On to Cape Wrath (4)

At Last, the Lighthouse

The intensely anticipated endpoint of the trail is a rock and a building on top of it. Directed towards the sea, the lighthouse keeps sailors at safe distance. Landward, it lures hikers into its boggy hinterland. First glimpsed from Sandwood Bay – a tiny speck of white in the hazy blue – it tells us: just 13 km to go!

As our guidebook says in one of its more evocative paragraphs:
“From the headland that juts imperiously over the broad ochre strand of Sandwood Bay, you may catch a first glimpse of the Cape Wrath lighthouse peeking over the low, dun hills of the horizon, beckoning you the final few miles towards the end of one of the world’s finest long-distance walks.”

A few times during this hike I’ve had the feeling of playing a part in a well scripted adventure, and this is one of those moments. The weather beautifully contributes to the scenario. Arriving on Sandwood’s “ochre strand” during the last few hours of a stretch of five sunny, almost summery days, we are allowed to enjoy its glory in full. Shortly after we leave the beach to cross the dark brown moors, fleecy clouds start covering the sky. And when we finally complete our slog, when the lighthouse is fully in sight, the sky has turned grim and gray, with an icy wind blowing against us.

Cape Wrath © Lodewijk Muns 2016

The whitewashed lighthouse itself looks short and sturdy, a chess pawn lost to the game. It is the disorderly array of outbuildings, their decay, but mainly the traditional low dry-stone wall encircling the compound that contribute to the enchanting quality of the spot – and of course the steepness of the cliff, sensed rather than seen, visible only through a crevice in the crumbling wall.

Definitive, desolate, and inhospitable. We wouldn’t have wanted it otherwise. A little proud we are to have braved these 350 km of peat, swamps, daffodils, ticks, wild rivers, fierce northwestern wind, hail, rain and snow, Gaelic spelling, and even a few too many stretches of asphalt. Midges and rivers in spate, two main deterrents of the trail, we’ve been spared: the season was favourable. It was mostly the detours around the countless deep puddles that tended to wear us out. But after a few days of sunshine the black soil had become noticeably drier, a kind of liquorice with crackling crust, and the going became easier.

Camping on the site is not impossible, but we’ve had enough of the icy wind and despite our love for the wilderness we are more than curious about the Ozone Café – reputedly open 24/7, all year round. It doesn’t look that way. The narrow red doors are closed, though not locked, and once inside we find the place cold and deserted, though still a welcome shelter from the wind. There is a roller shutter in one of the walls of the high, narrow and echoing place, and a reception bell on the counter. A ring produces no result. We decide to stay anyhow, and if left alone, to cook our meal and sleep on the floor.

But while we’re unpacking, a rattling noise: the shutter goes up, and in the opening appears the tall and melancholy figure of the owner. John Ure, deservedly famous from numerous travel reports, lives up to his promise – to stand by in this lonely place at all hours.

Unsure what kind of services we may expect this late, we leave the initiative to our host. Just nodding to his proposals we are served a simple meal and beers, a miraculous portable gas heating carried in from a closet, a clothes horse to dry our soaked stuff, mattresses on the floor, and as a complimentary extra, an excellent single malt shared with the landlord by candle light.

This is exactly the kind of thing we had hoped for – but more: an act of outstanding hospitality.

It cannot be the 200 or so CWT’ers a year who keep this place open. Most revenue must come from the day tourists who arrive the easy way (and I guess it’s they who purchase the Cape Wrath T-shirts, caps and beany hats). The transport service that brings them up here – minibus and miniferry from the Kyle of Durness – will also be our escape from the place.

We’re grateful to have experienced the CWT and its final destination in their present, rough condition. How long will it remain this way? A 2013 business plan proposes exactly what the wilderness seeker may fear: “development” of the place. That means: raising the numbers of visitors from an estimated 6000 to at least 10.000 per year, keeping them longer on the spot, and getting them to spend more. It sounds like taking the Wrath out of Cape Wrath.

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