Today I left Fort William in what felt like spanking new gear, at least compared to my sweat-soaked and highly unpleasant journey from Kinlochleven. Fort William is a good place to stock up on bits and bobs for the trail, and as well as doing all the usual jobs yesterday like getting my form stamped at the Post Office and visiting the supermarket to drool over the aisles of luxury items, I also treated myself to a heavy-duty laundry session and – long overdue – a completely new pair of walking boots.
Normally laundry wouldn't be worth mentioning, but in Fort William it's an issue. When I asked the lady at my guest house whether she could help me with some washing, she said that she was completely snowed under, having just come back from Inverness, and there was no chance of her doing any more. This was a bit of a pain, as my clothes smelled as if I'd been sweating bile, but she was adamant and I didn't press the issue.
'Never mind,' I said. 'Is there a laundrette in town?'
'Um, I dunno,' she said. 'I think there might be one in Claggan, but I'm not sure if it's still there. You could always check.'
So I set off yesterday morning for the neighbouring suburb, where I totally failed to find anything at all: no shops, no high street, nothing but a lonely bypass. So I asked the man in the local tyre garage if there was a laundrette in town.
'Yeah, I think so,' he said. 'Try up these steps, in front of the houses, turn right at the fork, go up the hill, and it should be somewhere round there.'
'Thanks very much,' I said and proceeded to get totally lost at an unexpected junction. Luckily there was an old man walking through the houses, so I asked him the same question.
'Ooh, I don't know,' he said. 'I don't need a laundrette myself. But I think there might be one in the industrial estate over there; you go down here, turn right, and keep on going. Try asking in the car dealer round the corner.'
'Thanks very much,' I said and tracked down the industrial estate, where I couldn't for the life of me find anything resembling a cleaners. So I asked a burly man who was walking in the opposite direction and he shrugged his shoulders.
'I think there's one in here somewhere,' he said. 'But I live here and I can never find my way round this damn place either. Hang on, there's a list of companies over there; let's have a look.'
And there they were, in unit number seven, around a couple more corners and past the hamburger van. It was a huge, industrial cleaning factory that looked nothing like the tiny Laundromat I'd been expecting; I looked at my little bag of washing and wondered if I was going to be worth their while.
'Hello,' I said to the lady behind the counter. 'I don't know if you can help me, but I've got a nuclear bag of walking gear that I need washing, if that's possible.'
'Sure,' she said. 'But our minimum charge for a load is seven pounds, I'm afraid.'
'Seven pounds?' I said. 'That's a bit steep. Um, do you mind me asking if you're the only laundry service in town?'
'Aye, we are,' she said. 'People even come from Oban and Inverness to use us.'
'Ah,' I said. 'Then I guess I haven't got much choice then, because these really need cleaning.'
'Hang on,' she said, smiling kindly at my plastic bag. 'I'll go get the boss, she might be able to help.' So the boss wandered over and explained how their machines were all pretty large and how the water rates meant they had to charge a minimum price... but she could do it for £5, because I'd walked so far. I jumped at it and left my radioactive bag with the lady, which meant that this morning I was able to head out onto the trail without being arrested for vagrancy.
My second mission yesterday was to buy some new walking boots. My Berghaus boots finally gave up the ghost about 100 miles ago, and they only got this far because I've been taping up the front of each boot, trying to stop the seams from splitting. By the time I arrived in Fort William the dent in the front had finally become a hole, and as much as it pained me, I had to concede that they simply wouldn't last for another 200 miles as the insides were starting to show through the toes. Sad though it was, I just had to retire them.
Luckily Fort William is geared up for outdoor sports and the large outdoors store I visited had an excellent range of footwear, so I bought the shoes with the hardest tread and the softest body I could find. They're made by a Swiss manufacturer called Raichle and come highly recommended by the enthusiastic man in the shop, and today I road-tested them for the first time, packing my knackered old boots as well for when the blisters got too bad.
It took five minutes for me to start worrying. I could have sworn there hadn't been a strange lump under the front ball of my right foot when I tried them on in the shop, but there it was, instantly irritating the very part of my foot that made hobbling along the Forth and Clyde Canal such an ordeal. I also bought a new pair of socks back in Fort William – I'm always up for trying another blister-free claim and this time I'm trying out something called Smartwool, because you never know when one of these crazy schemes might work – but they didn't feel right either and I swore I could already feel the blisters starting to form.
I started to panic and wondered how I was going to manage 22.5 miles along canal towpaths and cycle tracks with the blisters already on their way. £100 is a lot to spend on shoes that start rubbing before you've even left the suburbs, but I figured that I might as well try to prevent a complete disaster and peeled off my socks to stick a blister plaster underneath the front of each foot. And so I warily walked on, wincing at every hint of a rub and re-tying my shoelaces every few hundred metres to try to find the least uncomfortable fit.
Well, blow me if I forgot about the whole thing after another 15 minutes and walked the entire day's walk without giving blisters another thought. I can't believe it; these boots have turned out to be the most comfortable I've ever worn, and they must have taken less than two miles to break in. Compare that to my Berghaus monsters, which were still lacerating my feet regularly after a few hundred miles, and I think we may have a winner. I assumed I was going to have to carry my old boots for a week or so while the new ones loosened up, but when I got to Loch Lochy Youth Hostel this afternoon I took their photograph for old time's sake and dumped them in the bin. It was an emotional goodbye after 900 miles of togetherness; I couldn't wipe the smile off my face.
Getting Better All the Time
I might have achieved a lot in Fort William, but I still did it through the haze of nausea. Food poisoning might be easy to get out of the stomach but it's a darn sight harder to get out of the system, and although I woke up this morning feeling a whole lot better, I still haven't got my appetite back. That always takes a couple of days longer.
But at least I didn't wake up to dizzying weakness and cold sweats, and by the time I reached the Caledonian Canal, a couple of miles into today's walk, I felt something strange tugging at the sides of my forehead. I thought I'd walked into a spider's web, but I couldn't wipe it off and it took me another minute or two to realise what it was. By then my first smile in five days had spread down through my shoulders, into my arms and legs and down into my feet, and suddenly my bounce came back.
I don't notice it because I rarely watch myself walking, but when I walk, I bounce; this could explain why my boots tend to give up the ghost rather more quickly than they should, but another side effect is that when I'm run down, I start walking like normal people, with my head staying at the same level. This morning I felt my bounce return, so I know that even though I'm still a little queasy, at least I'm slowly returning to form, which may come as a relief to those of you who've just ploughed through the last few days of miserable, self-pitying waffle.
Not only is my bounce back, but so is the good walking. I'm now following the Great Glen Way, a 73-mile national trail that links up with the West Highland Way in Fort William and goes all the way along the Great Glen to Inverness, taking in Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness. The trail was only opened in 2002 and as such it hasn't had time to become the kind of tourist trap that the West Highland Way seems to be, which is a relief. Now that I've finished the West Highland Way I can look back, safe in the knowledge that I really didn't enjoy it that much. A lot of this was down to the poor weather that hit the highland stretch, the injury I sustained while jogging along Loch Lomond and the bacterial surprise that hit me in Kinlochleven, but even if you strip these away, I still wasn't that impressed. I loved Loch Lomond, but the part I enjoyed best was the southern section, and most of that is easily accessible by car, so it's hardly an experience that's unique to long-distance walkers; however the mountains and moors were miserable in the low cloud, and with the midges and clegs making every pit-stop an irritation, I'm happy to be out of there.
I also found most other walkers on the track pretty mundane, which surprised me. Either they didn't speak a great deal of English, in which case they nodded a quick hello and moved on; or they were in couples, and stayed that way; or they were socially inadequate, like the rude family who blanked me at lunch; or they were interesting, funny, outgoing and the life and soul of the party, in which case they ducked out of the door as soon as they saw me coming and hid convincingly for the entire trip. No, the West Highland Way didn't do it for me, but even though I've only done just under one-third of the Great Glen Way, I already love it. It's everything that the West Highland Way isn't; it's quiet, it's friendly, it's beautiful, it's out of the way and it's good walking (so far, anyway). Hurrah.
The Great Glen Way
For most of the first day the Way follows the Great Glen cycle route, which means that the going is easy and the track quality is excellent, but for me the best aspect of the whole day was the proximity to water. After getting out of Fort William as quickly as possible the Way joins the Caledonian Canal for about six or seven miles, and then long, thin Loch Lochy takes over for the rest of the day to South Laggan. It's dreamy.
Even the canal part of the Way is interesting, a welcome relief after the mundane canals of the central region. More like a river than a canal, the Caledonian was built to take seafaring vessels from one coast to the other, removing the need for the treacherous journey around the top of the British Isles. It was built by Thomas Telford over an 18-year period in the early 19th century and went hugely over-budget, but it's an impressive sight. At the western end the canal starts with a huge line of consecutive locks called Neptune's Staircase; I tried to count them as I walked past, but I lost count halfway, there were so many. According to the Ordnance Survey there are eight locks in the Staircase, each of them sharing its top gate with the bottom gate of the next lock, but that isn't the impressive thing. The impressive thing is the sheer size of this canal.
Gone are the narrow boats of the canals of southern England; instead the Caledonian is full of seafaring yachts, massive motorboats and fishing trawlers, the kinds of vessel you normally only see on the coast. I saw pretty sloops, a couple of yawls, a luxury cruiser and a whole flotilla of two-deck motorboats, and that was what made the Caledonian so impressive. It links Fort William and Inverness by connecting the long, thin lochs of the Great Glen, but it does it on the scale of Suez. This isn't a canal with pretty little pubs and locks you can hop across; here the lock gates are motorised and carry eight or ten boats at a time. It's another world.
And so is Loch Lochy. Where Loch Lomond is beautiful for its steep sides and pretty little beaches, Loch Lochy is beautiful for its sweeping vistas. At one stage the Way ducks off the cycle route and down to the loch shore, and instead of the winding, sheltered passage of the West Highland Way, the path wanders along open stone beaches with the loch visible beside you in all its glory. Despite being overrun with hungry midges, the 12-mile walk along its shore is a picture; Loch Lochy is a lovely lake, even if that might be hard to say after a few beers.
In the Bag
I don't normally bother to write about what I eat unless it's particularly good, but I have to tell you about the incredible meal I had in Loch Lochy Youth Hostel. Back in Greenhead, when I last saw Matt, I bought a bunch of emergency rations off him, as I figured at some point I would probably end up off the beaten track with no shops, no pubs and no pizza delivery. I was right; South Laggan is such a place.
Luckily I'd been warned about the hostel's isolation, so I decided I might as well tuck into my emergency rations so I wouldn't have to carry them any further. From hereon the walking is hardly dangerous – the Great Glen Way goes to Inverness and then it's a week of hugging the coast along roads and paths – and tucking into my rations seemed a good way to kill two birds with one stone. Matt had proudly told me that these were the best mountaineering rations that he'd ever tasted, and as I watched him make himself one of them back in Alston, I figured it would be interesting to try one. It was.
Actually, I'm seriously impressed with Matt's rations. They're freeze-dried and vacuum-packed into packets that weigh about 150g, and all you do to reconstitute the meal is rip off the top of the packet, add boiling water to the fill line, give it a good old stir, seal the packet along its pinch-seal and leave it for five minutes. And that's it.
I expected them to taste like most freeze-dried meals – a cross between sawdust and a poor man's Pot Noodle – but these rations, produced in Norway by a company called Drytech, are actually rather good. Check out the ingredients for the chicken curry I ate tonight; it contained rice, chicken meatloaf, onion, wheat flour, red paprika, vegetable oil, bouillon, curry, salt, seasoning and an anti-oxidant (ascorbic acid). The only E-number in that lot is the last one, which is a step up from most instant meals, and a 150g packet reconstitutes to 500g of curry, which contains a respectable 665 calories of energy.
I wouldn't want to live on them, but then I wouldn't want to walk endlessly for the rest of my life; as a light trekking foodstuff, though, these rations are great. Clever buggers, those Norwegians.