THE Great Outdoors Challenge is an annual coast-to-coast walk across the Highlands of Scotland from between Oban and Torridon, on the west coast, to between Fraserburgh and Arbroath, on the east coast. Up to 300 people take part, planning an individual self-supported route, but not everybody makes it across. In 2016 more than 10 per cent of people who started the walk did not complete it.
The inaugural walk – then called the Ultimate Challenge in honour of its sponsor, the equipment manufacturer Ultimate – took place in 1980 and caught my imagination after the event was promoted in a magazine called Practical Camper. But it was not to be for me that year because of reasons that boiled down to a lack of money and spotty youthfulness.
The crossing, conceived by the mountaineer Hamish Brown as a two-week endurance walk, is these days organised and promoted by The Great Outdoors magazine, and so has become known as the TGO Challenge, or just the TGO.
In 2015 the walk was finally back on the radar for me – a little less impecunious than 35 years before and with the spots all cleared up – and my application for entry into the event in May 2016 was accepted.
This is the story of how my two-week trek unfolded: it is a light-hearted tale of bogs, rain, ticks and pain. A tale not short on drama but short on slumber. A dreamy tale that turned into agony for tortured old bones.
Day 1 (12km, 510m)
The journey to the start of the walk at Lochailort, on the west coast, begins with a sleeper train. Sleeper trains to Bonnie Scotland are a concept of contrasts. The trip starts on a Thursday, in Euston, London, where this would-be traveller is accosted outside the station by a Glaswegian drunk. A friendly Glaswegian drunk, but a Glaswegian drunk after a few bob, know what I mean, Jimmy?
“Hey pal, I’ve got a great idea. Ye wanna hear it?”
Probably something to do with a cuppa tea and me handing over some money. In reply comes out the best Glaswegian accent a sassenach from the north west of England can muster: “No pawl. End off.”
“Ah, na bother. Glasgae man eh?”
“Teck it easy, man.”
And so, with an unimpressive, impromptu, impression of a Glaswegian that convinced one Glaswegian, the Scottish adventure begins. Onto the platform at Euston. Into Scotland by train overnight. Transformed from city to scenery, by way of a railway carriage. A pod. A cramped-bed capsule with only a sink, ear plugs and eye shades for company. It was not like this for Harry Potter.
There are no keys on the doors to the cabins in the sleeper’s carriages. To get back into your space after venturing out for a wee or a wander, one of the numerous – and efficient – stewards has to be found.
En route to the buffet car, cafe lounge, whatever it is, for a cup of tea, there is Simon Conrad, stood in the corridor. “Marcher,” he says. “Simon ‘Marcher’ Conrad.” What better name than Marcher is there to cross the hills of Scotland from west to east. Simon is raising funds for two charities, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA), and PoTS UK. (Postural tachycardia syndrome is a chronic condition that affects the nervous system.)
We talk about walking and our routes, expectations and family. It is a good chat. It is the chat of walkers and the conversation starts with the phrase: “You TGO?”, which is the language of Scotland at this time of year, the last two weeks of May. The language of the Great Outdoors Challenge. The question will be asked hundreds of times by numerous walkers over the coming fortnight.
In its early days the TGO Challenge was called the Ultimate challenge, after the outdoor equipment maker Ultimate, and some folk in the Highlands still refer to it by that name. A triumph for the marketing men. Top walking events took up branding long before football clubs started renaming their stadiums: the Etihad (Manchester City), the Reebok (Bolton Wanderers) and the Sports Direct (Newcastle United). The Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon and the Ultimate Challenge/ TGO Challenge have been thriving for years – and never any crowd trouble.
The buffet car is full of eaters and drinkers and the clatter of excited tongues. More chat, another cup of tea, then it is time to get some sleep.
The journey from Euston to Fort William, as beautiful and possibly romantic as it is, is still like sleeping in a tumble drier. A small, claustrophobic, tumble drier, rocking and rolling along the clickety clack of Britain’s railway tracks. All that is needed is the sound of Bill Haley and his Comets in the background singing Shake, Rattle and Roll.
Awake at 6am, the train is still. The blinds are whipped up. Where are we? We were due to pass through the wonder of the north west of England in the small hours. We must be in Scotland. We are in Scotland. We are at Queen Street station in Glasgow. As is the smartly-dressed young woman staring back at me clad only in black under crackers. Black because that is their colour not because they have not been washed for a week.
Blinds down, it is back to wakeful, intermittent sleep and at 8am the sun is kicking in, the train journey is approaching its end, crossing stunning Scottish scenery. Here come the Highlands. There is a tingle of excitement. During the night half the train has been decanted to travel up on the east coast, and the west coast remnants, a stubby express, makes its way across Rannoch Moor. A bogland if ever there was one and a bogland that is not at ease with a railway running across it. The moor grumbles and moans at this intrusion into its bogginess. It is beautiful and vast, dry looking on top but probably not underneath, shades across the spectrum of yellow and brown. The kind of bogland heather and moorland beauty that gets the ticker racing again and induces a pathetic, puerile, palpitation in the chest.
It is a seduction in contrast to the smug, suffocating smog of London.
Spean Bridge comes and goes. The first steps of the Great Outdoors Challenge are creeping nearer; it is at the most 20 minutes to the next stop, the last stop, Fort William; the first steps hiking/ backpacking on Scottish soil for at least 20 years; the first backpacking trip since the previous November. There have been numerous long day walks here and there, but they do not count as backpacking trips. Just short-term fixes. A temporary patch to stave off lunacy. They have probably failed.
For the past seven months, this trip has occupied most waking hours. Thoughts of routes, maps, fitness, pack weight and equipment. A constant blur of backpacking musings. Now the rucksack is packed up ready for the off and left in the cabin while the scenery through the train windows is lapped up. The lock on the door to the cabin is jammed, but not permanently broken, so that a steward will not be required to re-open it. The mobile phone is charging at a plug point near the front of the train, near a sign that says: “Not for public use.” What a rebel. Bloody Jacobite.
The contrast of going to sleep in one place and waking up in a scene so different; a place where you want to be, just smacks you for six over the farthest boundary. The views and vistas are the kind that make passengers bond in silent appreciation. On this train it is only the Americans that feel the need to speak and spoil the silence of the panoramas as the curtailed carriages chug ever closer to Fort William.
Before Spean Bridge, there are walkers below, early risers tramping the West Highland Way. A wave to the early risers. “Hello!” A process of connecting between walkers. A common bond, an understanding. A move down the carriage and there are more passengers at the windows, in silence and in quiet enjoyment of the wilds to come. A nod and a smile, says all that needs to be said.
One of the stewards on the train has been working this route for at least 25 years and, he says, he never tires of the journey or the views, or the country. He will soon be retiring from the sleeper and he speaks with sadness about the prospect of stepping aside.
Fort William. The end of the line. This is it. We are here. The change in atmosphere, the air, the smells. Yes, we are here. Cool, clear with a hint of sea salt. We are here. And it is chilly. No sun. A cold blast sweeps down the main road next to the railway station. It is winter compared with the south. But who cares? It is 12 hours, but a million miles away from the day before.
What a contrast to Euston. Being greeted by friendly Scots, but this time not wanting 10p for a cup of tea, but more likely offering one. Step off the train to space, not the horrendous throngs.
The last time this tumble-dried traveller was in Fort William was two decades ago. It has changed and it is not recognisable as what it was. Through the underpass and onto the main street, the pedestrianised main street. First order of the day is breakfast. Me and Marcher settle on the Crofter pub. Mr Marcher is aged 46 and from Salisbury. We talk again of routes and family and walking and jobs.
It was not a great night’s sleep but acceptable, however, I am apprehensive, worrying that I might have forgotten something, concerned that everything is in order for the trip – a combination of those factors make me poor company at breakfast. The other factor is homesickness, missing the family. Missing my children who think that venturing out into the wilds is a new app somewhere on Snapinstagramchatbook. Fortunately for me and him, Marcher is good company. And the breakfast is hot and tasty.
The sausages in the Crofter breakfast are proper sausages. Good sausages are always a measure of a meal, particularly breakfast. Bacon, eggs, beans they all are just there and require little or no interference from man, woman or beast. Sausages are different. Humans can tilt the balance with sausages. And the Crofter sausages have flavour, bite, a proper consistency, not the feeling of meat paste shoved into a pig skin. It is a good breakfast, washed down with tea. It has to be tea. No offence coffee, nothing against you, but tea and cooked breakfast is like deer and ticks, moors and bogland, Euston and Glasgie drunks. Tea and cooked breakfasts go together.
There are errands to complete before the train to Mallaig departs. A sharp gust blows down the pedestrianised main street. A chill wind. A wind that sits in contrast to the warmer, smoggier, drier winds of Euston and London and Berkshire. A wind that has the overtone of winter, of cold, of making you think your preparations might not be up to scratch. It is making me think about the kit. Is it adequate enough?
Outdoor shops litter the main drag in Fort William. One shop is selling warm leggins for £35. A bargain, apparently. Half price, no less. Bloody rip off, sounds like to me. Superdrug is where the real deal is at. Black woollen tights are purchased. Women’s tights. Large women’s tights for me, lest the cold extends into the hills and the forgetfulness of leaving perfectly good (perhaps over priced ) Helly Hansen tights at home in the south of England is punished. At £4.99, that is £2.49 1/2 a leg. That is pretty good insurance. £35 indeed.
“If anybody asks, they are for my girlfriend.”
The shop assistant is all big tattoos and big smiles. She winks and says: “Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me.” Scottish. Friendliness. Perks up a chap.
A wander to the top of town reveals nothing familiar. An old pub or two and a pet shop stick out, but it feels as if the whole of the landscape of Fort William has changed since the last time I was in town. There are more and more outdoor gear shops. Shops that cater less for the residents and more for the tourists stroke walkers.
It is still chilly. Wandering back down the high street, Menzies (it did say Menzies, have they not closed down?) is the only place that sells a pencil – 58p for a HB? Not sure about the weight, as the change from a pound is slotted into the charity box because it weighs a few grams, but a pencil works better for writing than a pen and does not leak ink. Not that this is gram counting … but.
The lady behind the counter (counter as in till not gram counter) looks on in bemusement as the HB pencil is snapped in two and slotted into a top pocket of the rucksack. She is dying to ask, “wat ya do that fer?”, but Scottish friendliness and discretion prevail. Of course the simple answer to her unspoken question is that pencils that are short will cause less damage to the fabric of the rucksack than the long ones.
Aboard the train an English ticket conductress is as friendly and as helpful as the Scottish staff in the Crofter were – Scotland’s friendliness and helpfulness will become a theme over the course of the challenge.
Loch Eil then Loch Eilt look beautiful from the train, triggering “oohs” and a few “aaarghs” and one grunt from train travellers. A Canadian woman, with a booming voice, tells anybody who cares to listen that her family were from these parts at the time of the Highland clearances. The Canadian woman now lives in Scotland. She seems to think she is Scottish. With an accent like hers she is Canadian. If she is Scottish, I’m a Dutchman, Jan. Best to move away from loud people, preferably into the solitude of the hills.
The sight of the Harry Potter viaduct at Glen Finnan sparks a rush of passengers from one side of the carriage to the other, all eager for a glimpse of the structure, which they are about to cross. Had the train been a boat, or maybe a tumble drier, it would have rolled over. At Glen Finnan station hordes of tourists depart. Next stop is Lochailort, which means that the first steps on the challenge are edging nearer.
The helpful conductor lady advises anybody looking to “alight” (what a beaut of a word) at Lochailort to head for the middle coaches, because those are the only carriages on the train that will fit alongside the platform.
Rucksacks litter the carriage floor as the engine closes in on the little station. After waving furiously to attract my attention Simon wanders up the carriage. We exchange “good lucks”. It has been 10 years since he made a backpacking trip of more than a week in duration, he confides. He is apprehensive, but he has the look of a chap who has planned well and will make it across with flying colours.
What was not mentioned by me to Simon was that yours truly had not set out on such a long backpack, in terms of days, for 30 years or more and that this trip was being fuelled by memories of youthful exuberance, reckless self-belief and opaque recollections of past glories.
The train departs for Mallaig. Those who have “alighted” on the platform at Lochailort station are me and four more challengers: Alan Hardy, Bernard Forrester, Colin Harvey and David Hardy. A five-man snake wends its way to the sign-out point, Lochailort Inn.
On opening an entrance door, an unappetising smell of cooked fish wafts past and thoughts of a pot of tea with shortbread dunkers go out of the window. The smell is unsettling to the stomach. Time to go. The four, ABCD, are staying for a bite to eat. But for me the fish smell is nauseating. Got to go, got to go. The Great Outdoors register signed, the challenge card – a kind of passport cum ID card – collected and farewells exchanged, it is time to get some fresh air and crack on.
On the road to Arienskill, a couple of miles east of Lochailort, a chap in a four by four pulls out of a long driveway and offers a lift. A kind offer, a Scottish offer, and an offer that has to be refused. Maybe in Angus next week? The challenge walk rules, that no lifts or means of propulsion other than walking can be employed, are explained to the driver and he is thanked for his kind offer. What is worrying is that he might have thought that I required a lift after a mile and a half.
“Good luck,” he says. Under his breath he was saying: “You’ll need it!”
At Arienskill – a couple of houses and a path under the railway line from Fort William – the first steps made on grass, or vegetation, signal that the challenge is finally really beginning after all this time. Ten minutes later, with both feet baptised in bog water, the challenge is really beginning in earnest. Ahead lies unkempt terrain and a path that bears little or no resemblance to its outline on the map. Up, up and up. Sun shining. It feels great to at last be on the trail.
The chill and cloud of Fort William has been replaced by blue sky and sunshine. A breeze dances across the face. The mobile phone has been switched off for some time. There is nobody about and only a wild camp, solitude and a good night’s sleep to look forward to. That switches me on. It would make anybody come alive. What an exhilarating feeling.
The path disappears. Now there are two. Gone again. Bear left, bear right, then down. Damn. Prince Charlie’s cave (NM797848) is a gash in the hillside, a man trap, the kind of spot that if anybody was looking for it they would never find it, only the unwary would chance upon it. Ahem.
The path is unclear, but appears to wend its way down into a ravine dotted with silver birch trees. It is too steep to contend with, even for the brand new walking poles that are being used for the first time by a virgin when it comes to walking poles and are instilling a sense of fearlessness out of kilter with his age. These are lightweight, carbon, snap-lock jobs from Karrimor. At £60 they were a bargain – and picked up at half that price they were even more so.
Once upon a time my equipment was carried in a sandy coloured Karrimor Jaguar IV rucksack and the sleeping bag at night was laid upon a green Karrimat. Now here are beautiful, sleek Karrimor walking poles giving a nod to a previous generation of outdoor gear. They are darn useful for climbing and descending and this newbie to the world of walking with poles is fast becoming a convert.
After in effect crossing to the other side of the ravine by climbing back up the slope, this new route down is overgrown with ferns, heather and long grass. This is my route. Unique, awkward, but the walking poles are again helping with balance while descending. They have won their stripes. Welcome to the team, Karrimor carbon walking poles.
The path is, according to the map, on the right hand side of a stream heading for the bridge that takes walkers across the River Meoble to the north side of Loch Beoraid.
The left side of the stream will have to do. But it is a pig’s ear of a descent. When the bottom is finally reached, the only way to access the bridge is to dance across the stones in the stream – with the help of my Karrimor walking poles, of course – then jump across a brick-built chicane on a sluice that slows down the flow of water from another stream coming in from the right. To the right of the second stream – are you with me? – is a path that is marked on the map, but it is not marked on the landscape.
Jumping the brick-built chicane sluice is nearly a disaster. The rucksack straps have been loosened in case of a fall into the stream – it is easier to escape the bag if you fall under water. But on landing on one of the brick chicanes the looseness of the sack creates its own momentum and nearly causes a loss of balance and a subsequent plunge into the waters below. Close call. Jelly legs.
The chicane is behind a building by the wooden bridge of the Meoble that appears to be a hydro-electric generator. The bridge is covered in chicken wire – presumably to aid grip on a cold and frosty morning – but feels a little unsettling because it is high and has no hand rails.
On the other side of the bridge the loch is so inviting. Come in for a swim, it says. Tempting. Very tempting. There is a jetty on the north side of the loch. Sat there, the sun is bright and the sky cloud free, so socks are removed for a quick drying and the feet dipped in Loch Beoraid’s cool waters. There is no sign of ABCD on the slopes above. Thought they might be visible after a lazy fish-smell lunch at the Lochailort Inn.
The path along the north edge of Loch Beoraid heading east is a bog-trot, interspersed with streams of cooling, fresh water – lovely on a hot day – wending their way to the loch. In winter or when it has been wet for a while it would be a nightmare along this route. All heather and rough undulating mud track. West Scotland has been basking in a week or more of hot weather, yet the paths and streams on the north side of Loch Beoraid continue to work their magic and make this place bog heaven. The feet are just wet, wet, wet.
Thank goodness, though, for half-price lightweight Karrimor carbon poles, with snap locks, which ease the loch-side bog-trotting. The latest members of my team TGO. Thank goodness for half-price lightweight Karrimor carbon poles – that is until, disaster, one of the poles splits off. A section from just below one of the three pieces of the pole comes unstuck from the rest of the pole and becomes solidly moored in a boggy bit of the path, projecting firmly up and topless. The upper third of this pole is in my right hand. Oh joy.
The second, intact, Karrimor pole is used to coax out the stricken two-thirds of the other Karrimor pole from the mire with a satisfying squelchy back-fill sound as it leaves the gloop. This is the first of several (Karri)more rescues before the evening is out. Then realisation dawns, talking of Karrimor. The trusty footwear, which up until this day has served me well, is also Karrimor, and is soaking wet again, having seemed to be on its way to drying off. It is disconcerting.
Up ahead are a couple who are in an age bracket that is older than me. They have plenty more grey hair, that apart the lady of the pair is not a happy bunny. She is probably used to the finer things in life, if her expensive gear and neat appearance are anything to go by. For the half an hour that their pattern of walking has been observed, he steps ahead, then waits for her. Steps ahead, then waits for her. Steps ahead, then waits for her. She is finding the going tough, with every step agonised over, slow and deliberate.
She says nothing. Does not look up. No reaction. He replies. He and his wife are planning to wild camp, he tells me.
They are Canadian, but not of the TGO Challenge religion. They plan to pitch for the night along the north edge of Loch Beoraid. Good luck with that.
Their overnight jaunt is his adventure, judging by our conversation. She is non too happy about being in the wilds and barely raises a smile let alone a word as the conversation turns back to the joy of wild camping. They have walked along from the track that borders the River Meoble, but are not sure from where they started, which means he cannot pronounce it. Many people trying to pronounce gaelic names know the feeling. He asks about the route from Loch Beoraid to Glen Finnan.
“I’ll show you on your map.” They have no map.
“Here, I’ll show you on my map. Go dead ahead at the end of the loch, stay left of that nipple-topped mountain [Sgurr an Utha is pointed out] go up and over and you’ll eventually come to Corryhully.
“There is a track there that leads down to Glen Finnan.” [Good luck with that too, soldier.]
This is advice spoken with great confidence, but what a fraud. It is the blind leading the blind. What yours truly omitted to tell the Canadian chap was that my first and last and only previous visit to Loch Beoraid had been by virtue of Google Earth. But the way my delivery came across it sounded like the area was my chosen specialist subject for Mastermind. My delivery sounded like it came from a Loch Beoraid expert, a dedicated bog-trotting guide. Still the Canadian chap is happy knowing the direction of travel. The couple will be taking the route, up Gleann Donn and over to Corryhully, which is my route for day two. It was planned to be the latter end of day one, but that part of the route planning is out of the window following the 1.30pm-ish start from Lochailort. Ten minutes after saying adieu to the Canadian couple, they slow to another stop and look to be making camp behind an old wall.
The evening is bright, sunny and blue. Progress has been slow, but with the time cracking on past 7pm, the search for an acceptable pitch starts. Looking at prospective places to camp is to backpackers what looking in the windows of retail outlets is to shopaholics. A prospective pitch on an outcrop of land at NM836851 appears a likely stop-off, but the time is too far from 8pm. That is my cut-off point. That is when the walking has to stop. A mile further on and the bog-trotting does stop. It is Hobson’s choice when it comes to a pitch, a decision over which is the least boggy area.
On a piece of higher ground the grass is drier than anywhere else, but that simply means that the site is just drier bog than anywhere else. With the Trailstar up, rear into the wind, the inner is attached lengthways with the washing line erected, socks clipped on and water collected from the loch after a slip in the grip less Zuuc shoes. Cups of tea, pasta, chocolate and oat biscuits are consumed looking out from the tent across the loch to the setting sun. Tiredness is creeping in. The strong but pleasant wind heading west down the valley should keep at bay any early midges that might appear and certainly dry the socks.
About a mile away on a knoll high above the water, where earlier a potential camping spot had been identified, there is movement. Is it ABCD? In the time it takes to administer a strip of zinc oxide tape to the injured walking pole, at least one tent is erected over there. It is difficult to see what is going on in the fading, but not disappearing, light. On the register at the Lochailort Inn, there were just four more starters left to sign out after ABCD and me. Maybe it is one of the later starters? No, it has to be one of the alphabet boys because one of the ABCD said that they were heading for Kinlochbeoraid, which is just a mile or so further along at the head of the loch.
Tiredness is creeping ever closer. It is about 10pm and cuckoos somewhere in the heights across the water make their presence felt – and right through the night. Their calls echo across the loch, once the strong winds have died down to be replaced by a frosty morning.
The ear plugs from the sleeper train help, but do not eradicate the sound completely. It is also still light, like an extended dusk, so the blackout eye covers from the train come into their own. The cuckoos have stopped disturbing the peace and easy pace of the final hours of the day. Bliss.
Drifting off, thoughts pop into my mind about what weight are the eye covers and the ear plugs? They could have tipped the pack over nine kilos. What about the Karri-flaws? Will team TGO make it with or without the poles? There will be trouble if it is without the poles because the Trailstar needs them. Then thoughts of the gorgeous views enter the head space to caress the brain’s go-to-sleep sensors.
Tiredness has crept in.
CUCKOO! CUCKOO! The bastards.