I CAME out of the darkness into early morning's grey light, then watched the sun burst through the horizon. It felt as though I had been travelling north for days.
The hills of Caithness feel a long way from anywhere. This is the Flow Country, the largest area of blanket bog in Europe, stretching some 4,000 square kilometres over Caithness and Sutherland.
Those who walk regularly in Scotland are entitled to a wry grin. After all, isn't that a description that could easily fit most of our wild country?
I was aiming to circuit Morven and Scaraben, the two highest hills just east of Dunbeath. It's a long, tough day and most books recommend tackling them separately, but the distance travelled means that most walkers bite the bullet.
To break the five-hour drive, I had climbed Carn Salachaidh near Bonar Bridge en route, then stayed overnight in a static train carriage at Rogart.
The eastern side of the country was faring better with the weather; the ground was dry, the warm sun and breezy conditions contributing to an easy passage over the bogs to Carn Salachaidh. The only problem was watching where to put your feet amongst the waist-high heather on descent.
The spectacular sunrise near Brora brought a dream-like quality to the proceedings next morning. It stuck with me all the way to Braemore, where a cacophony of birdsong punctured the otherwise silent landscape.
The outrageous tower of Maiden Pap immediately grabs the attention and entices you onwards, a lump of rock so out of kilter with the surrounding bogland that it looks as though it has been dropped here by mistake.
Then Morven appears, peering over its shoulder, another steep and conical aberration, again rising out of nothing. It's walking through a miniature Monument Valley.
I reached the ruined house at Corrichoich; just beyond lay even older remains of an ancient settlement, sad reminders of lives in harder days. The track ran out here. Now there was the small matter of a couple of kilometres of bog to tackle to reach the foot of the first climb.
I had read many reports of this crossing, all of them wet. But I was surprised to find the ground crisp and dry and the going easy. The Flow Country appeared to be having a day of rest.
Morven is of modest height but it looks massive from the foot of the climb. It soars heaven-ward, a vertical ascent in heather and scree with no respite at any point.
Progress is fast however, and the summit views are a fitting reward. The feeling of space from the highest point is overwhelming; the landscape seems to stretch forever, just the occasional rise to break the mass of bog and water.
Scaraben is some four and half miles away from here, and there's a lot of tough terrain in between. The first task is to weave through the tors of Carn Mor and the wonderfully named Smean, another slow, steady rise that would be a harder prospect in wetter conditions.
The next drop looks huge, but it's never as bad as you fear. Triple-topped Scaraben is a long mountain, and again it appears greater than the sum of its parts.
Twice on the rise to the ridge I watched huge herds of deer pouring along the skyline, their food source now more freely available after the hard winter. The casualty rate has been high. I have come across bodies a few times this year, including two on the walk in to Morven.
I reached the trig point summit amongst Scaraben's screes with my legs knowing they had been in a battle, but the run back down to the start was on easy-angled soft ground and took just over an hour. A dry day in the Flow Country – I had gotten off lightly, my boots barely damp.
I had put aside ten hours for this circuit but needed just seven. It gave me some spare time to visit the clearance village at Badbea just down the coast, one of many that litter this part of the country.
The story is a well-known one, but it's always difficult not to feel a mix of anger and sadness when you see these ruins and read about the circumstances of their demise.