Days 1 to 3 can be found here.
Days 4 to 6 can be found here.
Day 7 – 20 kilometres with 680 metres ascent
(Click map to enlarge)
I packed up under sunny skies and continued my hobble towards the east coast. The three blisters that I had acquired the previous day had hardened to little pebbles overnight. They caused discomfort rather than pain, an irritant to what would otherwise be a perfect day in the Cairngorms.
I initially followed the track as it rose above the Allt Chireachain. This soon ended and I decided that I would attempt to cross the river and pick up another track a mile away on the other side. A long set of metal steps led down into the deep gorge to what appeared to be a dam for a hydro scheme. The steps appeared to be new, the gleaming metal being out of place amongst the rock and heather. Crossing the dam the climb up the opposite bank was a tricky one involving grabbing handfuls of heather and hoping for the best. I made it in one piece and continued up rough trackless ground.
At the summit of Carn a Chullaich I sat in the sun and watched a group of hikers make their way slowly cross country, heading for no obvious destination. Probably Challengers enjoying a fine day high in the hills. I picked up a track for a while which eased progress. The views were superb, the air as clear as gin.
The track deserted me at a boggy bealach and I was left on my own to stagger and curse though the vegetation before dropping down to Bruar Water. The lodge sits in an oasis of green amongst the patchwork of browns on the hills.
Before reaching the track I had to cross a large section of what initially appeared to be ground that had been ploughed. Loose peat was making the watercourses run brown and silty. The disturbed ground continued in both directions parallel to the track as far as the eye could see.
Approaching the lodge I could see diggers in the distance and a sign prohibiting work vehicles from approaching the lodge. It was not until I had passed the lodge (with a large Union Jack flying outside) that I could see that a dam was being built just below the small lochan marked on the map. It was clearly a new hydro scheme, the disturbed earth possibly the buried pipeline?
The banks of the rocky Allt Beinn Losgarnaich provided an idyllic place to sit and make a cooked lunch and cup of coffee. My feet were wet and steaming in the heat of the afternoon and it was good to dip them in the frigid water. I had to resist the temptation to nod off.
I had not been looking forward to the steep path that would lead me eventually to the headwaters of the Tarf. It climbs high above the rocky chasm of the Allt Beinn Losgarnaich, zig zagging its way up steep slopes. It eventually levels out, the Munro of Beinn Dearg rising above to the right.
There was a real feeling of entering a wild and lonely place as I crossed the first watershed. I was coming close to one of the remotest spots from a public road in mainland UK. It was just a shame that the construction machinery had ruined the illusion of wilderness just an hour before.
There were still some sizeable snow patches remaining where the strong sun had not managed to penetrate.
The second watershed was between the Tarf and the Allt a Chuil, hard going even with perfect visibility. Initially I decided to stay high and try to contour above the bogs. However I eventually spotted a narrow path below and dropped down to follow it. This led me across short cropped and crunchy heather to the infant river Tarf.
It was pointless trying to stay on the north bank like I had initially planned. The river meandered all over the place and following its banks would have taken ages. Instead I simply followed a straight line east, crossing the river numerous times. This was bliss for hot tired feet, the cold water filling my trail shoes, the shock each time initially making me take a sharp intake of breath. At the deeper sections the water was above my knees, washing away the peat stains as I did not bother rolling up my trousers.
I continued for a while until tiredness finally took over. There were numerous flat spots on which to pitch a tent. The Tarf is a wild campers paradise, superb pitches in a wild and remote setting. It was a lovely evening in the sun and I revelled in the feeling of being miles from civilisation. As the sun sank towards the horizon all the warmth of the day evaporated into the clear sky. It turned out to be a cold night.
Day 8 – 25.5km with 220 metres ascent
(Click map to enlarge)
I was up and away early as I knew that a weather front would be moving in during the late morning. The day dawned bright and sunny but cloud was beginning to build from the west. I’m always keen to do as much walking as possible before pulling on my waterproofs.
The walk along the north bank of the Tarf was a delight. Pleasant cropped grass interspersed with peat and heather to ensure that I did not get too complacent. It was good watching the Tarf grow from a small stream into a bigger more powerful river.
I spotted the ‘Tarf Hotel’ on the other side of the river and decided to cross and investigate as it had been many years since I had last visited. The crossing was easy with the water level being low but I can imagine that it would be formidable when in spate. It’s not one to expect to cross dry-shod whatever the conditions.
The bothy still sports its AA hotel sign, although it has not been awarded any stars and the service is hopeless. Inside there are several rooms suitable for sleeping along with an annexe to the side. It was cold in there but I took the opportunity to air my feet and have an early lunch, once again cooking a hot meal. A pleasant hour was spent eating and drinking whilst reading the bothy book.
I eventually closed the door and headed back across the river where I picked up a rough track heading downstream. Looking back upstream the view reminded me a bit of Arctic Sweden and the two backpacking trips that I have had there. It’s just that the scale is a bit smaller and the distances involved not so great.
Once past the old tin hut the path marked on the north side of the river soon becomes hard to follow and I lost it amongst the heather for a while. The day had turned cloudy with a few spots of rain, the views dull and flat.
Down in Glen Tilt the landscape suddenly changed. Gone were the wide open vistas of the Tarf, they had been replaced by a deep steep-sided valley which was as straight as an arrow. Apart from a pair of mountain bikers I did not see a soul on the long stretch north to Bynack Lodge.
There were a couple of tents in the lee of the ruin when I passed Bynack lodge. I decided to carry on and wild camp at a spot I had used before. The Geldie Burn was not difficult to cross but it did involve a bit of a wade, another river that could be tricky when in spate. There were a few tents pitched in the vicinity of the building on the other side of the Geldie and near Ruigh-nan Clach. White Bridge itself was packed with tents. It is a bleak and exposed spot and all the occupants were firmly zipped up from the weather. It’s not somewhere I would recommend camping.
My chosen spot was a vast flat area of cropped grass close to a forestry plantation. It was very windy and a succession of showers rattled down the glen. The Scarp as usual handled it really well and I had no worries about it standing up to the onslaught.
Day 9 – 14 kilometres with 110 metres ascent
(Click map to enlarge)
I have done the road walk to Braemar a few times now, either on the Challenge or as a way into the Cairngorms when using public transport. On a previous Challenge I had gone via Mar Lodge but this time there was a wedding taking place. Instead I stuck to the road on the south side of the Dee. The scenery is pleasant all the way but being on tarmac with traffic it is a bit of a trudge. Along the way I bumped into Scott, one of the nurses who tended to my injured foot back in 2013. Sitting chatting on a bridge a guy appeared from nowhere, asked if we were Challengers, gave us a bag of cookies and disappeared before we could thank him properly. My first bit of trail magic!
The weather alternated between warm sunshine and heavy downpours, at one point turning into snow. It was having difficulty in deciding whether it was spring or winter.
The first port of call upon arriving in Braemar was the Old Bakery to fill myself with fish and chips. After three days on my own it was good to catch up with other Challengers. I then hauled my weary body up to the Moorfield hotel where I had booked a room and sent a parcel. I have to say that the Moorfield is a bit of an odd place. The owner is rather gruff and not particularly welcoming, the room was nice but rather overpriced for what you get. They were not serving food and the bar is in a dark windowless room.
I was therefore grateful when David Williams texted me to meet up for a pint. I ended up following him to the Braemar Lodge hotel for a great meal with Ian Sommerville, Toby and Vicky Green, Stan Appleton and Hugh and Barbara. I left with a stomach full of good food, a couple of pints of Guinness and Challenger love.
Unfortunately the Moorfield Hotel does not have a veggie option for breakfast. I requested beans on toast which was a request too far. I made do with fried eggs on burnt toast.