Archive for November, 2014

November 23, 2014

Sutherland – bongo and bothies in the far north part 1

by backpackingbongos

It was dark and raining when I arrived in Aviemore. After nearly nine hours in the Bongo I was tired and hungry and needed a good long break from driving. Reuben did not look very impressed when I left him and sat in the fish and chip shop for half an hour. Thankfully all the outdoor shops had closed which meant that no unnecessary damage was done to my wallet. Reuben had the glamour of his dinner in a lay-by and a wee on the side of the A9.

The lights on the Bongo are pretty poor which makes driving in the dark a bit of a chore. I was constantly being dazzled by high-powered halogen bulbs or people who left it late to dip their lights as we made our way north. Not much fun with tired eyes. Twelve hours after leaving home I finally pulled off the road near the summit of the single track road through Glen Loth. I would love to say that when I got out of the van I was mesmerised by the star filled sky. Instead I was greeted by drizzle and even Reuben was not that keen on a quick leg stretcher along the empty road.

 

Ben Griam Mor – 590 metres

Nothing beats opening the blinds of the Bongo in the morning when you have arrived in the dark the night before. The rain during the night had passed and the air felt fresh and clean, a weak sun shining through the remaining clouds. As I sat and ate breakfast in the van there was a mini rush hour on the single track mountain road. It’s an obvious short cut between Strath Kildonan and the busy A9.

It was a scenic drive north to the small village of Kinbrace, which boasts a railway station on the Inverness to Wick line. The place has a real frontier feel about it, surrounded in every direction by bleak open moorland. I continued west along the single track B871, parking just south of the Garvault Hotel, often touted as the remotest on the mainland. It truly is in a wild and woolly spot, miles from anywhere, only a narrow strip of tarmac linking it to the outside world. It took me a while to work out what was missing, there were no power lines or telegraph poles along the road. The only man-made intrusion being a block of commercial forestry.

A rough track led us uphill, Reuben relishing being off lead after spending the day before cooped up in the van. The weather forecast indicated that this would be the best day of the week, the usual sorry tale of wind and rain for the days after. However it was not quite good enough for the big hills due to the wind. The Griam’s were a worthy alternative. They are perfect pyramids rising from the otherwise flat moors, not reaching the magic 2000ft but dominating the area for miles. I thought that they would be great viewpoints over the Flow Country.

The track was soon left for a direct assault across boggy tussocky ground and then the final steep slopes. The view from the summit was as good as I had anticipated, one of the wildest areas of Scotland lay at my feet. It was the Flow Country that really caught my eye, its vast flatness is truly impressive.

A couple of showers rattled through on the strong wind, the sky alternating light and dark with rainbows providing colour. I had planned to climb Ben Griam Beg as well but I decided against it, giving an excuse to return to this magical place (actually more down to laziness). Instead I descended to the north down very steep grassy slopes to Loch Coire nan Mang, the rough track then gave easy walking back to the Bongo.

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A car park is marked on the OS map south of Dalvina Lodge in Strath Naver, along a track roughly a mile from the road. There was no actual sign indicating this when I turned the Bongo off the road later that afternoon and I was a little nervous as I drove down the track. The well hidden car park did actually exist, the starting point for a walk to the clearance village of Rosal. Unfortunately darkness was quickly approaching and I did not get time to explore. However it was a perfect spot to spend a peaceful night in the Bongo.

 

Loch Strathy Bothy

I last came to Sutherland in 2011 and walked into Loch Strathy bothy with Pete from Writes of Way. This wonderful bothy is located right at the edge of the Flows Nature Reserve, slap bang in the middle of one of the UK’s most unique landscapes. I wanted to visit once more before this area is industrialised, buried under miles of tracks and the concrete foundations of numerous giant wind turbines. Since I last visited the Strathy north power station has been consented and is under construction, although the turbines themselves have not gone up yet. The more damaging Strathy south is currently with the Scottish Government awaiting their decision. One more visit for me before the area is bristling with giant spinning machines.

I parked close to the access road to Rhifail, a track taking us past the numerous buildings and directly onto the moor behind. It was a bright and sunny morning but the wind was very strong, making walking difficult. A very wet argocat track went in our direction for a while before deserting us in the middle of some impossible bogs. Alone I was cautious as I slowly walked east towards the block of forestry in which the bothy sits. The final obstacle was a high ladder stile over a deer fence. This proved to be very tricky to get Reuben over on my own, luckily he just froze and let me do what needed to be done.

Being a Saturday I was pleased to get the bothy to myself, although I could not imagine what sort of person would want to trudge out there at the end of October! It was evident from the bothy book that some of the contractors from the wind farm had been living there over the summer months. Not really the intended use of bothies and it was clear that the Maintenance Organiser was not very happy about the fact. The MO is none other than Ralph MacGregor, he has a cracking column in the Caithness Courier and some lovely books on the area. A big pile of those books kept me occupied during the long night in front of a roaring fire. Bothy bliss.

It was interesting to note in the bothy book that it was three years to the day when I had visited with Pete. Further reading made me nervous about going out to the loo in the dark. There had been several recent sightings of a large black cat in the forest. Scare stories or not, the vast remote plantations could easily hide such a creature.

I had carried 5kg of coal over the moors with me, typically there was enough fuel already at the bothy for several nights. I left my contribution to the fire when I set off back to the Bongo the following morning. I wondered to myself if I would ever return, Ralph had made comments to the effect that the bothy would be abandoned if Strathy South gets the go ahead.

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My unlined leather boots had due to some miracle got me to the bothy with dry feet. They totally gave up on the way back to the van. I was totally saturated from the knees down. Reuben also did not look too impressed with his walk across the flow country. With night coming early in the far north there was not much time for any more outdoor activities that day. I drove the Bongo into the Borgie forest following a signpost for the ‘Unknown’ and a night of wind and rain.

 

Strabeg bothy

The plan for the following day had been to walk to and spend a couple of nights in a very remote non MBA bothy on the north coast. I pointed the Bongo in the direction of the village of Tongue where I purchased what is possibly the worlds most expensive diesel. The fuel gauge on the Bongo gave up working a couple of years ago which means that I am over-cautious in an attempt not to run out in remote places.

Half an hour later I parked on a high pass, the starting point for the walk to a bothy that has long been on my ‘must visit’ list. The van was rocking alarmingly, rain sheeting down with even the lowest hills being hidden in a world of murk. My map showed a few rivers that needed to be forded along with a cliff top walk. Reuben gave me a nervous glance from the passenger seat. I drove off in search of alternative adventures.

The MBA Strabeg bothy is located a couple of miles south of Loch Eriboll, looking like a perfect alternative to my original plan. Opening the van door it was torn from my hands and nearly ripped from its hinges. I had to exit from the other side, the wind being so strong. I got my pack together and added a bag of coal and kindling. Nights are long and I did not want to spend one without a fire. Reuben was coaxed out from his warm and comfortable spot during a brief break in the weather. He had earlier refused to even go out for the toilet.

What I thought would be an easy straightforward walk turned into a nightmare. The good track soon turned into a boggy ride across very wet ground. The first stream on the map was totally flooded, I could not even get within twenty metres of the crossing point. I sloshed upstream and found a knee-deep calm section which I crossed carrying Reuben. I really should have turned back at the stream just before the bothy itself. It was a foaming torrent of white water. I found the widest point, dumped my pack and set off with Reuben in my arms. The water was just below my knee at its deepest but a combination of the force and an uneven stream bed made the going very difficult. I deposited Reuben and returned to collect my pack, then made a third crossing. My boots made squelching noises as I climbed the last few metres to our home for the night.

I quickly made myself comfortable, changing out of wet clothes and lighting the fire and some candles. I was very impressed to find that the bothy has a proper flushing loo. A warm and relaxed night was had, wind and rain battering and shaking the bothy. As the rain continued to fall all night I would be lying if I said that I was not worried about getting back to the van the following day.

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November 18, 2014

I’m on

by backpackingbongos

I received a welcome letter on Saturday. I have been accepted on my third* TGO Challenge, a Coast to Coast backpack across the Scottish Highlands next May.

I have already started playing around with routes and have decided on a southerly crossing this time round. The next few weeks will be spent looking at both paper and electronic maps, whilst trying to work out how to get across Scotland without expending too much energy. No heroics from me really as I’m approaching it as a fun relaxing holiday.

Those of you that enjoy spreadsheets detailing how many pairs of socks I plan to take along with lengthy posts on the benefits of different types of tent pegs** should look elsewhere. Life is too short.

I have to say that I am mildly excited. This may change to moderately excited come February and my route has been submitted.

*It’s actually my fifth but the one I completed in 2001 from Aviemore to the east coast during the Foot and Mouth Epidemic sadly does not count. I did get a nifty baby blue t-shirt for my endeavours though. I then took part again in 2003 but after four days I said ‘Sod this for a game of soldiers’ and went home. I was not allowed a t-shirt that year.

* *My tent pegs are grey by the way, but I do also have a few red ones.

November 16, 2014

Certified in the Peak District

by backpackingbongos

I found myself wandering to the shops on Friday wearing a pair of Crocs. The main issue is that I felt no shame in doing so. This clearly demonstrates that at least half of my life is now behind me. The first sign of this was late last year when I purchased a membership to the Camping and Caravan Club. This is the preserve of pensioners and people who put lamps and bunches of flowers on the table at the back of their caravans. Those not in caravans tow small cars behind large mobile homes (this is really just backwards caravan behaviour). I now walk amongst them, although quietly as the sites can resemble something from the Stepford Wives and I might get told off. The loos are nice and clean though.

Obviously manicured lawns, measured pitches and having Julia Bradbury as club president are all very well. The most alluring thing about membership is the Certified Sites. There are literally hundreds dotted around the country, tucked away in fields and farms. A maximum of five campervans or caravans and members only mean that they are nice and quiet. It’s proper old fashioned camping with the toilet in a barn and a big spider on the wall. You are also unlikely to have a kid called Tyson kicking their football at your tent.

There is a superb one just below Chrome Hill in the Peak District, which I visited with Reuben and Bona-fide pensioners Geoff and Chrissie a few weeks ago. Three dogs was no problem for the farmer and she put us in a field away from the cows. Free to roam Reuben still thought it best practise to avoid the labraloony and grumpy boxer (they are actual real dogs and not my nickname for Chrissie and Geoff).

A day walk was sandwiched between a couple of nights being fed by Geoff and drinking whisky in their van which has mod cons like heating. I had to drag myself away each night to the small and rather cold Bongo which felt like slumming it after being in their palace on wheels.

The walk was planned and led by Chrissie, selected from a guidebook called ‘The most neglected and overgrown paths in the Peak District’. The initial climb up Chrome Hill as always was a cracker. There then followed a succession of ‘paths’ that have not been walked this century and perhaps the last. We emerged back at the vans stung and bleeding but somehow still talking to each other.

To round off the day nicely Reuben found a large and very wet pile of fox poo to roll in. He was actually dripping in the stuff. I got the last laugh though with a bucket of cold water and loads of washing up liquid.

It then rained. The end.

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November 9, 2014

Backpacking the Kentmere and Longsleddale watersheds

by backpackingbongos

It was time for one of my infrequent backpacking trips to the Lake District. Time to put on my best smile and practice saying hello every ten minutes before visiting one of the busiest mountain areas of the UK.

It was late afternoon when I pulled into the small car park next to the community hall in Longsleddale, an isolated valley in the south-eastern Lakes. There was initially a bit of confusion as I could not find the pay and display machine into which to pour a weeks worth of wages. Instead there was a box asking for a donation of £2 a day to go towards the upkeep of the hall and public toilets, even I can’t find fault with that.

Kentmere

(click to increase map size)

 

Day 1 – 9 Kilometres with 350 metres ascent

It was warm for September, unpleasantly warm as I walked north along the lane with Reuben. I was actually worried that it may be a bit much for him as usually at the start of a walk he is very enthusiastic and pulling at the lead. That afternoon he was simply trotting alongside with his tongue hanging out like a half-formed slice of spam.

The plan for the day had been to climb onto Yoke and wild camp next to Rainsborrow Tarn, however my heart was not in for a big walk that afternoon. I decided that I would sit in the shade and examine the map for a camp spot that would not involve much effort to get to. It turns out that the bridleway that leads from Ullthwaite is not a good place for a sweaty backpacker and his hound to rest. The first mountain biker nearly ran over my leg whilst the second missed poor Reuben by inches, the third swept up a rock that just missed my head. At least I had got myself out of the way of the fourth and fifth. Bloody backpackers getting in the way eh?

I settled on a rare low-level wild camp, although I made sure that I was out of sight of any buildings and paths. The air was incredibly still and humid, perfect for the last few of the seasons midges. My shelter was dripping with condensation even before it got dark and it was a rather sweaty night where I had my sleeping bag unzipped. A fine misty drizzle fell after dark.

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Day 2 – 14.5 kilometres with 1040 metres ascent

It was grey, overcast and uninspiring when I woke up, even the lower fells were hidden under a thick duvet of clouds. I did my favourite backpacking thing which involves turning over and going back to sleep for a few hours. When I had eventually finished making brews, having breakfast and packing it was gone midday. Slackpacking at its finest.

I picked a totally rubbish way up Sour Howes that involved tussocks, deep rushes and bogs. Once at the top I could not decide which of the numerous lumps and bumps was the true summit. I therefore visited all of them, from each one the others looked to be higher. It was then a case of following the ridge round to Sallows which was just beginning to lose its cap of cloud. It was along the way that for the first time Reuben met another Staffy on the hill, it was having a great time bounding along with a couple of fell runners.

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The cloud suddenly dissipated on the ascent of Yoke, melting away to reveal extensive views under a soft light. The rollercoaster of a route north over Ill Bell and Froswick was a delight, only spoilt by the overly manicured path that in places is more suited to a city park.

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I was surprised to have the hills to myself, perhaps people had been put off by the low cloud. After a late start and unhurried walk I was reaping the rewards by being on the hills during the late afternoon, the sun working its way towards the horizon. The fells were taking on a purple hue, shafts of sunlight occasionally piercing the broken clouds.

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I enjoyed the high level contour round the head of Kentmere, working a way round to drop down to the Nan Bield Pass on a narrow path. Harter Fell was the last hill of the day and I fancied camping on its summit. However the wind was too strong and the ground parched, the upper reaches of the stream had dried up a long time ago.

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We descended down into Wren Gill, locating a reasonably flat spot on a spur above the watercourse. It was dark by the time I had pitched the Wickiup and collected water. The shorter days of early Autumn had nearly caught me out.

 

Day three – 17.5 kilometres with 450 metres ascent

The night was cold and clear, stars filling the sky when I poked my head out in the middle of the night. It was even colder at dawn and my shelter was dripping with condensation. I watched the shadows gradually recede and waited for the warm sun to reach us before getting out of my sleeping bag. The sky was a deep blue without a cloud to be seen.

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Being released from the confines of the shelter into warm sunshine made Reuben a very happy dog.

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It was a tiring contour around steep slopes to get to the summit of Adam Seat before descending to Gatescarth Pass. Haweswater gave a good backdrop, leading the eye out of the Lake District and towards the North Pennines.

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I originally had grand plans to go and bag Selside, a Nuttall that still eludes me. However after the short afternoon walk on the first day I was now too far behind schedule. Instead I headed south towards the car, taking in the summit of Tarn Crag with its distinctive stone pillar.

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There then followed a grand walk south over the silent and empty fells that form the eastern boundary of Longsleddale. I met one couple and saw another in the distance that hot and sunny Sunday afternoon. It felt like we were in the Howgills rather than the Lake District. The various ups and downs felt much more than the map suggested, not helped by the lack of running water. I had to drop down on one occasion to ensure that both Reuben and I remained hydrated.

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The last hill of the day was Whiteside Pike, guarded from the north by a drystone wall with no gate or stile. I eventually found a tumble-down section, probably in that state due to there being no gate or stile to help access.

The summit is marked by a tall and precarious looking cairn that is much more sturdy than it appears. It was a good spot to rest before descending back to the road and the long slog back to the car.

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November 7, 2014

PR people – how not to approach bloggers

by backpackingbongos

As a blogger I get a couple of emails a week offering stuff I really don’t want (sadly I never get offered lovely shiny gear that I may actually use) and plenty of other emails that leave me scratching my head. This is a recent example of one that left me scratching my head:

Hi,

I work with (big brand outdoor name) and recently found Backpacking Bongos while doing some industry research. We love your passion for the outdoors, and noticed that you call out some related sites on your homepage. Would you consider mentioning (big brand outdoor name)? We feel that this page would be especially relevant to your readers:

Web page of big brand outdoor name with a recommended text about one of their product lines.

We also recently launched a blog with many resources designed to encourage more people to get outside. I think your customers would find a lot of value in that too, I especially recommend our (web page of the big brand outdoor names blog) which offers inspiration and some beautiful images

Thanks for the consideration! Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions or concerns.

Best,

(name removed)

Associate  |  Paid, Owned, & Earned Media
629 Euclid Avenue, Floor 15, Cleveland, OH 44114, USA

Rosetta.com

So, if I understand the email correctly, are they looking for me to write a post where I mention this particular brand just for the sheer love of it? In other words are they asking me to provide free advertising for a large brand for absolutely nothing? I wonder if this is how commercial websites work, do PR companies provide this sort of pitch to them, or are they reserved for us dumb bloggers?

I looked up Rosetta.com and their strap line is ‘Rosetta is an agency focused on customer engagement. We connect rich data, engaging experiences and robust technologies to forge meaningful relationships with customers that drive business impact‘. Sounds a load of old bollocks to me to be honest and they have not in this instance forged a meaningful relationship with Mr Bongo.

So a couple of tips for PR firms / marketing agencies when approaching bloggers. First of all do your research and find out what we are about. Make a bit of effort and use our names, if you read the blog you would know that my name is James. When you have done this then work out a bit of a sales pitch, what have you got to offer? In this case absolutely nothing I’m afraid.

I responded to the email with one simple line, ‘So you’re asking for free advertising?’. I have yet to get a response.

I’m amazed that brands actually pay companies to produce this dribble. It has put me off considering using any Merrell gear in the future, get your act together and work out how to promote your brand properly. At least you have got the free advertising that you deserve.