I have to admit that the TGO Challenge has been my backpacking nemesis. I completed the ‘half’ crossing in 2001 during the foot and mouth outbreak and returned for a full crossing in 2003, where it slapped me in the face. After fours days of heavy rain it all got too much for me and I decided to call it a day and head home. The Challenge has been at the back of my mind ever since but I never re-applied as I did not want to go through that sense of failure again. However last October I found myself applying once more, would 2011 be the year that I got across? Surely the weather would play ball this time?
I hardly slept a wink on the Wednesday night, my mind plagued with anxiety. Had I forgotten to pack something important? Would my trains the following day work out ok or would I miss my connections? I was up at 5.00am the following morning to catch my first train on the long journey north. Everything went smoothly and boarding my second train at Manchester I was glad to have spent that extra £5 to travel to Glasgow first class. I wish that all rail travel could be like the 4 hours spent on that train. Loads of room, nice and quiet with coffee, sandwiches and biscuits brought to my seat throughout the journey.
It was tipping it down when I arrived in Glasgow and I had a couple of hours to kill and no desire to go window shopping. I loaded up with food and found a quiet spot in the bus station, keen that under no circumstances was I going to miss the bus to Shiel Bridge. Waiting in the queue to board I was tapped on the shoulder and a woman asked if I was a Challenger. She said that she was in disguise having been to a meeting that day, her kit waiting with her husband at Shiel bridge. I had expected the bus to have been full of backpackers, where were they all hiding considering that I had chosen the most popular start point? Frank from Germany joined the bus at the airport, easily recognisable with his Cuben fibre rucksack. We sat and chatted about our routes and gear on the long five-hour journey.
The highlands passed in a blur of grey, heavy rain obscuring the views. It was hard to imagine that a whole month had recently passed without a cloud in the sky, wild fires burning the mountains. The rain was sheeting it down as I left the bus outside the Kintail lodge, I was glad that all those months ago I had decided to book myself a single room and start the Challenge in luxury. The hotel bar was heaving with challengers who all appeared to leave promptly at 9.00pm, I ended up having a sociable evening with another ‘first timer’ who’s name has completely escaped me.
Day 1 – 12 miles with 670 metres ascent
I awoke to sunshine and a slightly fuzzy head, glad that the surrounding mountains had decided to reveal their summits. As I fumbled my way down to breakfast there was a large gathering in the reception as Challengers called in to sign the start register. As I sat and ate, lines of them walked past the window all heading in the same direction. By the time that I had packed and checked out it was gone 10.00am and it looked like I would be the last to leave that morning. This set a precedent for the rest of the Challenge, whether wild camping, in a campsite or at a b&b I would always be the last one to set off by at least an hour!
I walked down to Loch Duich on my own to dip my feet in the salt water, in the back of my mind I realised that I had an awfully long way to walk before doing the same thing on the other side of Scotland.
My original plan for the day had been to walk to Alltbeithe YHA via the Bealach an Sgairne with a possible excursion to the Munro A’Ghlas-bheinn. However already the clouds were gathering and looking menacing to the west, so I decided on the easy option and headed into Gleann Lichd. No sooner had I done so the heavens opened.
The weather played a game with me. As soon as a heavy shower cleared I would stop to take off my waterproof trousers. I would manage to walk a few hundred metres and another blast of rain would hit me. In the end I gave up the one-legged balancing act and just kept the damn things on. The sheep in the valley were quick to approach on the look out for a titbit.
Gleann Lichd is a beauty with a good flat low-level track which you can blast up quickly. The mountains rise steeply from the valley floor and I soon felt like I was in the middle of nowhere.
Glenlicht house sits in an enviable position at the head of the valley and I sought shelter from the wind against its sturdy walls. Sadly it is locked but there is a wooden shed that can be used for emergency shelter. I chatted briefly to another Challenger who was clearly struggling under one of the biggest packs that I have ever seen, it towered high over his head. He wobbled off whilst I stood for a while looking at the route ahead as it climbs 300 metres to a pass under Beinn Fhada.
I could not put of the inevitable any longer so shouldered my pack and set off up the well-engineered path, quickly gaining height the views behind soon opened up.
The path was a joy to walk, a few inches wide it only revealed itself a few metres at a time as it twisted and turned though the dramatic landscape. All of a sudden I was face to face with a large spectacular waterfall, pounding its way down from the hills. Its size can truly be appreciated when you spot the figures in the photo below just above the left stream.
The path soon left the confines of the gorge and entered more open country, surrounded by rugged mountains on all sides. I began to start catching up with the Challengers who had left whilst I was eating breakfast and passed the time chatting. Everyone it seemed was heading for Alltbeithe that night, would it squeeze everyone in?
It is years since I last passed Camban bothy, back then it was a bit of a hovel, somewhere to stay only in an emergency. Recently the MBA have done a stirling job at doing it up and each room now comes equipped with bunks. I stopped for a while to remove my shoes and socks which steamed in a corner whilst I ate a late lunch. The key to wearing unlined footwear in wet conditions is to give your feet a chance to breathe at least once during the day. Mine were definitely grateful for the airing.
Camban is in a truly spectacular setting and I was reluctant to leave it as I headed towards the fleshpots of Alltbeithe YHA. The two bothy inhabitants had been lounging on their bunks all day, not feeling inspired enough to hit the hills in the changeable conditions. I am sure that they had plenty of visitors that day as groups of Challengers passed through.
Another squall of rain pushed me towards the hostel, which sits on its own in the middle of nowhere. I received a warm welcome from the warden who told me to grab a bunk in the building around the back. To say that I was disappointed with what I got for the £22 which I had spent many months ago is a bit of a understatement. The dorm is a glorified wooden bothy with bunks sleeping 10 people in a tiny room, it probably would have been more comfy back at Camban. I claimed a rickety bunk and headed back to the main hostel building which thankfully is much more cosy and comfy. The warden does a stirling job keeping things going in such a remote location, miles from the nearest road. A very sociable evening was spent in the kitchen with large numbers of challengers keeping warm by the stove. In fact it got so busy that it was like a strange game of twister trying to prepare a meal or hot drink.
Outside the rain absolutely lashed it down, the wind roaring down the valley. As dusk arrived I noticed that the tops of the hills were now dusted with snow, the level of which kept getting lower and lower. In the end I was thankful that I was not camping outside and I lay in my bunk listening to the weather rage on outside.
Day 2 – 11.9 miles with 550 metres ascent
I ended up having probably one of my worst ever nights sleep. I sleep lightly and the smallest noise can keep me awake. Somewhere in the darkness of the dorm was a snoring goliath, his nocturnal rumblings eventually drowning out the sound of the weather outside. I almost considered smothering him whilst he slept but realised that an act like that may well get me disqualified from the Challenge and would probably come up on my next CRB check for work. It felt like that as soon as sleep eventually came everyone else was up and about making a right old racket. I looked at my watch and it was 6.00am. Bastards. I waited for an hour or so until most were on their merry way before heading to make breakfast. What is it with Challengers feeling they need to be off at the crack of dawn? It’s light until at least 10.00pm so plenty of daylight!
The hills were hidden in a mantle of grey that morning and the burns were full to bursting, the wind pushing curtains of rain down the valley. I lingered as long as possible in the warm kitchen chatting to the warden until the inevitable could no longer be put off. Thankfully the wind was behind me as I staggered off down the valley. I was soon faced with an overflowing stream without a bridge, nothing for it but to wade through, the icy water stinging my feet. Glen Affric however is simply magnificent.
Passing the cottages at Athnamulloch the rain finally stopped and the sun came out. I was wet, tired and already hungry so stopped for a while to remove my shoes and socks and get a bite to eat. Almost as soon as I had done so the rain advanced once more down the valley, its grey veils blotting out the beautiful hills. Along the track above Loch Affric I put my head down and got on with the business of walking west and was soon at the end of the loch. Here I met a couple of Challengers, one of which had already decided to call it a day and retire from the Challenge, the conditions being tougher than he had anticipated.
The firmness of the track was left behind on the path ascending alongside the Allt Garbh. Initially it was a pleasure to be on a narrow path twisting through the deep heather, but it soon ended in a boggy morass. It was a pretty awful kilometre or so, disappearing up to my shins in a watery peaty mess. The scenery as ever was outstanding with stands of Scotts pines in the foregrounds and rugged mountains behind.
The path soon climbed and joined a track heading towards a scenic loch. From looking at the map I expected the next couple of miles to be a bit of a boring trudge but the scenery was lovely as the track twisted and turned though small knolls.
A grassy ledge next to the loch was already occupied by an Akto even at this early hour as I passed by. I was keen to get out of my waterproofs so pushed on quickly to Cougie where I had booked myself a bed and dinner for the night. Cougie is often touted as a place you must visit on the Challenge with the hospitality being legendary. I received a very warm welcome from Val when I entered the kitchen and I was soon sitting at the large table drinking coffee and eating a fried egg sandwich in the company of loads of Challengers. A guy at the table asked me if I had a dog, strange I thought, do I smell like one? It turned out that he recognised me from this blog, with good old Reuben the Staffy often featuring on my posts. Sort of fame at last! Sorry mate if you are reading this I have forgotten your name (along with just about every other challenger I met along the way).
I asked Val about the room I had booked and a look of horror crossed her face. She remembered my booking but as she has been very ill recently she had not noted my reservation and her little bunkhouse was now full. No need to panic though as I was soon found a place in her son’s house. This was an interesting building which he had built entirely by his own hands, apparently it started life as a caravan and organically took shape from there!
In the end Val managed to tuck 14 Challengers into the many buildings around Cougie and everyone managed to cram into the homely kitchen for dinner that evening. A very convivial couple of hours in the warmth of Val’s kitchen. At the end of the evening she asked everyone what time they would like breakfast and would we be ok if it took place in two sittings. There was a clammer as most people wanted breakfast as early as possible, 7.00am was the first sitting. 7.00am? not for me I’m on my holidays. I gladly went for the second sitting!
Day 3 – 13 miles with 620 metres ascent
Most challengers were setting off for the day when I headed down for breakfast and I spend a pleasant hour in Val’s kitchen. They do self catering in the little bunkhouse and I think that one day I will return when in the Highlands, a friendly place in a nice remote spot.
The matriarchs of Cougie………….
As the morning ticked along only myself and David were left hanging around, avoiding setting off into the rain. We were both heading in the same direction so decided that we would walk together. Both of our planned routes took us through the forest after Loch na Beinne Moire and down to the river Enrick. However we had both been told separately by different inhabitants of Cougie that the path though the forest did not exist and should be avoided. There was only one thing for it, a high level moorland route to Loch ma Stac.
An easy plod down the track to Hilton Lodge was followed by a climb through the forest on what had probably been a busy route to Fort Augustus earlier that morning. Almost all of the inhabitants of Cougie the night before were heading that way. The higher we climbed the lower the mist descended upon the surrounding peaks, until finally we were enveloped and then soaked by a fine constant drizzle. Typically by the time we had arrived at the chosen spot to ‘go off-road’ visibility was down to a few metres. A compass bearing was taken in the direction of Loch nan Eun and we squelched off across the rough invisible moor. Surely it would be impossible to miss such a large loch in the mist?
Thankfully both compasses did not lie and a slight lifting of the mist gave us a bleak view of the loch.
It was pretty hard going walking along its shores but there was a bleak raw beauty to the place, a quiet remote spot well worth the effort. The ebbing and flowing of the mist added to the eerie quality.
Loch ma Stac was less than a couple of miles away on the map but we both quickly realised that it would take some time to reach it. The ground was doing its best in impersonating a really lumpy soggy mattress and the going was slow.
The ground looked like this for pretty much the entire crossing!
Finally the loch appeared after we crossed a low ridge, we walked and walked and walked but it never seemed to get any closer! By now the roughness of the walking was getting to me and I was keen to pitch my tent and remove my sodden footwear. I had heard that quite a lot of challengers have camped next to the loch in the past, looking at the mass of bog and tussocks I really could not imagine where.
Finally we reached the north end with its strange tower located on a small island. By now the wind had began to pick up and it was clear that a camp on this side of the loch would be out of the question if we wanted a peaceful nights sleep. A narrow causeway led to the tower which we were keen to explore. There were places to pitch right next to it, sheltered from the wind but the structure looked like it had seen better days. Neither of us fancied concussion, or worse from falling masonry so decided to seek a spot somewhere along the river Enrick.
Climbing an old overgrown track I gave a final glance towards the wilds surrounding Loch Ma Stac. It is sad to think that such a beautifully desolate place may soon be covered in 500ft whirring towers. Sure, the Balmacaan forest may not be the most widely visited spot in the highlands but can it not just be left for its own sake?
We were now keen to find a spot to pitch the tents for the night as once again the skies darkened threatening rain. A mile or so along the track I spotted a large green patch among the rough heather, my fingers crossed that it was not boggy or infested with ticks. It turned out to be perfect, flat, close to water and reasonably sheltered from the prevailing wind. I got the Scarp1 up in a few minutes and was soon comfortable inside, making a hot drink. David on the other hand was an Akto perfectionist and spent what felt like hours adjusting and readjusting his tent to get it taut. He seemed mightily perturbed that my Scarp1 did not budge an inch in the breeze, whilst his Akto flapped around a bit!
It was good to be ensconced in my tent for my first wild camp on the challenge and I enjoyed laying there listening to the gentle pitter patter of rain on the fly.
Day 4 – 14.3 miles with 510 metres ascent
In the end the promised heavy rain and gale force winds failed to materialise although I woke up to the usual grey and damp conditions, a light rain falling on and off. We had decided to camp reasonably high so that we were still in a position to do a high level crossing of the wild interior of the Balmacaan forest. However with the clouds sitting on the hills and a rough introduction the day before, we were both of the opinion that it would be better to stay low.
We made good progress down the track next to the River Enrick, passing a signpost pointing towards a perfectly good path. This was the path that supposedly did not exist! Well our fault for listening to non hill-walking experts I suppose. Shortly afterwards we came across a lovely dilapidated old building, we stopped and poked our noses through the unlocked door. Inside was a gem of a bothy, clean and comfortable with a good supply of firewood. We both cursed the fact that we were less than a couple of miles away the night before. The bothy would have been a lovely place to spend the night.
Some pretty vicious rain showers followed us down the track towards Glen Urquhart, the sky first turning black, the advancing rain then blotting out the views in grey curtains.
The route into Drumnadrochit is a tale of many forestry tracks but thankfully it was not as dull to walk as it looks on the map. Our paths crossed with that of many Challengers and was a sociable affair. The only person I saw wearing shorts on the whole crossing was spotted removing a tick from his thigh. He may well have just hung a sign around his neck saying, ‘Tick feeding station’. You have to be a tick lover to wear shorts in the West Highlands at this time of year!
David who I spent a couple of days walking with is a Policeman from Devon. We had a good lengthy chat on the way into Drum where he patiently answered my barrage of questions about Policing. I have to admit to holding some so-called ‘anti establishment’ type views so I hope that this did not come out too much. If it did David took it all with good nature!
I went about planning my TGO challenge by splitting the whole thing into four separate backpacks. This made things much less daunting in my mind as basically I was just doing four long weekend backpacks tacked together. Drumnadrochit signaled the end of the first backpack. Here I was to be rewarded with a nice double bed all to myself, laundry, a meal in a restaurant and a food parcel. You need to treat yourself on a long backpack! The following day would mean an early start as I was booked on the first crossing of Loch Ness. A quick pace would then be needed to join Alan Sloman’s ‘Wake for the Wild. For years I have wanted to head into the bleak wild depths of the Monadhliath, I was finally going to get to realise my dream…………..