17 October 2021

TGO Challenge 2021: To Shiel Bridge

It's long way from the land of privilege and plenty that is the Thames Valley to the great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River all set about with fever trees of Northwest Scotland. For that is the required destination should one be foolish enough to attempt to cross Scotland on foot from the west coast to the east coast of Scotland on the world's finest backpacking event, the Great Outdoor Challenge.

You are required to set out from the west coast on a defined day and this means that you need to plan meticulously to arrive in time so to do. And indeed, that is what this Challenger did, and has always done for the last twenty five years, in order to fulfill this requirement. Holidays are booked, camping and walking kit is found and fettled, maps and route sheets printed. Food is calculated for each leg of the trip and food parcels dispatched accordingly. Hotels and B&Bs are booked and, most importantly of all, the journey north, and then south again, is planned, booked and paid for in advance in order to keep costs down to slightly less than extortionate. 

However, as Rabbi Lionel Blue was often heard proselytizing on Radio 4's Thought For The Day, "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men..." But of course you knew this.

And so, it seems, did the RMT Union, who with gay abandon and with absolutely no thought whatsoever for the discerning rail traveler who chose to journey on the Caledonian Sleeper, decided to call the brothers and sisters of the Union out on strike. At any other time of the year I could not have given a fig for their highly damaging and wholly unwarranted strike action, however this time they had picked on my very carefully planned itinerary and more importantly my bed for the night of Wednesday 16th June. 

Calls were placed with the very helpful Caledonian Sleeper staff in Inverness and they were incredibly sympathetic but their hands were tied. There was nothing for it but to journey up a couple of nights earlier on the last Sleeper to leave Euston for God-only-knows-how-long. Two nights of hotels in Inverness were booked and all was well in my world once again. 

The food parcels and food for the first leg were prepared and sent to the correct destinations - there has been a cock-up or two in the past where the right parcels were sent to the wrong locations, or was it the other way around?


Packing could now commence. Here's the kit list for this year's walk. I don't do spreadsheets anymore; you'll just have to keep your eyes peeled if you want to know what I take with me.

All that stuff has to fit into quite a small rucksack. You wouldn't think it possible. Well the fact is every single year neither do I, but fit it eventually does, after much swearing, sweating and discarding of bits of kit. "It's not going to rain - I won't need those bulky waterproofs..." Until you do find a tiny corner for them and the kit list video is checked and rechecked and there's an air of happiness and calm.


This when the reality of what you're about to undertake hits you like a sledgehammer. 

Are you totally mad? You've done no training *whatsoever*. You've just had major surgery. That hip-belt will cut right across your wound. There'll be no Phil to haul you up when you're beached in the bog like a cast sheep.

This is when the resourceful Challenger opens the last bottle of Leapfrog and applies a respectful snifter or three internally. Happiness and calm once more prevails. 


The very next day I'm to be found in the great marble hall of Euston Station. It's grey and grim in there and the signs are not good. 

"Caledonian Sleeper: DELAYED"

Oh great. Is this something to do with those rabid union tykes? Have they gone totally feral and struck this Sleeper as well? Inquiries at the Information Desk allay my fears. All is well and I should just watch the Information Board for updates. Perhaps those Union bastards aren't such bastards after all.

I climb the stairs and search out the First Class Lounge for a calming glass or two. I'm welcomed by young ladies dressed as though they're about to strap me into my seat before take-off. It's all very civilised and I take a seat, next to a well-built young man with impossibly long legs and a very lightweight rucksack.


He's obviously sound, as we have concocted exactly the same plan; Head to Inverness, bum around a bit and then do the Challenge. After a few in the lounge we decide to head off for more hedonistic pleasures to find the bar. There's a Destination Information Board inside and so we - or more correctly, I - start working through the drinks menu.

We keep a close eye on the Information Board and listen intently to every station announcement. Our train is still very firmly "DELAYED." Being slightly suspicious of Euston Station's Information Board Staff, I decide it's probably best to check out the platform itself for the train, as it's often there before it appears on the Board. So we stroll down to the platform and sure enough, the missing train is there.  

Wandering carefree along the platform we catch the eye of the Train Manager. "You lads had better get on board. We're leaving in two minutes!"


We're each shown to our rooms, and they're a significant improvement on the old rolling stock. They're quite svelte and very comfortable indeed. I order some food and drink from the rather lovely attendant and within the blink of an eye it arrives. 






A breakfast of Kings: Bacon rolls, fruit juices, coffee and... I can't quite remember now, but it was fine. However, what was definitely not fine was the shower. There was no water. Not a drip. I climbed, smelly and dirty, back into my travel clothes. The attendant was excellent - at once empathetic and gushing apologies. She tapped into her electronic device. Within a few hours I had received a 25% rebate into my bank account. Fair enough.


Tuesday and Wednesday were spent being a tourist, which chiefly consisted of wandering about from cafe to pub to restaurant, catching seemingly vital European football matches. In fact, it was all very relaxing and a great prelude to the Challenge.




Thursday saw Paul & me bowling along in a ScotRail (soon to be hit by strikes, along with the Caledonian Sleeper, again by those opportunistic folk at the RMT - they should be roundly flogged) train to the Kyle of Lochalsh.



As we strolled up the ramp to the road, a young lady met Paul and promptly whisked him away to Shiel Bridge. He's a very organised young man, with legs like steam pistons. One to watch out for.

I found my budget hotel, perfectly adequate I might add, if a bit basic, and promptly trashed the room in typical Challenger fashion, before heading out for a look around the town.





All that now remained was a twenty minute coach journey in the morning that would whisk me to my Start Point of Shiel Bridge for bang on nine o'clock.

At long last, after two miserable years of lock-down and poor health, the fun can begin again!


  1. I've read a number of your TGO blog posts seeking route inspiration and strong opinions. I've noticed that, over the years, you have experimented with different footwear, even occasionally walking in plimsoles. This year you used Goretex lined boots and I'm hoping to encourage you to share your thoughts on the pros and cons of the different shoes you have used for your crossings.

    1. Hello to you, 'Unknown'
      (You can always leave your name at the end of your comment, you know?)

      I've worn my Scarpa R Evos (I think that's what they're called) for four Challenges They're pretty worn down now, but I'm looking to replace them with with the same model, if it's still available.

      I've tried Ecco leather trail shoes - which I like for bog-less trails like the Downs and Ecco Bioms, which were Gore-Tex free. For three Challenges I wore trail shoes - with and without Gore-tex linings. I came to the conclusion that I really didn't like saturated feet for days on end, and I would never go back to them for anywhere with peat bogs.

    2. I asked Alan's advice about tents with one or two others. He has as much experience as any "industry professional" and more than many of them - without the nonsense. This is something which interests me very much. There's no need to pay for "expert opinion reviews" - not any more.

  2. Your pen is as good as ever Alan - keep them coming please!!. Many great memories stirred once again. Fab that you were strong enough to make it. Hoping Phil is OK …..

    1. Hello to you Mary!
      You are a complete Darling. It's crappy weather at the moment and the nights are drawing in - perfect for writing up the good times and happy memories.
      I hope there will be many more Challenges.
      Love to you and yours,

  3. Hi Alan. How are you?! It was a pleasure to meet you and share some walking on this years challenge. It was a stroke of good fortune (for me) to meet you right at the start of the trip, and benefit from your experience. Would have been a very different start if we hadn’t gone down to check the Sleeper when you suggested :-). Oh, and I didn’t think you were slow at all, especially considering your recent operation, and we had no reason to race. I’ve taken up my TGO place for 2022. Just got back from doing the Pennine Way, and am off to do the Ridgeway this week, before the weather gets too bad. Hope your health continues to improve :-).

    1. Hello Sunshine!
      I'm jolly well, thank you. I've spent the day for my regular check up at Oxford Churchill and the first blood results are now back. At the start of the Challenge my blood count was 120 (a healthy chap's should be between 130 and 180) and today it's climbed up to 132, on a steadily rising graph.

      I'm delighted to hear that you'll be on the walk next year - with all these trails you're knocking off, you'll be super-fit and prepared for anything that Scotland can throw at you.

      All the very best to you, Paul

    2. Great to hear the blood results are looking good, and going in the right direction.

      Already looking forward to next years challenge, but not planned anything yet. I sold the Terra Nova Laser 2 (which I wasn’t getting on with), and splashed out on a Stratospire Li. Finding it a significant upgrade. Lots of other ideas to upgrade, and still trying to reduce pack weight……

  4. As we have learned recently your budget hotel last year, now is charging Aviemore prices for the week of the challenge and in every corner of Scotland word has gone out of the challenge fortnight and prices have soared and there is not a hotel room to be had, excepts perhaps the Fife Arms if you want to take out a second mortgage! LOL... P.S. sometimes I feel just like that sheep!

    1. Are you sure it's not just the canny Scots skinning the Yanks for a few extra dollars?

  5. More blogging greatness. However, there is a but:

    As you know I'm an obsessive when it comes to gear lists. It is far more important to have a decent spreadsheet with weights down to the the last gram than to go on training walks which require so much more effort. Thus, I was most disappointed that you have stopped producing one. Unless I missed a linky thing all I gleaned from the above is that you took a rucksack, walking poles and boots. I need all the details in future please. How many pairs of boxers? How many liner socks? The colour of your tent pegs? Down to every last pill in your first aid kit...(ok, perhaps skip that one, we'd be here until the end of time).

    1. I have been slightly economical with the truth here, Sir.
      I *do* have a spreadsheet but it's about eight years old and most of the gear on the list has been either worn out or changed for better stuff. I simply substitute the newer stuff in my head as I look at the list. I only know what weight I'm carrying before I head off to the station when I weigh myself on the scales with and without the pack and do a subtraction.

      And.. boxers? Certainly not Sir! Briefs - more lightweight, you see. However I've not yet succumbed to a Full Jeremy.

  6. I was toying with the idea of entering next year. My daughter is still at home with us and has had here education and holiday life turned upside down by COVID. For now I'm saving my holiday to focus on family time still but she'll be fleeing the nest sometime soon after which the TGO challenge is very much on for me. My initial plan in the head is most westerly to most easterly mainland Munros and fashion a route from that (I haven't done either). Whether I can manage that is quite another matter!
    As always love your posts, the journey to the start must have been a real thrill after all you've been through (lack of a shower notwithstanding)

    1. Whenever you finally choose to come along, you'll have a great time, Sir.

      Still enjoying your wonderful blog - how on earth do you find the time?

    2. Thanks Alan :)
      Ive been working at home for almost 2 years now which helps have more time to keep the blog up to date and less downtime recovering from long days and commutes. Also I try and make sure I head out every day for a least an hours exercise (on foot or bike) so I'm not stuck in. front of the screen all day.


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