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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: High Hopes for the long and winding road to Altnaharra

By Ben MacGregor

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Loch Hope.
Loch Hope.

The Hope Lodge to Altnaharra road has always been very narrow, winding and with few passing places over its 20 miles. Now rutted and potholed with grass growing in the middle, not many tourists brave the route and it’s probably quieter than when I first knew it, 45 years ago.

So it’s a great shame that the estate has blocked off with huge boulders one of the few parking spots which gave access to the loch shore, just a couple of miles south of Hope Lodge and a little north of the steading at Braesgill. You can still squeeze in one car if you park carefully but more would obstruct one of the rare places where two cars can easily pass. Now only the knowledgeable map-reader would think of stopping.

It’s just a few steps across a low ridge to a wide pebble beach with grand views along the loch, no longer easily accessible to our welcome visitors – does the occasional barbecue or casting of a line really matter?

Fortunately I was on my own for a kayak trip up the loch and after carefully positioning the car so as to leave the passing place clear, I hauled the boat over to the beach and down to the shore at what is one of the few good places for launching a boat.

It was grey with a few spots of rain blowing on a south wind, forecast to pick up as the day went on. Just across the loch is the prominent white cottage of Arnaboll, formerly looked after by Durness Primary School but now an unofficial open bothy.

The bothy at Arnaboll.
The bothy at Arnaboll.

It’s a truly beautiful location on the loch shore and full of history with ancient cairns, a graveyard and an old route over to Kempie on Loch Eriboll. It’s another spot that will never be visited other than by a few and it would be good if it were better known to those who appreciate such places.

Now I paddled south into the rising wind, the air scented with bog myrtle and fresh green birch leaves. Lovely patches of woodland and little crags fringe the loch under the steep northern slopes of cloud-capped Ben Hope.

A sheltered bay gave a break, here wild roses spread over the beach with a solitary pink flower. More rose bushes, covered in blooms, straggled down rocks. A huge failed tree-planting scheme west of the loch has been replanted and the trees now look as if they are doing well.

Just briefly the wind dropped. A few moths fluttered into the air. A sand-piper trilled in the quietness. The air was full of those lush, wet west-highland scents as rain still spotted. All so familiar, I knew just what was coming next… the midges, initially just a few gathering, then the wind picked up again.

Round the corner the loch was getting quite rough but it’s narrow here and by heading diagonally into the wind, I gradually crossed to the slightly more sheltered eastern shore. It was a lovely paddle on southward under the rough wooded slopes but on rounding the last corner the wind hit with full force, it wasn’t far from the southern end of the loch but I was not going to get there.

A solitary rose on the shore.
A solitary rose on the shore.

The wind now blew me northward, paddling only needed to control the boat. It was probably only force six but enough to make me a bit uneasy, it would be all too easy to capsize, lose the boat and see it disappearing down the loch. Little headlands were surprisingly difficult and at one I simply landed and dragged the boat across to the other side to launch again.

But once out of the funnel under Ben Hope the wind lessened and I could relax and enjoy an easy trip in gleams of sun.

Westward rises a lesser peak, An Lean-Charn. A dozen years ago when I last paddled Loch Hope I stopped and jogged up and down nearly 2000 feet to the rocky top with panoramic views over a vast expanse of loch and orange September moorland. Now, 12 years older, the paddle was quite enough on its own.

I landed at the stony beach where I had set off, it’s a truly delectable spot and you only need to be able to walk a few yards to reach it. Hope Estate – how about re-instating that parking area with a friendly information board pointing to the loch shore so that our city-frazzled visitors can share in a bit more of the peace and beauty of the far north which we know so well?

The wooded eastern shore.
The wooded eastern shore.

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