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?
|ALL THE RIGHT PARCELS, IN THE RIGHT ORDER|
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.
|IT'S A MIRACLE!|
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.
|ENSUITE LOO & SHOWER|
|BASIN, PULL OUT TABLE, BIN & SOCKETS|
|GOOD LINEN, COMFY MATTRESS & ROOM CONTROLS|
|NOT HAPPY WITH AN UPPER BUNK|
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.
|FOOTBALL, GELLIONS BAR|
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.
|TGO CHALLENGER DISEMBARKING AT STRATHCARRON|
|PAUL ON KYLE STATION PLATFORM|
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.
|KYLE HOTEL SINGLE ROOM|
|KYLE RAIL STATION|
|THE SKYE BRIDGE|
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!