A diary of the 40th TGO Challenge 2019 – Part 3

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 7 to 9

 

Thursday 16 May
Insharn to Nethy Bridge

This has been the best night’s sleep so far, so much so, that I nearly miss breakfast. Collapsing into my bag at 9.30pm and waking at 7.30am – 10 hours – that’s a very good sleep indeed.

img_20190516_080604-e1563975226143.jpgEmerging from the long sleep, woken only by the sunshine.

Today, we continue to Nethy Bridge and the Lazy Duck Campsite. Andy, who joined us last night, has a pitch already booked. The question is whether we can pitch too. We were told before we started that the campsite was almost fully booked with one place left, so we resigned ourselves to wild camping nearby. Hopefully, the unwritten rule of not turning a backpacker away will still apply.

To start our day, we head back through the farm, disturbing the dogs yet again, to pick up General Wade’s military road. Most of the morning we will be in forests and on landrover tracks, much to the relief of some of our group’s feet, which are starting to show blisters – yesterday’s road walking taking its toll. I’m feeling quite smug at this point. My choice of Altra trail shoes has, so far, proved the right one. Not even a hotspot, let alone a blister.

The trail shoe debate will, no doubt, run forever. (Excuse the pun.) The ultralight fraternity swears by them. The hardened backpackers’ prefer boots. Last year, I wore mid-boots and my toes and ankles were trashed. I carried one blister on the sole of my foot for the whole trip and eventually lost two blackened nails from bruised toes some months later. As it was my first TGO, I focused on finishing each day rather than the pain in my feet, vowing not to wear boots again. I have broad, flat feet like a hobbit (but, thankfully, not as hairy). While the Altras took a little getting used to, with zero drops, wide toe box and a full size and a half larger to allow my feet to swell, I seemed to float along, making them the most comfortable footwear I have worn so far. Walking 50 odd miles in them before the event helped too. However, time will tell, as we are only halfway through our trek. More on that later.

With the forested Inverlaidnan Hill on our left, we eventually arrive at Sluggan Bridge on the C7 cycleway. This spectacular single-arch stone bridge is just eight-feet wide at the top. It’s high too, probably to avoid being washed away by the River Dulnain it spans. I don’t know the bridge’s history but the grass and shrubs growing on the expanse imply it’s been there a very long time – a testament to its construction as a packhorse bridge.

Day 7 Insharn Pack BridgeSluggan Bridge on the C7.

From Sluggan, and still on General Wade’s road, it’s a very pleasant walk on the forest tracks of Beananach Wood and towards Kinveachy Lodge Estate. After 9km we reach civilisation, once again crossing the A9. A fast main road comes as quite a shock after the tranquillity of the forest and it takes a few minutes to adjust. The prospect of more tarmac on weary feet and tired legs is beginning to sap what energy a high-carb breakfast gave us that morning. A quick check of the map points us to Chapleton, east on the A95 en-route to Boat of Garten, where we plan to stop for lunch. This year we are travelling about 6km north of Aviemore – our stop in 2018.

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2019-05-16 13.39.31-1An homage to Rennie Mackintosh on the main street in Boat of Garten and a curious garden ornament. 

Following the main street to the end, we arrive at The Boat Country Inn and Resturant, a rather plush affair with black and white checkered flooring and tartan accessories – you get the picture. The hotel is a splendid building and we suspect a lot older than it looks. Pints are ordered along with many bags of crisps. The hot food is rather expensive so we all agree to pass on that, planning to shop elsewhere in the village. Ordering drinks and table service is interesting. The person behind the bar, who took our order and our payment, explains she can’t serve us with the drinks. Somewhat puzzled, we sit and wait to be served by a very apologetic senior staff member, who seems rushed off her feet. She explains that underage staff can’t serve clients in the bar area.

Pints consumed, we are still hungry, so after a short walk back down the main street, we find the post office and local store. Alladin’s Cave doesn’t cover it. We could have spent a lot of time and a lot of money in there. Sandwiches, sticky buns, chocolate and all things that are known to be bad for you. I finally find a hip flask size bottle of whisky to share with the group – something I have been promising after having drunk most of Tim and Heather’s. A small ‘sitooterie’ in a well-tended communal garden, opposite the hotel, allows us to eat our fill and, while there, admire the steam engine of the Strathspey Railway chugging away from the station platform. Over an hour passes, so well-rested, if slightly stiff in the limbs, we continued our journey.

2019-05-16 15.34.37-1Hotel complete with a Classic car which we later found out was a Singer whose owner was travelling across Scotland. 

Here we pick up the Speyside Way, which passes through Boat of Garten and various forest paths to Nethy Bridge, to our planned stop at The Lazy Duck at Badanfhuarain, east of Nethy. Following a minor road north of the river, we endure more tarmac and head east. After nearly missing the entrance, we arrive at a quiet and apparently deserted campsite. A bell hangs from the corner of a woodshed with the instruction to ring on arrival. This done, we are eventually greeted by our host, who turns out to be Canadian and has just joined the staff at the site. We explain we have no booking and would there be a chance of a pitch for four very tired backpackers? Much to our relief, we are shown to a beautiful grassy area that looks like a bowling green, where we are told, “I’ll come back later and give you all a tour.”

What follows is, to be fair, unusual in backpacking. A tour!  This campsite is not your usual run-of-the-mill caravan and camping park. It has a bush shower constructed from upright willow planks forming a spiral pathway, at the end of which is a metal bucket on a string suspended from a central post. You carry hot water from the kitchen, empty it into the bucket, hoist it to the correct height, turn a tap valve underneath and shower – simple. You even get a certificate if you are brave enough to do it! There is an ornamental lily pond complete with Japanese bridges, a forest sauna and hot tub, private waymarked walks, wooden lodges of various sizes, hammocks slung between trees, chiminea to keep you warm, a covered outdoor eating area complete with tea lights, communal table and comfy armchairs, slate-covered cooking areas, rare breed sheep and lambs and, of course, some very lazy and pampered ducks of all shapes and sizes.

All the charms of The Lazy Duck campsite. A pitch worth every penny!

When our host returns, she is carrying a small tray with a very ornate teapot surrounded by glass cups and bowls of dates. The pot is filled with mint tea. It transpires, the owner of the Lazy Duck, who we meet later in the evening, ran a trekking and tour company in North Africa and this is the traditional Bedouin greeting for travellers.

The Lazy Duck TGO19 2 (2)The team. A wonderful, if slightly surreal, end to another tiring day.

Photos: Dave Glenn Hewitt, Trevor Morgan

Distance: 23.5km
Time: 7hrs 54mins
Total ascent: 359m
Max elevation: 399m

 

Friday 17 May
Nethy Bridge to Glenmore Campsite, Loch Morlich

Today takes us on yet another pleasant tree-lined walk, this time through the Abernethy forest, to emerge onto moorland and eventually Glenmore Lodge (The National Outdoor Training Centre). This area is bustling in the Cairngorms winter – providing there is snow of course.

Another blisteringly hot day, t-shirt weather for most, and the first of our two short days on this trip. Unusually, we are travelling south for most of the time to Glenmore Lodge, then west to the static campsite at the head of Loch Morlich. After 7km of easy walking with a few gentle, if tiring climbs, we arrive at a cluster of small buildings at Rynettin. It’s not uncommon on the TGO to bump into fellow Challengers who you thought you might not see again until the last day at The Park Hotel in Montrose. This is one of those days. After leaving Rynettin and approaching a junction in the path, who should be standing there but Backpacking Club member and Challenger Legend*, Mervyn Redshaw. The chances of meeting someone you know at a junction are about the same as being struck by lightning! It transpires that Mervyn had not been well, has lost a day and has had to re-route to make up time.

sdr_vividMervyn Redshaw on the right on his 11th crossing.

We part company as he takes the opposite path when we head south again to Ryvoan Bothy. We have to keep reminding ourselves that these bothies are maintained and supported by Mountain Bothies Association members’ who are all unpaid volunteers. It is a tireless and sometimes thankless task carried out by people who care enough to provide a haven for the weary traveller. I would urge everyone to support them by joining the MBA. Your membership fee provides some of the funding to make this work possible. In the coming days, we will find out how valuable this work is.

The very comfortable Ryvoan bothy. The plaque makes interesting reading too.

Continuing on our path south, we pass what is known locally as the Fairy Loch. Its Gaelic translation is An Lochan Uaine or Green Loch. For tourists, it’s known it as the Emerald Loch. It doesn’t disappoint. Never have I seen water with such a striking colour of turquoise. It’s dazzling. It’s beautiful. A place to take a breath, to ponder and stare unbelievingly.

sdr_vividThe Emerald Loch – stunning.

We now follow a well-trod cinder path turning to a metalised road past the Reindeer Centre, to Glenmore Lodge where we collect our resupply parcels – one of the main reasons for taking this route south. Once collected, we head west to the campsite, spotting on the way a sign saying fish and chips – a mental note made for later. On arrival, we book in and still struggling to believe how hot it is, search for an area to pitch – the ground is harder than it looks. The wind is picking up, a hint as to what is forecast. The weather is due to change for the worse.

2019-05-17 15.53.25Re-supply number two at Glenmore – some very happy campers!

After showers and a rest, we decide to explore the area for food. Heather and Tim find ice creams in the nearby cafe and all is well. Then we hear of an eatery down the road at the edge of the campsite called the Pine Marten Bar – the rest is history! Thoughts of fish and chips disappear as we enter. Dave is already seated in the bar area. We book a table for four and order. Burgers and chips. Very good burgers it has to be said and much-needed protein. Well, that’s my excuse anyway.

The evening entertainment arrives to set up as we sit down for our meal. A duo called Zetor in the Kailyard, they play some pretty amazing traditional tunes and jigs. We are still there at 11pm after more than a few pints.

Food and fun at the Pine Marten Bar. A great night was had by all

When we finally emerge, it is pouring with rain. It rains all night with a drop in temperature of some ten degrees. The forecast is right – the change has arrived with a vengeance.

*A Challenger Legend is one who has completed ten crossings.
Blog photos: Dave Glenn Hewitt, Trevor Morgan.
Ryvoan Bothy photo: Joyce Low, courtesy of the Mountain Bothies Association

 

Distance: 16.5km
Time: 5hrs 46mins
Total ascent: 377m
Max elevation: 412m

 

Saturday 18 May
Glenmore Campsite to Faindouran Lodge

A wet night, a wet start, a wet tent and miserable walk into the wind. We return to the junction just before Ryvoan Bothy where we stopped yesterday for a brief rest. One of my daughters, who is following our track from the InReach Mini I am wearing, later comments that she thought we were lost, as we were on the same path as yesterday. Our route east will now take us on a steady climb, 800m out of the corrie and around the lower shoulder of Bynack Moŕe (1090m).

We had planned to break off this path at about 600m and make our way directly east over the saddle to the right of Dagrum (848m), then down the gully, directly to Faindouran Lodge. But the weather has become worse so we decide this is a day to stay on a distinct path, not bushwack across unknown territory.

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Having planned not to go near the Fords of Avon – a wet and bog-ridden area on the best of days – we do just that and head for the famous Avon Refuge. The path to the fords seems to have been upgraded and takes us directly to the shelter. A hard downhill slog, adding 3km to the day, but worth it for the comfort and welcome we receive from its two occupants who arrived earlier and are planning to stay the night.

2019-05-18 15.40.43-1The Avon Refuge – a welcome sight. Yes, the stones are to stop it from blowing away!

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I, of course, fall foul of the low beam entrance not once but three times, much to the amusement of the others. This is quite common for newbies to the shelter. I’ll know next time to duck! My fingers are so cold I can’t undo the zip on my jacket. We all squeeze in and brew up, staying out of the wind and rain until we warm up enough to venture out again. At this point, Andy, who had been with us for the last few days, makes the decision to leave us, as his back is just too sore to continue. It sometimes takes a lot more courage to make that decision than to carry on in pain. He eventually makes his way to Braemar and the train home. To our relief, we later get a message to say he has arrived safely.

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When we eventually emerge, we set off east following the River Avon (pronounced A’rn), by which time the rain has become patchy showers. True to the area, this riverside path is not so distinct and I am very glad to be wearing waterproof socks with my trail shoes. Torrential rain through the night and most of today hasn’t helped underfoot. Eventually, the Fandouran Lodge bothies come into view and, by a stroke of luck, the rain stops allowing just enough time to pitch our tents. Both bothies are full so we join several other challengers outside.

Once fed, with just the sounds of gentle snoring breaking the stillness of a clear night, we fall asleep, hoping for a dry day tomorrow.

Distance: 21.5km
Time: 8hrs 16mins
Total ascent: 805m
Max elevation: 793m

Blog photos: Dave Glenn Hewitt, Trevor Morgan

A diary of the 40th TGO Challenge 2019 – Part 2

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.

img_20190513_063626.jpgOur 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.

img_20190513_092939-e1560024372518.jpgHydro 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!

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fznor_vividStopping 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!

2019-05-14 07.11.41Sleeping bag lofting in the evening sun in our secluded forest pitch.

Distance: 28.5km
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.

2019-05-14 11.19.30On The Great Glen Way heading for Inverness.  

2019-05-14 11.23.34Inverness 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.

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2019-05-14 13.25.30The 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.

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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.

2019-05-15 08.36.38Auchnahillin Holiday Park campsite. 

Distance: 27km
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.

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2019-05-15 11.48.42A 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.

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fznor_vividThe 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.

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2019-05-15 18.47.09Entering 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.

Distance: 24.6km
Time: 8hrs 48mins
Total ascent: 697m
Max elevation: 409m

A diary of the 40th TGO Challenge 2019 – Part 1

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.

The first three days…

Friday 10 May
Torridon Youth Hostel to Gerry’s Bothy at Craig

We start this year’s Challenge in Torridon, a part of the west coast in the Highlands of Scotland I had never been to before. It’s stunning. The vastness of the landscape, the towering mountains and sheer beauty defy belief. I live and work in the English Lake District World Heritage Site and even though its beauty surpasses many areas of the UK, this is, quite literally, on a different scale.

Our group of four, Tim and Heather, Dave and I, emerge somewhat bleary-eyed from the full day’s travel the day before into crisp air and sunshine. The mountain forecast posted in the hostel warns of changeable weather. Scotland’s traditional four seasons in a day looks very likely. We sign out in the usual TGO manner and, after a short walk, dip our toes in the bay and each collects a pebble to carry to the east coast at St Cyrus – our chosen finish point this year.

2019-05-10 09.18.02-1The very well appointed Torridon Youth Hostel.

59947540_10218609056074660_3703101939114835968_n (1)Sunset on the mountain we will be walking tomorrow.   Photo: Dave Glenn Hewitt

2019-05-10 10.19.08-1The bay at Torridon where we dip our feet and collect our pebbles.

2019-05-10 10.09.49Dave Glenn Hewitt with far too much adrenaline.

Our walk takes us south to Annat – a confusing moment for my wife, Alex, who, for the first time, is tracking me on a Garmin InReach attached to my pack. A text message received later, says: “I thought you were going east to Montrose, not south back to Cockermouth!”

The first day of any long-distance trek is usually the hardest. And it takes a few days to get hill fit. The mind is constantly playing tricks, providing you with every plausible excuse to turn back and order a taxi home. Your pack is the heaviest it will be on the whole trip with, in our case, five days’ of food and fuel to take us to our first re-supply at Auchnahillin, east of Inverness. A reassuring thought is that it will be lighter every day until that point. I try telling my legs that, but it’s not working!

I am not an ultralight backpacker by any means but I do consider myself in the lightweight category. My pack is lighter than last year at 23 pounds, or a little over 10 kilos, with 2.5 kilos of that being food and fuel. So, for those interested, that’s a base-weight of 7.5 kilos or 16 pounds. Any long-distance walker will tell you that as your body tires, your pack gets heavier. Of course, it doesn’t but your mind thinks so. However, the Silverback 55 rucksack I’m carrying this year as part of a review for the company, Gossamer Gear – kindly sent to me for that purpose – is a comfortable weight and carries really well. (Review to follow shortly.)

2019-05-08 Rucksack and ShoesGossamer Gear Silverback 55 and Altra Lone Peak 4 trail shoes ready to go.

Our first climb begins after a mile or so of road walking, where we turn east (my wife will be so pleased) passing by burns and lochs on a well-trod mountain path. After a steep climb over and around the Stuc a’ Choire Ghrannda, we stop to catch our breath and, while admiring the spectacular view, we meet an Australian walking the Cape Wrath Trail who very kindly takes a photo for us. He is walking with a Belgian ultralighter who raced passed us moments earlier carrying little more than a daysack. Not sure how that partnership works but, hey, what do I know?

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Alongside me, on the right – Dave Glenn Hewitt, Heather Jackson Brooks and Tim Jayes, with the spectacular Torridon Hills in the background.

Out first rest and brew stop comes just ahead of a sudden temperature change and a shower of sleet and snow. Perfect timing. Twenty minutes later, we pick up the climb again and within minutes are sweating in our waterproofs, as the clouds move away leaving us bathed in sunshine for the descent into the corrie to the flat valley floor. I love Scotland!

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We continue down to Auchnashellach Station through the shade of a beautiful wooded area – a relief from the sunshine now on our backs – and, after some rather tedious and unavoidable road walking, we arrive at Gerry’s Bothy. There is no camping allowed now in the hostel grounds, so we decide to continue on for another 2 kilometres to pitch in the tranquillity of a forest nearby. At least the mileage will be a little shorter tomorrow.

Distance: 25km
Time: 9hrs 28mins
Total ascent: 1030m
Max elevation: 659m

Saturday 11 May
Gerry’s Bothy area to pitch near Scardroy Lodge

After a chilly night under clear skies, we wake to frost on the tents. We have all rehearsed this many times in the run-up to any long-distance section hike, but it takes a few days to organise yourself into the morning routine. Eventually, with breakfast done and bags packed, we set off, once again in beautiful sunshine with the smell of pine in our nostrils from the logging nearby.

Willie Todd, who joined us in the shared taxi from Inverness, and was pitched in the wood when we arrived, makes his farewells and peels off on his chosen route as we continue upwards once again through the Achnashellach Forest, a steady climb on a landrover track with amazing views back to the Torridon mountain range.

Along the path, we meet up with Kate Kowalska, another of the taxi companions from Inverness. Her fitness belies her age – let’s just say her bus pass is rather dog-eared.

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Hills of Torriden in the distance walking throughLogging operations and looking back to the Torridon mountains. Seems a long way now.

Our first stop of the day is at Glenuaig Lodge, now a holiday home, with a small shelter next to. A welcome rest stop as the intermittent showers and sunshine continue for most of the morning.

All these strategically placed huts and bothies serve to protect and shelter the traveller from the elements. In winter, the temperatures can be well below zero and, even in the corries and glens, whiteouts, driving rain and gales are common.

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qrf_vivid

qrf_vividGlenuaig Shelter, Scardroy. A welcome rest for us all including Kate and Heather.
Bearing information is on most huts and shelters.   
Photos 2 and 3: Dave Glenn Hewitt

Kate leaves us after about a mile, then seems to disappear without a trace. Eventually, we spot her and, reassured, continue on through Gleann Fhiodhaid following the intermittent path along the River Meig. This area requires the crossing of many fords and gullies. It’s trickier for me as this year as I am wearing Altra Lone Peak 4 trail shoes instead of boots. I will later find this was the best kit decision I ever made.

Nearing the end of our day, the house at Corrievuic comes into view as we walk the estate road. We had intended to finish a little further along at Scardroy Lodge, at the head of Loch Beannacharain, but the open grass area near the river close to the house is just too inviting – and we stop for the night.

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2019-05-11 20.42.00My Tarptent Notch, Dave’s Hilleberg Akto and Tim and Heather’s MSR Hubba Hubba

Distance: 22km
Time: 7hrs 37mins
Total ascent: 633m
Max elevation: 343m

Sunday 12 May
Scardroy to Hydro Bothy near Orrin Reservoir

After a pleasant start through the Scardroy estate on the scenic path along Loch Beannacharain, we find ourselves on a frustrating bog-trotting trek to our eventual destination. Digital mapping is fine coupled with paper maps and compass (we always carry both) but when you arrive at the Orrin Reservoir – to find it’s gone – it can be a little confusing even for experienced walkers who know what they are doing. Apparently, the reservoir was drained some years ago, yet it’s still shown on the OS map.

Up to that point, our walk is amazing. Loch Beannacharain is beautiful. Crystal clear with fish jumping, with the mountains and clouds reflecting in its glass-like surface.
A photographer’s dream. We pass by the spectacular Scardroy Lodge with its clipped lawns and ornamental gardens, including a GPS controlled lawnmower, which we watch track up and down with amusement, at one point referring to it as ‘Knight Rider’. Further on as we climb away from the loch, we see a herd of deer watching us from afar, several stags standing proudly nearby. We spot many herds of deer and solitary stags on our journey and we soon almost felt the scenery is incomplete without them.

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Today is the hottest so far. Could this be a repeat of 2018 with its nine consecutive days of crazy temperatures? We wait to find out. Just beyond Carnoch, we cross the River Mieg south to Inverchoran into the cool shade of Blarnabee Forest. However, the steep climb to the top proves worthy of our first, much needed, stop of the day.

After 4km we arrive at the bothy at Luipmaldrig, once again turning south crossing the River Orrin at the suspension footbridge to continue along the pipeline path towards the Orrin Reservoir. If you have never encountered a cable footbridge, you should know two things. First, they move up and down and side to side – all at the same time. Second, they are very narrow with just a 12-inch wooden boardwalk to step on with a sheer drop either side to the waters and rocks below. We each gingerly made our way across with videos taken to prove our skill and courage, all worthy of a certain Special Forces TV programme.

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Then it begins… From the footbridge and for what turns out to be the next 5km, the path vanishes. Our instincts tell us all to follow the south side of the river walking east to the head of the Orrin Reservoir – which incidentally, we couldn’t see at that point. Sound planning you might think. Or not? Occasionally, the path reappears for 50 metres, then disappears again. We all agree that as long as we keep bushwacking through the heather and gorse heading east, we will eventually pick up the pipeline track to our destination at the hydro bothy.

We decide to walk on the shoreline of what we think is the river. It isn’t – it was the Orrin Reservoir – which had been drained, we eventually realise, for the construction of the hydro. It is like the final scene from Planet of the Apes as we turn the corner to be greeted with a desolate landscape of white stumps of long-submerged trees, smooth boulders, dry cracked mud with the fine re-growth of vegetation. A quick look at our digital GPS mapping shows us walking through water. Surreal.

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Finally, we pick up the pipeline track and head to the Hydro bothy. On arrival, quite late in the day, we are greeted by two bikepackers who arrive almost as we do and inside is Bert Hendrikse, a Dutch TGO Legend on his 19th crossing. We pitch outside, as all we care about by that time is food and sleep.

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Distance: 24km
Time: 8hrs 48mins
Total ascent: 794m
Max elevation: 438m