"Do you want to check our tickets?"
"No. I'm expecting 11 and I see 11."
So the 12 capacity 'Interceptor 2' leaves the port of Mallaig, a place still vibrant with the hum of wooden boatbuilding, laid out in stacked planks, the airborne smell of rust from grinders, an old man sat on a milk crate with his back to the sullen sea, making a template.
We're going to Knoydart, starting with the village of Inverie. One of Britain's last wildernesses, Knoydart is a mountainous, largely uninhabited peninsula, whose one village has no road access and is either reached by a seriously day's hard walking or this ferry. It boasts Britain's most remote pub , 'The Old Forge'. Excited at the prospect of a pint in such a setting, I mention it to the other passengers. There's a sucking of cheeks, and an 'Ooh, well, maybe you'll get served if you're lucky.' Before anyone can elaborate, the ferry suddenly rounds so we can view the pod of porpoises feeding to our left. I approve of this approach to timetabling and imagine my regular 23A to Stockport pulling a sudden U-turn to view a particularly interesting cat.
In due course, we're on the land, and pop into the village shop. The pub is shut and we want to attempt a reservation for several days hence. There's no letter box, and a note won't slip under the door, so we wonder if the shop keeper might pop it in later. 'Ooh, no, we won't have anything to do with them.' But no explanation, just mystery.
I may be here for the beer, but my colleague is not. A dedicated Monro bagger, she will pass 200 on this trip, all things being equal. Knoydart is so empty and open that we must spend the rest of the day walking to position for tomorrow. We leave the village, soon passing the last of 30 odd houses. From the trees drop a shower of angry looking insects. Pea sized, cross faces, they land on exposed flesh. We don't recognise them as anything notably unpleasant, but bat them quickly off for fear they might be the endangered Knoydartian Skull Tunneller making a late summer resurgence.
A wilderness it may be now, but Knoydart was once home to a thousand hardy souls, before the clearances. In the village there stands a modest monument to the seven land raiders who tried to regain a chunk of it on ancestral grounds in the late 1940s. At the point the valley narrows, a massive cross shaped monument to the Nazi sympathiser landowner who fought them off in the courts looms over the village. The message is clear.
We leave all that behind and walk away from people and houses. Taking the right hand valley, we head through a final grove of planted trees, acknowledge the estate bothy, passing two walkers "Och, the pub. Be careful of the pub." and exit the modern world. Stagnated highland cows watch us heading over the bridge and we take the diagonal path up the edge of the mountain.
My approach to significant physical exercise is quite alarming to people who haven't seen it before. I almost immediately begin huffing and puffing, turn a worrying shade of purple, and sweat profusely. There's surely no chance of me even clearing the first style before I explode in a distressing shower of emergency rations and spare pants. Yet, much like my rattly old car, having made such an unpromising start, I can carry on in this manner for many unlikely hours. Blowing for tugs, I nevertheless clear the top of the valley in reasonable spirits. Inverie now several hours behind us, we drop into an uninhabited valley, steeply descending towards the ruins of a croft. We're at the end of a great inlet, and the tide is out. Our Bothy is round the headland, and there's a bog to cross. As we come off the mountain, the trees begin again, and a fresh cloud of Knoydartian Face Huggers drops hungrily down.
The bothy is beautiful, and there's no one else there. A small building, one basic room, set back in a notch in the steep hills that surround the end of the inlet as a giant horseshoe. It may be the most remote place I've ever been. The three planted rowan trees that mark the spot are the only clue to scale, and the only sign of the hand of people. Mountains blue and brown float in broken perspective across the retreated tide. It's time for dinner.
We have 'Adventure Food' dehydrated meals for this trip. Mine is excitingly labelled 'Carbonara'. Dehydrated meals are a remarkable invention, allowing one to enjoy dreadful food in a much greater range of settings than previously possible. You boil a can of water, and then pour it on the yellowing dust cloud in your foil envelope, stir, walk away for 8 minutes to think about what you've done, and then blankly eat, eyes unfocussed in the middle distance.
The weather is good, so I take my book outside to read. The bothy comes with two orange school chairs, and I plonk mine down 20 metres from the entrance facing the water. As the light fades, I become slowly aware of a presence reading over my shoulder. It's a deer. Standing innocently by the door to the bothy, young fawn further back.
"Evening." I venture. It looks at me, and grazes, quite unconcerned.
"Sarah?" I call, somewhat louder, "Come out a second"
"Why what's up?"
Sarah is suddenly and quite unexpectedly looking straight into the deep brown eyes of a large red deer, less than 3 yards away.
The deer still does not care, and wanders right through us, close enough to smell the salt and heather, almost to touch. I like it here. The cloud is a soft featureless sheet, faint colours playing as the light falls, pink, blue, orange, unfocussed memories of pigment, and it's dark now, and there's nothing to do besides sleep.
There's no darkness like real darkness. The perfect unfamiliarity of the bothy wrapped around is a warm cloak of soft down. And then the sounds begin. Each mystery noise a question to be answered. Ebenezer Scrooge was visited by three ghosts bearing great messages, but we get a thousand ghosts each with a trivial point to raise. The first rattle is the ghost of did you brush your teeth? Then it's the ghost of did you put all your food in a bag and hang it up? Is the bolt on the door across? Do you need a wee? Are your socks drying? We are kept awake by small mouse-like sounds, scratchings, falling soot, great passing beasts by the shore. Here is only remote if you're people. Dreams of deep brown eyes and cloven hooves, open water, broken grey rocks.
It's bloody awful in the morning. The rain rattles the roof, the pigments have washed away, and the ghosts are gone to ground. We decide to give it an hour. My luxury item is my aeropress coffee maker, and breakfast is taken. My dried milk mixes with the stream water to make a peaty light brown mystery liquid. The bothy spade is called into service to essential calls of nature. A long walk must be taken, as one should preserve the quality of the water courses around the bothy. It's now time to climb the mountains.
I pack my bag 6 times. Everything is in a bag in a bag in a bag. If the water gets in, that's my spare pants, Laurie Lee, and sleeping bag all drenched. These are essential to my survival of the trip, and the utmost care is taken to get it right. Food for lunch occupies the topmost layers, with spare layers in quick reach. A stitch in time here...
Fat Bastard's guide to climbing Monros in bad weather.
The pack is about 8 times heavier than when you left the house. Despite your best efforts to eat and drink as much of it as possible last night in the bothy, somehow it has grown and expanded into a giant parasitic embrace. Your beer belly provides the main anchor point, and it sits above you, a burly jockey in perpetual frowning judgment aboard its disappointingly aging donkey.
Underway, already leaden of foot from the efforts of getting to the bothy, tired, sweaty, puffing. A landscape so vast, yet so full of tiny traps at foot level. Each step is a potential wet sock, so the utmost care must be taken not to walk in to the bog and just disappear, leaving a floating hat as the only relic to be returned to family. It's raining but you're already too hot, so you must choose which type of soggy you prefer, rain or sweat. Knoydartian Brain Borers descend from every tree. Finally, exhausted, soaked, spent, you arrive at the base of your mountain.
Belts of hard fat rain are blowing in from the South every 20 minutes. You can see them coming in the open vastness, walls of white static dots moving as giant shoals of starlings do, until you're in them and the randomness becomes a constant assault of angry wet bits. Uphill is a sequence of steps and your brain finds tunes to fit the pace. On the flat, it was MC Hammer, but it become the Pogues as I slow on the gradient. I wonder if it's just me, but then Sarah sings 'Feeling Hot Hot Hot' so I know I'm not alone with the walker's Jukebox.
At 500m, we leave the path to attain the ridge, and cloud base eats us up. It's map reading and compass bearings now. We're both proficient navigators, and we argue frequently over which exact contour we're on. Plods upwards are steeper and slower. The wind is growing intense and it carries burning cold particles of wet to score the skin and hammer the jacket hood. My jukebox calls up a track I just put some fiddle on for a forthcoming record by Ollie King, Nic Jones' song 'Ruins on the shore'. After half an hour plodding, my brain has shunned Ollie's tasteful arrangement and added a full power metal backing instead.
Everything is wet, the world is incredibly close, fading into locked white fog within a hundred yards. The deep drops off the path aren't scary now, they just fall into pillow. Careful map reading dictates the shape of the next feature, and one by one, they rise from the whiteness, new areas revealed as you complete each level. I decide to conduct an internal status report.
Hunger - 6
Dryness - 3
Warmth - 4
Humour - 8
I wonder, as I plod a timeless plod, why my humour remains so high. Will it be the last attribute to go? Will my rescuers find me, frostbitten and dying, and sombrely report to my family that my last words were "Have you heard the one about the vicar's goat?", or will I soon suffer a catastrophic sense of humour failure, with bits of unarticulated knob joke and unreferenced puns flying everywhere? We're suddenly at the summit, the first of two. It's a small cairn, and there's no visibility. Quick reference photo and we carry on. We need to eat, but we'll get cold if we stop for long. Lunch is taken as we descend between the two mountains, out of the wind. Primula on oatcake biscuits for me, and pre-made sandwiches for Sarah.
Speaking to Sarah later, she made the point that this is one of the few times where one cannot stop or give up. In most things in modern life, if it's unpleasant, you can simply stop doing it. Not here. You have to keep going. Consequently, the emotion is sucked out of it, and you neither celebrate the tops or worry about the climbs or weather. Simply, you continue to put one foot before the other.
Another hour and we're ready to start the last 250m ascent to the second mountain summit. Quick status check;
Hunger - 3
Dryness - 1
Warmth - 4
Humour - 3
Rather than fail spectacularly, my sense of humour has split along the seams, and is now alliteratively fluppering bits of fart jokes all over the place as it deflates. I don't want to be here any more. 250m may not seem like a lot, but after 1300m climb already today, with a full pack, soaked through, in fog, heavy rain, and 70mph wind, it's a real challenge. I'm not used to being pushed to the edge of my physical abilities, and have to force each foot forward. It's an effort, and I want to sit down and stop, but know I mustn't. After an age, we summit the second mountain of the day. There's no sense of triumph, as we know that down will be as hard as up. The rain is completely victorious. My underpants have suffered a total hull breach and are rising fast.
The path down is patchy, sometimes missing, and compass bearings help us pick it up again. We're trying to pick up a path Eastwards through the valley, but visibility is so short that we're guessing. Sometimes, a cloud moves and we can see a shape before us, or a bit of valley. It serves to remind us how wild and big this place is. Schist slabs, brown ferns, sphagnum. We find two tiny desperate bilberries cowering in the wind and eat one each.
Finally, we drop below the clouds, clear the worst of the wind, pick up the path, and can see our destination. Humour returns, and we talk excitedly, having been shouted over by the wind for the last 6 hours. The bothy is in a broad open valley. There's a house, but no lights on. We spy the tail light of a car leaving the valley, but otherwise it's deserted. Everything is wet, but our bags were packed well enough to survive. We dry, Sarah leaps in the stream for a wash, and we cook our adventure food. Warm blandness was never so welcome. I ask Sarah how tough she thought it had been, expecting her to say that it was nothing, and there've been plenty of worse conditions than that in her 200 Monros, but she says it was overall as bad as anything she's done. I drink up my slender supply of gin and make my notes. This bothy has a flushing toilet. It almost feels like cheating.
Morning breaks like the slow flow of porridge over the bothy. I eat as much of my remaining food as I can. My clothes have gone from soaked to wet overnight, and that's an improvement! The wind at the top of the valley is so strong, it suddenly blows through my hood, inflating my jacket around the bag straps so I look like a big blue version of the Michelin Man (1) half way through a massive programme of liposuction.
By early afternoon we've walked the 10 miles back to Inverie, and suddenly there's people on the path. It's been 2 days since I saw a person other than Sarah, and now I can't remember what you're supposed do with them, so I panic, raise my hat theatrically, utter a loud 'Good day to you kind sirs!' and walk on as fast as possible before they can reply.
Civilisation returns. First there's the trees, and the inevitable cloud of Knoydartian Cranium Cavers to be batted away, then there's a road. A Landrover goes by. After two days in the utter wilds, it has a new smell, complex, nuanced. The exhaust carries detail I've not noticed before. The pub opens at 2:30, or so it says on the door. We have a refreshment in the one cafe, and gather that owing to the bad weather, there's only one ferry today, and it's in an hour, replacing the one we were booked on much later. That gives us half an hour for the most well earned pint of all time.
The pub is silent and closed. We wait. We rap the window, we stalk the bounds. Nothing stirs. Eventually, we hear "5 minutes", but our ferry is coming into the bay. Another day...
On the jetty, the landlord arrives to pick up 300 bog rolls from the ferry. We ask why he wasn't open at the advertised time. He shrugs, says something about a technical error, then says 'In every life, a little sorrow must come' and then goes. Clearly we have failed some great challenge.
On the ferry, a man waves his wife and 2 kids goodbye and then mixes out a large vodka irn-bru in a plastic cup. He moved here from Eigg because it was too quiet. He's heading away for work. "I've got to go to work because she likes the online shopping." Inverie shrinks beneath the mountains until we turn into Mallaig harbour.
The great HM Bateman, from his 1922 book, 'More Drawings'.
1 He's called Bibendum. He had a tyre removed recently to make him thinner. I sometimes wonder if he's related to the liquorice allsort man(2).
2 Who is called Bertie Bassett(3).
3 Not to be confused with Fred Bassett, who appears in the Daily Mail(4), and is much like Snoopy but without the humour or artistry,
4 Not to be confused with journalism.