Posts tagged ‘TGO challenge’

June 29, 2013

TGO Challenge 2013 – Days 13 & 14

by backpackingbongos

Day 13 – 26 Kilometres with 300 metres ascent

Day 13

One peculiar aspect of the Challenge is that most participants are always eager to pack and set off super early.  I could hear the occupants of nearby tents packing at some ungodly hour, concerned they would not be first in queue for breakfast at the nearby Retreat .  By the time I had enjoyed lazing in a warm tent, had breakfast and started to pack the campsite at Tarfside was almost empty.

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Dave Pickles was also in no particular hurry either so we decided to join forces for the day for the long walk to the campsite at North Water Bridge.  I had initially planned to immediately cross the river on the rickety bridge and follow the path on the south side of the North Esk.  Dave however persuaded me to have a second breakfast at the Retreat so we set off down the road instead.

The early wave of Challengers had already passed on by the time we sat down and ordered breakfast.  After an earlier bowl of super noodles I was not that hungry but still managed a large fry-up.  My rucksack hip belt was on the tight side when we set off once more.  The walk along the road was pleasant in the sunshine with good views across the Wirren hills.  However it was tarmac and tarmac is never much fun.

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I was pleased when we took the first vehicle bridge across the river, hard tarmac giving way to a nice soft grassy track.  A succession of heavy squally showers meant that I was constantly stopping to put on and take off my waterproofs.  In the end we both gave up and kept them on even during the sunny interludes.  With the wind being so strong, even with blue sky overhead there was always the risk that within minutes it would be hammering it down.

Track soon turned to tarmac once more, the hills left behind.  The rest of the challenge to the coast would be through an agricultural landscape.

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The Tuck Inn at Edzell let me indulge in another plate of fried food and it was good to get my pack off and sit on a proper chair.  A quick visit to the shop and then it was head down for one of the worst sections of walking on this years Challenge.  An arrow straight road filled with lorries and fast moving traffic means a demoralising walk.  There is nothing to do but get your head down and get on with it whilst trying to avoid getting run over.  David took me along a pleasant alternative track for the last mile or so, a relief to escape the speeding traffic.

The campsite was filled with an array of lightweight tents.  The grass is flat and the facilities ok but I can’t for the life of me think why anyone would want to go there for a holiday.  For a start it’s right next door to a dual carriageway, not the best neighbour when sleeping in a tent!

A mighty downpour had everyone hiding in their tents for a while.  It would have been a wild evening to be camping in the hills, even in this sheltered spot the wind was rocking my tent.  Once the rain had passed through it was surprisingly cold so I headed to the reception area with Dave and had a few games of pool until we were kicked out.

Fully wrapped in all my clothes I sat on the benches with a few others celebrating the last night of the Challenge.  The cold soon had me heading to my tent and a warm sleeping bag.

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Day 14 – 14 kilometres with 270 metres ascent

Day 14

Once again I was one of the last to pack up in the morning.  Dave had originally planned to walk directly to Montrose.  However my company must be fantastic as at the last minute he decided to accompany me to the coast at St Cyrus.

The dual carriageway of the A90 was a frightening barrier to cross, its hard to judge timings when everything is moving so fast.  Once safely on the other side a collection of minor roads took us in an easterly direction.  The final climb over the hill of Morphie feeling like a bit of a slog.

The wind throughout the day was exceptionally strong when exposed to it.  Heavy showers were blown through with a violent intensity.  On the hill of Morhie we took a right old battering.  The hills in the distance had once again turned white.  We later learned that the road above Braemar had been shut due to snow.  The only photo I took of this section manages to make it look all warm and spring like though.  It was actually the coldest day of the whole two weeks.

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Walking into St Cyrus a car slowed down and we were told well done, we were nearly there.  Though the village, past the church and we were at the top of the cliffs.  The view from the top is stunning, the sea and sandy beach below looking inviting.  We set off down the steep path to dip our toes in the sea.

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As a small wave dampened my shoe I’m not really sure how I felt to be honest.  A week ago I would have simply been relieved, the fear of failure was the only thing driving me on.  Now along with the sense of achievement I felt a bit sad that the walk had finished.  A few days and I would be back at work.  The simple pleasure of getting up day after day and walking was now over.

St Cyrus is a fantastic place to finish a coast to coast walk, the sandy beach backed by dunes and gorse covered cliffs.

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After the obligatory posing for photos by the water’s edge it was back up the cliff path.  This really is hard work considering that the walk is officially over.  It was the thought of a good lunch before the bus to Montrose that spurred us back up. The village cafe was full of familiar happy faces, all with the satisfied glow of reaching the east coast.

The bus dropped us off in Montrose where there was a short walk to the Park Hotel to sign in.  The place was buzzing with Challengers and it was good to meet with familiar faces once again.  I walked to the campsite, pitched, showered, dozed and then returned to the Park later that evening for the Challenge dinner.  A great end to my second TGO Challenge.

Reflecting on the Challenge

It’s easy to have a romantic vision of a backpacking trip before setting off.  For the TGO Challenge I imagined myself following a high level route each day, camping on the summits with fantastic views.  I would be climbing the peaks with little effort and spending long lunch breaks brewing up in the sun, a gentle breeze cooling me down.

Obviously I’m no fool and did not really imagine that I would spend two weeks like that, but it would be nice!  The realities of Scotland in May is a certain amount of bad weather, ticks and the fact that you are nowhere near as fit as you had hoped.  This year I had to add into the mix a foot injury, which was very painful and put a big black cloud over a few days, along with doubts I would finish.

I have wondered how my enjoyment of the Challenge could be represented in graphical form.  Therefore I have carefully constructed the following bit of art just for you (just to prove that my Humanities Degree did not go to waste).

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As you can see, it started off very well.  There was a slight dip in the enjoyability factor due to the first weeks weather but I perked up after a comfy bed for the night.  It then went a bit wrong which culminated in me standing near Kingussie station thinking about catching a train home.  During the final week things got better and better and better.

I’m not a naturally outgoing or particularly social person.  However I found that the more I made an effort (which can be difficult after a 16 mile day) when in civilisation the more I enjoyed myself.  It has now dawned on me that I could go and walk across Scotland at any time I please.  It is the social side of the Challenge that makes it much more than just a walk.

Will I do it again?  Yes.  Will I do it next year?  Undecided, there are so many things I want to do!

June 27, 2013

TGO Challenge 2013 – Days 11 & 12

by backpackingbongos

Day 11 – 26 kilometres with 860 metres ascent

Day 11

I think that one of the reasons I’m veggie is because I crave disappointment.  This is certainly always the case at breakfast time in a Scottish b&b.  You watch the other guests being plied with piles of food to set them up for the day, you then receive a very lonely looking egg which constitutes the veggie option.

I had stocked up the night before in the local co-op, which involved mindlessly stuffing anything I fancied into a basket.  This became a problem that morning as I struggled to get everything into my pack.  In the end a large packet of bagels had to be sacrificed and left behind.  With my pack heavier than it had been since the west coast I set off in search of the path that would take me to a spot marked the Lions Face on my map.

I have to admit that I got a bit confused upon entering the woods as there appeared to be two routes to the Lions Face.  I found myself on a path that circles below Creag Choinnich instead of climbing directly upwards.  This is because I ended up following a couple of Challengers whose names I don’t know but will refer to as the ‘yellow rucksack cover couple’.  Nearly everyday I would see their yellow rucksack covers somewhere in the distance.

Luckily the path continued above the busy A93 for a while before it disappeared back up hill.  A march along the road led to Invercauld bridge, a relief as I get nervous of vehicles speeding past me at 60+mph with only inches to spare.  It was whilst having a break after the bridge that I realised I had taken something from the b&b with me.  My room key was still in my pocket!  There was no way that I was going back to return it.

It was a pleasant amble through the woods to Connachat cottage.  Although never far from the main road it was quiet and peaceful with hardly a soul around.  At Connachat I made a bit of a silly navigation error, taking a path on the wrong side of the stream.  I had climbed a while before noticing and rather than turn back I decided to make a beeline cross-country to the path I was meant to be on.  This went well until I was faced with a large area of bog.  Thankfully there was a plank of wood over one section that I really should have tested before committing my weight.  It broke in two plunging one leg into the slimy depths up to the knee, jarring my bad foot in the process.  I pulled myself out, cursing my stupidity.  Surely I had properly buggered up my foot now, time to admit defeat and go home?  No, for some reason that little tumble had done the trick, I had no more foot problems for the rest of the crossing!

Back on track I slowly climbed, the forest thinning out to give some great views.

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As the last of the trees were left behind, the track turned ninety degrees and the satellite peaks of Lochnagar started to reveal themselves.  It was good to be among the mountains again, although I wished that I was walking the summits.  However now my focus was reaching the east coast by Thursday.  The summits could wait for another time.

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The ‘yellow rucksack cover couple’ were having lunch on the bench outside Gelder Shiel bothy.  I joined them, getting my stove out to cook some couscous and make some coffee.  They were soon off and I took the opportunity to remove my shoes and socks to air my feet.  I think that it is important on a long walk to let air get to your feet as often as possible, especially if wearing trail shoes.  It’s a good way to avoid prune feet which can eventually lead to blisters.

My original plan had been to stop at Gelder Shiel for the night as it was recommended by my vetters.  After poking my head in the bothy I decided that it was not a place I wanted to stay.  It was dark and dingy with little natural light, it also did not have a fireplace and had a damp feeling to it.  Not a place I will be heading to in the future.

The map shows a path heading upstream to connect with the track over the watershed.  I found the beginnings of it near a plantation but this quickly petered out leaving me floundering in bog.  The plantation fence had been torn down and many of the young trees ripped apart.  It looked like a tornado had torn though it which I hope is the case rather than vandalism.

A trackless bit of heather bashing led me to the track which gave a pleasant and well graded amble up to the 700 metre contour.  Although getting increasingly murky the views were still good, especially Lochnagar before it vanished under a blanket of cloud.

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I was getting tired but I was spurred on by the promise of soup and coffee at the Spittal of Glenmuick visitor centre.  As I reached the small building there were several Challengers resting before their final pull up to the Shielin of Mark bothy.  My luck was out with regards to soup but a hot coffee went down a treat whilst I asked the warden on suitable pitches below the bothy.  She was super helpful and knowledgeable and pointed out a spot on my map.  The other Challengers set off before me and I followed them up the Allt Darrarie which runs though a deep and narrow glen.

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The identified spot did indeed provide some good camping and I wasted no time in pitching the Scarp.  The weather was closing in, the mist enveloping the higher slopes.  There was a good procession of people passing as I set up camp, all heading in the direction of the Shielin of Mark.  One chap who I think is called Pete appeared not to be in the best of health, possibly suffering from a chest infection. His walking partner had passed about ten minutes before and disappeared into the murk.  I hoped that Pete would be ok as he slowly headed higher up the glen.

I was soon cosy in my tent, enjoying the simple pleasures of brewing up and reading my kindle.  I heard familiar voices and stuck my head out to be greeted by Alan, Andy and Phil.  They appeared to have had a good day up on Lochnagar and were heading a bit further before looking for a place to pitch.  They pointed out I had company as a couple of tents had appeared nearby.

Left to my own devices once more I had another enjoyable wild camp.

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Day 12 – 21 kilometres with 480 metres ascent

Day 12

As I was cooking breakfast my next door neighbours passed by.  It turned out that one of them was Willem who has popped by a few times to say hello on this blog.  We were certain that our paths would cross on the Challenge.

By the time I had packed up the mist and low cloud was finally lifting, leaving the promise of a nice day.  The climb to the head of the glen was a pleasant one, a narrow path leading me through the heather.

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As the glen widened out and joined the plateau the immediate landscape reminded me of the wilder parts of Bleaklow in the Peak District.  However the distant bulk of Lochnagar gave the game away.

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Towards the top of the glen I passed the remains of the biggest bank of snow that I have ever seen.  It was glacier like in its proportions, with no one to stand in front of it to give scale there was little point in photographing it.  It was mightily impressive though.

I followed the meandering stream for a while before plunging straight up through rough slopes of bog and heather in the general direction of the Shielin of Mark bothy.  I was pleased to see the bothy below after a spot of bog hopping, my casual approach to navigation had worked this time.

From the outside it’s a lovely little building in a vast sea of high moorland, Mount Keen a gentle swell on the eastern horizon.  Unfortunately the inside was exceptionally damp, the bothy book little more than paper mache.  It seriously needs someone to spend a few days with half a ton of coal to dry it out.

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My next destination was Muckle cairn on the nearby horizon and I managed to pick a route to the summit by following the lighter patches of dry grass.  The view back towards Lochnagar and across to Mount Keen gave an impression of vast open spaces.  Rough, bleak places, I love them.

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A rough track was picked up near the summit which made progress quick and easy towards the east.  Here the open plateau was broken by smaller, rounded hills with a patchwork of burnt heather.  It was clear that I was heading into grouse shooting country.

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Down in Glen Lee I found a comfy spot to sit for a while and got my stove on and my shoes and socks off.  The last couple of days weather had given me the opportunity to have leisurely lunches, which is what backpacking should be all about.  The sun finally broke out and the skies turned blue.  Spirits were already good but I felt them lift even higher.  One day I will do a Challenge when everyday will be like that.  I had discussions with people on the crossing where they felt it would be boring if the weather was nice all the time.  I don’t think that I could be bored with sunshine and dry socks.

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Further down the glen I could hear the roar of water, the Falls of Unich looked a magnificent sight even from a distance.  If I came this way again I think the area around there would make a fine campsite.

For once I was finding myself too warm rather than wet and cold, a novel experience on this crossing.  I stopped for a rest and was caught up by a local chap who knew all about the Challenge.  He said that he was looking forward to heading to the Masons Arms later that afternoon to join in with the drinking.

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I passed Loch Lee, the track finally joining the head of the public road.  A short distance later and a hill track signed for Tarfside led me through pleasant grassy pastures and over the shoulder of the Hill of Rowen with its massive cairn shaped monument.  Upper Glen Esk is a rather picturesque place.

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Although not a particularly long day I was pleased to finally arrive in Tarfside.  Just outside the Masons Arms I was greeted with a hug by David Pickles.  David is the Dartmoor policeman that I walked with for a couple of days on the 2011 Challenge.  He is a thoroughly decent chap and I reckon that if Hamish Macbeth had been filmed in Devon he would have been well cast.

I was going to go and pitch my tent on the sports field but Alan Sloman would not allow me to do that until he had got me a drink.  Well it would be rude to refuse!

After a drink on an empty stomach I wobbled off and popped the tent up on the soft green mowed grass, a welcome change from the usual ticks and tussocks of the last couple of weeks.  I enjoyed lazing for a while, eating and watching the general hustle and bustle of a field full of Challengers.  There was even a delivery of fish and chips but I was keen to eat the food I had lugged all the way from Braemar.

Soon most people were heading for the Masons Arms where I spent one of the best evenings of my Challenge.  The atmosphere was warm and convivial and the company good.  The following day I would be leaving the mountains behind and heading into rural Angus.

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June 18, 2013

TGO Challenge 2013 – Days 8 to 10

by backpackingbongos

Day 8 – 19.5 kilometres with 540 metres ascent

Day 8

I had a second sociable night in the Tipsy Laird, this time with an Aussie couple who were staying in the same b&b as me.  They were spending a few weeks touring the UK and were about to head off towards the Lake District the following day.  A good meal, a couple of pints and a comfy bed back at the b&b saw me feeling much better in the morning.  My foot was still sore but the swelling had gone down.  If I kept to my foul weather route it would be an easy three day walk into Braemar.  Once again I would reassess things there.

I rang the b&b that I had booked in Braemar many months before and let them know I would not be arriving.  The chap I spoke to was not too happy about that but agreed that I could still come and collect my parcel on the Sunday.  They were fully booked that night and could not swap my booking.  A call to my wife requesting she find me a vacant room and I set off along the road to Tromie bridge.

A cyclist stopped and chatted with me for a while.  He was a local who has been watching many people pass through on the Challenge over the years.  It is something that he has been thinking about doing for a while now, although now retired he can no longer be bothered.  He left me with the compliment that I appeared in a much better state than some that had already come through this year!

I left the road at Tromie bridge and took a track into the forest, coming out at the rather nicely situated but derelict cottage of Baileguish.  It looked to be in a poor condition which is a bit of a shame.  With a bit of TLC I would be happy to call it home.

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You may have noticed by the photo that it was a gloriously sunny day, the first in which my waterproof stayed in my rucksack.  A walk though another plantation led me to a tarmaced track which I followed to the bridge over the Feshie.  It was whilst walking this track that the casual observer would have noticed me doing a strange little jig, involving me waving my Pacerpoles around frantically.  This is because a large wasp (it really was rather large) had decided that it wanted to land on me and would not take no for an answer.  I believe such things should be avoided at all costs.

I crossed the bridge and found a comfy grassy patch sheltered from the wind.  It really was rather idyllic so off came my shoes and socks and I made some couscous and a cup of coffee.  It was the sort of moment that I had hoped the Challenge would be full of, just a shame that I had to wait until day eight.

The path on the other side of the Feshie was a joy to walk, twisting and turning its well built and narrow course through the heather.  I passed a couple of much older Challengers, making me hope that I will still be that active a decade or two after retirement.  The woman was walking at a formidable speed, her small frame dominated by her rucksack.  Her husband looked like he was constantly playing catch up.  I saw them a couple more times on the Challenge and she was always marching purposefully a few hundred metres ahead.

The newly laid path and track never really appeared to match exactly what was on my map but was easy to follow.  Dense forest interspersed with open sections.

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Ruigh Aiteachain bothy soon came into view, rucksacks lining the outside wall.  The MO was in residence, offering all new comers a cup of tea.  I have to say that both him and the MBA have done a fine job in maintaining this bothy.  It positively gleamed and is very well looked after.  I enjoyed a spot of food from the comfort of a chair whilst a selection of Challengers came and went.  One being Mike Knipe who attempted to charge rent of £5 for each inhabitant.  It didn’t work so he sat down and ate some cheese instead.

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I had planned to stop at the bothy for the night but it was barely past lunch time, far too early.  I decided to continue up the glen for a while and find a pitch past the landslide.  The scenery above the bothy is absolutely breathtaking, a picture postcard image of the perfect Scottish glen.

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The path crossing the landslide did not give any problems, but the slopes above looked pretty precarious.  I would imagine that the ground there is often moving judging by the trees and boulders that had fallen into the river.  I found a clearing about fifteen minutes away and spent a while walking around looking for a good pitch.  This was harder than I thought it would be due to the vegetation underfoot.  It was either dry tussocks, small shrubs or bog.  Perseverance paid off and I found a good patch of soft tussock free grass on which to pitch the tent.

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I have to say that this was my favourite wild camp of the whole Challenge.  A combination of the location and the best weather so far meant that I spent an idyllic afternoon and evening before going to bed.  I was pleased that I had not given up in Kingussie.  I enjoyed the weather even more knowing that the forecast for the following day was meant to be rubbish.  In fact by the time I bedded down for the night the tops of the hills had been enveloped by cloud.

Day 9 – 22 kilometres with 440 metres ascent

Day 9

It was grey and murky when I got up but the rain had not yet arrived, my tent was bone dry on both the inside and outside which was a bonus.  Walking up the glen I met Antti, a Finish Challenger.  He was revelling in the wide open spaces that Scotland has in comparison to the endless forests of Southern Finland.  I think that he became well know amongst other Challengers as the guy who tried to lighten his crocs by giving them a bit of a trim.  He conceded that this approach does not work!

I walked with him for a while as we climbed high above the river to avoid a ford through the deep and fast flowing water.

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With differing paces we soon parted company but we would end up crossing paths for the rest of the day as each of us stopped and took in the views.

As height is gained the stunning scenery of the Upper Feshie is replaced by a more familiar scene of heather moorland.  Not terribly exciting but still very pleasant, especially with the odd Scots pine dotted around.

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The landscape became bigger as I approached the ruined pony hut before the watershed, with glimpses of large hills hidden in the clouds.

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A faint path started behind the pony hut and took me via various bogs to the bridge over the River Eidart.  This felt much further than the map suggested.  The bridge was above a thunderous waterfall that was throwing spray into the air, it was mesmerising standing on the rickety metal bridge looking down at the foaming waters.

The next section across the watershed and along the upper Geldie reminded me of parts of my trek last year in Arctic Sweden.  Huge empty expanses broken up by whaleback hills gave a sense of scale that is rare in the UK.  Truly magnificent open country.  Saying that after a while I found it all a bit dull, I often had the sense of not moving.  I would walk for twenty minutes and find that nothing had changed, progress on the map felt painfully slow.

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I waded a large stream and chatted for a while with a couple of Challengers who were going through the boots then crocs then boots again process of river crossing.  There is something liberating about trail shoes when you can splosh through anything.  We chatted about how lucky we had been with the weather considering the forecast.

I soon regretted the weather conversation as within minutes it was raining.  As I progressed down the track it got heavier and heavier, a sense of purpose to the heaviness of the rain.  The rain meant business.

Soon my brand new shiny waterproofs were overwhelmed, I could feel trickles of moisture where moisture should not be felt.  I could feel my pack get heavier as it slowly filled with water.  A sign warned of a nearby building being unsafe and telling me not to enter.  I did and found a couple of very soggy Challengers having a break.  They had plans to head to Mar Lodge where they had booked for the night.  They left and I stood and dripped for a while whilst deciding what to do.  In the end I made a decision to head to White bridge and look for a place to pitch.

Anyone thinking of pitching at White Bridge?  Don’t as it’s a bleak and exposed place, especially when heavy is being blown into your face by an enthusiastic wind.  I carried on down the glen for a while, eventually finding a huge patch of flat close-cropped grass near a plantation.

I got the tent up, collected water and put my rucksack in the porch.  I then stood there for a while in the pouring rain working out the best method of getting inside without taking water in with me.  I did the remove your waterproofs as quick as possible jig and dove in.  I sat for a while in my damp clothing feeling rather sorry for myself.  If things had gone to plan I should have checked into a b&b by now and would soon be heading to the pub.  However after a change of clothes, a hot drink and some food I actually started to enjoy the miserable weather.  There is nothing better sitting cosy in a tent whilst the weather rages outside.  I slept remarkably well that night.

Day 10 – 14.5 kilometres with 240 metres ascent

Day 10

I woke in the morning to silence, the wind and rain had stopped.  I popped my head out of the tent to find that the world had disappeared into a thick mist.  It was disappointing that I had no view but at least the rain had stopped.

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I packed the sodden tent into the equally sodden rucksack and continued towards Mar Lodge.  I was looking forward to sitting somewhere dry for a while and hopefully get to chat with other Challengers.  It can be lonely sometimes crossing on your own.

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In the grounds of Mar Lodge I came across Vicky and Toby and then John and Sue.  We all exchanged tales of how wet it had been the previous afternoon.  It made me feel better knowing that there were others out there going through the same experiences.

The gun room had an urn where we could make a hot drink.  I enjoyed sitting in good company, then all of a sudden it all got even better.  There had been a wedding the night before and the leftovers were brought in.  We all dug in like we had never seen proper fully hydrated food before.  I felt like the cat that had got the cream as I made myself a salmon cob (you may choose to call a cob either a bap or roll) and filled a plate with salad.  A great introduction to Mar Lodge, I think I will have to visit on a Challenge again.

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I walked most of the way into Braemar with Vicky and Toby, chat making the miles quickly disappear.  All of a sudden the clouds evaporated and it actually became warm, I could even be bold and say that Sunday afternoon was hot.  So much so that Braemar faintly resembled a cosmopolitan European town (if you ignored the fact that in Braemar you are not trusted to drink out of a glass in the open air) with people eating and drinking in the sun.

I was greeted by David and Martin and dragged into the Fife Arms where some Challengers had returned after partying the night before.  Mr Sloman ensured that I was lubricated with a pint of Guinness before him, Andy and Phil set off for further socialising at Lochcallater Lodge.

I went off in search of my b&b.  I do feel the need to point out that not all b&b’s are created equal.  After my lovely stay at Homewood lodge in Kingussie this one was a bit austere, how I would imagine a 1950’s seaside boarding house would be.  The owner was friendly though and I soon had her moving washing on the line so I could hang my tent and hand washed clothes.

After a doze and feeling much fresher and cleaner I met David and had dinner at the Old Bakery.  After a big and cheap portion of food each we retired to the Fife Arms and sat with Chas and Dave.  Then all of a sudden a very strange thing happened.  In fact it was so odd it is just a feathery blur in my memory.  We were chatting when there was a commotion behind us.  Without warning a mallard duck flew over our heads and crashed into the window next to us.  The duck fell to the table we were sitting round and had a bit of a panicked flap.  Then like an expert duck wrestler Charles grabbed it by the neck and calmly sat there with the duck at arms reach.  The duck also seemed to realise that being calm was the best thing to do.  The duck was retrieved by a member of staff and that was that.  Except it was not.  The table was covered in duck crap which to be honest smells like something nasty has been dredged from the bottom of a particularly stinky pond.  David and I were very concerned that our Guinness had been tainted.  Chas and Dave just continued eating their food.  I discovered I had duck shit down my nice clean trousers.

It then turned into a nice convivial evening with David, Chas & Dave, Vicky & Toby and then Martin Rye.  There may have been others but my memory is rubbish.  We moved tables by the way as the duck crap remained.  That best sums up the Fife Arms to be honest.  They can’t summon up the energy to wipe shit off a table.

You may have noticed that I have not mentioned my dodgy foot for a while.  This is because although it still caused discomfort there was no longer the pain of previous days.  By walking slow and steady I had made it so far.  I was now quietly optimistic of getting to the east coast.  I had factored in five easy days from Braemar, so the plan formulating in my mind was to condense them down to four.  I would see how far I would get the following day.

June 4, 2013

TGO Challenge 2013 – Days 4 to 7

by backpackingbongos

Day 4 – 25 kilometres with 1,160 metres ascent

Day 4

For some reason I slept badly in the exceptionally comfortable double bed.  When I opened the curtains in the morning I was surprised to see that there were snow flakes mixed into the rain.  Although the hills were shrouded in low cloud it was evident that they were also covered in fresh snow.  Rather worryingly this was down to around 400 metres.  I began to wonder about the feasibility of my route across the Monadhliath mountains.

The breakfast room in the hotel made me feel a bit of a billy no mates.  I originally picked a nice table by the window but was quickly shooed away to a table for one facing the wall.  I was definitely the scruffiest one in there and looked like the only hiker.  Food was good though.

Checking the mountain forecast before setting off was an unhappy experience.  The winds on the summits were predicted to gust to 70mph over the next couple of days with snow showers and the possibility of thunderstorms.  With the heavy rain during the night I was not sure about how easy it would be to get across the river Tarff that afternoon.  Sadly it was looking like I may have to take the Foul weather alternative of my foul weather alternative.  I would make a decision during the day on which route to take.

Upon leaving the hotel I was greeted by a heavy shower as I climbed up the track that would take me to Bridge of Oich.  This had much more climbing than I had anticipated and I was soon sweating in my waterproofs.  When the rain was replaced by blue sky I made the mistake of removing them.  Within minutes it was pouring it down again, a pattern that would remain throughout the day.

At the bridge of Oich an upleasant trudge along the main road was spent trying to avoid being mown down by fast moving traffic.  This meant that the Thistle Stop cafe was a very welcome sight indeed.  Graham was already comfy inside enjoying a cooked breakfast.  I had just finished one so decided on cake instead to fuel me up for the climb ahead.  The owners were very friendly and spent a while chatting to us.

The new Beauly Denny pylons were visible on the hillside a few miles away, huge structures in comparison to the old ones.  Directly ahead was the Millenium windfarm with giant 125 metre structures sitting redundant on the high moorland.  They had been in full view for two days now and not a single turbine had been turning.  With more turbines consented, this part of the Great Glen is turning into a bit of an eyesore to be honest.

I left with Graham and started the climb up the track behind the cafe.  Height was quickly gained and we paused to admire the view down Loch Oich and towards the Ben Tee hills, covered with fresh snow.

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Even at this low level the wind was strong and line after line of heavy showers were waiting on the horizon to batter us.  I therefore made the decision to cross the Corrieyairack rather than spend three days of trackless walking across the Monadhliath.  A hard decision to make but I did not fancy my original route in this wind.  So instead of heading directly for Blackburn bothy I walked with Graham along the track on the western side of Glen Buck.  This is a lovely glen and the bothy on the other side looked like it occupies a cracking position, one to return to one day I think.

The track soon ran out and I decided to have a bit of a play with my phone, blast off a few tweets and take some photos in between showers.  Graham continued ahead and I said that I would try to catch him up (I did not see him until the following morning).

A steep contouring climb gave excellent views down the Glen and across to snow-clad hills.  The sky would darken as showers tracked past, turning to snow now that I had gained altitude.  Despite the strong nagging wind it was all very atmospheric.

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At the watershed I surveyed the expanse of flat moorland ahead of me to try to pick the best line.  What followed was bog trotting at its best / worst as I squelched my way across rough waterlogged ground.  I passed an interesting spring that looked like a burst blister, water gushing out like a broken mains water pipe.

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A new access road for the Beauly Denny pylons gave easy progress towards a derelict old hut.  The whole area was frankly a bit of a mess, the new road a major scar on the landscape.  Vehicles were busy going up and down and heavy machinery littered the moors in the distance.  I hope that the new track will be covered over or at the very least landscaped.   I was thankful that the original Military road over the Corrieyairack had been left alone.

The hut gave shelter whilst I had my lunch, during which Stuart and Maria popped their heads in.  I had met them during the 2011 Challenge.  A quick chat and they headed off to climb the pass.

The climb to the top of the pass started off easily along the well constructed track.  However I soon found that snow had covered the track and there were many detours through boggy ground to avoid it.  Wet snow and trailshoes are not a very good combination!

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As I started to approach the higher reaches of the pass the sky behind me turned black.  I could see fingers of snow trailing below the clouds and realised that I would soon get a pasting.  I really was not prepared for the viciousness of this squall.  The snow came on winds that nearly took me off my feet and made me stagger onwards like a drunk.  I was thankful that the wind was behind me, however I still felt like I was being pebble dashed.

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As I was enveloped by the mist I started to worry that it would turn into one of the predicted thunderstorms.  This would have been less than ideal as I was following a line of high voltage pylons!  Thankfully it did not but I continued to be hammered as I crossed the pass, eventually getting shelter on the other side.

Earlier in the day I had started to get a twinge on the top of my foot, I had put this down to perhaps tying my laces too tight.  As I began the descent it really started to bother me and walking became rather painful.  The dramatic view down the snowy glen helped take my mind off it for a bit.

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I had heard bad things about the state of the Coirreyairack track, however it had been repaired meaning that the descent down the zig zags was nice and smooth.  Ahead the Creag Meagaidh hills looked inviting in the afternoon light.

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I was limping pretty badly by the time I reached Melgarve bothy.  I popped my head in to find that it was rammed with Challengers.  There was room to sleep as it’s a pretty big bothy, but I am allergic to snoring.  I went back out and found a nice pitch below the bothy next to the stream.  By the time I went back to the bothy many had left to go and camp at Garva bridge.  I sat inside and chatted for a while but was keen to get back to my tent, get my shoes off and rest my feet.

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With a bit of late sunshine I passed a pleasant evening in my tent reading my kindle before having a very good sleep.

Day 5 – 24 kilometres with 380 metres ascent

Day 5

I awoke to mechanical sounds, construction for the Beauly Denny powerline was taking place a few hundred metres behind the bothy.  I got up and walked to the nearby forest to do my ablutions.  My foot felt no better, in fact it felt worse, the tendons on top and around my ankle were bruised and slightly swollen.

Graham passed by as I was packing up, he had sought shelter from the wind behind the forest further up the glen.  The night had once again been very windy.

With my pack on my back I started the long and painful process of walking towards Laggan.  Unfortunately the track soon turned into tarmac which made every footstep feel like purgatory.  There is not much to say really, except that I hated every minute of it.

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Getting close to Spey Dam I bumped into Stuart and Maria and walked with them into Laggan.  It was good to have company for a while as it took my mind off the discomfort.  They were heading for the Monadhliath hotel which had now become the Monarch (the story goes that the new Aussie owners could not pronounce Monadhliath).  I decided to go with them and see if the hotel had a spare room.  I enjoyed walking with Stuart and Maria and they adjusted their pace to accommodate mine and stopped for breaks when I requested them.

The thought of a bed for the night kept me going until we reached the hotel.  My spirits were really dashed when I found out their last room had been taken an hour previously.  I consoled myself with a drink in the bar.

I was in a bit of a no-mans land with regards to accommodation.  There was a hostel nearby but as I mentioned earlier I am allergic to snoring.  There is no way I want to go to prison because I have murdered a snorer in the night!  I decided to continue on and see if I could get to the Glentruim campsite a few miles down the road (can you hear the violins playing a sad tune in the background?).

I’m sure that my foot started to squeak as I walked along the main road before turning off at Catlodge.  I would manage to walk a couple of hundred metres before stopping to lean on a farm gate.  Eventually I noted a lovely expanse of flat green pasture below me next to the River Spey.  With a tumbling burn nearby I decided that it would be my home for the night.  I realised that it was close to the road and I was surrounded by livestock, perhaps less than ideal.  With my tent up and the weight off my feet I had another pleasant evening, the sun providing warmth in-between beefy showers.

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I felt disappointed that I had missed out the Monadhliath which I was really looking forward to.  However I was glad that I was now close to civilisation.  The idea of lurching across bogs and tussocks was now no longer appealing.  I would have to reassess things in the morning.

Day 6 – 6 kilometres with 170 metres ascent

Day 6

I was woken at 6.30am by the sound of an engine and shouting.  I popped my head out of my tent to see a quad bike followed by a border collie heading directly for me.  Thankfully they passed by, I was expecting a telling off considering I was effectively in a livestock field.  Thankfully things are more relaxed in Scotland compared to England or Wales.  I went back to sleep for a couple of hours knowing it was now unlikely that I would be moved on.

It now felt that the worst of the weather was behind me and the forecast was good for the next couple of days.  I packed up and continued along the road to a memorial and a handy bench.  This provided a great spot to rest for a while and enjoy the view back up the Spey valley.

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Stuart and Maria soon came along and joined me.  They had tales of how good the food had been in the hotel the night before.  I had to remind them that I had camped out and eaten freeze-dried food!  My foot was no better, it had swollen even more and had now gone an unpleasant shade of yellow.  I was glad to have some company on this section towards Newtonmore.  Chat makes the miles disappear quicker.

A plod brought us to the Ralia cafe just off the A9, a seat taken in the sun to refuel on coffee and a sandwich.  Maria introduced me to a couple of Challengers who happened to be nurses.  Stuart and a chap whose name I have forgotten (I’m rubbish with names, if I have not written it down I will forget it!).  They had a quick look and suggested that I should get it properly assessed.  My foot was not meant to be that shape and colour!  I decided there and then that it would be wise to visit a medical centre as soon as possible rather than walking on.  A call to the Kingussie taxi and I was being whisked to the nearby medical centre.  In my mind the Challenge was over.

This is the second time that I have had to access medical attention whilst on a Challenge, the first in 2011 when my arms and hands blistered.  Both times I was amazed at how quickly I was seen.  This time round there was no doctor available at the surgery but the nurse saw me within half an hour of arriving.  It was a bit embarrassing taking my shoes and socks off in that warm room.  I was a bit grubby and fragrant.  She said that I had overworked my foot and that my trail shoes were probably the culprit.  She felt that my foot needed more support and my big toe was doing all the work.  She suggested rest and ibuprofen and told me to get a support bandage.  I hobbled off to my B&B relieved that it was nothing serious but also concerned that I would not make it to the east coast.  I made a decision later that day, I would take tomorrow off and see if a bit of rest would help.

A sociable evening in the Tipsy Laird with David Williams and Graham helped take my mind off it.

Day 7 – 7.5 kilometres with 90 metres ascent

Day 7

I was staying at Homewood Lodge in Kingussie and I have to say that the landlady Jennifer was an absolute star.  She took my dirty washing off me the night before and returned it clean and dry the following morning at breakfast.  B&B’s can sometimes be awkward and often strange places to stay.  My stay at Homewood lodge was nice and homely.  I enjoyed slobbing around my room in my undies reading the paper and dozing in front of the telly.

I was aware that I had finished prematurely the day before, ground that I would need to cover before continuing.  I phoned a taxi at lunch time to drop me back off at the Ralia cafe.  I took my pack with me minus some heavy stuff from it.  Dosed up on Ibuprofen I slowly walked back to Kingussie, my foot grateful for not having too much weight on it.

I was now just one day behind schedule.  I had my fingers crossed that I felt up to starting the crossing to Braemar the following day.

June 1, 2013

TGO Challenge 2013 – days 1 to 3

by backpackingbongos

My TGO Challenge this year started in the first class waiting room at Nottingham station.  When I had booked my train ticket many months ago, there was only a few quid difference between first and standard class.  I was therefore determined to get my moneys worth by drinking as many complimentary drinks and stuffing as much food into my mouth as possible.  This continued on the train until the comfort was disturbed by the arrival at St Pancras station.  Here I grabbed my pack and set off on foot to find Euston where I would pick up a sleeper to Fort William.

There had been much talk on the Challenge message board and on twitter about people gathering in the Bree Louise for a drink or two.  I did intend to show my face but found myself distracted by Drummond Street.  Here are numerous cheap and cheerful veggie Indian restaurants, I settled on the bustling Chutneys.  The place has all the charm of a works canteen but service was swift and the food delicious and cheap.  £11 got me this, which is not bad for an evening meal in central London.

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I have to admit that I wobbled out and towards the Bree Louise.  I then realised that I was simply too full to even have a sip of beer, plus the place looked crowded.  Instead I headed for the station and my train which was already there and waiting.

I had somehow missed all the cheap births when booking the sleeper so decided to splash the cash and travel first class once again.  I felt a little cheated when I found out that first class cabins are the same as standard, except the upper bunk is stored away.  Mine was also a little rough around the edges, although the bed was comfy.  I lay down with a bottle of Guinness as the train pulled out of the station, gently swaying as it passed through London suburbs into the twilight.

I was far too lazy to walk the six carriages to the lounge and soon nodded off.  I have to say that I find the movement of a train rather comforting and slept well.  It reminded me of the months I spent travelling around India a few years ago.  However their trains are far cheaper and a rather more colourful and sometimes hectic experience!

I woke when the train lurched to a halt and I opened the blinds.  Mountains rose above me, the platform sign read ‘Arrochar’.  The next couple of hours were spent dreamily laying in bed watching the world pass slowly by.  I even got a hot breakfast and coffee brought to my cabin.

I found myself in limbo for a few hours after the train arrived in Fort William.  After a few laps of the high street where I did a bit of Challenger spotting (there were lots of folks with backpacks but I think that most were doing the West Highland Way) I had breakfast in the Nevis Sport cafe.  Back at the station, waiting for the lunchtime train to Mallaig the platform got fuller and fuller and fuller.  None of the large crowd that had gathered appeared to have any luggage with them.  Finally I realised that they were on some sort of excursion when a man in a kilt rounded them up for the approaching train.  I can’t imagine that being an enjoyable holiday.

The journey to Mallaig was as breathtaking as ever and I passed the time chatting to a couple of Challengers, one of which was Dawn.  It was good to finally put a name to a face after reading her blog for a while.  A few days later I heard the sad news that she had to be helicoptered out on the second day due to illness.

I was grateful that my B&B let me in nice and early.  I was staying with the Watt family, Bruce being the owner of the ferry that would take myself and a bunch of other challengers across to Knoydart the following day.  I had a little doze, followed by an hours walk along a waymarked trail above the village.  This gave cracking views across to Skye and Knoydart which led to a small amount of apprehension and large amounts of excitement that I would be in the mountains the following day.

I later met a Dutch father and son on their first Challenge in a fish restaurant that evening.  Charles and Dave soon became Chas and Dave and will forever remain in my mind for remarkable pub duck wrestling skills.  You will have to wait until Braemar for that explanation.

I had planned to walk up to the West Highland Hotel after dinner as that was where other Challengers were thought to be hiding out.  However I was not really feeling particularly sociable (I would get into the swing of things later on the walk) so I headed back to the B&B.  I am glad that I did as I witnessed one of the best sunsets that I have seen.  I sat on a bench overlooking the harbour and watched the horizon explode with an intense yellow that slowly turned orange and then pink.  Dark clouds and curtains of rain over Skye added to the magic and drama.  I went to bed a happy man, looking forward to a two week walk across the Highlands.

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Day 1 – 22.5 kilometres with 1,070 metres ascent

Day 1

The day looked promising whilst I sat eating breakfast.  However by the time I was waiting by the pier for the Bruce Watt ferry to Inverie the skies had clouded over and a light rain started to fall.  A few Challengers got on the earlier ferry which has now taken the contract away from Bruce.  A shame as that boat looked like it could only carry about twelve people, whilst many times that number would fit on the TMSV Western Isles which has been plying the route for years.

A small crowd of Challengers soon gathered including some familiar faces and people I had met in the virtual world.  Once on the ferry a huge pile of rucksacks were covered in tarpaulin (to keep them dry for a few minutes longer) and we set off for a scenic and sociable sailing to Knoydart.  At Inverie a sizable contingent made a beeline for the Old Forge.  The idea of a pint at 11am before a 22 kilometre walk with a pack really did not appeal to me.  I teamed up with David Williams, someone I had chatted with previously on twitter and we headed out of the bustling metropolis.

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David was great company (its amazing how you feel you already know someone after having conversations of 140 characters or less).  After a while we parted company as he branched off to head in the direction of Sourlies bothy.  My route headed in the direction of Mam Barrisdale, a 450 metre pass.  My surroundings were impressive, large rough and rocky peaks rising from sea level and brushing the clouds.

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My pack felt heavy and I slowly ascended to the top of the pass.  I had planned to ascend Luinne Bheinn and have a spectacular high level rollercoaster ride along the ridge of Druim Chosaidh.  However the cloud base had dropped even lower with curtains of rain tracking down the glen behind me.  It looked like it would not be much fun up there and to be honest I could not be arsed.

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As I descended the other side I put my camera away in my rucksack due to the rain getting heavier and more persistent.  There it would remain for the rest of the day.  I was soon down at sea level and approaching Barrisdale bay.  However a few hundred metres from the bothy and campsite I headed east instead, into the wilds of Glen Barrisdale.  Despite the rain, this place was a real gem with a great stalkers path that lead into its hidden depths.  The further and higher I got, the narrower the glen became.  A world of steep slopes and tumbling burns, simply magic and a pity that I could not take any photographs.

My planned wild camp was on the shores of Loch an Lagain Aintheich, however the ground was either tussocks or waterlogged.  Feeling decidedly damp and a little fed up I traipsed on a little further and found a flat but still rather squelchy bit of ground next to a small stream.  I was glad to pitch the tent and change out of my damp clothes, just in time as the rain started to intensify.  In fact it got so heavy and persistent that I began to get concerned about the rising water levels of the nearby stream.  With the undercut and collapsing bank I started to worry if in fact I was a bit too close.  It’s easy to start worrying when wild camping solo during bad weather in the middle of nowhere.

Day 2 – 23 kilometres with 510 metres ascent

Day 2

The morning brought lighter rain which eventually turned into showers.  I was finally able to appreciate my pitch which was in a rather nice location.

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After breakfast my first task of the day was to rinse out my shoes and socks in the stream.  A day of marching through bog meant that both were full of silt due to the mesh on my shoes.  This was a routine I ended up following each evening before getting in my tent, whilst my feet soaked in freezing water.  A sock full of silt is a good way to get a blister.  I also went to bed each night with clean feet!

I managed to pack in-between showers and set off with good spirits at a not very impressive 10.30am down Gleann Chosaidh.

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Wet and grey weather returned to accompany me along the trackless north shore of a section of Loch Quoich.  Every now and then I would pick up a boggy trod but generally it was not the most pleasant of hikes which felt like it went on forever.  When walking along such a large body of water it feels like you are barely moving.

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Rounding the headland I could see the road which I was heading for just a few hundred metres away.  However I had to plod onwards in a westerly direction across bog to reach the river that runs out of Loch a Choire Bheithe.  I had been worrying about this river crossing all morning as the burns were high.  Approaching the river my fears were correct, it was a bit of a beast.  I calculated that the water would be over my knees and it looked to be fast flowing.  I decided to walk upstream and look for an easier crossing point.  I got this view and evidence that the water was high as a tree below me was now in the river.

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I walked though tussocks to check out a wide section but it became apparent this would have been over my head.  I decided to head back to the original section I had come across and have a good think.

After a bit of pondering I noticed two backpackers on the road on the opposite bank.  We all waved and they stopped to see what I was up to.  This gave me the impetus to get across.  One I did not want to look a coward and two if I got swept away at least someone would be witness and possibly help!  I gingerly entered the water which was soon above my knees.  I faced into the flow and using my sticks walked diagonally upstream.  The current was strong and the speed of the water made me feel a bit disoriented, I had to focus a few metres ahead rather than look straight down.  Luckily the river bed was not too bouldery.  I was relieved to get across without going for a plunge.

Graham and Barry (or was it Brian) waited whilst I sorted myself out and kept me company on the long road trudge east.

Earlier in the post I mentioned that the sleeper to Fort William reminded me of my time travelling in India.  It turned out that the conversation that you have with each new Challenger you meet resembles those I would have with locals in India.  There is a set text to follow within the first few minutes.  In India the questions you are always asked are ‘What is your country?’, ‘Are you married?’, ‘How many children do you have?’, ‘What is your profession?’, usually the final rather quirky question is, ‘How much did your shoes cost?’  Shoes would often be discussed with other Challengers as everyone has an opinion on what constitutes suitable footwear (thankfully cost is avoided).  However this comes after firstly establishing if that individual is indeed on the challenge, where they started from, where they are heading that day, where they plan to finish and how many challenges they have completed.  At the very least it ensures that there are no awkward silences.

I had planned to head up Glen Quoich to avoid the road, but this would involve a crossing of the River Loyne.  After my earlier experience I decided that this would be unwise as it can be a formidable obstacle when in spate.  Instead I continued for many long miles with Graham and Barry along what felt like endless tarmac.

They had planned to continue a few kilometres further than me.  As they went ahead I found a nice pitch just off the road in a stand of birch.  The wind was strong but the sun made an appearance which meant that I soon had dry kit once more.  I had an enjoyable evening sitting in the warmth of my tent staring vacantly at my surroundings.  I slept well that night.

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Day 3 – 25.5 kilometres with 650 metres ascent

Day 3

The previous evenings sunshine had got my hopes up and I was a little disappointed to wake to grey skies once more.  I knew that the day would be an easy low level plod into Invergarry, so I was a little bit slow in packing up.  I had to get another long road walk under my belt before the forest tracks that lay beyond the Tomdoun hotel.  To access them any earlier would involve some potentially tricky river crossings.

I passed Graham as he was packing up close to the power station near Kingie.  Continuing along the road I felt a presence behind me and was soon caught up by Ian Cotterill.  A couple of minutes later and he had powered off into the distance, his pace obviously being a bit quicker than mine.  The road walk past Tomdoun was rather tedious to be honest and I was pleased to leave it and head on forest tracks towards Greenfield.  Grey murk was hiding the mountains and I did not find my surroundings particularly inspiring.  Tarmac can bugger up your resolve as well as your soles.

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In the forest a sign on a gate made me smile as I do like a hairy coo.

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It turned out that the herd was a short distance ahead, not doing much to help restore the natural woodland as they were standing on the track.  Not just standing on it but effectively blocking it.  They were a bit wary of me as I passed as they had calves with them.  One in the middle however decided to take exception and after a bit of vocalising her displeasure decided to have a bit of a charge.  I bottled it and ran behind a tree!

Safely past the hairy coos I stopped to take my pack off and restore my heart rate.  I then noticed Graham come along the track.  Once again all was going well until the same cow decided on a full frontal assault.  Her head went down and she charged him full on.  I had visions of him being gored on those large horns.  He stood his ground, shouted and wacked her on the head with his poles.  That stopped her and he continued without injury.

I spent the rest of the day walking with Graham through the forest.  Somehow just before we took to the road near Invergarry we got a bit confused as the map did not agree with what was on the ground.  The GPS was cracked out to send us off in the right direction.  In the village Graham headed for the hostel whilst I made a beeline for the Invergarry hotel.  In my planning stage I thought that I would fancy a bit of luxury after day three and it turned out I was right.  For a single room it was rather nice and I went about turning it into a repository for stinking wet gear.  I’m sure that if hotel and b&b owners could see what happens when a challenger gets in their rooms we would be banned.

I was chuffed with myself that I had covered 72 kilometres in three days in less than ideal conditions.  I was looking forward to the Monadhliath mountains the following day.

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