DECADES after the inaugural challenge event it still rankles with me that in 1980 I did not take part in the very first coast-to-coast walk across Scotland. And for thirty-five years in the back of my mind it was an itch that had to be scratched, a walk that had to be walked, a mission that had to be accomplished.
The walk, in those days called the Ultimate Challenge in honour of its sponsor, the equipment manufacturer Ultimate, first caught my attention when it was promoted in a magazine called Practical Camper. But it was not to be for me that year for reasons that boiled down to a shortage of money, spotty youthfulness and a lack of bollocks to defy my parents.
That spring/summer my outdoor adventures were limited to a jaunt along the southern section of the South West Coastal path and numerous short trips to the Lake District, as was usual.
Work, family and other commitments got in the way of taking part in the years that followed until in 2015 the walk finally returned with a positive beep to my radar – a little less impecunious, the spots all cleared up and no parents to placate – and my application for entry into the event in May 2016 was accepted.
The event, conceived for 1980 by the mountaineer Hamish Brown as a two-week endurance walk, is these days known as the Great Outdoors Challenge but remains a two-week yomp across Scotland. Participants can start from between Oban and Torridon on the west coast and finish anywhere between Fraserburgh and Arbroath on the east. About 300 people take part every year, planning an individual self-supported route, but not everybody makes it across. In 2016 more than 10 per cent of people who entered the walk, referred to as the TGO Challenge or just the TGO, did not complete it.
This is the story of how my attempt at the trek, fuelled by memories of youthful exuberance, reckless self-belief and opaque recollections of past glories, unfolded. It is a bitter-sweet, warts and all tale of bogs, rain, ticks and pain. A tale not short on drama but short on slumber and an escapade that was supposed to fulfil a long-held dream to cross Scotland coast to coast but turned into an agonising ordeal for tortured old bones.
Day 1 Bog trot
Sleeper trains to Bonnie Scotland are a concept of contrasts. The journey back to the future starts with a journey from Euston, London, with an interaction outside the station with a drunk, a Scottish drunk, a Glaswegian drunk. He is a friendly enough drunk, but still a Glaswegian drunk after a few bob, if you know what I mean, Jimmy?
His opening gambit is: “Hey pal, I’ve got a great idea. Ye wanna hear it?”
Probably something to do with a cuppa tea. In reply out of my mouth comes the best Glaswegian accent a sassenach from the north west of England can muster: “No pawl. End off.” The fingers of the right hand held at ninety degrees to the arm are wafted across my neck in a motion that says: stop right there.
“Ah, na bother, pal. Glasgae man eh?”
And so, with an unimpressive, impromptu impression of a Scottish accent that convinced one Glaswegian, the Highlands adventure begins. Onto the platform at Euston station and into Scotland by train overnight. Transformed from city to scenery, by means 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 on the train to Hogwarts.
There are no keys on the doors to the cabins, so to get back into the pod after venturing out for a wee or a wander, one of the numerous – and efficient – stewards has to be found.
On route to the buffet car, cafe, lounge, whatever it is, for a cup of tea a tall chap stands in the corridor.
“Marcher,” he says, thrusting his right hand forward for a handshake. “Simon ‘Marcher’ Conrad.” What better name can there be than Marcher for somebody crossing the hills of Scotland.
We chat the chat of walkers.
This is the language of Scotland at this time of year, the last two weeks of May. The language of the Great Outdoors Challenge, although some folk in the Highlands still refer to it as the Ultimate Challenge. Top walking events took up branding long before football clubs started renaming their stadiums the Etihad (Manchester City), the Reebok (Bolton Wanderers) and Sports Direct (Newcastle United). The Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon and the Ultimate Challenge, have been thriving for years.
We talk walking and our routes, expectations and family. It is a good chat.
A cup of tea is called for. Into the buffet car. Then it is to bed.
The journey is 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 my old stomping ground of the north west of England in the small hours, but that has long gone. We must be in Scotland, because dawn has arrived. We are in Scotland – we are at a standstill at Queen’s Street station in Glasgow, as a sign on a station wall confirms. A smartly dressed young woman stares back at me, a chap naked but for his black boxer shorts. Black because that is their colour, not because they have not been washed for a week.
Blinds down, it is back to bed and at 8am the sun kicks in, the train journey is approaching its end, crossing stunning Scottish scenery. Here come the Highlands. Inside of me 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, which form a stubby express, make their 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 soddenness. But it is beautiful, looks dry, when it probably isn’t, and is all light yellows and dark browns. It is the kind of bogland heather and moorland beauty that gets the ticker racing and induces a pathetic, puerile, palpitation in the chest. Excitement. A seduction in contrast to the smugness and smog of London.
Spean Bridge comes and goes. The start of the Great Outdoors Challenge is creeping nearer; it is 20 minutes to the next stop, Fort William; the first steps hiking/ backpacking on Scottish soil for two decades; 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. Just short-term fixes. Temporary patches to stave off lunacy. Some people might say the patches have failed, which is too close to the truth.
For the past seven months, this trip has occupied most waking hours. Thoughts of routes, maps, fitness, the weight of equipment. A constant blur of backpacking. The rucksack is packed up, ready for the off and left in the cabin. It is my support system for the next few weeks, akin to a snail carrying its home on its back. The lock on the cabin is jammed with rolled up paper, but not broken, so that a steward will not be required to re-open the door on my return.
The phone is charging at a plug point near the front of the train, near a sign that says: “Not for public use.” The spirit of Scottish rebelliousness is creeping into my bones.
What a contrast to go to bed in a dark grim place and wake up in a scene so different, light, bright and expamsive; a place where you want to be, it smacks you for six over the farthest boundary. The views and vistas from the carriages are the kind that make passengers bond in silent appreciation. It is only the American tourists that feel the need to speak and besmirch the silence of the scenery as the curtailed carriages chug ever closer to Fort William.
Before Spean Bridge, there are walkers below, early risers tramping along the West Highland Way. A wave to the early risers is returned. “Hello!” A bonding process between walkers. 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 trip 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 and not being among the magnificent scenery.
Gingerly the train slips into the station at Fort William, the end of the line but the start of unfinished business for me.
The change in atmosphere, the air, the smells is noticeable. Cool breeze, clean smelling air with a hint of sea salt. But there is no sun and it is chilly. A cold blast sweeps down the main road next to the railway station. It is winter compared with the south. But who cares? This is a million miles away from the day before.
It’s a contrast to Euston. Being greeted by friendly Scots, the station staff, but this time not wanting 10p for a cup of tea, and being more likely to offer one.
Since my last visit in Fort William, the town has changed dramatically and walking from the station nowhere is recognisable. Through the underpass and onto the main street, which has become a pedestrianised main street, the first order of the day is breakfast. Me and Marcher settle on the Crofter pub. Mr Marcher is 46 and from Salisbury, he tells me as we recommence our talk of routes and family and walking and jobs.
It was not a great night’s sleep, and I feel like a tumble-dried traveller. That, and my worrying about my equipment being in order for the trip, makes me poor company at breakfast. Fortunately for me and him, Marcher is good company.
The sausages in the Crofters breakfast are proper sausages. Good sausages are a measure of a decent breakfast. Bacon, eggs, beans they all produce themselves almost and have little if any interference from man or woman. These are sausages that have flavour, bite, a meaty, coarse, consistency, not the feeling of meat paste shoved into a pig skin. It is a welcome, tasty breakfast, washed down with tea. It has to be tea. No offence coffee, but tea and cooked breakfast are like deer and ticks, moors and bogland, Euston and Glasgie drunks, they are a double act. Tea and cooked breakfasts are made for each other.
There are errands to complete before the train to Mallaig, and my stopping off point Lochailort, departs. A wind blows down Fort William’s 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 again about my kit.
Outdoor shops litter the main drag in Fort William. One is selling warm leggins for £35. A bargain, apparently. Half price, no less. Bloody rip off sounds like to me. Boots the chemist it is. Black woollen numbers are purchased. Women’s tights. Large women’s tights for a soft northern bloke, lest the cold extends into the hills and the forgetfulness of leaving perfectly good Helly Hansen tights at home in the south of England comes back to haunt me.
At £4.99, that is £2.50 a leg. That is pretty good insurance.
“If anybody asks, they are for my girlfriend,” I say to the beautiful shop assistant.
She is all big tattoos, big smiles and winks: “Don’t you worry, big fellah, your secret is safe with me.”
Her smile widens, I laugh. Such humour and Scottish friendliness perks up a chap. It pulls me from my gloominess and apprehension about the walk.
A wander up to the top of town reveals nothing familiar. An old pub or two and a pet shop ring a bell, maybe, but it feels as if the whole of the landscape of Fort William has changed. There are more and more outdoor equipment shops, so much so that it feels like outdoor shop central.
Wandering back down the high street, Menzies (it did say Menzies, have they not closed down) is the only place that sells pencils – 58p for a HB? Not sure how much it weighs, but it will be just a few grams. The change from the pound tendered for the pencil is deposited in a charity box. A pencil writes better than a pen when conditions are damp and does not leak ink and, of course, if a person is serious about counting grams a pencil, it can be snapped in half.
The lady behind the counter (counter as in till not gram counter) looks on in bemusement as my new HB pencil is snapped into two 29p halves by me and slotted into the top pocket of the rucksack. She is dying to ask, “wat yer do that fer?”, but Scottish friendliness and discretion prevail. It is not gram counting, the simple answer to her unspoken question is that the points of pencils that are short will cause less damage to the fabric of the rucksack than the long ones and are easier to pack away.
Morrison’s is raided for trail food. Peanuts, oat cakes and pasta. The tea bags are already in the brew kit along with a few spoons of dried milk. Having just eaten a full English, or Scottish breakfast, makes this time the best moment to shop for food because it prevents items that have been chosen at whimsy, unnecessary items, items that are selected because you are hungry, from slipping into the shopping basket. Even so it is a mad rush round the aisles. The desire to get out in the wilds is stronger than the desire to stock up.
While the name of the shop, Morrison’s, sounds Scottish, it does not feel Scottish or feel like being in Scotland and certainly not the Highlands. Close your eyes to the sights outside, look only at the goods on the shelves along the aisles, and but for the accents you could be in a supermarket hundreds of miles away in Abergavenny, Bude or Colchester.
The food is paid for with a credit card to avoid breaking into a note and having to carry the resultant change. Three days worth of food makes a big impact on the weight of the rucksack heading back to the station. All that is left to do is wait for the Mallaig train – the so-called Harry Potter train because the line crosses the Glenfinnan viaduct, which features in the films.
The wind through the station is very cold, so the down jacket is donned. It is toasty warm and ideal attire for sitting still ready for a spot of and people watching. Numerous backpackers litter the platform, which grows heavier and denser with more walkers and more tourists. Germans, Italians and a blob of French people. Some people whose packs are too heavy and their make-up too intense for them to be challenge walkers. It is easy, looking along the platform before the thicket of passengers limits the view, to pick out the serious lightweight walkers, raising their rucksacks up by the nail of a little finger, while standing on an egg.
There are at least two Mariposas and a couple of Osprey rucksacks on the platform along with a sense of nervous, excited anticipation – but that is from the fans of the teenage wizard Harry Potter not the backpackers. The backpackers are checking lightweight wrist watches, adjusting rucksack hipbelts and fiddling with zips, buckles and buttons.
After months of planning, chopping and changing equipment and adjusting routes, most challengers, I suspect like me, have reached the point at which they are itching to just get on with the job in hand. Get out there. Get in the wilderness. Ditch urban.
On the train an English ticket conductress is as friendly and as helpful as the Scottish staff in the Crofter had been – Scotland’s friendliness and helpfulness are to become a theme over the course of the challenge. We’ll be in Lochailort in about 50 minutes, she says. “Enjoy the scenery.”
Loch Eil then Loch Eilt look beautiful from the train, triggering “oohs” and a few “aaarghs” from travellers. A Canadian woman, with a booming voice, tells anybody who will listen, and indeed those that won’t, that her family were from these parts at the time of the Highland clearances. She seems to think she is Scottish because she now lives in Scotland. Completing the circle. With an accent like that she is Canadian. If she is Scottish, then I am a Dutchman. Best to move away from loud people, preferably into the solitude of the hills.
The viaduct at Glenfinnan triggers a rush of passengers from the right-hand side of the carriage to the left-hand side, all eager for a glimpse of the structure, which curves round a valley and can be seen in all its glory just as the carriages venture onto it. And as beautiful as it is, the viaduct looks nothing like the romantic brick beast seen in the Potter films. Had the train been a boat, or maybe a tumble drier, it would have rolled over to one side because of the weight of passengers.
At Glenfinnan station huge numbers of tourists and a few backpackers depart. The carriages breath easy. Next stop is Lochailort, which means that the first steps on the challenge are edging nearer. There are other challengers on the train, because there is something about them. A wisened, blaise calm look? Or is it the look of worry, fear and consternation like me.
The helpful conductor lady advises anybody looking to “alight” (what a glorious word) at Lochailort to head for the middle coaches, because those are the only carriages on the train that will fit alongside the platform.
That means me. Other rucksacks litter the floor as the train closes in on little Lochailort station. Marcher 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 with flying colours. What was not mentioned to Marcher was that I had not set out on such a long backpacking trip, in terms of days and distance, for 30 years and that this venture was being fuelled by memories of youthful exuberance, a reckless self-belief out of kilter with my age and reminisces of past walking glories – where only the enjoyable sections of walks can be remembered.
The train departs for Mallaig. Standing on the platform at Lochailort station are four more challengers: Alan Hardy, Bernard Forrester, Colin Harvey and David Hardy. Planning my route across Scotland had at one stage involved incorporating an overnight kip at the station, in a waiting room or on a bench on a platform. But the focus now is to sign the register, and get going, not to reccy possible places to sleep.
A five-man snake saunters to the Lochailort Inn, where the register for those people starting from Lochailort is held. Everybody on the challenge signs a register so that the organisers know which walkers have started the crossing and which have not – so that the Mountain Rescue is not called out unnecessarily. The five-man snake is ABCD and J. In the spirit of camaraderie and for the sake of alphabetic form, it would be ideal if for a short while my name began with an E. Which name though? Edward, Ermantrude or Ethan? None of those, it will be Eric. ABCD and E swap bits of chat and banter on the road to the inn. For me, and for now Eric, as the start edges closer so the pre-match nerves increase.
On entering the Lochailort Inn an unappetising smell of cooked fish wafts through the door and thoughts of sampling a pot of tea with sweet, crumbly shortbread dunkers go out of the window. The smell is unsettling to the stomach; nauseating, and really getting under the skin of the honorary E. It is time to go.
The four, ABCD, are staying for a bite to eat. The TGO register signed, the challenge card (a kind of passport that provides temporary membership of the Scottish Youth Hostel Association) collected and farewells exchanged, it is time to get some fresh air and crack on – as John.
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!”
The first steps on grass, or any vegetation, after the road walk to the turn-off at Arienskill (a couple of houses and a path under the railway line), signal that the challenge is finally beginning. Ten minutes later, climbing towards a ridge (grid reference: NM810845) with both feet baptised in bog water, the challenge is beginning in earnest.
Ahead lies wild terrain and a path that is more a whimsy because it bears little or no resemblance to its outline on the map. Up, up and more up. The sun is shining so bright, gone is the coldness of Fort William. This is balmy and it feels great to be finally on the trail and the tension of the Fort William, the pre-match nerves of Lochailort Inn melt away in the comforting breezes that dance across the skin. There is nobody about and only a wild camp, solitude and a good night’s sleep to look forward to. Everything in the world feels right.
The path disappears from view, like the road at Arienskill below. The path, if it can be called that, is only six inches wide but yet is deep and boggy. The feet sink in and now there are two paths. Both boggy. They fade away. In a bowl shaped piece of ground there is a path on the right hand side of the bowl. Going right seems the obvious route, but a quick look at the map suggests it is best to keep to the left. A route does bear left, then it bears right, then down. Then it dodges a bog. Damn. This does not feel right.
Nearing Prince Charlie’s cave (NM797848) – without realising it at the time – the view south induces a feeling of calmness. The last cloud in the sky has disappeared has yielded to glorious, impossible weather for the west of Scotland – sunshine and endless blue sky that will stay for the remainder of the day, before giving way to a clear, frosty night. There are the remnants of an iron deer fence, built before helicopters and Land Rovers could lift the metal rods into place atop the heights. Boggy heights at that.
Over the edge and having meant to avoid Prince Charlie’s cave, it appears as a gash in the hillside, a man trap, with vegetation and a few trees standing guard outside. The kind of spot that if anybody was looking for it they would never track it down, only the unwary would chance upon it. So that would be me then.
The route down to Loch Beoroid is unclear for a walker, but appears to potter its way down into a ravine dotted with silver birch trees. It feels wrong and is too steep to contend with, even for the brand new walking poles that are being used for the first time by a virgin in their use and which are instilling a sense of fearlessness spurred on by the sunshine.
These poles are lightweight, carbon, snap-lock models from Karrimor. At £60 they were a bargain – and when I bought them for half that price they were even more of a bargain. They are cheap, cheerful and practical. However, Harry Potter’s wands they are not.
Once upon a time my equipment was carried in a sandy coloured Jaguar IV rucksack made by Karrimor that boasted of being waterproof – but always had a liner – and was a sturdy piece of equipment. And at night the sleeping bag was laid upon a green Karrimat – also tough and made my Karrimor. Now here are beautiful, sleek Karrimor carbon walking poles giving a nod to a previous generation of outdoor gear. They are darn useful for climbing and descending and are fast turning me into a convert. Cheap and cheerful or not. They are light and welcome.
The only safe way to get across to other side of the ravine is to retrace my steps and climb back up the way to the ridge and walk across along a safer route avoiding the ravine, before heading down again.
The revised descent is overgrown with ferns, heather and long grass. It is not a path, but it is a route, my route. Unique, awkward and the walking poles are again helping with balance. They have won their stripes, so 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 route. Bracken, thick vegetation and more ferns. When the bottom of the slope is finally reached, the only way to get to the bridge is to dance across the stones in the stream – with my Karrimor walking poles helping with balancing, of course – then jump over a brick-built chicane 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? – should be a path that is marked on the map, but not as far as I can see marked on the landscape.
Jumping the brick-built chicane is close to a disaster. The straps of the rucksack have been loosened in case of a fall – because it is easier to escape the weight of the bag if you fall under the water. But on landing on the other side of the chicane the looseness of the sack creates momentum in the bag that throws me off balance and almost plunges into the waters below. My skin is saved by a soft shoe shuffle and an outstretched arm.
The chicane is behind a building by the bridge that appears to be a hydro-electric generator. The wooden bridge over the river Meoble is covered in chicken wire – presumably to promote grip on a cold and frosty morning – but it feels unsettling because it has no hand rails.
Safely on the other side of the river, on the north side of the loch, a track leads away from the loch and then at right angles heads towards a boat house and a jetty. An ideal place to sit, strip the feet of socks, dip them in the cool waters of Loch Beoraid and take in the scene – a seemingly implausible sun-kissed, cloud-free sky.
The deep dark waters of the loch are beguiling. Come in for a swim, they whisper. Tempting. Very tempting. While the water’s darkness is attractive it is also scary, almost too dark. Forbidden.
The view from the jetty looks across to the hillside above and below Charlie’s cave. The paths marked on the map are still not discernible even on such a clear afternoon. And there is no sign of ABCD, the alphabet boys, on the slopes above. Thought they might be visible after a lazy lunch at the Lochailort Inn.
The path marked on the ordnance survey map, on the north edge of Loch Beoraid heading east, is a bog-trot, interspersed with streams of cooling, fresh water which are delightful to drink on a hot day, wending their way down from the heights to the loch. In winter or when it has been wet for a while this route will be a sodden nightmare to walk. All heather and rough, undulating, narrow mud tracks, where a track actually exists. West Scotland has been basking in a week or more of hot weather, yet the paths and streams on the north side of Loch Beoroid continue to work their magic and make this place bog heaven. The feet, the shoes, the socks are just wet, wet, wet. But at this moment, I really do not care. This is the honeymoon period of the walk, basking in beautiful wilderness, alone. Glorious weather and views. What could be better? What could go wrong?
The half-price lightweight Karrimor carbon poles, with snap locks, that is what could go wrong. The latest members of the team are easing my passage through the loch-side bog-trot, until that is disaster strikes. The pole in my right hand plunges into the bog and splits off as it is pulled out. A section from just below one of the three pieces of the shaft comes unstuck from the rest of the stick and is stuck in the bog, projecting up, loud, proud and held fast. Oh joy. Its incarceration happens while I am making a skipping manoeuvre between bits of dry ground where a pole is used as a pivot to help propel me and the rucksack across the bog.
The stricken pole is too far out of reach to be grabbed by an outstretched arm from the safety of drier ground. So the second – unbroken – Karrimor pole is used to coax the stricken Karrimor pole to one side and within reach, so it can be pulled out of the mire to the sound of a curiously satisfying, squelchy back-fill noise. It’s the first of several more squelchy back-fill noises before the evening is out.
Once walking again, the realisation dawns, talking of Karrimor, that the trusty footwear, which up until this day has served me well, carries the Karrimor brand name. And the footwear is wet again, even if it has been dry, and feeling like it is about to fall apart. It is disconcerting. More fool me.
Onward through the morass. Up ahead are a couple maybe in their sixties. The lady of the couple is not a happy bunny. She is probably used to the finer things in life, if her expensive gear and refined appearance is anything to go by. For half an hour their pattern of walking has been for him to step ahead, then wait. Step ahead then wait. She is finding the going tough, with every step agonised over, slow and deliberate.
They distance between us finally shrinks to talking distance.
She says nothing. He replies. “Hi.”
He and his wife, or maybe girlfriend, are planning to wild camp, he tells me. They are Canadian, but not taking part in the challenge walk. They aim to pitch along the north edge of Loch Beoraid. Good luck with that because what pitches exist are few and far between and swampy at best. Their overnight jaunt is his adventure, judging by our conversation. She is not happy about being in the wilds and barely raises a smile let alone a word as the conversation turns back to the joys of wild camping. This certainly is his adventure, judging by the way that everytime he uses the term we she winces. They have walked along the track that borders the River Meoble, but are not sure from where they started. The feeling is that they do not want to talk. Their space has been invaded. It is only later looking at a map that the question pops into my mind as to how they got to Loch Morar – where the path along the Meoble begins – in the first place. The only way in to that place is walking over rough ground, taking a boat or arriving by helicopter – there is a landing pad marked on the map.
He asks about the route from the end of Loch Beoraid to Glenfinnan.
“I’ll show you on your map.”
“Erm, we don’t have a map.”
They don’t have a map – what is going on?
“Okay, here, I’ll show you on my map.”
My maps are a series of printed sheets from Ordnance Survey maps that have been stapled into a book. They will take me to the edge of the Monadhliath Mountains near a town called Kingussie.
“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 down and you’ll eventually come to Corryhully. There is a car track down there that leads to Glenfinnan.” [Good luck, soldier.]
The advice is spoken with the confidence of Loch Beoroid resident, as if the area is known like the back of my hand. But what a fraud. Me giving directions is a case of the blind leading the blind. The Canadian chap does not realise that he is being advised by somebody who has been to this area only by virtue of Google Earth. My explanation of the route must have sounded like it came from a Loch Beoraid expert, a dedicated bog-trotting guide.
But he is happy and the information he is given is correct. The route the couple will be taking goes 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 start from Lochailort.
Ten minutes after saying adieu to the Canadian couple, they slow to another stop and appear to be making camp behind an old wall. The lady is less happy than she was before, which is saying something.
The evening is bright, sunny and blue but progress has been slow, up and down on a dubious path with respites on the water’s edge – it is energy sapping ground. But with the time cracking on past 7pm, the search for an acceptable pitch starts. Looking at prospective pitches is to backpackers what looking in the windows of retail outlets is to shopaholics. But possible pitches are few and far between on this section.
A prospective pitch on an outcrop of land at NM836851 appears a likely stop-off, but the time is 7.15pm and still 45 minutes from the cut-off point of 8pm. That is when the walking has to stop to leave time to set-up the tent, prepare a meal and wind down. 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 area of flat land is the least boggy. Oh for a patch of short-cropped firm flat grass.
This is ground about thirty feet above the loch. The grass is dry, but the site in reality is just drier bog than anywhere else – by virtue of the dry spell in Scotland. It is a windy exposed spot, but it will have to do. With the Trailstar up, rear into the wind, the inner is attached lengthways with washing line erected and water collected. A cup of tea, chocolate and oat biscuits are consumed looking out from the tent across the loch to the setting sun. The strong but pleasant wind heading west down the valley should keep at bay any midges, although May is usually too early for them to appear, and dry the socks.
About a mile away on a knoll high above the water where there had been a possible camping spot there is movement. Is it the alphabet boys? In the time it takes to administer a fresh 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, just four more starters were left to sign out after ABCD and E. Maybe it is one of the later starters? A guess suggests it is some of the alphabet boys, who were walking as a team of four. They were heading for Kinlochbeoraid, which is another half an hour along the edge of the loch from my pitch on the elevated bog.
It is 9.30pm and cuckoos somewhere across the water make their presence felt. Bless ’em. Their calls echo across the loch, once the strong winds have died down to be replaced by frost. The ear plugs from the sleeper train help, but do not eradicate the sound completely. But the cuckoos stop making their calls and the valley has only the sound of the returning wind as a backdrop.
It is also still light, like an extended dusk, so the blackout eye covers from the train come into their own. Knackeredness is taking over. Drifting off, thoughts pop into my mind about what weight are the eye covers and the ear plugs? They could have tipped the pack weight over nine kilos. What about the Karrimor poles? Will team they make it? Will the zinc oxide tape hold the broken pole together if the rain sets in?
Thoughts of the gorgeous view across the loch enter the head room to caress the sensors that say go to sleep. Last night in Euston. Tonight in the wilderness. Canadian couple, ABCD? They will all be fine. There comes a point when you realise there is nothing that you can do about it anyway. You are miles and miles from civilisation with no phone signal.
Besides the night is so peaceful.
Night, night, all.
Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!
The bastards carry on for the rest of the night.