Day Four – Kintail to Kinloch Hourn
Suardalan Bothy, with its Rowan tree for shade and its enclosed field, is a perfect place to stop for lunch. They’ve been slow, steep miles since dawn-in-Kintail when Shuna and I tacked up the two ponies, their hooves glassy with dew, and the four of us are now famished.
We undo girths, buckles and Velcro, let sweat-soaked gear slide off the ponies to the ground. Untie our own laces and lay socks across the moss-topped dyke to dry. The horses are ripping into grass by the bothy door where it is greenest – that'll be the walkers’ pee. We sit with our backs to the sun-baked stone and spread out our picnic: spaghetti and pesto cooked at Alltbeithe Hostel two days ago, a tin of smoked mussels, tabasco sauce. I reach back into the saddle bag for the sporks – life-buoy orange and algae-bloom green – and stand them up in that solid tangle of pasta. I take the tabasco from its tube of bubble wrap, twist off the tiny red top and let drops break over the mussels’ oily huddle.
After, we lie on our backs, chillies humming across chapped lips. We don’t speak. The breeze moving through the tree sounds like the sea coming in over shingle. The rhythmical chew and crunch of grass moves loud and close. Then the afternoon slips into silence. Ponies stand side by side, eyelids lowering, lips softening downwards. Between their rumps I see the bealach we came through three hours ago; I picture the tiny trout up there in Loch Coire nan Crogachan lying deep in peaty water, the deer folding their legs below the scree line, the ravens darkening into their rock faces.
Then, onto this slumber time, a hoof stamps down hard, sending tremors along our spines. The clegs, green-sheened and stealthy, have moved in to drink their fill of pony blood.
Day Five – A Rest
We are ponyless today. This narrow path along the shore of Loch Hourn balances on hazel wands and granite slabs that sparkle with mica. If I had honey, I would leave drops of it for the faeries.
At the end, where the view begins, there is a stone seat laved in lichen-lore. We pick Bird’s-foot-trefoil and hold it up to where the loch meets the sea and the sea meets Skye. We picnic on Crespo olives and a Provençal tang tightens our mouths. For afters fruit and nut bars, the packet says ‘Enjoy your perkier side!’ so we take off our socks, trousers too, and listen to the gulls’ laughter bounce off the wavelets below.
We shudder when we see them and jump up, swiping at the hordes of ticks – small as sesame seeds – that are filing up our legs; they cling on tenaciously, set fast on having their fill of woman blood.
Day Ten – Glen Dessarry to Callop
Loch Arkaig falls back behind us as we climb steadily. Bog myrtle flavours the morning. We see a red deer calf shine, still wet from birth. Its mother watches us and draws worried circles around her spotty new-born. We move on quietly.
All four of us are slick with sweat and wobbly-kneed by the time we reach the bealach above Glen Finnan. Three out of the four of us were here seven years ago – coming the other way – and it was a day just as hot as this, what are the chances. Picking a spot to untack we hear a sound – doom-laden as a hornet’s drone – and then we duck down as a Harrier plane flies low and slow through the bealach, right over our heads; what are the chances. Our hearts pound. The ponies haven’t moved a muscle.
We are almost out of food, just half a tin of Lidl’s roasted almonds and a handful of raisins left. We eat them slowly, mixing salt with sweet, as the ponies graze the hill-grass. Here at the watershed the water chunters underground and ptarmigan chirr amongst the rocks. We try to spot the white-bellied birds but it’s only the red deer that come into relief – one by one – on the stony slopes above us.
Clouds close overhead and the smell of petrichor fills us with an earthy anticipation. As we hurriedly pack up and tack up, a stinging creeps across the bare skin of our forearms and necks, and the ponies’ eyes are kohl-rimmed with minute life forms; the midges have risen undercover of the clouds to feed on our blood.
Ponies and women, we probably taste the same by now.