In a few days time I was to have a bit of a leg-stretch with a hand-picked team of veteran TGO Challengers on the annual PreWalkDaunder in the Yorkshire Dales. The route had been agreed (well, I had agreed it and in my book that's what counts) and all necessary arrangements put in place. Even the weather forecast looked decent for an amble up north. All was well in my world.
But life's not like that and six weeks or so ago, out of the blue, three sessions with surgeons spread over a seven week period sneaked ahead in the list of priorities. This means that I've found myself with some unexpected time - a period of isolation between PCR test and hopefully the final session of surgery - to get back to the more important things in life and finish last year's stalled TGO Challenge write-up. Silver linings and all that.
Four months or so ago I abandoned you in the Clova Hotel, after I had been cajoled and encouraged over Jock's Road by the excellent Lyndsay. Your shameful abandonment does have an upside as I left you in the dining room; by now you'll be as fat as a pig, having feasted on the kitchen's excellent fare. It's now time to haul your bulk from your chair and re-join my walk as I head eastwards towards the east coast of Scotland once again.
We're back in TGO Challenge time now, and last night as I lay on my huge hotel bed with all my belongings strewn around, hanging from picture hooks, radiators, the shower screen and chair backs, watching some mindless television I realised that I was shattered. It seemed I had bitten off more than I could chew taking on the Challenge just three months after my transplant. To be clear it wasn't impossible but some of my bigger days had definitely been a bit of an ask. Today had been difficult and tomorrow's route involved clambering up the side of Glen Clova at Rottal and ridge walking in a general easterly direction. To be honest I didn't fancy it at all as I drifted off to sleep.
Waking up to the television news I did feel less gloomy and more willing to man-up and get on with it.
The Challenge Circus was back in town, as was the usual melee of huge breakfasts, bill paying queues, with abandoned rucksacks, walking poles and boots filling every inch of floor space. Everyone was cleaner, brighter and smelled of hotel shampoo and skincare. Life was good once more and animated discussions of today's routes and weather filled the lobby.
Outside, a wet mist closed in on the glen like a lid. The forecast promised a clearance later in the day, so Lyndsay and I tumbled outdoors to start our walk down the road to Rottal. Memory's a funny thing but I can't recall how and when we were joined by two Challenge legends, Judith and Barbara. Both had had long days yesterday and so seemed happy to walk at my less than ideal pace.
As we stood at the point where we were to leave the road and head into the hills my heart wasn't in it. Lyndsay was supportive, as she always is, and then both Judith and Barbara also decided that an easier day might be a better option. If you take a look at the map below we followed the route shown by the little red flags, As is always the case on the Challenge our overnight spot needed reasonable privacy, good pitches and clean water. Happily I knew of an excellent spot within reasonable striking distance that Phil, Andy and I had used a few years earlier, so that was that and we headed off, I believe each feeling happier that a more sensible option had been chosen.
|DAY 12: REVISED ROUTE [CLICK TO ENLARGE]|
It was only a matter of time; Lyndsay had remarked a week ago as we'd walked away from Kingussie how these passing places had added potential. Today it was sunny and the tarmac dry and warm. An excellent spot to pass.
|LYNDSAY'S OPEN TO SUGGESTIONS|
Having now decided upon our easier day the pressure was finally off. From the second day of this Challenge there had always been a heaving swell, or perhaps an undercurrent, of having to get through that particular day so as not to make the following day even worse. I had never, ever felt this way before on a Challenge, and this was my twenty fifth! Of course, the next day might have been an easier day anyway, but I found myself imagining that that easy day had been planned in to ease the pressure for the next, more difficult day. I know; looking back at this bizarre logic in the quiet of an isolating Easter Bank Holiday it's hard to credit how I'd found myself in this bizarre self destructive loop.
To fall in step with three Challengers that I have known and respected enormously for so long was a colossal boost to morale. Stupidly, I had been embarrassed swapping my lovely hill route that Phil and I had planned so carefully together over the winter months. I thought I was being a wimp. I was perfectly capable of getting up there, and enjoying the curlew, larks and ravens. However, the truth of it was that I was wrong. And happily I was now walking and chatting and thoroughly enjoying myself. It was a massive boost.
|JUDITH - A CHALLENGE LEGEND, WITH TWELVE CROSSINGS UNDER HER BELT.|
It's always a boost meeting Judith on a Challenge. She's a bright spark. Articulate and with a hinterland I discovered by chance that is jaw droppingly impressive. All her Challenges have been solo affairs, which can be enormously tough when things are going awry. However, it's a measure of her character that it would be almost impossible for an observer to notice.
Rest stops were happily numerous and I tried to make inroads in the ridiculously large food parcel I had received at the hotel.
|BARBARA, ANOTHER LEGEND - SEVENTEEN!|
I first met Barbara in 1999, when she and her other half, Peter, were on their first crossing. I remember with huge affection a moment at the Tarfside playing field where we were camped up alongside each other. It was mid evening and Peter was reading out loud to Barbara. Now, Barbara swears that my memory's playing tricks on me, but I swear Peter was reading poetry. It was wonderful. Even if I've got this wrong, and Peter was reading a Haynes manual for a Ford Anglia it's something that I'll always treasure.
Nothing more needs to be said about this lady, but I'll have a bash: Unsquashable. Determined. Vivacious. Great fun, and massively caring. She's one of the Challenge's leading ladies.
|THE AIRLIE TOWER [CLICK TO ENLARGE]|
Back to the walk! As you can see from the photos we walked in a mist haze for most of the day, resulting in humid and still conditions. This was not good as on occasions the black fly were out and coupled with the midges it could be pretty horrible. One of the downsides to walking in the latter half of June is the bracken. In May, it's struggling to uncurl and is never more than knee-high. However this time of the year it can be neck high, and I'm six feet tall. Any likely breeze is totally smothered by the bracken and so midges, black fly and ticks have a field-day! The section immediately prior to the style shown below was a long uphill through head-height bracken, that got steeper as you approached the style. I couldn't see my feet as the rutted path was completely covered by the bracken. It was the most miserable kilometre of my life. I was desperate to get it over.
|AWKWARD STYLE 😁 WITH THE AIRLIE TOWER|
All unpleasantness finally comes to an end and the next two stages to Hornihaugh and through Dowelly Dell was wonderful.
|THAT'S CONLAWER HILL, WITH THE WOODED TOP|
Don't relax yet though, as there's a sensationally boggy section to come, just past Midtown that even after such a dry spell was still a bundle of fun.
As our camping spot hove into view we came across a peculiar set of events. Two guys dressed in camo outfits with an expensive-looking glossy pick-up with all the boys' toys added on, were parked exactly where we wanted to stop. They were carrying what appeared to be a crossbow. The noise it made certainly sounded like one - a slicing hissing - that I heard twice. They realised that company was approaching as a bit of a surprise and almost scrambled comedically back into the pick-up and zoomed off with wheelspin and a very bouncy exit from the scene. Whatever they were up to, it smacked of no good.
However, their hasty exit provided us with an unencumbered campsite with an abundance of soft green grass and copious supplies of fresh clean water. It was bloody lovely to lie down in the (poorly pitched) Notch and doze for an hour or so. It had only been a 22km day, but I was bushed.
|HOME FOR THE NIGHT|
|WE ARE HERE!|