So, today was the final day of the mission. Even if I was well beyond my original 80-hour target I really didn’t mind; I was just simply so happy to have finally reached the last leg of my little journey. Unfortunately it just so happened that this last part of the route was about 27 miles long so I knew it was going to be a pretty tough day, especially coupled with the fact that it was supposed to be the toughest stretch of the whole of the SUW. And boy, oh boy, this day sure turned out to be tough.
Ash and I awoke in the spare bedrooms belonging to an old man we had briefly met the night before. After offering our sincerest thanks for the hospitiality – I was mainly just thankful that I wasn’t having to pack my tent down – we made our way back into the high street of Dalry. It was a respectable 7.30 am by the time we headed back onto the SUW route.
In an unspoken agreement, Ash and I stuck together for the duration of this day of walking. His presence and good company definitely helped me to not dawdle quite as much as I usually do so we made good time and reached Stroanpatrick at exactly 11.30 am. Unlike pretty much all the other signposts along the way, here we were treated to one which handily informed us how far we had to go to reach our next point of interest; from here it was just 4 1/4 miles to the hill of Benbrack which made me feel very happy. A short while later another signpost told us it was just 2 1/2 miles, followed by another one informing us we had just 1 1/4 miles to go. Benbrack signalled the half way point of this stretch of the SUW so, because of our good timing up until this point, we still felt pretty confident that we were going to get to Sanquhar by 7 pm. We were almost a little bit smug about it. Hahahahahaha. How very funny that seems now!
After ascending and descending Manquill Hill under a bright blue sky, at 2.30 pm we reached the summit of Benbrack. Happyhappyhappy. The last time I had stood underneath Andy Goldsworthy’s sandstone arch atop this hill was back on a heavily snowy day in April so it was good to be able to see the incredible vista this time. And best of all, I knew this next part of the route well enough to know that in a very short space of time we would be reaching the comfort of my wonderful ‘second home’, Polskeoch Bothy.
And by 5.15 pm, there we were on the sofas in the bothy, drinking hot lemon and ginger tea that Ash brewed up and eating the cakes we had bought from Dalry which we had had managed to save all day with that specific moment in mind. It was a good feeling, not least because we could finally take our boots off. That taking-your-boots-off-after-a-long-walk feeling is one which needs turning into powder or liquid form and using to treat depression. It was pretty much the same as having a baby sliced out of your belly after a difficult pregnancy. Utter relief.
But, the journey wasn’t over and we still had a good few hours left to do and not much daylight left by the time we finally left the bothy at about 6.45 pm. Now we had a decision to make with three options for us to choose from: we could stick to the proper SUW route and carry on up Cloud Hill and down to Sanquhar that way, or we could kind of cheat a bit and stick to the forestry tracks and come out by Glenglass and then down to the town, or we could continue past this point on the track and carry on all the way straight back to Rigg House on my usual route and totally bypass Sanquhar. I was completely torn trying to decide what the right option was.
Because Ash was planning on doing the whole of the SUW, I thought it would be kind of wrong for us to deviate from the official route so, after a bit of umming and ahrrring, we set off back on the proper trail, kind of confident that we could still arrive in Sanquhar for about 9 pm if we got a stomp on. The light had virtually gone by the time we reached Polgown and began to climb Cloud Hill, but the signposts treated us well for a while and with the light of our head torches, things were going pretty okay.
And then things quickly stopped being okay. The situation became very much not okay indeed and for the next few hours I cursed myself over and over again for not opting for one of the other two options that we had when we were still at Polskeoch. I actually don’t even want to have to relive the experience in my head just to write about it. All I can say is that it was beyond horrible – I thought the experience trying to reach the Beehive on my first night last week was as bad as it could get but this time was so much worse. It didn’t even have the comic-tragedy vibe of last week’s madness; it was just pure and simply tragic and horriblehorriblehorrible. The only thing I can say is that anyone who attempts to traverse a horrifically boggy Scottish moorland in the pitch black of night is an utter lunatic. Old John back in Dalry had been correct (if rather outdated in his terminology) when he called us a pair of retards for wanting to walk across Scotland.
Fast forward to just before midnight and as if in a dream a track appeared in the middle of a field which lead down to a road. A road! Civilization! Fresh water! Tea! Rum! I still wasn’t exactly sure where it would lead out but we were heading towards the bright twinkling lights of the metropolis that was Sanquhar so we knew the ordeal was nearly over.
Phone signal! Location identification! Within 15 minutes of calling my other half, there he was in his shiny silver automobile scooping up two pretty broken humans who were lying in the middle of the road. We had barely drank a sip of liquid in hours and there, on the passenger seat lay two ice cold litre cartons of orange juice. I didn’t even mind that it was the bitty type. I have truly never in my life felt that level of relief. It was over.
And so that we go. All in all, it ended up taking me approximately 117.5 hours to complete the first 92 miles of the SUW, but this includes my 22 hours spent bunked up in the Beehive last week in a storm. So really, despite everything, I know that my 80 hour target is definitely achievable with a little better planning and slightly less of a ”we’ll just see what happens” kind of attitude.
I can’t begin to count the many lessons I learnt along the way, but most of all I can’t really believe the amount of beautiful sights I saw along a constantly shifting landscape filled with variety. I walked across beaches, boggy moors, heather lined footpaths, gravel trails and forestry tracks. I travelled down beautiful river-side paths with grasses taller than I was, listening to the beautiful music conducted by the wind, and I scaled bright green grassy hillsides and enjoyed views which will forever make me happy. There are few things in the world more beautiful than the silver streams and pools of the burns, rivers and lochs of Dumfries & Galloway. It wasn’t only the landscapes which contrasted from each other; after a solitary first 3 day section, the second 3 days were filled with many interesting and wonderful people, and illuminated by stories of SUW experiences and other long distant trail walks.
All I can say is that I simply can’t wait to do it all over again. Thank you to the people who first plotted the SUW route over 30 years ago, and many thanks to Ross the Ranger for taking such good care of the route nowadays…although please install some illuminated neon Las Vegas-style signposts in the fields after Cloud Hill.