448: Gearnsary

OS Explorer map 448, Strath Naver & Loch Loyal: Bettyhill – I own this map, but had not visited it before starting this blog. Visited for this post 11th August 2019. This is the second of three posts about my summer 2019 walking trip with Hueler, from Kinbrace to the Crask Inn in the north of Scotland over three days.

My previous post described the start of my walking trip with Hueler: namely the rail journey, taking a day or so, from our Cambridge homes up to Kinbrace station in the north of Scotland, and then a few miles of walking along the B871 to the head of Loch Badanloch, where we left behind both the last paved road we’d see for two days, and the first of three map areas we’d be covering on the trip.

A map showing the route that Hueler and I walked on this trip (the purple line), and also the OS Explorer map areas covering the region. As you can see, we entered map 448 just a few miles into our walk, around the point where we left the B871 road. Our overnight stops were at Gearnsary and the Loch Coire bothy, so it’s mostly the second half of our first day’s walk that’s in areas unique to this map. The full route was about 39 miles. (Created using the OpenTopoMap layer on GPSVisualiser.com. The red rectangle on the map of northern Scotland in the lower right is to show the area covered by the main map.)

It was around 4pm when we got up from our break near Badanloch Lodge, leaving the road to start the 5 miles or so more walking that we had to do that afternoon to get us to Gearnsary, our rest stop for the night. That whole distance, along with the first section of our next day’s walk, would be along an estate track that eventually leads on to Loch Choire Lodge, at the northern end of the loch of the same name. [1]

Looking backwards along the track, with Loch Badanloch on the left

The walk passed pleasantly enough, as we first crossed the River Helmsdale, passed along the southern end of Loch Badanloch for a while, before curving away southwards past a smaller loch and eventually on to Gearnsary. We weren’t into properly mountainous country – that would come the next day – and were instead surrounded by empty green-brown hills and boggy expanses.

A little jetty on Lochan an Alltan Fheàrna

The same farmer who’d passed us with his trailer of dogs on the road earlier in the day did so again on this track, but the most exciting occurrence was when we saw a giant herd of deer making its way across the hillside in front of us. It was a grey day, and they were quite hard to make out when still, but then they’d start moving and the whole herd would suddenly pop into your awareness, right where you couldn’t see them just a moment before.

A herd of deer, visible on a hillside ahead of us

Gearnsary, where we planned to stay for the night, is an isolated bothy – bothies being basic shelters in wilderness areas of Scotland (though there are also a few in England and Wales), usually old cottages, which are left unlocked for the use of anyone passing through. Lots of bothies are kept maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association, such that they’re fully weatherproof, usually having things like sleeping platforms and working fireplaces or stoves that one can use if one’s brought wood. Some others are similarly maintained, but just by the local estate – the Loch Choire Estate has two such, one of which we’d be staying at the next night. Gearnsary is much more basic, being an old cottage that’s been left open “as is”, and also being used as a bit of a farm store.

We were aware of the bothy at Gearnsary from some reports of it on various blogs and forums (e.g. these: 1 2 3 4), which also mentioned that it wasn’t in great repair, so while we planned to stay the night at the site, we had our tent with us, so we could decide where to sleep when we arrived.

We arrived at Gearnsary soon enough, and went inside for a poke around. We decided that we would sleep inside – it was admittedly quite dusty, and there was light showing through the roof in some spots, but overall it seemed serviceable enough. I can understand that some might have chosen otherwise, but I just much prefer the larger amount of space to move around in to the confines of a tent, and it’s nice being out of the wind. Someone had also thoughtfully made an improvised bench by placing two planks – one for a seat, one for a back – between two sets of wooden pallets propped up against each other.

After a bit of rest, we went about the various tasks of setting up camp for the evening – getting things out of bags, thinking about dinner and so on. It was at this point that we made an unfortunate discovery: we’d need to fetch some water from the nearby stream, to refill our bottles and cook dinner, but it turned out I’d forgotten my water purifying tablets. I’d ordered some new tablets when preparing for the trip, since I’d noticed that all the ones I already had were out of date, but frustratingly, it looked like I’d forgotten to pack them.

Filling up on water at the stream at Gearnsary

After a bit of a think, we decided we felt safe enough drinking from the stream, as it was pretty fast-flowing; we’d just have to take care the next day to fill up whenever we came across a similar opportunity, to avoid having to drink from less ideal sources – though if it came to it, we could always boil everything. However, upon filling up our bottles, we soon discovered that the water was an alarming brown colour, and we weren’t quite sure what to think about that – it was as this point that the thought came to us to ask for help.

Being eight miles from the nearest road, it’s not surprising that Gearnsary has no phone signal; however I had my little GPS tracker / satellite communicator with me, from which I can send text messages if I don’t mind paying some fairly high price per message. I texted my school friend Geochunderer, who’s more experienced in Scotland’s hills than I, and he informed me that stream water in the Highlands is often this colour due to peat deposits, and the colour doesn’t mean it’s not drinkable. We therefore went ahead and used the water, which seemed to go fine. Hueler did feel a little ill on the way home on the train two days later, which might have been the water – but we think that was due to some Huel-related happenings rather than the water – you can read about those in my next post!

The alarmingly-coloured (but probably fine) water

We soon settled down into the bothy for the night, making our respective dinners – I went for a double portion of instant pasta, while Hueler, of course, was on the Huel. We then passed some time reading and inventing card games before hunting for suitable sleeping spots on the cobbled floor, getting out our mats and sleeping bags, and going to sleep. I slept pretty well, and am glad the bothy was there for us!

While Huel never looks great, I think that “made with yellow water” is definitely not its best look

The next morning, it was time to set off for our first full day of walking. We’d be continuing along the same track for a little while, but it would soon be time to turn off in order to climb up to the area around Ben Armine. Since we entered map 443 just a couple of miles into this day’s walk, I’ll leave it until my next post to tell you about it!

A sign on the track to Loch Choire Lodge, a little after we left Gearnsary. We wouldn’t be taking the route the sign imagines, but we did indeed walk from Badanloch to the Crask Inn!

[1] The Loch Choire Estate, like most highland estates, is run as a sporting estate for deer stalking and fishing. I didn’t realise until I looked it up just now that Loch Choire Lodge itself caught fire in 2013: a brochure from when the estate (32,000 acres!) was sold two years later, and says that “the site has been cleared to allow a new owner the opportunity to build a lodge specific to their requirements”. I wonder whether that’s happened!

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