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.
Emerging 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.
Sluggan 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.
An 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.
Hotel 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 team. A wonderful, if slightly surreal, end to another tiring day.
Photos: Dave Glenn Hewitt, Trevor Morgan
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.
Mervyn 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.
The 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.
Re-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
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.
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.
The Avon Refuge – a welcome sight. Yes, the stones are to stop it from blowing away!
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.
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.
Time: 8hrs 16mins
Total ascent: 805m
Max elevation: 793m
Blog photos: Dave Glenn Hewitt, Trevor Morgan