished in the Panto.

  7. Cracking photos James, excellent write up.

  8. ‘I really should have turned back…’ A suitable epitaph, I feel. Your words and pictures have eloquently captured the profound sogginess of your trip; I particularly like the photos of Strabeg bothy and environs, it looks an entirely splendid spot. The colours are the epitome of autumnal; I’m going to ask TLF to knit me a jumper in exactly those colours…

    • A good quote for my headstone I think Pete. That stile close to the Loch Strathy bothy was a difficult one to get Reuben over on my own, I’m sure that it has grown a couple of feet since we were there. Could I order one of those jumpers from TLF please?

  9. Good for you James for making the effort in trying circumstances! Really is a wild landscape.

  10. Stunning James – you have the energy and spirit of a 17 year-old.

  11. Now that’s proper adventuring. Takes a fair bit of mental strength to keep going in those circumstances especially with Reuben to consider. I’ve had a few stream crossing epics in the past as well. The thing I always tell myself is that the smaller streams tend to recede fairly quickly once the rain stops – key word there is “stops” of course 🙂

    A superb area and a couple of splendid bothies to visit. You get the sense from your photos that you had the entire area to yourself. Just the problem of the 1200 mile return drive from Herefordshire

    • Yep it was pretty much a 1200 mile return from Nottingham, a big dent in my wallet getting the Bongo up there but certainly worth it. I did not see a single person out on any of the days I spent on the hills, truly wild and remote, just as we like it 🙂

      Reuben does need taking into consideration but he is always good company, even when sulking!

  12. Enjoyed the write up of the trip. I’ve been reading your blogs from time to time and enjoy them and the photos. I have just started my own and beginning to get a feel for how the site works. It’s a journey …..

    From this post, I particularly liked the location of the second bothy and made me think I would forward the link to my brother. We disappear off in his motor home for occasional walking weekends but haven’t yet ventured up to Scotland yet. Aiming for a wild camp next year but a bothy might be quite interesting! Are there many in the Lakes? Will shortly post the details of our recent trip to Kinder Scout! Probably not as boggy as your walk though!

    • Thanks John, I will have to venture over and have a look at your new blog. Scotland is perfect for exploring in a motor home, a good place to escape the midges and weather! There are two MBA bothies in the Lakes, have a look at the MBA website and it gives the grid refs. Don’t expect to have them to yourself though, especially at weekends.

  13. Yet another excellent post and it seems to me you are saying farewell to parts of Scotland before they disappear forever under the weight of industrialisation whilst your photographs will in time to become a testament to what the country once was. Finally, your commitment is evidenced by your opening sentence “After nearly nine hours in the Bongo …” and maybe you need to get a super duper set of driving lights that can pick out a bird in a tree at 500 metres, that should encourage other drivers to use low beam.

    • Yes I suppose that I am saying farewell to some parts of Scotland before they change forever. It is very sad what is happening. Still, there is Scandinavia for me to continue exploring 🙂 Those nine hours in the Bongo were rather tiring………

  14. Great post – some wonderfully wild country up there. Stayed at Durness a couple of times and did Ben Hope and Cape Wrath.

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