DAY ZERO: Home to Ardrishaig:
Breakfast at Stansted: Why do the English look so bad when they are off on their holidays? The airport is full of overweight puffy-skinned types in badly fitting shorts and flip-flops all wearing their reflective sunglasses in the terminal.
But Phil is looking dapper as we work our way through our last 'Full English' as they will be 'Full Highland' from tomorrow.
We are soon having our first party at Glasgow Queen Street station, where the usual suspects have gathered to wish each other well. Then after a snoozy trip on a bus (I Travel On A BUS!) we are soon catching up with each others' last year at the start-point hotel. Ardrishaig (pronounced as if you are sneezing) seems to be a connoisseur's' start point as everyone seems to have done loads of Challenges.
We retire, at slightly past our best, to recover in our slumber.
DAY ONE: Ardrishaig to Carron Bothy:
We are almost last leaving the start point and amble quietly along the Crinnan Canal. The rucksack waist belts are not flattering to our soft southern bellies.
Morning coffee is taken to finally straighten ourselves out and then its up the valley and a gentle climb up into the hills, catching up with the earlier starters. We do well and then have a bit of a 'senior moment' at the end of the track until we find a very boggy way through the extended forestry to make the welcome sanctuary of Carron. John & Norma, and John Chaplin are already parked up and after a while we are joined by Terry, Richard and eventually the La Borwitts, who have had a torrid time finding their way: It has to be said that everyone struggled a little with the last mile or so.
Phil and I park up away from the worst of the snorers and after a lively night in the bothy sleep the sleep of the dead.
DAY TWO: Carron to Inverary:
It's a fine amble out of the woods and soon we are sitting outside the yet-to-open pub at Furnace. It never looks too good, waiting at the front door of a pub... But we are soon tucking into passable fish and chips before taking the coastal track around to Inverary. At the end of the second day we are still on the west coast but Phil is soon in the shower, all soaped up when the shower stops running. The hotel doesn't seem to interested in his plight so I have another cup of restorative tea and a highland shortbread, until at last the antiquated plumbing system splutters back into life.
After a spot of supper the war memorial is investigated. All through my walk last year I was constantly amazed at the total loss of a generation in the Great War from tiny little highland communities and Inverary was not to be spared either.
DAY THREE: Inverary to Toman Biorach:
Another hot day was on the cards as we left Ardrishaig and before too long we were wandering up the surprisingly beautiful Glen Shirra. I am constantly surprised at Britain's ability to provide top-drawer scenery from seemingly unprepossessing maps. The beech leaves were newly unfurled and the smell of fresh grass and earth filled the glen. Before too long we had 'legged it' up the road to the upper level where we looked down the length of the glen; Quite beautiful.
Walking beneath Lochan Shirra Dam - a magnificently Stalinist edifice, holding back millions of tons of water - Lord Elpus quips, "It only takes one Lancaster, you know..."
We positively whizzed along the track along the Lochan and at the track end took to our first 'off-piste' few miles. Hard work indeed! Our slack Fenland Frames gasped and wheezed up the tussock and bog but the views all around made up for the hard work.
At a reasonably tardy hour we finally made our destination to join John, Paul & Maggie who were already parked up and tucking into their suppers. It had been a lovely day.
All is well with our world!
DAY FOUR: Toman Biorach to Dalrigh, near Tyndrum:
It's straight up from the start - another bash of trackless bog to warm the muscles up between Ben Lui and Ben Oss - two fine hills. Ben Lui dominated for the next few days and is best seen from the east - it's magnificent black Corrie Gaothaic still holding great slathers of snow.
Then it was a quick scamper down Allt Coire Laoigh for an early lunch.
I had been carrying a rather nice tin of french mackerel since Ardrishaig and it was now time for their demise. We found a splendid spot in the sunshine on a big flat rock and the first fish fillet slipped down a treat; scrumptious real food. I slipped Lord E the next (small) fillet and the greedily, lovingly scoffed the remainder with huge glee as Lord E looked on, salivating.
Being a careful sort of chap I carefully wrapped the oily tin in my J-Cloth and popped it into the lid of the sack for later disposal.
Ben Lui (Piccie from Lord Elpus)
The Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum provided a monstrous early supper, with quite astonishingly polite and efficient service. Washed down with 'Bitter & Twisted' (an acquired taste) and Irn Bru and Ginger Beer - to rehydrate my very dehydrated and slightly sun-bothered skin.
There was just one moment of note on the way to our B&B - a close column of marching Germans all in step, all in identical gear, all with walking poles in perfect unison, stomping up the West Highland Way like a Panzer Division.
DAY FIVE: Dalrigh to Druim Beithe, Glen Lyon:
Another day, another bealach. But this one was an absolute peach. It's Bealach Ghlas Leathaid, between Ben Challum and Cam Chreag. Its a wonderful walk on the extended track, up through a woodland regeneration project that is doing a fantastic job; there are wild flowers beneath every footstep and little furry creatures scampering about in their grassy paradise, buzzards mewing overhead. This glen is absolutely stuffed full of interest - I could have spent a whole day here sitting amongst the flora and fauna in the warm sunshine.
As soon as you climb over the boundary fence to make the bealach you instantly revert to an almost sterile upland environment. But the views are first class, if a little misty from the heat haze.
You clamber down the other side into Glen Lochay and eventually, after quite difficult ground, make the interceptor pipe track that transports you along the glen-side, with one or two interesting steep little climbs that were not immediately apparent and so slightly disappointing!
At the end of the track its a minor road walk over the bealach into Glen Lyon and our idyllic camp-spot.
DAY SIX: Druim Beithe to Carie campsite, Loch Rannoch:
With the scent of a tea shop in our nostrils, we have an early start and are soon bimbling down the ever more scenic Glen Lyon with 17.5 km to Bridge of Balgie and its delights of tea shop and post office. The day was soon warming up - another cloudless sky and we were gasping for a pot of tea.
Imagine our horror to find a sign outside announcing its closure during the middle of the week.
Horror and despair.
We stumbled on to the picnic site and the comfort of the pub-style benches to find Paul Hemingray already there. We sat and had a brew to lift our badly dented spirits. By now the sun was searingly hot and shade was sought beneath the tree - to be shared with the ant colony that somehow found their way into my trouser pockets and thence my more sensitive little places to have a few sharp nibbles!
After an impromptu dance, it was time to be on the track - two mad Englishmen out once more in the mid-day sun. We had been on our feet only minutes when the dashing Alan Hardy nipped past us, carrying his huge Bergen up the track - two muscley legs hanging from his pack - pounding up the track ahead of us. This was not the pace we had set ourselves and so we ambled up the very steep stony, dry track in the now blazing sun.
For the last 12 Challenges I had religiously carried sunhats and suncream and had hardly ever used them and so this year I had abandoned them in favour of more foul weather gear - I was so convinced that it was going to be a cold and wet crossing this year.
At last the relentless grind of the steep track gave way to a delightful walk through Lairig Ghallabhaich and Lord Elpus came up with a blindingly good idea. At a splendid little waterfall and clear pool, he dipped his J-cloth into the pool, squeezed it gently and tucked it beneath his TGO cap to resemble a Marsh Arab. Stunning idea! I quickly found my J-cloth and dipped it speedily into the pool and tucked it beneath my knotted handkerchief hat. It was bliss! A refrigerated head!
We stumped off, now nattily dressed in our new headgear and wonderfully refreshed. We re-soaked the cloths at every stream. It was heavenly.
There was a little downside, however. There was a strange smell of mackerel that kept following me around, as the water from the headgear dripped down my neck and back to seep into my shirt and pants.
Phil finds a new storage place for his 20 litre platypus
We made Carrie campsite - a very basic but perfectly peaceful little place - without any further bother, to bump into Paul again - who by now had his laundry drying on his line.
A very good day!
DAY SEVEN: Carie to Blair Atholl:
A biggish day on the cards, so up reasonably early for a gentle stroll into Kinloch Rannoch for pies from the shop and coffee in the excellent cafe. The cafe has an internet connection so we logged on to see that Darren and Dawn were having a few problems and had got a couple of days behind. Darren sounded a little bit down but was planning to reschedule his route into a manageable dash to Braemar for Saturday night. That sounded like a good plan.
Martin & Sue seemed to be belting through their hills on their blog and getting the job thoroughly well done.
With a decent second breakfast under Phil's ever increasing belt (will this man ever stop eating? Starter, mains and pud, even when camping!) we stepped out to stroll along the quiet roads, to bump into Waggy doing his washing in a very dodgy sheep stream, slapping his socks against the stones. he had lost his Tilly Hat the night before (and was about to lose his maps later today) but was otherwise blissfully happy.
It started going downhill in the forest. Phil is beginning to settle into his 'Gentleman of the Road' experience and he decided that his trousers were a little too hot. He stood in the middle of the forest track lowered his trousers and aired his softer parts by continual flapping of the waist elastic of his pants. However, that was not enough pleasure for this old hobo.
Out came the Vaseline to lubricate all the private soft tissue, to gasping "Oooohs" and "Aaaaghs and deep guttural grunts. If the forestry workers had come along at that moment who knows what the consequences could have been.
Besides all this, I continued to walk with the gentleman and we found Loch Bhac quite easily for a rest in the freezing cold shade to watch a lonely fly fisherman on the other side of the loch catch nothing more that a cold for his efforts up to his waist in the cold water.
Then we were off again, trundling over the moorland on the tiny little path that leads you to views of the Fairy Tale Castle and down to one of the worst managed livestock farms I have ever witnessed. Balnansteuartach had four dead ewes and four dead lambs within easy eye shot of the farm track we walked along, parallel to the A9. Some of these animals had been dead for some time. There had been no attempt to remove them.
We made the town and laundered, showered, rang Challenge Control and stepped out to the Atholl Arms for a well earned beer.