Day 5 – 21.4 miles (17.3 walked and 4.1 by boat) with 1,320 metres ascent
Just for once on the Challenge I had to get up early. The day before I had phoned Gordon Menzies to check my crossing of Loch Ness and he confirmed I was on the early boat, which leaves at 8.30 am. I was relieved because I was keen to join Alan Sloman on his ‘Wake for the Wild’ which would be starting at 10.30am from Errogie. I would need to get a few miles under my belt first thing in the morning to make it in time.
After a breakfast which was far too early to be able to finish I was soon packed and on my way for the march along the busy A82 towards Temple Pier. My rucksack was once again heavy with the contents of the food parcel posted to the B&B. On the positive side I was now kitted out in clean clothes which my landlady had kindly washed for me. You cannot overestimate the value of clean pants after a few days! The mile and a half felt endless as the morning traffic roared past but in reality took no time at all. I walked down to the pier and spotted a bearded man on the deck of one of the boats and wandered over, the occupants inside giving me a wave. I asked if he was Gordon, he confirmed he was so I removed my pack and sat on a bench to have a quick snack. Whilst sitting there I was puzzled at to where all the other Challengers were, seeing as the boat was scheduled to leave in ten minutes. I shouldered my pack, climbed aboard and descended into the plush interior. “Can I help you?” was the response of those having breakfast at the table inside. It suddenly dawned on me that I had made a mistake! I was pointed in the right direction as I legged it to another pier where indeed there was a crowd of rucksacks and Challengers milling around a much smaller and less posh boat. I wonder what the occupants of the other boat had thought of my uninvited arrival?
Anyway Challengers and rucksacks were soon settled into Gordon’s boat for the trip to the other side of the loch at Inverfarigaig. Gordon is a lovely chap and the surprisingly long journey was enlivened by his stories. A mention of ‘The wake for the wild’ was met with his opinions of wind farms and how they were slowly destroying the local landscape and how this could affect tourism. It sounds like there are a few more to come in the areas surrounding Loch Ness. What did surprise me was the reluctance of some of those onboard the boat to get involved in the wake, even though their routes coincided. I had mentioned it to a few Challengers on the previous four days, unfortunately receiving a high level of disinterest, from the ‘We shouldn’t get involved in that sort of thing’, to ‘I don’t mind wind farms’. Hopefully the responses I got do not reflect the average opinion of the average backpacker or lover of wild places. If so we are doomed.
The pier at Inverfarigaig has seen better days and it is a bit of a balancing act to disembark whilst wearing a pack. Gordon was quickly off to go and pick up the second wave of Challengers.
Whilst on dry land a pile of walking poles and rucksacks were sorted out.
I was soon on my own walking alongside the narrow ribbon of tarmac that runs trough the Pass of Inverfarigaig. At a junction there was a sign proclaiming that the way I wanted to go was closed for the foreseeable future due to forestry operations. I ignored it and continued through an area where there was clearly no work taking place. We are brilliant at being efficient in the UK eh?
Stopping at a bridge to remove some layers I was caught up by a couple of other Challengers, having someone to talk to made the rest of the road walk much more enjoyable. At Errogie there was no sign of either a coffin or Mr Sloman, so we continued on towards Farraline where an Audi driver did her best to take out as many Challengers as possible in one go. Her car literally passed within an inch of everyone, I was disappointed that my poles were strapped to my pack as they would have been useful to remove a bit of her shiny paintwork.
My companions soon disappeared as I headed towards a group of people standing by the shore of Loch Mhor just as a boat arrived carrying a coffin. Phew I had made it just in time! A procession started on towards the buildings at Farraline where the plans for the day were run through.
And then the coffin was off heading towards Dunmaglass lodge.
I had an interesting chat with a lovely local woman who was clearly passionate about the area in which she lives. It must be heartbreaking to live in such a beautiful area only to find out that it will soon be industrialised in the name of ‘green energy’. Thankfully the route so far had been along a well-worn track but we had been warned that the route across the hills to the lodge was through deep heather. Before tackling the rough stuff a halt was called to give those carrying the coffin a break.
Chris Townsend almost seemed to be posing ready for his photo to be taken!
Up across the hill the coffin went, a huge sweep of the Monadhliath mountains ahead, the intended destination for the Coffin and sadly later for 500ft turbines.
The descent to the lodge is across awful ground, with high untamed heather. At one point I looked down and saw the biggest tick slowly working its way up my trouser leg, all red body and black legs. He was swiftly evicted. It took a while to navigate a suitable route to the lodge where we were met by a Police car blocking the driveway and two Policewomen. They soon set about interviewing Alan Sloman, asking for information which they had already been provided with. Note Alan’s defensive positioning of his hands!
Whilst everyone else stood and watched!
A good use of Police resources? I will let you be the judge of that one. What made me smile was the numerous signs the estate had erected, pointing us in the direction they wanted us to go. They wanted to ensure that we did not damage the ground or disturb nesting birds. Oh the irony from an estate who want to bury tons of concrete in the hills, bulldoze miles of track and erect huge turbines.
A brief stop for lunch where a few words were said over the coffin, filmed by a couple of TV crews who had come along. In fact at just about every stop it appeared that Alan had a big fluffy stick pointed at his face.
And then it was off into the hills to the site where the highest turbine will be located at over 2500ft.
We walked through magnificent scenery, the only evidence of man being the ugly bulldozed track. With each step climbed the view back towards the west got bigger and bigger, the horizon opening up with row upon row of peaks. The Monadhlaith themselves being hauntingly beautiful in their apparent emptiness. Just because the wildlife does not immediately jump out at you does not mean that it is not there, the place is teeming with life you just need patience to see it. I personally find it crass that such a place can be ripped apart for personal profit.
The Coffin was placed at a spot just below where one of the highest turbines will be located. A 500ft turbine situated at over 2500ft, surely that will blend in well with the landscape?
A toast was given and Janet Donelly read out this moving eulogy:
We have come here today because we are the lucky ones. We are lucky because we are the last generation who remember and who have had a chance to be inspired by the Scottish landscape and everything it represents.
Take a moment now to look around you – really take in what you can see because this may be the last time that you will be able to experience that extraordinary feeling that comes when we feel ourselves dwarfed by the magnificence and splendour of the unspoilt wild land around us.
As more and more swathes of the Scottish wilderness are pillaged in the name of sustainability, we mourn their loss as if they were dearly loved friends who taught us valuable lessons in life like the fact that there is more to life than 9 to 5, the daily grind and keeping up with the Jones’s. Up here we permit ourselves to escape just for a little while and allow the splendid isolation to lift our spirits as the realisation dawns that we are indeed just a tiny speck on this incredible planet.
This land is in our hands, in trust for our children and our children’s children and if the politicians and the fat cats have their way, they will look back on our stewardship of the land and hang their heads in shame.
The politicians would have us believe that there is no other way and nobody denies that something must be done to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power but we contend that the destruction of the Scottish landscape for ever is not the answer.
The technology is flawed, the sums don’t add up and the claims of large scale onshore wind power station supporters just don’t stand up to scrutiny. Add to that the news that we – the taxpayer have paid nearly a million pounds to the turbine owners to switch them off at times of peak output and we have the makings of a first class farce.
It isn’t funny though – nobody is laughing – unless you count those on their way to the bank. Let’s call a halt to the desecration of our wild landscape and the knee jerk reaction that says ‘do something – anything and we’ll think about the consequences later.
John Muir said: “Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean”
I invite you all to look around you now and try to work out where you will go to wash your spirit clean when all of this is gone.
Could you all please raise your glasses – hip flasks – mess tins, whatever you’ve brought with you?
To the wilderness – may it continue to inspire us, arouse passion in us and provide sustenance for our souls. May those who seek to destroy it hear the voices of those for whom it is an integral part of life and may it long be regarded as an asset rather than a resource.
A fitting tribute before everyone assembled went their separate ways, many returning the long way back to their vehicles, carrying the coffin back down with them. Suddenly it was just myself and Alan left and he borrowed my mobile phone to do an impromptu interview with the Times. The result being a piece in the paper the following day. It appears on his blog here.
We walked to the end of the track where Alan continued on his TGO Challenge and I sat in a hut for a bite to eat. The weather was beginning to change and quickly. Thankfully the weather had been good for the whole day of the wake, but it looked like it may come back with a vengeance just as I was about to cross the 800 metre contour. When I was about to leave the shelter of the hut three Challengers turned up who were looking to call it a day, they decided to stay the night there. I set off on a compass bearing, suddenly alone in this huge open landscape.
If you are agoraphobic then the Monadhliath are probably not for you! I am not sure that I would fancy crossing them in poor visibility as I would image it would be easy to get yourself ‘temporarily misplaced’. Luckily the clouds were just above the tops as I crested the final peaty rise and started the long gentle meandering descent towards the Findhorn river. Initially the going was rough and I found myself frequently sitting to rest my by now tired legs. However I soon unlocked the secret to walking these hills, that being the watercourses. The banks of the streams are usually nice and grassy, giving relatively easy going. I was soon making good progress down the Allt Odhar Mor.
This in turn brought me to a track that descends the length of the scenic Allt Calder. Next to the track I Spotted a lovely patch of cropped green turf and thought that it looked a most excellent place to pitch for the night. After backpacking in the Highlands for many years I am well aware of the presence of ticks and have a little ritual I always perform before pitching a tent. I crouch down and waft my hands over the vegetation on which I plan to pitch. A good couple of minutes coming into contact with as much vegetation as possible, another tick obsessed friend and I call this the ‘tick test’. To a casual observer it probably looks a little bit odd! Anyway after a couple of minutes fondling the grass I looked at my palms and they were clear. Brilliant I thought, I will pitch here. I then noticed the back of my hands which were covered in loads of tiny ticks. Hmmm maybe not, I washed my hands in the stream and moved on. I repeated this a couple of times down the Calder with similar results, whilst at the same time becoming a bit tired and grumpy. In the end I decided to continue to the Findhorn and walked the length of Allt Calder which apart from the numerous ticks was rather lovely.
A few tents were scattered around the bridge when I reached the sublime valley that houses the Findhorn. I spied a patch of grass that was so short that ticks would probably avoid it, I did my odd little ritual and found it free from the pesky things. I was soon in my tent, water boiling for coffee and feeling totally zonked out.
A stunning spot but the weather soon closed in with a strong wind blowing down the valley, carrying a light rain. As usual my tent hardly budged in the increasing gusts and I spent a cosy evening relaxing with a good book. I slept well in the knowledge that a short easy day to a remote bothy was to follow, I could have a well-earned lie-in!
Day 6 – 13.6 miles with 570 metres ascent
I woke bleary eyed at about 9.00am after a good long sleep. All the other tents that had been pitched the night before had gone when I poked my head out of the door. A strong wind still blew down the valley but at least the constant rain had stopped, replaced by the odd shower. Making coffee, the three guys who spent the previous night in the shooting hut high in the hills passed by. They said that it had been a wild night with strong winds and heavy rain, the hut proving to be a bit leaky. They had been walking since about 6.00am and there was a comment about the fact I was still in my tent! Filled with noodles and coffee I was soon packed and walking down the track towards Coignafearn old lodge, helped along by the wind pushing at my back. Passing the lodge the public road was reached but it still remained a delight walking through this lovely remote valley.
The Findhorn was crossed by a sturdy bridge and I headed towards the ruins at Coignafeuinternich, where flattened grass showed that a few tents had been pitched the night before. A good place to pitch as the small plantation would have provided shelter from the worst of the wind. My vetters said that the Allt a Mhuilinn could be difficult to cross if in spate, but even though it appeared to have rained constantly for nearly a week river levels had mostly been ok. I got across without getting my slippers wet and continued along the track that snakes its way into the valley. Then the sunshine was almost instantly replaced by a heavy shower, appearing out of nowhere. This would set the scene for the day, waterproofs on then off until I got fed up and left them on.
As usual for these parts the track continued further up the glen than marked on the map, leading to a bit of confusion. I overshot my planned means of escape from the valley and ended up making a direct ascent of the 713m moorland lump of An Cabhsair. Suddenly a grouse shot from under my feet and I missed the nest full of eggs by inches, thankfully I did not crush anything. The guys from earlier that morning passed by as I sat for a while getting my breath back, taking in the extensive panorama. The view reminded me a bit of Bleaklow, rolling moors in all directions as far as the eye can see. The difference being that the scale of the Monadhliath is breathtaking, the hills are higher and the distances greater. These hills roll on for miles and miles and the sense of space is almost overwhelming. I really felt like I was in the middle of nowhere and miles from civilisation. My sort of landscape.
My plan was to head towards the bothy located next to the Allt Spioradail for the night, however the day was still young. It would be a waste of a sunny (although very windy) day to sit in a bothy so I decided to miss it out and stay high on the hills for as long as possible. Instead I made for Carn na Guaille which was a small rise on the horizon, I regretted this decision after about ten minutes as the going was rough. Bog and tussocks made for slow going and I was cursing until I spotted the grassy banks of the Allt Steallaig which took me eventually to a little hut next to the Allt an Tudair. As I approached the hut the skies turned a menacing shade of black and it absolutely threw it down. I legged it to the door and swore a bit when I discovered it was firmly locked! Feeling rejected I sat in the lee of the hut and cooked some noodles, water dripping on me from the roof above.
The weather for the rest of the day was set, nice periods of sunshine followed by brief but vicious showers, pushed along by a rather keen wind. I reached the Red Bothy and thought about pitching outside but the wind was far too strong. The sleeping platform inside was already occupied so I decided to push on. The surroundings were nice though and would make an ideal pitch in less windy conditions.
I continued on down the Dulnain stopping briefly to chat to a Challenger who announced he was just off to have a poo! He was the last person I would see that day as I entered a magical world of grassy meadows, Scotts pine and Juniper. The owners of Caggan have an enviable spot and the house looked smart and well cared for, I jealously passed by resisting the temptation to have a nosey. The buildings of Eil on the map were now just a few low walls reclaimed by nature. The mountains were receding behind me but the scenery along this stretch of the Dulnain was probably my favourite of the whole crossing.
I was keen to get pitched but the wind was still roaring down the valley, totally unimpeded. A small stream was marked coming from the west so I decided to head for that. When I got there I found a magical spot next to a thicket of juniper, it was still windy but as sheltered as it was going to get. My tick test on the springy turf found none of the little beasties so the Scarp1 was soon up with me lounging inside. With the sun shining it was lovely and warm inside and I was probably the happiest I had been during the whole challenge. Looking back it was my favourite moment of the two weeks. The weather was good, the location perfect and my spirits high. I read, tweeted and spoke to my partner back at home. Totally relaxed I had a great nights sleep.
Day 7 – 7.7 miles with 220 metres ascent
There was a distinct lack of the sound of rain pitter pattering on my fly sheet when I awoke, even the sun was still shining! I was in no hurry to move as I had already covered a few miles of todays planned route. I lounged around eating and drinking, feeling content in my surroundings. As I sat there with a fairly empty head my eyes focused on a large black beetle that was slowly making its way from the juniper bushes to my tent. It took a while but when it finally entered my porch I noticed something rather odd about it. It was absolutely covered in what looked like ticks! The little buggers had commandeered a vehicle to invade my tent. The beetle was quickly evicted. I have since looked on the internet and it turns out the suspected ticks could well be mites. Not 100% what they were but the beetle appeared to be the loser.
Black clouds were slowly gathering once again on the horizon and I was keen to be able to pack away a dry tent. I was soon on my way, walking the banks of the Dulnain river. My plan had originally been to follow the river downstream to a bridge. However water levels were reasonably low so I went for a wade instead, crossing with ease although the water was cold as it lapped my shins. As I reached the dilapidated cottage of Dalnahaitnach the weather turned and the rain fell heavily.
I now just had an easy walk to Boat of Garten via General Wades military road. Crossing low heather moors the sun was soon out again giving good views of the lower Monadhliath hills.
As I crossed the busy A9 I had a sense that I was leaving the west behind and entering the Eastern Highlands. Half of the walk was over and I was relieved to have made it this far. I had been lucky with the weather whilst crossing the Monadliath mountains, they would have been a bit of a test in bad conditions. I had my fingers crossed that the second week would see conditions start to settle.
Passing through some woods on the way into Boat of Garten I passed this old cottage, it really reminded me of something out of Deliverance, all that was missing was someone in dungarees playing the banjo!
I was soon at the B&B that I had booked where another food parcel and a bottle of meths for my stove were waiting. I was now building up a bit of a stock pile of food as my supplies were still going strong, I probably should have ditched some of it but somehow it felt wrong to throw away camping food. I had emailed the owner of the B&B a few weeks previous to ask if they could get me a bottle of meths, as when I phoned all the listed shops in the village no one stocked it. I was a bit embarrassed to find he had purchased it from the shop directly across the road, the only shop I had not phoned!
Clothes and body were washed and I did a bit of dozing and reading of the paper. It was that evening that my arms and hands started itching a bit, at the time I really did not think much of it……………