Author Interview: Alex Roddie, The Farthest Shore
- Sunday 26 September 2021
In February 2019, award-winning writer Alex Roddie left his online life behind when he set out to walk 300 miles through the Scottish Highlands, seeking solitude and answers. In leaving the chaos of the internet behind for a month, he hoped to learn how it was truly affecting him – or if he should look elsewhere for the causes of his anxiety. The Farthest Shore is the story of Alex’s solo trek along the remote Cape Wrath Trail. In this interview Alex goes explores his favourite moments from his journey and shares a few peices of advice for any other walkers who plan on taking on the iconic trail.
Alex looks over Trotternish, the northernmost peninsula on the Isle of Skye. © James Roddie
What was your main motivation for starting your journey?
The Farthest Shore isn’t really a book about a long walk; it’s really a book about a personal exploration into my relationship with technology and solitude. I’ve long known that constantly being hooked up to the internet – a necessity due to the nature of my work as a freelance editor and writer – has changed the way I think and experience the world, and I had started to wonder if it might also be contributing to the anxiety that I had begun to feel.
So I planned an experiment. I wanted to conduct a long journey on foot with no internet access whatsoever – something I had not done for many years. The Cape Wrath Trail in winter presented itself as the perfect choice. Although a disconnection like this is always going to be a somewhat artificial experience, I reasoned that the UK’s toughest and most remote long-distance backpacking route, at the toughest and most solitary time of the year, would be the best I could do here in the UK.
If you had to choose one moment to experience again which would it be?
It would have to be the moment when I noticed the whale skull jutting from the sands at Sandwood Bay on my penultimate day before reaching Cape Wrath. Sandwood Bay is a wonderfully evocative location, at once accessible and yet feeling quite wild when conditions are right. I was walking along the sands when I saw this gigantic skull sticking up in front of me like a monolith – quite a sight!
Although I soon realised that it was a whale skull, the only words that came into my mind as I approached were dragon skull. It reminded me of an iconic moment in The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin when the wizard Ged comes to the bones of a dragon on the shores of Selidor at the edge of the world. For me, it was a moment of power and wonder – certainly the most powerful moment of my Cape Wrath Trail experience.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
Plenty! First of all, I’d have tried to make sure that all of my gear was thoroughly tested before the journey began. As a gear tester, a lot of kit lands on my desk, and it’s rare that I head for the hills without at least one review item to check out. On my winter CWT I had several review items to test for TGO magazine, including my tent: a single-skin tent made from breathable fabric.
Unfortunately, this tent arrived only days before I was due to set out, which meant that I was unable to properly run it through its paces and make sure that I trusted it before using it on the trail. When I started my journey from Ardnamurchan Point this tent failed almost immediately. The breathable skin failed to work as advertised – by the second night my sleeping bag was soaking wet, and I had to initiate an emergency tent swap. Without my wife Hannah and brother James standing by to provide support, things could have turned out very differently.
I also ended up overprovisioning my supply parcels. This was a difficult balance to get right. During the last few weeks of planning up until the trip itself, all indications were that the weather would be cold and snowy. I was conscious that a substantially snowy journey could also be a slow one, perhaps averaging beneath 10 miles a day, so I erred on the side of caution in my resupply parcels. In fact, I experienced quite warm weather after the first week or so. This meant that I ended up with surplus food. Planning for winter long-distance backpacking is difficult.
Writing by candlelight whilst on the trail. © James Roddie
You had many nights under the stars – was there a particular night that sticks in your mind?
So many wild camps on the CWT were special ones. Partly that was due to the season – I’ve always loved wild camping in winter when the mountain landscape feels more intimate. The weather was often kind, too, which makes all the difference!
I enjoyed a wonderful camp beneath Bealach na Croise on the way between Kinlochewe and Dundonnell. In winter I usually like to be pitched before it gets dark, but this time I’d kept walking into the twilight, looking for somewhere to camp. I deliberately immersed myself in the experience of nightfall in the mountains without switching on my torch, enjoying the little extravagant thrill of danger because I knew I could summon the light at any time. As I wrote in the book: ‘I stood there in what was suddenly near-total darkness and allowed myself to feel the emotions that sprang from being alone on a mountain at the failing of the day far from any inhabited place. The stars started to come out, first one and then a dozen or more, and I gazed up at them; they seemed to twinkle more than usual, glowing huge as orbs in the last of the twilight.’
Would you ever consider making the journey again? Or do you have your sights set on other places?
Definitely! The CWT is one of the few routes that I’d love to do three, four, even five times. One of the beautiful things about this route is that there really is no ‘official’ or even single agreed-upon line. I’ve hiked it twice already, and each experience was very different. I’d love to do it again (perhaps in autumn this time) and explore some of the other variants I haven’t had the chance to look at so far. Even going back and doing the same route again would be a joy. This is a multi-layered landscape with so much to see and learn.
There is also the near-mythical direct variant across Assynt to consider. Most CWT lines veer east through Glen Oykel, because there is a lot of water in Assynt and making a direct south-to-north crossing on foot would be very difficult without a packraft. However, I love the idea of taking my time and creating a meandering, leisurely route through the area. I suspect that it would be a lot more interesting than Glen Oykel.
If we get another winter with good enough conditions, I’d love to go back and have another go at the trail in genuinely snowy conditions. It’s something I still dream about.
Any advice for any others thinking of taking on Cape Wrath?
Be patient, be open, and be humble. In my experience the CWT does not reward haste or selfishness. It rewards attentiveness and a deliberate, thoughtful approach.
Order your copy of The Farthest Shore here.