We woke up early on our first morning on the West Highland Way. Maybe 6 AM. Due to the period of dogs sniffing our tent the night before (bit creepy) and the slight incline in the ground we woke up halfway down our tent with our feet pushing the wall. Despite this, I felt rearing to go with a jolly spring in my step, fuelled by conquering our first day and inching ever closer to the 20 mile mark. We couldn’t believe we nearly had 20 miles under our belts already, I can only describe that realisation as a moment of deep, ripe contentment.
The morning was dreich and looked like it was constantly holding in the rain. At any moment, it could spill over and shower heavily down on us. There was a flecky, misty grey sky above and the mystic still water of Loch Lomond ahead. We kept looking at it dreamily as we packed. We recognised it as the same as the view as the one atop Conic Hill, with all the green land scattered throughout the water, so we knew that we’d be tackling Conic Hill with fresh legs in a mile or two – as we had planned.
Just before we set off for the day a trail runner ran passed us, a woman, who cheerily told us through her panting that the rain was being held at bay. I thought it was incredible that she got up that morning to go for a damp run, with basically nothing but a water bladder strapped to her back. She wished us good luck for our walk and ran off into the misty sunrise, and I wondered where her run would stop that day. What every day heroes we meet.
We began our walk chattering lowly with sleepy smiles. Jillianne was struggling to get going that morning and we stopped a few times to take jackets on and off, to eat snacks, to stretch. We had discovered, by that point, that her backpack was low-key shit so lots of forehead kisses were needed. As we stretched, a couple we had passed further back overtook us and we were surprised to see the guy who grinned our way had a ciggy in his hand. Smoking and hiking at 7AM. Mentaaaal.
A stand-off with a bunch of cows
Just before we ascended the start of Conic Hill we had a scary interaction with four cows on the path. They were standing in the middle of the path and not moving, just staring at us and mooing, a few feet from us. One of them even edged closer to us. They looked quite young, and their parents were standing a bit further away. Ever since Jillianne told me the story of her brother Callan getting chased by cows, and that film with Gemma Arterton where a random farmer gets trampled, I am terrified of them. They can be so unpredictable and the sheer size of them is enough to cause a lot of damage. Jillianne told me to put my head down and stop making eye contact, to show that we didn’t want to threaten them. We walked on thankfully unscathed, but out of fear I didn’t look up from the ground until we were at least 100 metres on, just in case they had followed us. This is the most scared I felt on the WHW and I honestly would NEVER want to be back on that cow-filled path again.
Climbing Conic Hill and a Glasgwegian descent
We’d climbed Conic Hill in our training for the West Highland Way, so we knew it was short but strenuous climb to the top. However, the West Highland Way tackles it from the other side, so at the end of the hill we arrive in Balmaha. Strangely, climbing it this way round felt a lot easier and more of a gradual ascent, and in no time we reached the top of Conic Hill and started the descent. We were immediately bombarded with a lot of families and groups of friends walking, most of whom had commuted from Glasgow. After being so alone on our walk so far it felt like a shock to be around loud walkers in such a high volumes. Although, I remember the wholesome interactions with people too – my favourite being chatting to a woman in her 20s who was panting and struggling to get to the top, and we told her to keep going, she was literally nearly there. We never knew if she did make it to the top, but I have a good feeling that she did and she was proud of herself.
Due to the amount of walkers on the path that morning, and given it was around 10 AM and perfect family-hiking time, the descent took a lot longer than the ascent. When we eventually made it to Balmaha, we promptly dropped our gear and collapsed on a wooden picnic table just past the car park. Jillianne nipped to the shop and brought us back cold cans of Diet Coke and Irn Bru and two coffees and we examined the map as we sipped. Ah, coffee! It tasted so good. We had planned to cook lunch here on our MSR but it felt way too exposed, so we settled for gobbling granola bars and chocolate for some sugar-energy.
A change of sleeping plans
We were intending to camp at Sallochy campsite that evening, but we realised that if we camped there we would have a huge 20 mile hike the following day to get to Beinglas Farm, where we had booked a wigwam (in hindsight, and having experienced what that day 3 hike was like I am so, so, SO glad we didn’t stay at Sallochy – more on that later.) It would be unpleasant to push ourselves that much, and we didn’t need to either. Our main focus of the WHW was to have mad amounts of fun and enjoy the views and love the experience as a whole. So we decided our end destination that day would be to wild camp past Rowardennan, north of the camping permit zone, where wild camping was legal.
We stopped for about an hour in Balmaha and then hiked on, walking along a road before the path disappeared into the trees off to the right and quickly ascended higher and higher. When we reached the rocky top there was a sunny view of Loch Lomond peeking through the tree tops. The sun was beating down strongly that day and for the first of many times on our WHW trip we hiked in t-shirts. This is a beautiful rarity in Scotland and an opportunity we always snap up with both hands. In the first two miles after Balmaha, and before Arrochbeg, the path was gorgeous. It winded through trees which often opened up so we glimpsed some stunning loch-side beaches, where we stopped for a few minutes to take photographs of ducks.
The thirst is REAL
One important and essential thing was a real struggle that day – our lack of water. We hadn’t been able to fill up overnight, and there was no water taps in Balmaha that we could find. Due to the pandemic, shops weren’t filling up hiker’s water bottles either. So, we had to ration the little we had left in my Nalgene and Jillianne’s water bladder from the day before until we could fill up again. This obviously wasn’t ideal and if we had planned ahead better we would’ve bought water from the shop in Balmaha instead of fizzy drinks and coffee. But, in our defence, hikers suffer with intense cravings for fizzy drinks on the trail, it’s one of the best tasting things after hours of hiking.
Our Harvie map said there was a water tap in Arrochybeg campsite, but when we got there it had been taped up and out of use because of COVID. By the time we got to Cashell Farm on mile 22.5 I was so thirsty I couldn’t walk any more. I sunk to the ground and lay there for a few minutes, defeated. Having no option but to keep going, it was Jillianne’s turn to pull me up and push us forward. We walked off the path into this Cashell Farm building where we tried to chance our luck with a water tap, but there was none. Desperate, we walked a little on past Cashell Farm and spotted a potential lunch spot a short scramble down some rocks, where we could reach the loch, cook hot food and most crucially fill up our bottles with water using purifer tablets. Loch Lomond had shown up and saved us!
Peanut butter noodles baby
The lunch break was heavenly. Those first sips of fresh loch water (after waiting 30 mins for the tablets to set in) tasted life-affirming. We set up our MSR in a wee cave by some rocks to avoid the wind and cooked our favourite packets of noodles. Jillianne ate first, and then I cooked mine, vigorously mixing a peanut butter sachet into my noodles once they were cooked. I love peanut butter, and I’d learnt this trick from Jillianne’s brother, Michael, when we first moved to Glasgow. We were staying at their flat one evening, and he’d come in and set a bowl of noodles swamped in peanut butter sauce on my lap. The start of a lovely friendship.
With every stop we made along Loch Lomond, we made an effort to strip off our hiking boots and socks and cool our feet in the loch. We’d read that airing your feet out often was the best way to avoid blisters or any shooting pains while hiking, and we abided by this rule religiously and it treated us well in return. Neither of us had any sign of foot problems yet. We stopped for lunch for maybe 30-40 minutes, then clambered back up the rocks, heaving our packs from boulder to boulder. Back on the trail again.
Our trail friends, yay
It was during this morning and lunch on the trail that we begun to bump into people we would see most days of our hike. Cat and Ben were two of them, a couple from down south who seemed to be as self-depreciating about their hiking ability as we were. These interactions never lasted too long, a knowing wave, grin and “isn’t this fucking painful” usually sufficed. After Cashell the path went on and off the road for a bit, until it meandered off to the left and up through thick forestry, which became apparent to be Rowardennan Forest. By this time it was around 2:30 PM and we wanted to cover miles quicker so we wouldn’t be setting up camp in the dark, like the night before.
It was along this section that we spoke to a local couple, who told us that the ascent we were doing during the forest was one of the toughest that day. The man looked at me and said “you’ve got one more little hill after this and then you’re done”. He said it really casually, whilst watching me closely to gauge my reaction. Looking back on this, they were definitely lying to us. This happened a few times along the WHW, with people telling us “[enter destination] is just up there, only about five mins away” but it never was five minutes and always closer to half an hour (at least it felt like that). This couple had our best interests at heart really, they didn’t want to tell us that the last hill of the day was a killer; I am so glad we entered the final five miles of the day blindly, and basically the whole trip itself.
From Sallochy to Rowardennan (well, north of it)
We eventually got to Sallochy Campsite, which was our original camp spot for day 2. We stopped for about 30 minutes on the most beautiful beach to slurp down an electrolyte drink and take in the view. We had bought a tube of tablets (ginger and tumeric flavour) that dissolved into water and were meant to repair your muscles and fill you with energy. At that point, we really needed some. With no one about, and with the sun shining brighter than ever, it was so tempting to wild swim on that beach. I’m sad that we didn’t, but with our camp site in mind and a much-needed final rest spot we hiked on.
The section after Sallochy and before Rowardennan was the most challenging of the day. The path ascended and descended without mercy, reaching a particularly gruelling climb up a never-ending flight of stairs. It sounds tame in a sentence but with a heavy pack on and screaming calves it was tough. A big group of boys who we think were a Scout group hung about at the bottom of the stairs, silently watching us do it. I think their instructor doubted our ability, being two girls, but we marched on and left them behind. I must admit we felt like cool warriors when we noticed that they weren’t carrying any packs.
Nearly there and Rowardennan hotel grub
After the hefty stairs the forestry path continued to ascend and descend, and it went on forever. I kept thinking the path would stop suddenly and we’d enter the road, and Rowardennan would be there, but it tricked us time and again. There was some beautiful scenes along this path though, and seeing Loch Lomond in all its wonder on such a sunny day was a sight to behold. The path passed a French-looking summer villa through the trees on the right, which reminded me of the setting in the book Call Me By Your Name. Next to the opening was a sign that said Rowardennan was 2 kilometres away. Again, surely a lie. To this day, I still don’t believe it. It felt SO LONG. MILES AND MILES. A bit like the length of this blog!
After a few moments of sore ranting that the sign was wrong, we crossed multiple bridges over rivers and eventuuually got to the road and saw Rowardennan Hotel a few yards away. Wow, what a moment! Our bodies were in pain and we could think of nothing else but sitting down and eating. After such a tough last section, there was no way we weren’t going to eat a massive hot dinner that we didn’t have to cook. We got a table outside with a view ahead of Loch Lomond and children playing in the grass. Ben Lomond sat proudly to the right, swelling out over the mountainous landscape. Jillianne ate pizza and I ate a vegan burger and we drank pale ales, our reward, as we chatted about our day.
Sooo close to the end, thank GOODNESS
After we ate, we filled up our water bottles at the tap outside the hotel and spotted Cat and Ben again. They were showered with new comfy clothes on and staying at the hotel. We hadn’t yet showered (we stank) and told them we were off to find a camp spot, north of the permit zone. Even with our exhausted bones, not for a second did I feel envious of the people staying at the hotel. There was such grit and adventure with wild camping. We set off in the dusty orange evening, laughing, looking out for the sign that said ‘End of camping management zone’. It took us about an hour before we found it, and there was several tents that had pitched up literally right after the sign. This was where we were planning to camp, so we had to walk further on again until we found a free spot, surrounded by ferns and brambles, but as good as any. Jillianne gleefully reported that the spot had flat ground and we dropped our bags and pitched our tent. Our limbs dead but our spirits flying with achievement.
We had finished day 2!
Thank you for getting to the end of this blog, I know it felt like a hike in itself. Get ready to read day 3, north of Rowardennan to Inverarnan (Beinglas Farm).
Until next time,