21 November 2021

TGO Challenge 2021: To Loch Callater


Yesterday afternoon hadn't gone exactly to plan, which was how I found myself in the Co-op mid morning on Sunday (today is Sunday) buying stuff for the next leg of the Challenge - from Braemar to Brechin over three days. After a cake lunch at the Hazelnut Patisserie I had, for once in my life, headed straight to the hotel rather than slip into the Fife Arms for a quick one and staying for more. I blame Phil. Now he was absent I slipped effortlessly past temptation. 

With laundry performed and the room trashed with steaming washing, I lay back on the bed watching Wales vs Denmark on the telly, drinking tea and scoffing the biscuits. So far so good.

Then promptly fell asleep.

A hastily rearranged meet with Lindsay and the others meant that the food shopping had been missed.


I met up with Lindsay and seemingly half the TGO Challenge at the Coffee Bothy - attached to the excellent Braemar Mountain Sports - on a rather blissful sunny morning.


It took me a while to fit the extraordinarily large bag of shopping into my pack. More pies and moist pastries.

Morning coffee sashayed into an early lunch, which was closely followed by a few beers and cakes as the sun rose to its zenith and the sun tan cream applied. This was more like it! This was decent weather for Provence, let alone Braemar.

More and more Challengers arrived and before too long we had taken over the decking outside the cafe.


As is ever the case, we hoisted our packs way later than planned and started the gentle saunter up the Golf Course Road. Today's walk is designed to place us in a position to make the day to Clova far more manageable, as it cuts six miles from an otherwise big day from Braemar to Clova. And of course, in a normal year it means that we get to spend the night at Lochcallater Lodge hosted by wonderful friends of the Challenge, Bill and Michael.

On the minor road section past the golf course I recall an incident with a Scottish knuckle-dragger supposedly in charge of a van who tried to run both Lindsay and the group behind us off the road. I'm glad to say that Lindsay doesn't take prisoners and he was told off soundly and roundly.

It's a lovely stroll up to Loch Callater and we were soon overhauled by Jess and Ian who had formed a partnership born out of similar pace - they both trundle along at warp speed. They were soon little specks in the distance. It's generally a Sunday for this part of the Challenge and as we walk up we are always met by a procession of happy walkers coming back down from their big days in the hills. This year they were bronze-limbed, clad as they were in shorts and t-shirts and smiley under a brilliant blue sky.


We were among that last to arrive. There were tents pitched down by the loch and scattered around the Lodge. It was such a shame that Covid had ruined the annual gathering at the Lodge this year as there was a wonderful bunch in attendance, marking their respect to Bill (and Stan) and Michael and the team that in all other years look after us all so handsomely. 



We were incredibly grateful that the bothy was unlocked as it was a still evening and the midges were out in full force. My supper was a dehydrated fish soup. It was supposed to be a fish curry but the fill line was woefully inaccurate. I suppose I needed the fluid.

Whisky was taken and a gentle evening had in the bothy until sleep called. I do sleep incredibly well in the Notch as there's a lot of head room when you're lying down compared to the Trailstar. It seems to make a big difference.





17 November 2021

TGO Challenge 2021: Day 9: To Braemar

Kirsten was packed by 7:30 and so made use of her time by chivying Colin along. This brought back, with huge fondness, memories of walking with Maria van de Flugt for a few days back in 1998. She had formed the impression that Prof White and me were idle layabouts who liked nothing better than to lie either in our sleeping bags or down in the heather at every available opportunity. She would allow ten minutes before the encouragement to move along began. We generally had forty minute breaks. In fairness, she was not too far from the truth but we did actually cover long distances over some pretty tough terrain. I believe I witnessed young Colin receiving a 'full Maria' in this picture.


I've combined two days for the map, as both days are half walking days, just over eight miles to Braemar and six miles from Braemar to Loch Callater. This meant that I had plenty of time today - a Saturday, to get the food shopping before the shops shut and still be able to luxuriate in my hotel room, have cups of tea, get the washing done and go out for dinner. Tomorrow would be a nice lie-in, a decent hotel breakfast and a morning either in the pub or a cafe before heading off to Loch Callater to continue the walk and an evening with friends.

Combined Distance: 23 km
Combined Ascent:  510 m

Our happy band of walker's first pause was taken at the bridge at the Linn of Dee.  It had a been a pretty dry first week of the Challenge and so there wasn't a lot of water in the Linn, but it's not a stretch to imagine the water belting along in spate.


Being a caring soul, rather than over-stretching your mind, I've borrowed a picture of the Linn from the Facebook page for the River Dee (see link below the picture) of a fairly normal high flow. Earlier in the year the Dee was all but filling the arch of the stone bridge.


I've walked past this lovely little post box at Inverey quite a few times over the years and I've always been interested in it because it's a wall box and not a fee standing pillar box - the wall being three slabs of granite clad around the box. However, Google comes to the rescue - of a sort - with this article, which a little unhappily doesn't quite nail the beast down. However, it does explain why it's a wall box and not a pillar box.

No. I'm not going to tell you; you'll have to read the very interesting piece. Expend a little effort, it's good for the mind. It looks to me to be a modified Smith and Hawkes No 2 size (WB78). I say modified, because it looks to have had a front collection plate at the top of the box that has been removed. Of course, these days there are no longer 'next collection' plates. Royal Mail is quite content for its customers to only know the last time of collection and so sadly the little collection plates are no more. That's progress.


We continued on our way, and the next point of interest was the monument at Inverey. It was erected to a man born locally, at Corrimulzie a few steps eastward, who emigrated to Bavaria and rose to become the Astronomer Royal. I've provided a link beneath the photograph which will provide you with all the gen.


And so onward to the next P.O.I. (Stick around, you learn things here) Which is the small cluster of refuse bins outside a row of cottages in Inverey. Some of the group - no names, no pack drill - made use of the public spiritedness of the kind folk of Inverey and emptied three tons of assorted rubbish from their packs into said receptacles. Okay, some of the stuff you learn here may not be right up the street of those not wishing to dispose of six weeks of backpacking rubbish, but in case they ever change their minds, here it is.

It's a long old road walk to Braemar but we had a delightful stop at the roadside overlooking a track that descended to the Dee. 

Now here's the thing. From before time began I've been walking the TGO Challenge with the very dapper, ageless, Lord Elpus. When times got tough he has been my rock. Indeed when pitching Trinnie Trailstar and her inner, he has invariably finished loading up his Akto with all a gentleman could require for an evening, and then set about fetching the water. Seeing me still fixing the inner to Trinnie, he *always* very kindly fetched water for me. A proper gent. The little kindnesses - sharing his last jelly babies, not farting until downwind - all those little gestures of friendship; they mean a lot to a chap. But I've been walking with Lindsay for three days now, and I see that Phil might need to up his game a little.

When walking up the Feshie it suddenly turned squally and for the life of me I could not find my gloves. Not a problem: Lindsay had a spare pare immediately to hand. And now, at the side of the road the lass spotted a couple of rather nice log chopping blocks. She maneuvered the (quite heavy) blighters over to where we were sat to provide two very comfortable seats to make our rest more enjoyable.

I'll just leave this here, in case Elpus swans over to this place. Food for thought, Phil?

We decided against walking through the (delightful as they are) woods to the Tomintoul viewpoint, as the view is now blocked by fast growing birch trees and so plodded along the road, which has excellent views of its own, and eventually the metropolis is reached in the form of the Hazelnut Patisserie. This is not my picture - I swiped it from Google Maps. The accreditation is a link below the picture.

IMAGE SWIPED FROM GOOGLE - Charles Gunning's picture

For older, experienced Challengers who may be confused by change (that's me) this used to be a wonderful emporium known as 'Taste'. I'm not sure what happened but the new business is jolly good too, with outside tables and chairs not shown in the picture - but of course this may be down to Covid and no one being allowed to sit inside. 

Whatever, before too long there was a host of Challengers taking over the place. We noticed a sudden disappearance of the clientele who were here on our arrival. Perhaps it was the whiff of three days out in the hills? A high carbo-loading of sweet gorgeousness from the cake display satisfied my immediate cravings for decent food and I set off again to find my lodgings - the Braemar Lodge Hotel, to be looked after by its long standing proprietors, Ronnie & Fiona - to trash my room on arrival and lie on the bed  drinking tea and scoffing the biscuits.

The evening was spent in the bar of the Invercauld Arms, which was being refurbished, with Martin & Sue Banfield and of course Lindsay. They weren't doing food so Lindsay and I managed to nab a table at the Braemar Lodge Hotel's restaurant and did it very well indeed.


13 November 2021

TGO Challenge 2021: Day 8: To Tomnamoine

I'm starting today's post with some thoughts that sprang to mind at the finish of the day, at the abandoned settlement of Tomnamoine.

To keep things manageable for the Vetters (the brilliant guys who check each and everyone's routes before they're allowed on the TGO Challenge) the only locations or features that are allowed on a route sheet are those shown on the Ordnance Survey's 1:50k maps. You won't find Tomnamoine (look up at the title of this post) on today's route map as it appears only on the O.S's 1:25k maps. 

This is a shame. As you stroll along this section of the River Dee you'll find evidence of abandoned settlements all around you. This area was first settled eight thousand years ago at the Chest of Dee (see the overview map of today's route). This was just a few thousand years after the last glaciation that I mentioned earlier in this blog of my crossing - the Loch Lomond Stadial Advance - that would have covered this glen under hundreds of metres of ice. The planet warmed very quickly (far faster than its current warming phase) which allowed people from Europe to travel via Doggerland (no sniggering at the back, please) and start a new life here, at first as hunters and then as increasingly benign conditions prevailed, farmers. It was this neolithic population that cleared the forests and with primitive  ploughs established small farming communities - like those shown on the detailed 1:25k map below. The climate back then was far warmer than present across Europe, as can be seen from widespread abandoned settlements on the uplands across Britain.

All that now remains are the ruins of the communities and the old field systems that can be seen from the air. There's discussion around why and when these settlements were abandoned; the jury's out whether it was the climate suddenly cooling in the 1780s with agriculture failing and widespread famine across Britain and Northern Europe, or the more recent political reasoning of the Clearances. It was probably both. 

Whatever the reason, as the sun sets and the air stills it's not difficult to visualise these communities as they once were.


Back in the present, as I scribble down these thoughts on the laptop there's only one more day to save the planet from a fiery hell at COP26 in Glasgow. Forgive me if I stifle a yawn.


Let's get back to the here and now, at Ruigh Aiteachain Bothy back down in Glen Feshie, where we left everyone last night. Breakfasted and well rested we swept the place clean, put all the furniture back where we found it and donning our waterproofs headed out once again into the Great Outdoors. In fairness, the weather was 'soft' and the wind came from behind so it was not bad at all. Here's the map for today:

Distance: 24 km
Ascent:  530 m

Today we're heading over the watershed that separates the River Feshie from the River Dee. To start with it's a refreshing walk through birch, alder, larch and juniper. The granny Caledonian pines are now splendidly surrounded by their flourishing offspring. With the untamed spectacularly braided Feshie alongside and a flourishing new ecosystem Glen Feshie is becoming a haven for wild life once again. 

This all came about with the purchase of the Glen Feshie Estate some fifteen years ago by a Danish billionaire, Anders Holch Povlsen, who set about a drastic cull of red deer to about two per square kilometre. This has meant that trees and shrubs have had free reign to establish themselves rather than being chewed back down to the roots. Those roots are now intertwining to create a more substantial substrate that prevents erosion and soil loss.

I first walked through Glen Feshie on the Challenge twenty five years ago. I thought it an amazing place at the time. Now it's quite simply jaw-droppingly beautiful. 

I knew there was a path that split away from the main drag up the glen that takes you up a well constructed ramp to a skinny little trod across a steep landslip about twenty metres about the Feshie that eats into the scree at the foot of the slope. I was looking out for it. Continuously. 

However, with all the dramatic new growth we were walking single file through a narrow corridor of birch, dripping wet  branches brushing either side, I missed it and was faced abruptly with the Feshie bang in front of me. To regain the correct path would either mean backtracking five hundred yards or so, or clambering up the side of the scree and scrub. I didn't fancy the climb and being a lazy bum didn't fancy retracing my steps either.

I decided that it was probably easier just to ford the Feshie a couple of times to get to the point where the landslip trod descended back to the track. Andy and Paul were in trainers, so it was no big deal for them and I never mind getting wet feet as my boots fit like well-loved slippers and are never overly bothered by being wet. 

At this point Paul - a man with steam pistons for legs - reckoned he could make the path above and so clambered up the steep scree and scrub and headed off in the direction of the landslip. It looked to be too much of an effort for me and one I didn't feel comfortable with.

I think Lindsay and Andy thought the same so before ploughing into the river I reminded them that we would be crossing the river twice. Lindsay decided to don her Crocs and keep her boots dry. 

Sometime as I was wading across the first crossing we must have been joined by Richard who had caught us up. He couldn't have heard me saying about the two crossings, because as we had regained our original bank after both wades we noticed that he had disappeared from view. Lindsay was sure he had been following her across. Had he fallen in?

The answer to our question became clear when he reappeared, dropping down to the second crossing to see us on the other side of the river. He had put his boots back on after the first wade and was now faced with taking them off again and repeating the process. 

Richard's a good man and did see the funny side of it when he rejoined us on our bank. Well, we all did.


I've written before on this blog how I take my rests on a walk and how people unused to it are surprised at how early in the day I take a break. The next couple of pictures are taken from lying almost prone (it's much warmer lying down as you're out of the wind) as my companions look on, slightly perplexed.



I took very few pictures on this section as the weather was blowy and wet, but I snaffled this picture from one of Richard's public posts, of our group as we were heading towards the virtually derelict pony hut before the Eidart bridge.


After the old Pony Hut, the next landmark is the River Eidart and its bridge, positioned over a fine waterfall. The bridge deck had obviously seen better days - they were the original planks - and a few months after we crossed, the planks were replaced with lovely new ones, which will probably see me and quite a few other Challengers out. The bridge's handrails always seem to me to be on the low side, a feature I could never understand, having designed quite a few bridges in a past-life. When it's really gusting it's never a comfortable bridge to cross.


Then it's a fairly long trundle along a reasonable path up and over the watershed across fairly bleak open moor, with the very large hills of  Carn an Fhidlheir and An Scarsog to the south and the Cairnngorms to the north. You're usually blown along this track by the westerlies. Half a mile or so before Geldie Lodge I noticed a lonely a figure making its way down from An Scarsog and continuing down to where the track to the Lodge met our path.

It was no surprise to bump into Kirsten, a Challenger who puts in tough routes year after year. She had spent a pretty wild night up top in the very poor weather but was still in good spirits. She and Colin had walked together in the past and together they disappeared into the distance at a cracking pace. 

Before too long I decided it was time for another rest and so Paul decided he would break away as he was getting quite cold. that left Andy, Richard, Lindsay and me to plod along. I knew that Tomnamoine would offer some shelter from the quite keen wind, with a decent fairly reliable water supply and so decided to make it our home for the night.

Kirsten, Colin and Paul had obviously thought the same and were camped up when we arrived. 


Even in poor weather this walk is always deeply rewarding and the sense of space and the power of the landscape never cease to impress. I had had an absolutely brilliant day.


09 November 2021

TGO Challenge 2021: Day 7: To Glen Feshie

Phil and I invariably take a couple of days to get to Braemar from Kingussie, which involves two quite long days passing though remote landscapes. However, when I planned this year's walk I'd given myself the luxury of three days as I wanted to cross the Cairngorm Plateau and take in a few of the tops. I was also mindful of having surgery just three months beforehand. My struggles on the second and third days of this year's walk suggested that I ought to be sensible and instead enjoy the walk up the Feshie, taking the 'trade route' to Braemar.

Lindsay and I met up in the village and set off at a leisurely hour for the stroll to Glen Feshie. We had no fixed plan for a camp spot but thought that anywhere from the bothy onwards would do nicely.


At Ruthven Barracks we collected Ian & Brian for a while and together we strolled along until we split at Drumguish as they were heading off toward Aviemore. I hadn't met Brian before but had always been grateful for his helpful advice on the Challenge Message Board so it was good to meet him. There's a lovely little resting place organised by the locals at the crossroads at Drumguish, equipped with a comfortable bench of which I took full advantage. I would have dallied longer had the midges not descended. I'm certainly looking forward to the Challenge resuming its mid-May slot next year.

Here's today's route, care of those awfully nice people at Memory-Map. You can click on it to blow it up, as you can any of the pictures, to see them at droolingly lovely bigly-hugeness.


Distance: 17 km
Ascent:  300 m

Soon after Drumguish we have a couple of miles walking through a conifer plantation, easy enough walking, and out of the wind so protected from the increasing drizzly weather. It was lovely to have a fun person to chat with after a week in my own company. I'm not suggesting I'm not happy on my own - I walked solo for four months on my LEJOG in 2007 and the discussions then at least had some sort of logic and natural flow to them rather than the crazy careerings of a conversation with, say Mad'n'Bad, Lord Elpus or the Supreme Ruler. Those boys have minds like a modern fighter-jet; inherently unstable, their change of direction is lightning fast and often very difficult to follow let alone keep up with. That's why I love the bastards.

I counted myself fortunate that Lindsay was with me. This girl's also a fighter, and made of the right stuff. The miles peeled away effortlessly in her company.


It was as we were entering the next chunk of forestry, after Corarnstilmore, that we noticed a lone figure in blue about half a mile behind us. We could make out that he was carrying a backpack but appeared to be travelling at warp speed. Was he on a bicycle? It brought back images of Marshal Joe LeFors and Lord Baltimore hunting down the heroes of this tale. (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - look it up)

Lindsay proposed that we hide behind large trees to ambush the wallah. Having an already full and pretty heavy backpack the only thing I thought might be of use to me were the chap's legs as they seem to be of a much faster variety than those hanging uselessly from my hips. The girl thought there was bound to be some valuable titanium stuff buried within his pack, lighter than our own... We passed on the idea as the rain changed from light to light-medium with cold gusts to boot and so decided to seek shelter for a spot of lunch instead at the first available opportunity.

Taking a break from the now medium to soaking rain under the side canopy of the holiday home at Stronetoper - if these names weren't already in the here and now you would have to make them up for any wild story -  who should arrive but Lord Baltimore himself, loosely based on a character known as 'Andy.' He seemed a decent enough sort so we hailed him to join us in our makeshift dining room. He was rightly hesitant as the shelter was pretty poor and we were liberally splattered by overflowing trickles of the deluge with the added convenience of a cold wind whistling about the place. However, with a fine sense of camaraderie he made an effort before suggesting we move on to the more salubrious shelter of the bothy further up the glen. 

Through the good offices of the Challenge Message Board we three knew that there was a major washout of the newly built path up the glen at the Allt Garbhlach but we made a reasonable fist of the temporary precipitous descent and the muddy scramble up the other side. As we hauled each other up Paul arrived - you remember Paul of course, from my journey up and my first day - and so now we were four. Now Paul has a gadget for every occasion, and his wrist watch was actually a global positioning device with a screen. On board it had a variety of mapping not known to this luddite. However it helped us choose the correct path towards the bothy that wasnae (we're in Scotland now, so adapt or die) on our vanilla Ordnance Survey jobs.

After a few more steepish ups and downs in the pine woods we came across a sign that pointed up the hill in apparently the completely wrong direction with the word bothy inscribed upon it in a child-like script. Well, we were not going to fall for that little scam, were we? Of course not, so we took the very well made quite new path down towards the Feshie with a devil-may-care spring in our collective step.

After a grunty, very steep clamber up the side of the heavily eroded bluff, hanging on to twig-like saplings for dear life and an equally steep descent down the other side followed by a bit of a bog hop, we eventually regrouped where the path once more continued onwards up the glen, each older, wiser and more amenable to following child-like scrawlings in the future.


If you right-click on the picture and look at Paul's black jacket and his trousers you'll see that it's still raining miserably but our little gang is happy, knowing that the worst of today is now over. We made the bothy at Ruigh Aiteachain with no further mishap and piled inside for a bit of a snoop. The Estate had made a commendable job of the extensive renovation and extension. Even the loo had been extended and improved considerably. We each produced our stoves and decided that before continuing our walk it would be a good idea to have some hot food.

As we were generally lazing about eating and drinking, a Challenge Treasure arrived, Scottish Colin, a veteran of many successful Challenges. 


Lindsay eschewed hot food, preferring a liquid starter.

The weather outside had now taken a turn for the worse - it looked pretty horrid 'out there.' I decided that despite the Covid restrictions, this was a suitable reason to stay inside and not invite a soaking for the sake of a few extra miles when the next two days were easily do-able from our present warm and dry spot. It didn't take much persuasion for the others to decide the same. There were only us few and plenty of rooms to spread out for the required social distancing. There's a thought. Social distancing in the Great Outdoors. Everyone double jabbed... Colin, however, decided to pop his tent up outside in the maelstrom. He's proper hard.