Day 1- Milngavie to Balmaha – 20 miles
It was a lovely dry sunny cloudy day with a slight breeze, the perfect walking weather. We dropped our bags off with Gregg from Baggage Freedom at the train station and set off from Milngavie start point at 9am. We planned to stop at Drymen for lunch, although we packed one just in case. We were glad we did. For one, it was too nice a day to go inside anywhere to eat, and two, we would’ve had to have taken a detour into Drymen and we didn’t really want to stray from the path on the first day. I was a bit paranoid about getting lost, to be honest, so was happy to eat lunch in sheltered spot just past Drymen. I did download the WHW app TREKRIGHT and this was great for telling us distance covered, distance to go and showed trail tracking clearly – the whole way! It was also useful having it on phone and not having to dig out a map that would’ve been useless to me anyway as I am hopeless at getting my bearings.
The walk was lovely, not too energetic although we did keep up a good pace. The last bit up conic hill slowed our tired legs, but when we hit the top and saw the other side we knew it would take longer getting down it than up it. Forgetting it was a Sunday, and people from Balmaha were out for a predinner/ post lunch stroll, it seethed like an active anthill. We couldn’t see the path for people. We got to Balmaha at 4pm and headed to the Oak Tree Inn, just a couple of minutes walk away. Bags waiting for us, what a lovely feeling. The room was lovely, twin beds and very fresh and clean. Very bright and welcoming kettle too.
As vegans, our biggest fear was we’d be eating chips and salad all week. I did ask all the hotels I’d booked if they did vegan options for breakfasts and dinners and ALL confirmed they did. The Oak Tree Inn at first said they were offering a limited menu, but when I said I’d already been told there would be vegan options, the waiter went to check with the chef. He came back to offer us a couple of options (can’t remember one of them – veggie burger?) and we opted for the chickpea curry with rice and chapatti. Was very tasty but I should’ve asked for more rice as we were starving.
We had a lovely sleep and in the morning were offered a vegan Scottish breakfast. This was vegan sausages, mushrooms, beans, tomatoes and toast. Tea or coffee and fruit juice. Soy milk and almond milk were on offer too for tea and for cereals if you wanted them. I was worried about breakfast and had packed some avocados, which I had on toast. So OAK TREE INN gets a big tick on vegan options. You could also ask for packed lunches to be made up. Since we had planned to stop at Rowardennan to eat, we took our own snacks.
Notes – wore trail shoes as was dry, running gear layers. Never needed waterproofs at all. Took a bin bag to sit on at lunch time.
Day 2 – Balmaha to Inverarnan – 21 miles
Weather torrential, as you would expect for Scotland. When I looked at the WHW website elevation map, this looked like the easiest of days with regards to that. WRONG! The night before we heard three guys talking to others that they had spent three hours longer than expected on this part it was so waterlogged and full of boulders that you had to take time for foot placement. We looked at each other and thought nah they must’ve have done something different! WRONG AGAIN! We set off in full waterproofs and I had on my vegan hillwalking boots. I’ve worn these for over a year with no problem, but normally not done right up. For some stupid reason, I thought with it being so wet I should do them right up tight. WRONG! Never do anything new or different! Also, my sister had bought new boots (exact same make as her old ones she never had any problems with) that were supposed to be waterproof – WRONG, SO WRONG! The first 8 miles to Rowardennan were easy walking. Apart from the weather, we felt we were making excellent time. The Rowardennan Hotel was shut to walkers and only open to residents but the conservatory area, way around the back, was luckily open and had a wonderful open fire. It was mobbed with drenched walkers all in their (nearly) underwear or bottommost layers, with their outermost layers draped on chairs around the fire. We blissfully enjoyed hot vegan lentil soup and roll and soft drink while our outer layers stunk up the place along with everyone else’s around the fire.
In fact, we stayed too long really, setting off for the next 12 miles around the lochside later than planned. Big mistake! This part was like something out of an Indiana Jones film. Seriously, if a fireball came out the sky at any moment, I wouldn’t have been surprised! There were fallen trees everywhere blocking the path that you either had to scramble under (taking back pack off sometimes too) or climb over. Some bits were so near the water one wrong move and splash! – as happened to one of the folk we met along the way. Because of the rain, many parts were so flooded your boots were well submerged – like the whole boot, up to our knees. So much for waterproof boots. Only waders would’ve saved you. Either that or take your boots and socks off, which in retrospect would’ve been the sensible thing to do but even more time consuming. The footing was very time consuming; one wrong placement and goodbye ankles. Walking sticks would’ve been handy on this part.
This “adventure” went on for hours and hours and seemed never ending. Really. We had assumed we’d get in about five or six o’clock latest. After all the scrambling lochside the path veers inland. Well by this time we had no blood sugar. That lunch was well gone and we were both babbling, swaying and brainfogged as we trampled inland. We realised this when my sister faceplanted and just lay there. She said she wasn’t hurt but by then we were shaking so much she couldn’t get up. We had some crisps and tangerines and dragged ourselves onward. This kicked in for her fifteen minutes later when she picked up pace and I was practically jogging to keep up. This bogland and last uphill desolate part seemed to go on forever and ever. It was like one of these never ending dreams. I don’t even remember the end. Oh no, wait I do. When we reached the Beinglas campsite I checked the app and saw that The Drover’s Inn was off the main road and anther half a mile away from the WHW path. I could have cried when I realised this. At this point I just wanted to roll down the hill. I even considered begging for a lift from someone at the campsite, but drenched as we were it wasn’t a good idea. We managed to stomp on.
I just remember standing in the Drover’s Inn reception at eight o’clock and the girl on reception felt so sorry for us she took both our cases over to our cabins for us. Our feet were soaked through, we had blisters on blisters, our clothes were drenched. We were so cold and weak with hunger we cried, really cried, sitting on the floor as we tried to strip off to shower to warm up. My sister’s blisters were like something from a horror movie and the urgency was to get to the bar to get food before it shut. Pretty sure we were in shock! We got over to the bar to find they had a huge and impressive vegan menu. We opted for cottage pie, which was utterly divine, and VEGAN ICE CREAM! Did you hear that? I said VEGAN ICE CREAM! That was a fantastic reward after a horrendous day.
We really did think if it was going to be like that the next day (elevation looked ten times worse than day 2 elevation) maybe we shouldn’t go on! Plus we were terrified our feet wouldn’t be in fit shape – my sister’s blisters, and because I had tightened my boots I had large swellings on my shins. I only had a few blisters though. We slept like logs after tending to our wounds and got up for breakfast wondering if we could do this. The Drover’s Inn cabin was lovely and had plenty heating to dry our soaking wet clothes. We had a lovely twin room again. And very spacey. Just as well, because we were so tired, we’d both opened our cases and left them open on the floor. The kettle in the room was perfect for that extra cuppa to warm us up. We brought herbal teabags.
Day 3 – Inverarnan to Bridge of Orchy – 19 miles
Ok. Breakfast again had excellent vegan options fry up like day before and soy milk too. We were enjoying our food options. Being too late the night before for ordering a packed lunch I went to buy some bread, crisps and juice from the bar only to have them offer to make us up lunchpacks after all. We also decided, after the lack of food the day before, to stop for 15-20 mins at 7 mile intervals and eat then go on. So our first planned stop was where the path diverts to Crianlarich. No problemo! We breezed that part. Passing loads of folk we were now seeing at regularly as they too were doing the 5 day plan. This gave us a great boost after the fiasco of the day before. But we weren’t getting our hopes up as we had no idea what to expect. Sister changed socks regularly too as her blisters were constantly filling up and she was walking on the side of her foot to protect them and this was damaging her ankle. I had not done my boots up at the ankle but even so the damage was done and I was getting shooting pains up my shin. Wasn’t sure if it was nerve pain from the swelling or if it was the start of a shin splint. Regardless, we carried on. Weather was OK. Smir now and again but nothing like the torrential storms of the day before.
Our next stop was Tyndrum. We knew there was a vegan café there, we weren’t sure how far we’d have to veer off course to get to it and we weren’t really wanting to stop. We were finding it more difficult to get started when we stopped- so we were keeping it to the minimum. By Tyndrum we passed the Green Welly Stop and the path went right past a supermarket. We didn’t stop. As the sun came out we stopped for fifteen minutes outside a campside on a wall and ate our next snack and painkillers (yep, that’s how bad we were getting. We normally never take painkillers). The last part to the Bridge of Orchy hotel was a gentle climb and then a drop to the hotel. We got in at four o’clock – way earlier than expected and had time to tend our wounds, shower, do our hair and rest before dinner. What a hotel. Our cabin was luxury and had a patio door that opened to a grassy area. It was vegan fine dining that night – I kid you not! I had BBQ braised carrots and my sister had roasted garlic cabbage. The servings were decent, but we added a portion of chips too just in case. We had a lovely restful evening and a great sleep. Still apprehensive about whether we’d be able to walk in the morning though.
Day 4 – Bridge of Orchy to Kinlochleven – 21 miles
Again, vegan breakfast offerings as before. We were in our element. We left, as usual, at nine. Our aim was to get to the Kings House Hotel, 12 miles in, and get lunch but snack on way, if needed. We knew we would have an ascent of 1000 feet to get there and a downhill of about 800 odd. We were more worried about the downhill with our injuries and blisters. We didn’t realise this was Rannoch moor, although we did mention it was rather exposed on parts, but weather was ok and clothing was appropriate. We tanked this part quite quickly and got to the Kings House Hotel in good time, about 12.30pm, and didn’t want to stop for lunch. We were worried we wouldn’t get through the day with the pain we were in and still had a climb At that point we hadn’t realised it was the devil’s staircase ahead of us – it wasn’t till we were at top we said, “you think that was the devil’s staircase”? So we lunched on the hoof slowly. Sister changed socks. After we got over the staircase and started down the other side we stopped again for a sock change (this really helped her blisters) and then ate some more snacks. The downhill was fine and we arrived at the bottom quite quickly, about 4ish again. The MacDonald hotel was situated right near the path of the WHW and the views were truly astonishing. The room was lovely too and again had plenty places to dry our wet gear. We collected our bags, changed out of smelly clothes, leaving shower till later and got down to eat for 5pm. Tonight, we just wanted chips. There wasn’t much on the menu for vegan options (I think a veggie burger was there), but we wanted chips. And the onion rings were vegan too, so we each had chips and rings – no sharing. After this, we went to our room and showered, tended our wounds again, and enjoyed the rest. We bought crisps and rolls and water for lunch then next day, knowing there was nowhere between here and Fort Bill to get anything. We would’ve loved to have gone a walk at night and seen the stars as it was quite clear but our feet were too sore to go anywhere.
The next day, breakfast offered was the same vegan fry up options. We also got extra juices to add to our lunches. We were just about to leave when some folk were discussing a luggage problem. They knew we were staying at the same place and warned us that the Travelodge in Fort William weren’t storing bags as there was no reception or security for them because of their covid policies. Strangely, every other hotel had managed this feat no problem at all – and in fact found out later that our cases had been disinfected more times than a sanatorium. Someone had offered that we contact our carrier and tell him to leave our bags under his name at the Alexander Hotel. This poor guy had already 8 bags under his name. We phoned Gregg (Baggage Freedom) who said this was no problem; he would wait for us at our hotel and hand them over. So we didn’t need to worry about them at all. What a relief!!
Day 5 – Kinlochleven to Fort William – 15 miles.
We knew there was to be 2000ft ascent and descent that day. And the climb out of Kinlochleven looked daunting but the staff at the hotel assured us that it was only about a 20 minute walk (they were young, very young). I’m sure it wasn’t, but it wasn’t as exhaustive – especially just after breakfast – as I imagined it would be. It was actually pleasant. The weather was cloudy and mild, with smir on and off. We’d got into the habit of taking our jacket on and off while walking and just taking our arms out of our backpack, while it was still attached around our waists and slipping it back on again. Then it was really a pleasant walk to the ruins (well pleasant if we weren’t now in severe pain – blisters and me my shin and sister and her ankle). We got to 7 miles in and saw some folk we’d been friendly competing with over the days, stop for a break. We were too scared to stop at this point in case we couldn’t get up, and we didn’t want to be too late back for Gregg and our bags, so decided to carry on hobbling and eat at same time. Again sis changed socks not long after that and we stomped off. The sun came out for some of it and it was a long walk into Glen Nevis. That last 3 miles downhill seemed never-ending. If we’d been in normal condition we’d have enjoyed a jog out. Once down we had the mile or so walk along the pavement into town to sit beside the wee man on the bench. Once we got the obligatory photo, we went to the van with our bags where Gregg waited patiently. It was about 3.30pm. Of course when we got into Travelodge there was security, who confirmed their policy was not to take bags, and then up to reception, which was not supposed to be manned but was, who also said they didn’t take bags because it wasn’t manned all the time (it was while we came and went). Anyway since we were getting a ride home with Gregg the next day (anytime between 2.30 and 5pm) we then had to worry about what we’d do with our bags after checkout. The Travelodge room was lovely and fresh and had all the same amenities. I chose there because it was literally right at the end of the walk. BUT if I’d known about the bag situation I might have chosen elsewhere. We were just lucky Gregg from Baggage Freedom provided such an excellent service. Meantime, we got quickly changed and went for food at the Wildcat Café which is fully vegan and we’d seen pics of cake on their facebook page! There we had huge choices but settled on soup and sourdough, hummus, soft drinks and yes – cake!!
I stupidly put on my inch high wedged trainers and by then my shin was louping so badly, and my sisters ankle and blisters were so painful it took us fifteen minutes to walk the allegedly three minute walk back to the hotel! Next day, we slept late, couldn’t be arsed going out for breakfast or lunch, so devoured our stack of goodies that we didn’t want to take home anyway. Worried about getting tossed out and having to haul luggage for three hours or so, my sister suggested late check out – why didn’t I think of that?? Anyway, £10 later we had late checkout till 2pm. When we did leave, Gregg was already there waiting on people to come off the walk for the ride home. So he took our bags and we went to sit in the sun, was a gorgeous day, and watch walkers come in. At half threeish we got on the transport with the others that had finished that day and had a fab ride home sharing stories. We were even dropped home right to our door. Baggage Freedom are the BEST!
Some people make this journey to find themselves. I personally did it to find my ribs. I’d hoped the exercise would help me lose kgs. Sadly all I lost was a few layers of skin from my toes, and a sock. I did find camaraderie, hilarity (or maybe that was hysteria), lovely fellow walkers, strength I didn’t know I had and the knowledge that beans for breakfast are never a good choice. I never did find my ribs. So, in all, we had great food, never had to worry once about vegan options, we did it in five days and (apart from day 2) really fast considering our injuries, had great baggage and home transport that I’d thoroughly recommend, and learned so much from the experience I want to do it again!
Addendum – midges – two bites on me, sister none. I’d taken vit b1 daily for a couple of weeks before and sis took vit B complex. It seems midges do not like the smell of it in your sweat and therefore don’t bite. This either worked really well or we were just lucky that there weren’t many midges about. Although, I do remember going through swarms at the lochside. But as I was distracted by the terror of surviving, I didn’t pay too much attention. But I’d recommend it. It was preferential to the citronella spray I’d made up that I’d carried in my backpack.