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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27 Responses to “TGO Challenge 2013 – days 1 to 3”

  1. Good stuff fella.
    Most enjoyable, and brings back the odd memory. And I probably do mean odd.

  2. Not the best of starts weather wise but looks like you were getting into the swing of things James.
    I don’t usually have a problem with coos but was a little unnerved last week when one came towards me a bit too energetically and I had noticed there were calves present.
    Fortunately she moved over to one side and kept her distance.
    Certainly raises your pulse rate!

    • You’re right about the pulse rate Paul, not seen a coo actually charge before, it was a bit heart in mouth! It was a shame that I had to do so much road walking along this section. The river Loyne would have been tough to cross though.

  3. Considering the conditions, you have some lovely photographs, James.
    🙂
    You got off to a great start – keeping the distances and effort at a manageable level – always a good thing! Solo river crossings can be incredibly unnerving – so your route choice makes loads of sense.

    Right then! On to the next tranche!

    • Thanks Alan 🙂
      With my backpacks I always try and keep the effort to a manageable level, never keen in knackering myself out! Missing the Loyne was probably a good call but a shame as was looking forward to a planned wild camp that night.

  4. Good stuff James. Looking forward to the next post. As Alan said, you did well with the photography in the poor conditions. The only poor photo is of you at Inverie. Which plonker took that one?

  5. A good start that, James – Knoydart and the Rough Bounds always look particularly impressive when there is mist about and that first day and a bit looks really good. It’s a shame you didn’t get up the Munro but I know the feeling you described – it was very much a feature of the first few days of the Challenge when considering the higher tops! Having driven along that Kinlochhourn Road a few times I can only sympathise with your feelings of that being a bit of a trudge!

    • That Kinlochhourn road goes on forever Nick when you are walking along it, loads up ups and downs too! I was really looking forward to a high level day in Knoydart, sadly not to be but my main focus was simply to get to the east coast in one piece. Cheers for the comment.

  6. And we’re off! Great story-telling as ever. Real shame that the weather in Knoydart wasn’t great but it’s a grand place to hang out regardless of the weather. I stayed in a hotel in Newtonmore once after a real soaking and we had stuff drying out all down the corridors!

    • Why more hotels don’t have drying rooms I will never know Andy. It would make sense. Plenty more words to yet be ejected from the memory banks.

  7. Fantastic James. It was good meeting you. Excellent photos, atmospheric too. Looking forward to the rest of your write up.

  8. Thoroughly enjoying your excellent storytelling as usual. Can’t wait for the next instalment.

  9. “It’s easy to start worrying when wild camping solo during bad weather in the middle of nowhere….” I just love that comment James! For me, I might also add the phrase ‘…in the middle of the night….’ !
    Obviously a damp start with more tarmac than you really wanted, but still looks wonderful and enticing. And that sunset photo is absolutely magnificent!

    • Even in the rain and murk Knoydart is a wonderful area Chrissie. Somewhere where I will have to go and explore again. With a long trip ahead its easy for those little niggles to start eating into your brain!

  10. Great Stuff James, you did well in pretty dire weather. I walked part of that stretch the other way round – It has beautiful scenery. The weather was rather kinder for me however.

    • I remember that Mark, you were really lucky with the weather. The place would be transformed under a bit of sunshine!

  11. Enjoyable report so far, but it’s a pity about the weather. Still, I’m sure it’s all part of what makes the area so special.

  12. Isn’t it a shame that the challenge isn’t held somewhere with a more congenial climate? I reckon that just as the Tour de France goes outside France for the start (Yorkshire in 2014!) so the Challenge could relocate, say, to Provence, Spain or Sicily. Cheaper to get to than Scotland too!

  13. ‘staring vacantly at my surroundings’ 😛 Photee of big wide burn crossing is awesomesauce

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