The TGO Challenge is a self-supported coast-to-coast backpacking walk across Scotland. Established in 1980, it has earned a unique reputation in the UK’s long-distance walking and backpacking tradition. Over 400 backpackers apply every year from around the world, with more than 350 completing what is now considered one of the toughest challenge events in the calendar. This year is its 40th anniversary.
Days 4 to 6
Monday 13 May
Hydro Bothy to Newtonhill
After some restless sleep, we rise to bright sunshine again. What’s strange is there’s no wind, which considering the remoteness and altitude, feels a little worrying. Bert, our Dutch TGO Veteran, sticks his head around the bothy door, says good morning and, returning inside, packs expertly in the blink of an eye. Our bikepackers were up before 6am and raced off into the sunrise. While we cook up our calories and arrange and re-arrange our packing, a spritely Bert emerges to set off and wishes us well for our journey.
Our tents pitched just before sunset. Photo: Dave Glenn Hewitt
Our walk today seemed on paper straightforward. Nothing ever is, of course. Our journey will be a mix of road, off-road trails and detours but at least we’re confident that the route plotted, unlike parts of the journey to the Orrin Reservoir yesterday, are still there.
Legs feel strong as we depart in good humour. We continue east on the landrover track following the hydro pipeline. This is quite a feat of engineering. A concrete pipe some two-feet in diameter sitting on plinths. It snakes its way, sometimes disappearing underground, then reappearing like some mad sea monster. We speculate its age as some sections have been replaced with modern materials. Other ancient parts drip from forgotten cracks and rotted seals. Intake drains and service manifolds are dotted along its route every so often where the thunderous rush of water can be heard.
Hydro pipeline with newer sections added. Photo: Dave Glenn Hewitt
We decide to stay on the hydro service track, as good paths are a rarity. However, it will take us slightly off route. At some point, we will have to navigate cross country to pick up the main track. We skirt the base of Beinn Bheag Fhada at 396m and arrive at Loch Ballach. Plotting a straight bearing to join another service road, we stride out across gorse and moss, aiming for a point on the distant ridgeline and, after a short brew stop and further bog trotting, we hit the track and make for civilisation, something we haven’t seen since our TGO started. At this point, we are starting to think about food and beer!
Stopping for tea and a water refill. A typical tarmac stretch and some rather comical signage. Photos: Dave Glenn Hewitt
May I introduce our first Trail Angel. Arriving in Wester Balblair we meet a woman on her way to an exercise class. She, apparently, overheard us asking a passerby if there were any pubs in the village where we could get some food. She asks to see our map and shows us. In fact, a hotel, The Old North Inn at Inchmore, some 5 kilometres away, is the nearest place. Sometimes Trail Angels just pop up. Thanking her, we head off. Suddenly, there she is again, waiting at the top of some steps, in case we go the wrong way. She even offers us a better route, which turns out to be quicker. People are so helpful and really restore your faith in humanity.
Passing the splendid Moniach Castle, we arrive at the hotel to find we’ve picked the day new ovens are being installed – so no food. Beer, crisps, chocolate bars and more beer will just have to do. We also take the opportunity to recharge our various devices – the barman says: “Oh, just unplug the Karaoke machine; it’ll be fine.”
Much refreshed and very slightly inebriated, we head south-east to our destination for the day. After a short climb into the forest beyond Newtonhill in The Aird, as if by magic, we find a clearing and flat ground with deer hiding some distance away in the long grass. A perfect, sunset pitch for the evening and much-needed sleep. Tomorrow is our assault on Inverness along the Great Glen Way to Auchnahillin Holiday Park, our first static camp, re-supply parcel collection and much-needed showers!
Sleeping bag lofting in the evening sun in our secluded forest pitch.
Time: 9hrs 54mins
Total ascent: 617m
Max elevation: 394m
Tuesday 14 May
The Aird to Auchnahillin, Inverness
We wake refreshed to a crisp sunny morning, the deer long since departed, and we pack for the day ahead. Our route takes us via the picturesque Great Glen Way, to the outskirts of Inverness and on to Auchnahillin. We climb gently along forest paths and, following the well-marked route, we emerge onto a GGW footpath. It feels like rush hour, with walkers and backpackers, family groups and bikers making their way to and from Inverness.
On The Great Glen Way heading for Inverness.
Inverness looms before us. The mock-baronial apartment complex in the centre.
The forested part of the Great Glen Way is bliss. Parts of it are like walking in the garden of a stately home, with tunnelled canopies of trees – very welcome as the temperature begins to soar. As we descend and the city appears below us, we see what looks like a castle. As we get closer, it appears to be a massive renovation. Closer still, it becomes apparent it’s neither: this is a hugely expensive, mock baronial apartment complex with what appears to be a renovated kirk in the middle. Eventually, we emerge onto the Caledonian Canal where we pause for a while before continuing across the River Ness’s islands and parks. For anyone into river kayaking, this is paradise.
The Caledonian Canal. The river Ness and a take on Nessie from a fallen tree in the park.
Our next section is a complete contrast and sadly, unavoidable. We walk through the built-up areas of Lower Drummond and Hilton, south of the city. Let’s just say, and with no offence intended, it’s an area where you wouldn’t want to dally. We come out the other side and head towards General Wade’s military road. Sometimes you just have to down packs in the most unlikely places. Pausing on the grass verge of a busy roundabout, we sunbathed, watched the passersby and almost fell asleep, oblivious to the traffic noise. Our stomachs were beginning to rumble…
We need food and water! Spotting a sign for a nearby hotel, we head in that direction, only to find out from a passerby that it has closed. Frustrated, particularly as we had ignored the opportunity to walk to the local Co-op from a roundabout earlier, we trudge on along a forest path. Come in Trail Angel number two. A man with a shopping bag appears, who – you guessed it – is going to the Co-op. He gives us directions and trots off to the store, where we catch up with him soon after. Sheltering from the sun in the shade of the trolley shelter, we devour our purchases, much to the amusement of the locals. Never has so much food and drink been consumed in such a short time. Walking back, I manage to snap this of Heather and Tim. The TGO is not all about wild places and forests.
Retracing our steps, we continue on General Wade’s road through beautiful forests to Dundavie. After crossing the busy A9 and over the River Nairn, after a final 2 kilometres of road walking, we see a very welcome sign: Auchnahillin Holiday Park. A long, hot day comes to an end with thoughts of a shower and rest.
Auchnahillin Holiday Park campsite.
Time: 9hrs 22mins
Total ascent: 560m
Max elevation: 354m
Wednesday 15 May
Auchnahillin to Insharn
More sunshine – is this really Scotland? A beautifully crisp morning greats us again. Today we walk to Insharn, a regularly used challenge stop on Wade’s road. This is one of those days where the tarmac is unavoidable. After discussion, we agree to bypass a little of it by detouring into the Moy Estate and the loch of the same name.
Turning left from the campsite, we walk for about 2 kilometres to the Moy Estate, famous for its grouse shooting. Not something I agree with in any way. Once past the main estate buildings and the splendid Moy Hall, Tim has an encounter with a goat, who seems very interested in the possibility of free food. We emerge onto the high path on the east side, or top edge, of Loch Moy. It makes a picture-postcard vista, and halfway along we stop to rest and soak up the stunning view over the Isle of Moy.
A friendly white goat. Loch Moy and the Isle of Moy where the remains of the original laird’s house still stand.
Leaving Loch Moy, we retrace our route through the forest, crossing Dalmacgarry burn back to cross the main road again onto cycle route 7. Easy walking here albeit on the tarmac, we head for Tomatin, and spotting a beer jug symbol on the map look forward to some refreshment.
Tomatin’s famous distillery, which we passed on the way here, with some reluctance, seems to be thriving and, I imagine, is the main source of local employment. We pass under the spectacular rail bridge, turning right onto the main street. It’s a very hot day and we need to stop soon.
The village has a community shop and post office. We are in luck as the shelves are well stocked. Asking where the pub is, we are told it has gone. There is a pattern forming here. So many of the pubs and hotels have closed or simply vanished. This is sad as most used to be where people met and socialised, particularly in remote villages.
Heather, the brave and cheeky one of the group, asks if we can move the picnic table outside out of the sun. We fill our faces with soft drinks, sandwiches, crisps, ice cream and even burgers microwaved in the store. After refilling our water bottles, we head off. It’s great to see a thriving enterprise like this. We need more stores supported and run by the people that use them.
I had been told about the three bridges in Tomatin. We arrive at the first, the Findhorn road bridge. Built in 1926 by engineer Sir Owen Williams, with help from the architect Maxwell Ayrton, it is one of a series along the A9. This is probably the most striking. A little OTT but splendid nevertheless, it replaced a bridge built by Thomas Telford dating from 1833. The photo shows the three bridges from one of the pedestrian refuge arches.
The three Findhorn bridges. The Owen Williams bridge in the foreground. The railway and new A9 road bridges in the distance. Arch photo: Dave Glenn Hewitt
Picking up cycle route 7 again, which runs parallel to the A9, we climb to arrive at Slochd Summit at 400m, and finally, the sign as we enter Cairngorms National Park. There is an instant and dramatic change in the scenery as we cross the invisible border.
Entering the Cairngorms National Park
We arrive shattered at Incharn, mainly due to the heat of the day, which no matter how hydrated you are and how well fed, takes its toll. After a cooling walk along a forest track, we turn into an open field, the barking of dogs on the nearby farm announcing our arrival. A few minutes after we set up, a lone walker appears. It’s Andy Bailey, a fellow Backpacking Club member. He had planned to join us for a few days but we weren’t sure where. He will walk with us to the Fords of Avon, before heading off to Braemar and home.
Time: 8hrs 48mins
Total ascent: 697m
Max elevation: 409m