DAY 5: Helmsdale to Brora – 12.5 miles
My Sunday started well… waking up in a big comfy bed, haggis and freshly made bread for breakfast, and a takeaway cheese sandwich for lunch c/o Ronnie my host. I left Helmsdale about 10:30 and set off for Golspie, 16 miles away. A few people had told me that just south of Helmsdale I would be able to leave the A9 and walk along the beach, potentially all the way to Brora! Tide was high as I walked across the railway line and immediately joined a lovely grass path which followed the coastline. Too easy. About fifteen minutes in, however the grass became too long to wade through so begrudgingly I headed down onto the rocky beach below. The high tide meant most of the available beach was still covered in mid to large boulders and seaweed, so unfortunately from here on it became pretty heavy going. Especially carrying a heavy pack, and wearing my open-toed Merrill sandals…
NB: I am also carrying a pair of closed in trainer style Merrells, which of course would have been perfect for these conditions, but unfortunately on my very first 2.5 hour leg leaving JoG, I got a blister on each little toe from these boots and no amount of compeed plasters will get my feet back in those boots until those blisters have gone. So open toed it would have to be, praying that this afternoon of slip-sliding, sand friction and estuary wading will not damage my feet too much!
Today I met my first end-to-end walker! Susan from Switzerland, who has walked from Switzerland!!! and was on her way to JoG. Susan has been doing shorter days than me and walking it over 6 months but still… what a legend, and she has just the bit I’ve done left to go. I also chatted to another couple staying further up the beach who told me there are limited places to rejoin the A9 – the next chance being at their campsite. I could continue from there up the beach, but I will need to wade through a river mouth at some point… So I was now torn as, as lovely as it was to be on the beach and avoid the concrete, I didn’t fancy wading too deep through a river and besides, I was hardly able to enjoy the view as I seemed to spend my whole time looking down at my feet to make sure I didn’t slip on seaweed or twist my ankle on a rock.
By the time I got to the aforementioned campsite, my sister had called and we had this mad conversation where she helped guide me through the campsite and down on the beach, just by looking at google images. Gotta love technology! Ultimately I wanted to know how deep this river was that I was expected to wade through and by her reckoning it looked doable. Not that I didn’t trust her, but I also asked someone staying at the campsite who confirmed I should definitely keep going along the beach and not rejoin the A9. So keep going I did… and going… going… Thankfully the river wading was doable and more importantly I didn’t fall over on the slimy rocks. Plus after days of wanting, I finally managed to find a secluded spot from where I could sit out of the wind to enjoy my cheese and crisp sandwich. There was also a long stretch where it was simply sand, so I could get back into my stride and simply walk. But to be honest, in between it was becoming torture scrambling across the rocks carrying my heavy load, feeling each sideways slippery step causing some kind of damage to my feet. Approaching Brora it was already 4pm; I knew I was not going to make it onto Golpsie as originally hoped so I limped into town to find somewhere to stay. How ironic that my shortest day walking (12.5 miles) actually took me the longest (6 hours) and for the first time my body, especially my ankles and toes, were in bits.
I’ve now figured on this walk there are going to be two types of “had enough for the day”. The first which I experienced on days 3 and 4 with after severe rain and wind lashing at me all day I arrived at my destination frozen, fed up and wanting to get cosy. Physically however on those two days, by body was absolutely fine. Then there is the second kind of “had enough for the day” like today, when the elements were bearable but physically my body was tested to its limit. So I figured limping into town, knackered but not soggy, I should take the opportunity to get my budget back on track after two nights of B&B by staying in a campsite. Also hoping that I’ll be so knackered that I’ll just pass out in my little bivi before I’ve even noticed my soggy surroundings. Hhhhmmmmm might have to re-think this little observation.
After arriving in the centre of Brora I asked at the first B&B I came to (which was full) where to find a campsite… only to be told, it was a mile back out the way I’d just limped in. The look on my face must have said it all, as she immediately offered to drive me back out there. At the campsite I coughed up my £8 and set up my bivi – which was actually still wet, along with my sleeping bag, from the night in JoG! Ooppps obviously didn’t dry it out enough back in Thurso. Apart from being ultra light, the only other good thing about the bivi tent is it takes about a minute to put up! Thankfully, just as I did the rain started… and it never let up. With nowhere dry to sit I basically had to take to my bivi at 5:30pm and somehow try forget that I was cooped up in a damp coffin, that got more damp, soggy and closed-in as each hour passed until I literally found myself lying in a soaking wet oppressive moisture holding cold sauna like pod. Honestly, it was actually worst than that but I am cannot think of bad enough adjectives to go it justice! The only saving grace is that the inside of my sleeping bag was miraculously warm and dry. But with the top of my head already wet, I literally couldn’t move at all. Dinner that night consisted of a whole packet of Scottie shortbread biscuits (well there were 9 in the packet and I ate 8!) and reckon I slept about 20 minutes out of each hour, clock watching until the rain finally eased up at 5am and I could get the hell out of there.