Posts tagged ‘bothy’

October 9, 2013

Across the Great Moss – backpacking the Cairngorms

by backpackingbongos

It has been a while since I have driven in the dark.  The journey north after work was a tough one and I was convinced that my night vision had made a turn for the worse over the summer.  Stopping for fuel just north of Carlisle and the attendant informed me that one of my headlights was out.  I can confirm that it’s much easier to drive with two.

I stopped for the night in one of those Alan Partridge style motorway hotels at Abington, a 400 mile journey far too ambitious after a day at work.  My room smelt of damp bathroom and lonely businessman.

The A9 on the way to Kingussie is a combination of tractors and suicidal Audi drivers.  Now when one whooshes past I say to myself, ‘Audi do that’.  There was an alarming moment when one tried to enter my boot whilst I was overtaking a lorry.  I’m not sure what he was trying to achieve whilst flashing his lights and beeping his horn at me.  He must have been very important.

My destination was Glen Feshie, usually a pleasant drive via Feshiebridge.  Unfortunately the road to Feshiebridge was closed and a 17 mile detour did little to add to my happiness.  Getting away for a stress free weekend in the hills can sometimes prove to be a little stressful.

Day 1 – 11 kilometres with 910 metres ascent

Day 1

I left the car in a small off-road car park a short distance from the Glen Feshie hostel.  I set off up the forest track, this soon turning into a delightfully maintained footpath.  The going was easy and I soon had great views back across the Spey valley towards the Monadhliath.  The air was surprisingly still and warm, perfect for the midges that started biting the minute I stopped.

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The path climbed steadily across the hillside up to the Allt a’ Chrom-alltainn on the six hundred metre contour.  Although sweaty and a little bit wheezy I felt the stress of a week at work, followed by a long drive all melt away.  All I had to worry about for the next three nights was putting one foot in front of another.  Actually that is a bit of a lie as the first big storm of the autumn was due to roll in the following night.  I had not yet planned where I would be when it arrived.  Strangely I was sort of looking forward to it, in a nagging worrying sort of way.

The perfectly manicured path petered out at the stream and I followed the thousands of footsteps before me up steep peaty slopes.  It was a bit of a slog with food for four days, a case of stop every few steps to enjoy the view.

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Higher up the slopes I found another path that eased the gradient somewhat as it contoured round to deliver me at the col between Carn Ban Mor and Sgor Gaoith.  I was soon approaching the latter which is a Munro, its location making my skin tingle with excitement.

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A rocky prow sits at the top of a two thousand foot drop straight down into the dark depths of Loch Einich.  The summit cairn had sat right at the edge, but it looked like some eejit had pushed it into the void below.  The views are one of the best that I have seen in the Cairngorms and I had a great sense of height.  The coires of Braeriach looked magnificent in the early evening light, like a giant had taken spoons and scooped out the hillside.

Even on the summit the air was perfectly still and warm enough to sit in a t-shirt.  It was at least half an hour before I could tear myself away.

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The reason why I had travelled all the way to the Cairngorms was to wild camp right in the middle of the Moine Mhor, otherwise known as the Great Moss.  This large high altitude plateau has held my imagination for years now, a place I have only ever visited on a map.  I have always wanted to wild camp slap bang in the middle of its high level contours.

I took a narrow path north from the summit along the edge of the plateau, steep slopes dropping into Coire na Caillich.

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The spring Fuaran Diotach tempted me with an idyllic looking wild camp but it just did not feel wild enough, even though the view was stupendous.  I followed the edge of the plateau downwards, the ground becoming rougher as height was lost.  It was now carpeted in wet moss sprinkled with small boulders.  Not the easiest of terrain to walk across.  There however was a real feeling of space as the high plateau rolled away to the bigger hills.  I was in my element.

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The rocky, mossy ground was not ideal to pitch a tent so I continued on towards Loch nan Cnapan, finding a patch of grass bang on the nine hundred metre contour.  I put up the tent on one of the most exposed spots I have ever camped, somewhere that would be difficult to retreat from if the weather turned bad overnight.  However the forecast was for it to remain fair and I revelled in such a wild spot.  After walking to fill up my water bottles I stood outside and watched as shafts of sunlight drifted across the giants on the other side of Loch nan Cnapan.  It really does not get much better.

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Day 2 – 23 Kilometres with 790 metres ascent

Day 2

It rained for most of the night but thankfully the wind did not pick up.  The highest hills were shrouded in mist when I first stuck my head out of the tent.  My wind chill measuring thingymajobbie said that it was minus 0.5 celcius when I got up and packed away.  Gloves were deployed for the first time this autumn.  As I set off towards Tom Dubh I was struck by the autumn colours of the grasses, the season was already underway even though it was only September 14th.

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The walk to the summit of Tom Dubh and down to the Allt Luineag reminded me of parts of Arctic Sweden which I visited last year.  It’s a shame that the Cairngorm reindeer did not put in an appearance as that would have truly fired up my imagination.

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The climb to Monadh Mor was up easy grassy slopes but the modest climb of only two hundred metres felt much higher.  I stood for a while and watched a large herd of deer on Leth-chreag.  I felt that they were also watching me, surely I was too far away to be noticed.  Thankfully I would probably make a rubbish deer stalker.  The view to the west was across the whole of the Moine Mhor, culminating in the Munro Mullach Clach a Bhlair.  One to save for another day.  The plateau was split by the deep trench of the River Eidart, its secret hidden depths a place I would like to explore.

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The summit cairn was quickly gained and then left as I wandered eastwards, first for the view towards Beinn Bhrotain and then the huge bulk of Cairn Toul.

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A little further and I was right at the edge of the plateau, Glen Geusachan snaking away beneath my feet.  It was one of those ‘Wow’ moments, the scale of the landscape enough to get the heart racing.  A photo really can’t do the view justice.  Instead I request that you go and take a look for yourself.

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A joyful yomp to the south and I was descending the steep slopes to the 975 metre col below Beinn Bhrotain.  Although the day was a little murky shafts of sunlight kept highlighting the rocks on The Devil’s Point.  Although one of the smaller summits in the area it packs a punch in terms of character.

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I passed a solo hiker and then a separate group who were doing big days from the Linn of Dee.  Even with taking a bicycle as far as White bridge these hills are pretty remote.

The path up Beinn Bhrotain starts off easily enough and the view back towards Cairn Toul and Braeriach gave plenty of opportunities to stop and gawp.

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The path is soon lost in a jumble of boulders which guard this side of the mountain.  It’s not my favourite sort of terrain, especially with a heavy pack.  Many of the boulders are wobbly and it is easy to lose your balance.  Thankfully the weather was clear as navigation could be tricky in mist, especially in descent.

The weather came in for a while whilst I sat in the summit shelter chatting to a couple of guys from Glasgow.  They were having a long day having walked all the way from Auchlean to bag a couple of Munros.  They were going to return the same way.  With only the remotest Munros left to do they had conceded that they may have to take up backpacking to bag them.

I retraced my steps to the col and then descended south-west into the upper reaches of the Allt Dhaidh Mor.

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Without losing too much height I contoured along the side to reach the saddle to the north of Cnapan Mor, a peak that I imagine sees very little foot traffic.  I often feel that lower summits can be better viewpoints and this is definitely the case here, especially along the length of the Geldie.

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I imagined that the going underfoot on the descent to the Eidart would be tough going.  Thankfully I managed to link together areas of short vegetation on stony ground.  A final cairn before dropping into the glen gave a good view towards Carn a Fhidhleir and An Sgarsoch, possibly the remotest Munros in the Cairngorms.

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The ground reverted to the usual tangle of heather and tussocks on the final descent to the River Eidart.  I think that on my next visit to the Moine Mhor I will approach by following the river to its source.

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The bridge above the waterfall is a good spot to sit in the sun, the spray floating like tiny crystals in the air.

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I passed the old pony hut and deliberated whether or not I should pitch there for the night as planned.  With the weather forecast being absolutely dire in terms of wind and rain I decided to press on.  If it was going to be as bad as predicted then I did not want to be in an exposed spot.  I also did not fancy crossing the landslip area during strong winds and after heavy rain.  I thought it would be best to head for the bothy.  With the weather being so calm it was hard to imagine weather fronts sweeping in.

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It felt a bit of a slog walking down the Upper Feshie, however the scenery is about as good as it gets.  I had walked the same route the opposite way in May, I’m not sure that I could ever get bored with it.  For me its all about the many splendid trees.

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A lot of work had been done on the landslip area since earlier in the year and the path was easy to follow with no difficulties.  I later read in the bothy book that the MO was often seen fixing the path.  He has done a cracking job.

I reached Ruigh-aiteachain just as darkness was falling.  With it being a Saturday night I expected to see lights in the windows and smoke drifting from the chimney.  The place was dark and deserted.  With it being late and not being too fussed about spending time chopping wood I pitched the tent on the grass outside.  It had felt like a long hard day and I was soon asleep after dinner.

Day 3 – Bothy fester day

The wind and rain arrived in the night.  I had fixed the crossing poles to the Scarp when pitching, but the bothy provided shelter from the wind whistling down the glen.  They were hardly needed.  I managed to fester in the tent until about midday, reading and drinking coffee.  The weather down in the glen was not half as bad as expected, although I imagine it would have been tough on the summits.  The rain came in the form of sudden short downpours, the noise deafening under Silnylon.  I used a lull after one such downpour to make a dash to the loo.  Yep this bothy comes equipped with somewhere to squat in dry comfort.  All very civilised.

During the afternoon the sun came out and I used the opportunity to have a short wander.  It felt a bit odd that no one was around, I had that last man on earth feeling, especially since this is a very popular bothy.

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The rest of the afternoon was spent sawing wood, an increasing pile of logs being stacked next to the stove.  It was hard work with arms not used to manual labour, but at the same time very satisfying.  Time ticked by slowly and I was happy just to fester with a book.  Finally an hour before dark I got the stove roaring.  It was soon t-shirt time inside.

An evening spent with my feet up by the fire, a dram in my hand and candlelight flickering on the walls was pretty good.  By 10pm I was reticent to go back out side and sleep in the tent.  I quickly dashed out, packed and then spread my mat and sleeping bag out on the wooden floor.  Bothy nights can be damn good.

Day 4 – 9 kilometres with 120 metres ascent

Day 4

I was up and packed early as it was a few miles to the car followed by a four hundred mile drive home.  I made sure that there were a few logs and kindling left by the stove and swept the floor.  A night camping outside followed by a night inside had made it feel rather homely.  I was a bit sad to leave.

The paths on the way to Auchleen have been greatly improved and currently appear very manicured.  I hope that they soon blend into their surroundings.  The River Feshie kept me company on the way out, the only person I saw being a fisherman dressed for the part in tweed.

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It was a bit of a shock to be on tarmac once more for the final section back to the car.  On the road I could see the tops of the Monadhliath to the west with a dusting of snow.  It felt like winter was on its way.

April 24, 2013

Canvas

by backpackingbongos

My computer hard drive is bursting at the seams with literally thousands of digital photographs.  Sometimes it feels a shame to hide them all away.  Once viewed a folder is often forgotten, similar to hiding prints in the attic.  I have thought about filling the living room with images of mountains and moors and of course Reuben.  As an experiment I have ordered a small canvas print.  A memento of a night on the winter hills in front of a roaring fire with my canine pal.

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February 14, 2013

Scarba – Stags on treasure island pt2

by backpackingbongos

The day was too good to waste, so with daysacks packed we left the bothy and set off up the hill.  Our destination was Cruach Scarba, the highest point on the island at 449 metres.  Pete had previously visited the island and climbed the hill.  Therefore I was more than happy to leave my map in my rucksack and follow him in his bright yellow jacket.

The first mile or so was rough and trackless, involving the usual effort of getting some decent height when starting from sea level.  There were plenty of opportunities to stop and look at the stunning vista that was slowly unfolding.  The dogs however ignored the view, keeping an eye out for any furry four legged critters escaping up the hillside.  If you want to clear every deer and goat within a square mile just take a couple of dogs.

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Our first landmark was Loch Airigh a’ Chruidh where Pete delivered us accurately to the northern end.  As water was abundant on the island and pretty much guaranteed to be clean, we had not brought water bottles but empty mugs with us for the walk.  A dip into the stream flowing into the loch produced mugs full of cold and clear water.  So cold it induced ice cream headaches.

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At the edge of the loch we picked up a well constructed pony path that crosses the island from Kilmory lodge, before contouring high above the south coast.  This speeded up progress considerably.  The eastern horizon kept demanding our attention, with a large wall of snowy mountains on the horizon.  One particularly large snowy pyramid stood head and shoulders above them all, Ben Cruachan was our best guesstimate.

A cairn marked the change in direction and we left the path to descend a little way to a viewpoint that Pete had mentioned.  The landscape to the south from the small rocky outcrop was simply breathtaking.  From our high perch the west coast of Jura was spread out in front of us, line after line of what looked like crouching prehistoric lizards with their tails in the sea.  In the far distance two perfect pyramids rose above the low rugged ridges.  It would have been a splendid day on the Paps of Jura.

The famous Corryvreckan lay at our feet, unfortunately it was the wrong time for the whirlpool to be in action.  However even from this height the swirling eddies and racing water was clear to see.  We stood as a group for a while drinking it all in, sharing the binoculars to pick out points of interest.

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The path continued on level ground, becoming less distinct in places.  The rough boggy vegetation was slowly winning the battle and swallowing it up.  At a point where it starts descending we left it for a pathless bash up steep rough slopes.  With height the going got easier as the vegetation got shorter.

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The trig point was finally reached and oh boy what a view.  449 metres is hardly the Himalaya but on a small island the height is greatly exaggerated.  It is views like these that make the Hebrides so special.  To the north west the Island of Mull dominated the view, its huge sea cliffs visible.  Nearer at hand were the Garvellachs which look like they may be worth a charter boat to spend the night on.  To the north and east was a huge vista of mountains, the peaks of the Western Highlands covered in snow.  Unfortunately a haze in the air meant that it was impossible to capture on camera what we could see.

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A rocky outcrop provided shelter from the cold wind, a perch to gaze from and feast our eyes.  All of a sudden someone spotted something in the air.  First one Golden Eagle, then two, then three!  Finally to top it all off a White Tailed Eagle decided to do a fly by, followed in quick succession by a Hen Harrier.  Top that Bill Oddie!

The group then split into two.  Rich and Pete decided to descend to and explore the rugged west coast.  Myself and Rob decided that we would take things easy and head north to pick up the track back to the bothy.  The dogs were divided up between us.

The going started off easily along the spine of the island, sticking to the high ground before descending along a prominent ridge line.  The islands to the north began to fill the horizon as we lost height.

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We picked one rocky spur and found that it ended in a significant cliff, the ground dropping away into a natural amphitheatre.  A good position to view the serpentine shape of Lunga.

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A bit of backtracking and we set our sights on the whitewashed building of Kilmory Lodge.  A shallow boggy glen was crossed filled with the skeletons of Scotts Pine.  A sad sight but thankfully there were a few specimens still alive.  Rob being a big tree fan decided that the best way of appreciating them was to climb to the top of the largest.  Reuben was unimpressed and wondered what was holding up his walk.

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Once on the track it was an easy stroll back to the bothy, much quicker than our original journey as we were unencumbered with heavy sacks.  Already after one night, coming back to the bothy felt like returning home, the place was beginning to feel familiar.

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Pete, Rich and Dougal had not yet returned so after a cup of coffee we decided to explore the headland to the east of the bothy.  Rob went ahead whilst I had a bit more of a sit down.  On the way down to the beach I found Reuben standing and staring at something white and fluffy.  It turned out to be a sheep that had got caught in a bramble bush, the thorny stems tightly wound round its woollen fleece.  It was impossible to set free by hand so I fetched a saw, it eventually legged it after I hacked off a bit of its wool.  Hopefully by coming nose to nose with a woolly has demystified them a bit for Reuben.  I finally got to set off round the bay after Rob.

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Whilst sitting at the headland I did a stupid thing.  I decided that I would take a photo of Rob sitting on the rocks.  Whilst framing the photo I stepped back without looking and put my foot in a deep bog up to my knees.  In my haste to get out I managed to put the other boot in too.  My freshly waxed boots that had remained dry after tramping through bogs all day were now full of water.  The only positive that came out of this was whilst taking my socks off to wring them out I spotted a tick that had burrowed into my leg.  Even in February the little critters don’t give up!

Back at the bothy there still was no sign of the others and the light was quickly fading.  Reuben as usual laid claim to the manky blanket that someone had left.  After another energetic day on the hills he was soon snoring away.

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We made hot drinks and quickly had a fire roaring, darkness finally falling over the island.  Once 6.00pm had come and gone I started to worry a bit about the others not returning.  I had a feeling that they had set off without torches, if that was the case then the journey along the coast was going to be tricky in the dark.  I began to wonder what was the ideal time to call out Mountain rescue if they did not return.  In the end I settled on waiting until dawn, not much anyone could have done considering we were unsure of their route.  Thankfully this was all academic as shortly before 7.00pm they finally arrived.  The west coast had been much harder than anticipated with some tricky scrambling with a dog.  It sounded like the final hour or so in the darkness had been tough going.  Maybe take a torch next time lads?!

Whilst walking along the coast, Pete had received a call from Duncan saying that bad weather was scheduled to hit the following evening and last throughout Monday.  He had sailed past our campsite earlier that afternoon and did not fancy the chances of our tents remaining there!  He still felt that he would be able to pick us up as planned, so Pete had said that we were happy to stay.  Excellent, as I felt that I was just settling into island life.

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By the second night we had properly sussed out the makeshift stove.  This effectively is an old gas bottle shoved sideways into the fireplace, with a door cut into the end.  A good effective effort by someone.  Once more we sat round the fire drinking rum laced coffee and putting the world to rights.  Being a Saturday I think we even managed to stay up past 9.00pm.

The island was wearing a more familiar cloak the following morning, the weather had definitely become more Hebridean.  It was a day where no one had any real plans.  Pete being an earlier riser was out the door before I had finished breakfast for a stroll up the east coast with Dougal.  I set off an hour later along the same route with Reuben; Rob and Rich planning to catch me up.  It was a day of low cloud and drizzly rain, perfect for spending at low level with the sea and my thoughts for company.

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I could spot Rob and Rich in the distance so found a rather nice cave to shelter in for a while.  This had someones no longer secret stash of firewood in it, a couple of bags of neatly chopped logs next to a fire pit.  I would imagine they had been left by sea kayakers.

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Rob decided to peel off and return over the hills back to the bothy, whilst Rich and I continued along the coast.  Less than ten minutes after Rob had departed we spotted movement in the water.  Binoculars revealed three otters, another nature bonus.

The east coast lacks the ruggedness of the west and south of the island but it more than makes up for it in bogginess.  Walking through the sheltered woodlands I was glad that it was winter, I could easily imagine all the vegetation being of tropical rainforest proportions.  Dark damp and humid the midges and ticks would be unimaginable in their full horror in mid-summer.

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I managed to walk within a metre of the best find of the whole weekend.  Rich who was behind stumbled across a huge red deer stag head complete with a set of ten point antlers.  A really fine specimen that made me immediately feel rather jealous.  People pay good money to mount such objects on their wall.

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On a positive note I was not the one who had to lug the deceased beast across the island for a couple more hours.  The woods were increasingly rough going until we finally stumbled upon the moss-covered ruin of an old chapel and a few gravestones.  A very atmospheric setting where you almost expect the cast of the hobbit to emerge from behind a tree.

Later back at the bothy we found that Pete had dragged a very reluctant big brown labrador for another excursion along the south coast.  Those in the bothy got another fire going and set about the important business of a late lunch.  I was aware that the weather would be coming in later that evening and considered taking my tent down and sleeping in one of the upstairs rooms.  Another exploration of those dusty and decidedly spooky rooms made me decide a wind battered tent would be the preferable option.

The last of the rum was finished during the evening as the wind slowly picked up outside.  The front door missing a panel of glass meant that the hallway was a bit of a wind tunnel, a big contrast with the room with the fire.

The rain soon joined in with the wind, drumming on the windows and soaking anyone going out to use the non-existent facilities.  With tiredness overtaking us all it was hard to drag ourselves away from a warm fire and into the teeth of a howling gale.  It turned out that we were in a fairly sheltered spot as laying in my tent I could hear the weather rage all around but the tent would remain static.  Every now and then a violent gust would grab the tent and give it a good shaking, each time waking me.  The heavy rain outside sounded like my tent was being pebble dashed.  The seams on my outer need looking at as a few drips managed to get onto the inner.

It was a tempestuous morning, the sea looking angry under a bruised sky.  Patches of brilliant blue would quickly be replaced by angry black clouds throwing a mixture of rain, sleet, hail and snow.  Tents were wrestled to the ground in an attempt to stuff them back into bags.  The bothy provided welcome shelter whilst we waited for 12.30 for the walk back to the jetty to meet Duncan.  The bothy was swept, wood sawn and rucksacks packed.  I had managed a final photo before the tents were taken down.  What a spot.

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We must have had the wind in our sails as we managed the walk back to Kilmory lodge in thirty minutes, half the time taken on the way out.  We used the substantial walls as shelter from the wind as we waited for Duncan’s boat to appear.  Earlier than expected we spotted him coming around Luing, bouncing along on the choppy sea.  We set off down the hill, timing our arrival perfectly with his.

It turned out that he nearly did not make it, having got caught up in a lobster pot.  The journey back was smoother than expected, the wind and waves at our back.  There was one hairy moment when a wall of white eventually overtook us, enveloping the boat in a violent gusty hail storm.  We all dived for cover, Duncan being less than pleased that we filled his cabin and instruments with ice.

As we disembarked Rob asked Duncan if he was going out again that day.

No I’m bloody not was his answer.

January 26, 2013

Out of the firing range into the bothy

by backpackingbongos

After Mike and Bruno had left I sat in the Bongo for a while and made a coffee.  I waited for a convoy of 4×4’s towing quad bikes to pass along the road, the hunt was clearly over.  I did not want to come face to face with a vehicle on the narrow ribbon of tarmac whilst driving to the head of the valley.

The drive up to the parking place near Chew Green was slow, given the state of the potholed road.  I got a real sense of getting away from it all as I progressed further up the valley.  The final building was Makendon which has been taken over by the military.  Near the old farmhouse was this sign.

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As I drove up the hill I noticed that the surface became smoothly tarmaced, the military doing a better job at maintenance than the local authority.  Just before the gate that sometimes bars traffic from the firing range there is a small parking area.  I spent a peaceful night there in the van, totally undisturbed by passing traffic once it had got dark.  It was cosy laying in my sleeping bag listening to the wind and the rain.

It was still dark when I got up.  I made a coffee and wandered around the van whilst Reuben sniffed about.  The weather had cleared in the night and the sky had turned a glorious shade of pink in the pre-dawn air.  A few pockets of frost had formed on bits of the grass that was sheltered from the wind.

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After breakfast I quickly packed a bag with my camera and a few snacks and we set off up the military road.  The flags would not be flying for another couple of days which meant that the gate across the road was open.  It was a steep haul up the smooth tarmac, giving views back to where I had spent the night.  As we got higher I could hear the sound of dreaded trail bikes, unseen they sounded like a hornets nest that had been disturbed.  With the noise growing louder I could see a convoy of about a dozen riding the border ridge a couple of miles away.  Riding illegally and churning up the soft ground.  Bastards.

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Strictly speaking you are meant to stick to the rights of way when crossing the Redesdale and Otterburn firing ranges, open only when there is no firing taking place.  However there was a hill I wanted to bag.  The sheep on the moor had all their limbs present so I made the assumption all was well, crossing rough ground to the summit of Thirl Moor.  There are what appears to be several tumuli and a few metal posts with star symbols on them.  I assume they mean there is some archeological remains.  The best feature of this hill however is the view.  It sits in the middle of nowhere and the surrounding moors stretch unbroken to all horizons.  There are no modern man-made structures to break up the landscape.  Cloud drifting above the distant Kielder forest just added to the perfectness of it all.

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A quad bike track to the north soon petered out and we descended through deep heather before finding a contouring path.  This gave a cracking view down the Upper Coquet, the van a tiny white spec in the distance.

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With the building of Makendon directly below us we made a steep descent through the heather which did its best to trip me up.  It was slow going trying to stay upright.  Finally we made it to the river bank, crossing at the far end of the old farm and exiting through numerous sheep pens.  We timed this to perfection as a farmer came up the road at that very moment and we were not on a right of way.  Thankfully he waved as he passed.

A track took us up pastures on the other side of the valley where I came across evidence of trail bike riders.  The bridleway was a wide boggy mess from numerous wheels, mud flung in all directions.  It took a while to carefully pick my way to the summit of Brownhart Law, ducking briefly into Scotland just because I could.

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The Cheviot sat large and brooding in the distance, a long march away via the Pennine way.

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It was an easy yomp back to the Bongo via the Roman Camp of Chew Green, not particularly noticeable on the ground as you walk though it.  You need to head across the valley and view it from there to really appreciate the scale.  Back at the van I got the stove on and made lunch whilst watching the clouds begin to lower onto the hills.  I sorted out my pre-packed backpacking rucksack and added a few extra bits such as a bow saw.  It’s not very often that I head into the wilds with a bow saw strapped to my pack!  I set back off towards Chew Green with Reuben in tow, stopping almost immediately to put on waterproof trousers as a fine drizzle set in.

We passed a hiker out for a day walk from Byrness,  we were the first signs of life he had seen all day on these remote border hills.  After a chat we continued on our separate ways and I stopped after a while to watch him as he moved across the wide open and increasingly murky landscape.  Watching the small speck finally disappear just seemed to enhance the sense of bleakness.

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I had left the comfort and security of the van to head for a tiny bothy five kilometres away.  I had stayed there a few years previous on a lovely summers weekend and had always planned to return in the winter.  I was a little nervous hoping that it would be empty, four would be a crowd in the single room.  I was not carrying a tent as pitching options are pretty non-existent outside.  If it was occupied and no room for me and the dog it was going to be a long walk back to the van across the moor in the dark!

The first section of the path was fairly easy-going, following the course of the Pennine way.  This was soon left for a boggy and tussocky squelch towards the bridleway at  The Heart’s Toe.  However I soon got fed up with the rough going and hopped the fence, fighting my way across a section of felled forest to a gravel forestry track.  It was then an easy downhill walk all the way to the bothy.

It’s amazing how often the mind plays tricks on you.  Whenever I approach a bothy I get a whiff of wood smoke, whether there is smoke or not.  Is it the way my brain anticipates the people who may already be in residence?  The tiny building sat below me amongst a scene of devastation.  Pretty much the entire forest that surrounded it has been clear felled.  The last time I had visited it was secretly nestled deep in the forest.

I found a recently felled small pine tree in the forest and dragged it down the steep slopes towards the bothy.  I was keen to have a roaring fire that night.  As I approached it was evident that no one was in residence, the door was bolted from the outside and no smoke was coming from the chimney.  The carved wooden sign welcomes you in.

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Less welcoming however is the new ‘Bothy watch’ sign.  The bothies in the Kielder area have unfortunately become notorious for some of the people that they attract.  A few have been shut down recently, including the lovely one at Kielder Head.  A draw for complete f***wits for a spot of mindless vandalism, parties and drug taking.  At least Bothy watch is a positive commitment to keep these shelters open rather than letting the mindless few ruin it for others.  On my walk down I had been wondering ‘who’ I might end up sharing with rather than ‘if’.  On the positive side, strangers do not know that Reuben is a completely soppy hound!

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The bothy as it turned out was completely spotless.  There was not even a scrap of rubbish or any of the ubiquitous wine bottle / candlestick holders.  The floor was swept and the stove still had warm embers from the previous occupants.  Even better was the basket of bone dry logs.  My earlier worries quickly faded away.

I spent a pleasurable afternoon drinking coffee and sawing the tree into smaller pieces so that it would fit in the woodshed.  A constant drizzle sent me inside where I lit the fire.  The stove was soon roaring, Reuben claiming his spot for the evening.  I love bothy nights and this was one was very enjoyable.  The wind and rain picked up as the evening progressed, enhancing the general feeling of coziness.

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The morning dawned dull and grey, however after a good and long sleep I managed to get up early.  After breakfast I set about replenishing the wood that I had used the night before.  Half an hour with the bow saw and there was a satisfying pile of dry logs stacked in the bothy.  A good sweep and an idiot check to make sure I had not left anything and we set off across the bridge and up to the forestry track.

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The walk back to the van was a bit of a trudge in the rain, more chore than pleasure to be honest.  I was pleased to see the Bongo was still where I had left it.  I worry about leaving a vehicle in such a remote spot but figure it is no more risky than somewhere more populated.  I suppose it’s just luck of the draw.

The red flags were still not flying so I took the opportunity to drive home via the military road rather than returning back via Alwinton.  The Cottonhope road is marked as a bridleway on the map but is often open to civilian traffic.  It’s a cracking drive over the moors to near Byrness, the steep sections something you would not want to attempt in snow or ice.  Driving the empty road after being alone on the moors it felt like human life had been wiped from the face of the earth.

December 29, 2012

A murky day and night on a monochrome moor

by backpackingbongos

I parked near the summit of the moorland road, the highest part of the two day backpack.  For once I was going to start a walk by going downhill. The weather forecast was iffy to say the least but optimism brought me out to the North Pennines anyway.  It looked like I was going to be disappointed.  Wind was battering the car, mist drifting across the tops of the surrounding hills.  I got my gear out of the boot and was greeted by a fine drizzle.  I resorted to putting my boots and waterproofs on in the passenger seat, pulling a few nifty contortions in the confined space.

Dressed all in black nylon I set off down the road, a slightly rounded and ageing hill ninja.  The footpath sign filled me with optimism as I left the road on a green well-drained path.  I had read bad things about this path across the barren moors.  Ahead of me was a sea of flat moorland stretching to the horizon, not a single feature to break the expansive monotony.  A land of big skies if the sky itself had not decided to drift just a few metres from the surface of the earth.

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The waymarked path led me onto that featureless expanse and then without warning deserted me.  One minute there was nice springy turf to walk on, the next there was just bog.  A final waymarker stood at the edge of the quaking morass and then there was nothing.  I squelched along for a few minutes in the direction of the right of way, boots quickly being overtopped by oozing cold bog water.  I was soon fed up and decided to abandon the ‘path’, instead I veered off to the left across the heather towards an infant stream.  The going was still rough and tough but at least the ground stopped trying to remove my boots.

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The shallow watercourse gradually became more pronounced before its confluence with a much wider valley.  Although shallow its banks were steep sided and I struggled to descend the few metres to the bottom.  With all the rain over the past few weeks these banks were as slippery as ice and I was aware that they could have become unstable.  At the bottom the river was uncrossable so I climbed an intersecting valley, the narrow ‘V’ of land giving good views of the river snaking its way across the moor.

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Below lay what looked like a large garden shed, shiny and new it looked rather incongruous in this wild and bleak setting.  Crossing the river by a new bridge I approached it, looking forward to sitting inside to eat my lunch.  I was disappointed to find it locked, so instead hunkered down next to it to get some shelter from the cold wind.

The steep track behind the hut led me back onto the moor, deserting me to face a sea of thick heather.  A small watercourse gave a handrail to follow up and over an ill-defined watershed.

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The gathering ground for another stream was a mass of reeds and sphagnum moss, a watery grave for the unwary.  I carefully sloshed my way across, the ground a quaking mass, clumps of rushes providing the only solid foothold.  It was like walking across the worlds wettest mattress.  I don’t think that the moors can hold much more water.

The infant stream led me damply down into a large shallow bowl, a slightly raised bog being its centrepiece.  A combination of a fleeting lightening of the sky and the vividness of the bog brightened the scene considerably.  A joyfully wild scene if you ignore the distant sound of traffic.

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The north Pennines have some wonderful watercourses hidden away on the wild moors.  Here the open expanse was broken up by a rocky defile with a splendid waterfall crashing into its depths.  The waterfall is reasonably wide and must drop a good twenty feet, yet is not named on the 1:50,000 map.  I imagine that few people come here, these moors being well off many people’s radar.

However on this wet and windy day the Pièce de résistance was the shooting hut that is wonderfully situated right above the waterfall.  The first door that I tried was locked, however the other was not.  I would now not be spending a long night cooped up in a small backpacking tent during the gales that were predicted for later.

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It was only quarter past three and I did think about bagging the hill directly behind the hut.  However this would have involved a long trudge across more wet moorland.  I really could not be bothered.  Instead I mooched about my immediate surroundings, made a coffee and stared intently at the waterfall.  By four it was dark and I sat in the hut stretching out the process of making food and hot drinks.  I finally lit the fire log I had carried across the moors and watched it produce no heat for an hour or so.  Finally I bedded down on a narrow bench for the night and did my best not to roll off onto the concrete floor.

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The wind picked up during the night, rattling the door and the roof.  The white noise of the waterfall outside intensified, becoming a roar.  My alarm went off at seven thirty and I reluctantly got up, it was still pitch black in the hut.  With a cup of coffee I went outside into the pre-dawn murk, the waterfall looking rather splendid after the overnight rain.

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A second coffee and bacon noodles were consumed before I packed up and headed outside.  My enthusiasm to be in the hills that I had felt the previous day had vanished.  I was faced with the cold wet reality of mist shrouded moorland.  Thankfully I had a good track to follow, the estate obviously having spent a lot of money on the local grouse shooting infrastructure.  I’m not a big fan of tracks being bulldozed across the moors but this one had been done reasonably well and was beginning to soften into the landscape.  However it was still not marked on my map and I followed it rather blindly hoping that it would come out roughly where I wanted.  At one point the rain turned sleety and then for a few minutes full on snowy.  Not that white fluffy snow though, just the stuff that is as wet as rain only colder.

The track deposited me close to the trig point and I managed my bag without too much effort.  Somewhere in the gloom there was an unseen shepherd shouting something at what I assume was a dog.  I met him on his quad round the corner, he asked if I had seen seven sheep which were missing.

On the road I stood at the footpath sign pointing off into the mist, my route being another five miles back to the car.  However instead if I continued along the road for a mile and a half I would also be back at the car.  I have to admit that I took the easy route.  It was pleasant enough if walking into wind-driven sleety rain could be called pleasant, and only two vehicles passed.  I was dismayed to see that the verges were liberally sprinkled with the detritus of some underdeveloped half wits that had passed by, knuckles dragging behind their vehicles.  I could have filled a couple of bin bags with the confetti of the unthinking thick with beer cans, fag packets and takeaway wrappers.  One thing I learnt is that Neanderthal man has undeveloped taste buds as Carling and Fosters are their weak lager piss drink of choice.

Anyway, lets wax lyrical a bit about the rolling moors rendered as soft outlines rolling off into the horizon.  Bright patches of sky quickly chased away by banks of hill fog.  I was pleased to get back to the car, surprised at just how clean it now was.  High on the moors in the wind and rain makes for a perfect natural car wash.

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