In April this year, Laura and I decided to spend the weekend hiking the Moray Coast Trail. Since completing the West Highland Way together in 2016 we’ve become firm hiking friends, I don’t think there are many others I could walk 96 miles with. Last year we hiked the Affric Kintail Way and the Dava Way and later this year we are planning the Deeside Way. We picked the MCT for its length and logistics, being about half way between our two current places of residence and short enough distance to be manageable in our timeframe (or so we thought). Our timeframe consisted of a Friday evening and a weekend. This is a lesson in why you shouldn’t underestimate the Moray Coast Trail.
I met Laura at Cullen at the end of the MCT, it was around 4pm on a Friday afternoon and the sun was shining beautifully over the sea. I took this as a good omen for the rest of the weekend and double checked that I’d packed the suncream. Logistically we needed to leave one car in Cullen and drive the other back to the start of the route at Forres. We popped into the golf club at Cullen and asked if we could leave a car in their car park. The lovely lady behind the bar happened to be a long distance walker and quickly began regaling us with tales of her exploits on the West Highland and Great Glen Ways! Funnily enough she hadn’t even heard of the Moray Coast Trail that runs right past her doorstep. Finally escaping from her chatter, we headed to Forres. Abandoning my car at the newly built train station, we were instantly confused by the new layout. The trail had been moved and required a diversion over the new railway bridge and along the road to the distillery.
At last we were free of the town and wandering along a small country road. As this was a warm up for the TGO Challenge I was carrying a full pack, almost 17kg – heavier than I would have liked but I also had my dog with me on this trip so some of the extra weight was accounted for by his food and other supplies. The weather was fine and the road was quiet and it was a nice start to our adventure. Another friend, Danni (who would become pivotal to our expedition) lives in Kinloss and we were planning to arrive at hers for dinner and a warm bed for the evening before continuing with our walk in the morning. Baked Camembert greeted us on our arrival – the perfect hiking treat – Laura and I devoured most of it. We’d only walked four miles but were already ravenous. We settled in for a comfy nights sleep.
Day two dawned bright and sunny. Perfect weather for walking with a nice breeze. Danni and Mark had left us a delicious breakfast of croissants and fruit. Trail magic in evidence already. Today’s walk would take us from Kinloss to Findhorn Bay and then along the coast to Burghead and Lossiemouth. We set off shortly before 9am, making our way back to the trail which ran along the main road from Kinloss to Findhorn. We passed the former airstrip and the Findhorn Foundation before arriving in the pretty little village of Findhorn. The trail gets a little muddled here and we lost it for a while, wandering through the whitewashed streets. Luckily it wasn’t hard to find the beach, and the tide was well out giving a wide stretch of sand for us to enjoy. It was slightly surreal strolling along a sunny sandy beach with a huge backpack but also a very enjoyable trail surface.
We stopped for snacks at one of the concrete bunkers just before Roseisle. Relaxing in the sunshine, we both felt lazy and content to enjoy the good weather. There was one problem though, no fresh water for Cluanie the dog. We diverted off the beach into the Forestry Commission car park to use the facilities and fill a water bowl for Cluanie. It was a nice change to be in the shade of the pine. It was busy with people enjoying the weekend so we headed on along trail, keeping to the trees instead of the beach. The trail emerged into Burghead Caravan Park and from there into the town and out the other side. Our stomachs were rumbling so we found a well located bench just beside the trail. I thought I would try out one of the dehydrated meals that I had bought for the TGO. A morrocan cous cous with chicken meal was actually much nicer than I’d expected.
We were about 13 miles through the MCT, with 9 miles still to cover to Lossiemouth, where dinner and a camping spot would hopefully be waiting. The next section of the trail was much more coastal, sweeping cliffs, gorse and seabirds swirling overhead. It was now a swelteringly hot day and we were both down to t-shirts. I was glad I’d packed 3 litres of water at the start of the day but by the time we reached Hopeman in the early afternoon my water bladder was dry. After a hunt we found some public toilets and refilled our water packs and gave Cluanie the dog a big drink too. We were both feeling the heat and envied the day trippers lounging in the harbour cafe. The beach huts at Hopeman were delightful but still closed, the summer season hadn’t really started yet. The trail became a twisting path through dunes and then up onto the top of cliffs through thick gorse.
The lack of shade was exhausting, it was too hot to even stop for a break. Descending from the clifftops the path wound its way through sand dunes towards a distant looking lighthouse. Walking on dunes with a full pack is some kind of insane torture. One step forward and two steps back. This was the last straw for me, my mood had soured – I was exhausted and in so much pain from my heavy pack. I was trying not to think about what that meant for the TGO Challenge which was coming up in less than a month. Reaching the lighthouse, I was hoping to see Lossiemouth just beyond it – it was definitely not just beyond it.
After another hour of trudging along the beach towards the town and we finally reached a paved road. Oh the joy of firm ground beneath my feet. We were heading for the ‘Beach Bar’ which was dog friendly and promised burgers and pints. It didn’t occur to me at the time, how odd we must have looked, two weary hikers, two massive backpacks and a bedraggled dog fighting our through a busy Saturday night bar. We found an outside table, collapsing under the weight of our bags and putting on extra layers before we cooled down too much, food and drinks arrived. It was all going to be ok after all. Now onto our next dilemma of where to camp. We had planned to walk a couple of miles past Lossie and camp in the forest but as we were both completely done this was no longer an option. Laura proclaimed that the idea of spending the night in a tent was too much and so we began searching online for places to stay locally. After much googling and a few phone calls there didn’t seem to be anywhere that could accommodate two tired hikers and their dog for the evening. One text message to Danni and our prayers were answered as she whisked us back to Kinloss for another night in an extremely comfy bed. I’m not going to lie, it was good but I also felt like a huge failure. If I couldn’t do one twenty mile day and then find the strength to camp at the end of it, what would become of me on my coast to coast walk?! In the end it was the best decision, we were both over tired and severely dehydrated and twenty miles is not a short day.
We needed a new plan, my car was still in Forres and we needed to get back to Lossiemouth to continue on the trail. Danni dropped me in Forres to pick up my car and I took Laura and Cluanie back to Lossiemouth to continue on our merry way. It was another sunny morning but we still had 21 miles to cover if we were to make it to Cullen by the end of the day. All the extra car logistics had cost us some time and it was 10am before we left Lossiemouth. The tide was out so we had the whole width of the beach to ourselves, this soon turned into a gravel bar so we retreated into the woods for yet more dune walking. I swear as long as I live I will never hike across sand dunes again. I could have cried with every step. After what seemed like an eternity we were back on the beach, behind the gravel bar on a semi solid path. It followed the line of concrete blocks which were placed there to ward off possible invasion during the second world war. These made good resting points and we settled down on one mid morning to eat some trail mix and reflect on the weekend so far.
The trail took us along the edge of plantation forestry and through a RAF firing squad. Luckily there was no one firing at us and we climbed the watch towers just for fun. We started to see other people on the beach and path ahead. We’d seen no one on this section from Lossiemouth.
It had clouded over but the temperature was still high and as we approached Garmouth it began to rain slightly. Lovely damp stickiness… just what we both needed in a day already lacking in motivation. Our next destination was Spey Bay, we crossed the Garmouth Viaduct (which was seriously cool and almost made up for the rest of the days short comings) and headed back up the river towards its mouth. We settled on a bench outside the visitor centre (no dogs allowed inside) and had a late lunch. It was almost 3pm and we covered only about 10 miles so far, we still had another 11 to get back to Cullen. It just wasn’t going to happen and we needed a plan B.
We would walk the next five miles to Buckie and from there catch the bus back to Cullen. It felt like defeat. There was no way that we would make another six miles from Buckie to Cullen and we both had work the following day, not to mention lengthy drives home.
And so we departed Spey Bay, both feeling a little happier that we had less miles to walk, but neither of us wanting to admit it. The next section of the trail was also the Speyside Way, so it was busier, well signed and much nicer under foot. It followed the old railway track in part but still kept relatively close to the coast. The sun came out again and there was a nice breeze but still words could not express how much I wanted this day to be done. We sat down on a bench in Portgordon, both completely done with walking. Even Cluanie collapsed to the ground, which does not happen often. Only two more miles to go we told ourselves. We must have looked so pathetic sitting there, exhausted and beaten. I don’t even remember the last two miles to Buckie. I’m sure I wanted to cry and scream and sit down, but somehow we made it and in plenty of time for the last bus.
Its crazy really how much I beat myself up about not finishing the whole route. We’d still covered almost 39 miles over the weekend and over some arduous ground in higher than normal temperatures. Really we should have been proud of our achievement. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to admit that you’ve had enough and that you need to quit. It doesn’t make you weak or a lesser person. It is an important lesson for any hiker, knowing when enough is enough.