Jessica and Chris’ TGO Challenge Part 3: Aviemore to Braemar

After a relaxed afternoon and evening in Aviemore, we set off on our 7th day of walking just after 8am towards Freshiebridge via the B970. My leg was hurting quite badly so we were fairly slow as we made our way along the roads. However, there was little wind and it was very calm and peaceful walking along under the trees. The deciduous woodland was full of birds and the verges were humming with bumblebees. We made several stops and as I warmed up, walking became easier.

At Feshiebridge we turned off the B970 and took a smaller road past the landing strip and gliding club. The birch and beech trees gave way to larch and Scot’s pine. Chris spotted a stoat; a red squirrel watched us from the branches of a roadsid tree and the blaeberry (bilberry) flowers were attracting lots of blueberry bumblebees (Bombus monticola). This is my favourite species: with a bright red bottom and yellow stripe, it’s very beautiful and quite rare in much of the UK.

Eventually, at the end of the road, there is a car park with some information about Glen Feshie and a track that leads down the glen. Beyond a house and a couple of sheds, this track turns into a path taking you towards the river. We passed through a gate, where a sign asked us if we had a tent with us because the bothy is closed for refurbishment, and stopped to cool our feet in the stream just beyond.

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The pine forest in Glen Feshie. Look at all the new baby Scots pine trees; it’s great to see so much regeneration.

The river Feshie is highly braided, winding its way through shallow channels in a wide gravel bed. The outer banks of the meanders are highly eroded and at one point the path is completely cut off by the remains of a large landslide that has ripped away the river bank either side of a stream flowing into the river. The resulting cliffs of gravel require care to descend and once across you can see that the remaining cliff is also being heavily eroded and probably won’t last long.

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Landslide! The path was just to the right of the gorse bush on the far side!

The path then took us into proper Caledonian pine forest where the forest floor was illuminated by an amazingly bright lime green by the thick covering of blaeberry. The Cairngorms are home to some of the largest remaining areas of native Caledonian pine forest: it has been stripped from much of the Scottish hills and only patches remain and overgrazing by sheep and deer prevent regeneration. Here, there are no sheep and deer numbers are tightly controlled; the results are clear with young trees much in evidence: a rare sight on the majority of our walks in Scotland.

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I love these forests. The blaeberry is so beautiful.

We made our way through more beautiful forest before the track disappeared into the river! This river changes its course across the gravelly valley bottom regularly, resulting in the loss of tracks and bridges. A new path has been created that skirts the steep slope above the river before re-joining the track further down the glen.

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The landrover track just falls into the river! The huge tree in the channel demonstrates just how strong this river must be in spate!

The bothy, Ruigh Aiteachain, is situated in a large flat area dotted with large trees and although it is closed at the moment, it is a lovely place to camp: I think it was one of my favourites of the whole trip. Although, I love the mountains, I find there is something very special about these forests. We were spoilt for choice of where to pitch the tent and eventually decided on a spot under a huge beech tree beside an old stone chimney.

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Such a lovely relaxed camping spot

As a wild camping spot it even has a few luxuries: water is piped out of the hill ready to drink and there is a toilet (very basic but functional, although you have to collect your own water to flush it).

We had a leisurely dinner as a few other people arrived and also set up camp; we lay and looked up through the leaves and I watched the bees and loads of voles scuttling through the undergrowth behind the tent: it was a really lovely evening. We went to bed just before it started to rain.

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Setting off in the rain on day eight

In the morning it was still raining so we had breakfast in the tent. Full waterproofs were required for packing up camp and the little “challenge city” of tiny tents gradually disappeared as everyone headed off down the glen. Despite the light rain, the morning walk started beautifully again as we were still in the forest and able to  admire the huge old granny pines. At our first snack stop several challengers caught up with us and stopped for a chat before carrying on, and that pretty much continued for the rest of the day. There were more signs of river erosions and the huge trees lying on the gravel beds between the river channels are evidence of the power that this trickling river must sometimes show.

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Leaving the forest behind us

We emerged into the heart of the Cairngorms: a huge expanse of undulating brown heather and tough grass as far as we could see, with little to measure our progress against and made even bleaker by the unceasing rain. We met up with three challengers (including Ali, one of the Challenge organisers) in a building shown on the map that was actually half a shed with about three quarters of a wooden wall remaining.

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Rain and heather just about sums up our 8th day of walking

The only features that broke up this bleak landscape for the rest of the day were a bridge over a nice waterfall and another collapsing stone building that we sheltered in for a while late in the day. Also lots and lots of slugs. When we turned uphill towards the waterfall we left the river Feshie, before we started to follow Geldie Burn further on.

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A lot of wet, boggy emptiness…..

We had planned to camp at White Bridge but it was still raining when we got there and was quite exposed and unappealing, so we carried on a little further. However, my leg had had enough soon after so we stopped and pitched the tent on a random patch of flattish grass beside the landrover track. Unfortunately as he was laying out his bed, Chris discovered that we had pitched it over a very large rock, hidden in the grass, so we had to undo everything and move it in the rain. This wet day demonstrated just how lucky we had been with the weather and how much tougher the challenge would be if the weather was poor.

By the morning, the rain had reduced to the odd shower, so we managed to pack up in the dry. We found our first ever deer antler in the heather, which was very exciting and Chris carried it to Braemar. We set early at 7.20am to make our slow way (my leg was definitely not improving) towards the Linn of Dee.

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Linn of Dee

There we had a pause and went to look at the amazing gorge, then continued along the road on the northern side of the river towards Mar Lodge. Eventually we saw a very welcome sign directing TGOers to a cup of tea, biscuits and a chat with some other challengers! A board covered in messages and a tally of visitors, showed that 115 challengers had passed through! It was then a fairly short walk into Braemar for our first bacon roll of the trip!

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Woohoo!

Feeling revived, we made our way to the hostel, where we did some kit admin before our friends, Jen and Ade, came to visit us, bearing wonderful gifts of chocolate, a spork for Chris (he left his at the bunkhouse in Aviemore, so we’d been sharing a single spork for 3 days – disaster!) and physio tape. We had a lovely afternoon, with lots of tea, cake and chat followed by a delicious meal at Gordon’s tea room to prepare us for the next day, which was the longest of the trip and had been worrying us for a while.

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On the road into Braemar

Day 7

Aviemore – Ruigh-aiteachan: 22.5 km /14 miles (8 hours)

Day 8

Ruigh-aiteachan – White Bridge: 21.9km / 13.6 miles (8 h 40m) – we actually walked an extra 1km so 22.9km

Day 9 

White Bridge – Braemar: 16.2 km / 10 miles (6 hours)

Jessica and Chris’ TGO Challenge Part 2: Drumnadrochit to Aviemore

It dawned on us as we were leaving the Lochness Backpackers lodge at 7am on day four, that we had forgotten, in our planning stage, to factor in just how long the walk to the port to catch our ferry across Loch Ness to Inverfarigaig was. After walking for about an hour across Drumnadrochit, we reached the ferry to find 10 other challengers waiting patiently for the boat man. Gordon Menzies, who incredibly, has been running this service for TGO Challengers for over 20 years,  arrived promptly at 8am and before we knew it we were crossing Loch Ness, watching his entertaining Loch Ness monster presentation and listing to his funny stories.

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Goodbye Drumnadrochit.

The weather was lovely once again which helped make the crossing even more special. One of the aspects of the TGO Challenge that was most appealing to us was that we could plan to go to places that we had never been to before: Loch Ness was one of them.

After a very interesting scramble out of the boat and onto the so-called pier, we had our breakfast of granola and milk (powdered milk and water: you learn to love it) before starting out on what would be a lot of road walking in hot temperatures. We took the feet busting B851 as far as Aberarder house then SE uphill on land rover track to a very well positioned lunching lodge, fully decorated with deer antlers.  Once again, we could see rucksacks lining the entrance, so we sat with other challengers and snacked on some of our homemade trail mix.

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Getting onto the “pier” was a challenge. 

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As we made the final push of the day, over the hill and down into Glen Mazeran, we stopped and turned around to look back at the impressive West coast hills, only to realise that we had walked from there only 4 days ago. This was the first time that we really felt the scale of the challenge we had undertaken.

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Our campsite in Glen Mazeran

The sun woke us up early the next day, making it too hot to stay in the tent, but we took our time to enjoy our breakfast before heading off for the day.  Jessica’s ankle pain had not eased off overnight as much as we had hoped, but as we slowly passed a number of challengers, who had dotted themselves throughout the glen and were still packing up their tents, the views down Glen Mazeran did well to distract us slightly from the worry and in Jessica’s case, the pain. We then headed NE along farm tracks; the fields either side were full of different types of birds including lapwings, oyster catchers and possibly a snipe, then we turned south for a long climb up to the trig point on Carn Dubh Ic an Deoir. Along the way we met up with an American family from Alabama who were also on the challenge. We were all finding the steep ascent, as well as the heat, pretty tough when Steve Jackson, the dad, said “one step at a time, that’s all we can do” simple but true words that would stay with me for the rest of our challenge.

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Air those feet

There was a small matter of an electric fence to navigate as we descended towards the red bothy (aptly named with its red roof). After we crossed the surprisingly dry peat hags, we picked up another land rover track leading to the bothy. The land rover track is usually the annoying hard slog at the end of our mountain days, but we had now fully embraced it as a friend, that was until a steep downhill section became a problem. Jessica’s ankle had finally eased off and was not causing much of a problem now. However, the downhill had caused the pain to move to her knee but fortunately we arrived at the bothy before the pain became worse, and found a rather nice camping spot on a beach close to the River Dulnain just below the bothy.

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Heading down to the Red Bothy

Once the tent was up and dinner had been eaten, we were able to enjoy the rest of the evening being warmed by the gradually lowering sun. One thing we learned on our trip was that TGO life is a simple life, and lying down in the grass watching the clouds go by, all the while being in the mountains and away from any distractions, was a wonderful way to spend our evening.

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Another cracking morning

Aviemore was only 12km away but there were still some obstacles in the way: the so-called Burma Road, a long and intimidating track over a bealach and down to Lynwilg, and the heart-pumping crossing of the A9! The pain in Jessica’s leg made for a steady walk over the hill, stopping occasionally for feet airing and snacks. It was another very hot but clear day so we were treated to some spectacular views of the northern corries and the rest of the northern Cairgorms. As we came into Lynwilg we were very happy to find some cake in a little hut, alongside some pig food and an honesty box for money, with all the proceeds going to the children who made the cake. We had our cake and watched the pigs who were definitely after some. We did not get them any pig food. Sorry piggies.

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The Burma Road stretching into the distance. 

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Looking over to the Northern Cairngorms.

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Some tasty treats inside

 

It was a lovely walk through birch woodland as we descended the glen, and crossing the A9 was not as hair-raising as it could have been. It had been a painful descent though and although we had reached the safety of the Aviemore Backpackers Lodge and had a delicious pint of beer in hand, knowing that there was still a long way to go, I could not help but think that our challenge attempt was in jeopardy.

Day 4: Drumnadrochit to Glen Mazeran –  26km + 3km from hostel to ferry port (12 hours including a 40 minute ferry)

Day 5: Glen Mazeran to Red Bothy – 19km (8 hours)

Day 6: Red Bothy to Aviemore – 12km (7 hours)

 

Jessica and Chris’ TGO Challenge Part 1: Shiel Bridge to Drumnadrochit

Our TGO Challenge began at 8.50am on Saturday 12th May at the Kintail Lodge Hotel at Shiel Bridge.

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We used this challenge as an opportunity to raise money for two charities: Bliss and Scottish Mountain Rescue

We had spent the previous night at the Ratagan Youth Hostel, which was lovely, and a very kind man had given us a lift from the hostel to the start point, which we were extremely happy about.

It was a pleasant morning and we had a quick chat with the first pair of Challenegers we met outside the hotel before setting off along the road. We found the start (or end depending on your point of view) of the Affric-Kintail Way and headed into the hills. Glen Lichd is an incredible pass with a clear land rover track, and although it was pretty cloudy, it wasn’t raining which was a great start!

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Looking west through Glen Lichd

We had prepared pizza for lunch, which was delicious, and the views were superb. Beyond Glenlicht House the track becomes a path and climbs quite steeply through a much narrower part of the valley. We stopped to cool our feet in a stream flowing over the path above three waterfalls that fell from different directions into the Alt Grannda.

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The path is steeper and the valley narrower as you approach the waterfalls

We passed Camban Bothy but stopped to investigate the Alltbeithe Youth Hostel, which is the most remote hostel in the UK. Rucksacks lined up outside suggested that we might find some challengers inside and we did! There was soup and scones on offer but our bags were pretty heavy with all the food we were carrying, so we resisted; we did stay for a chat and a drink though. We carried on through more open landscape towards Loch Affric. We found lots of butterwort and some tiny sundew, two species of carnivourous plants, and a large puddle teeming with baby newts.

Having seen a few people entering a building at Athnamulloch, Chris went to investigate and discovered that it was a private bothy but received a recommendation to carry on a bit further to camp at the jetty. As we made our way there, we struggled to find some nice water to top up our water bottles  for the evening and were happy we’d brought filter bottles and purification tablets. It turned out to be a lovely spot, behind the sandy shore of Loch Affric, and even had a newly built hut with an overhanging roof that was perfect for sheltering from the rain whilst cooking and eating dinner.  We had a tasty dinner and chatted to a group of girls travelling the opposite way.

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A rainbow over our first camping spot beside Loch Affric on the second morning

In the morning, it was bright and warm for breakfast and we were able to pack up in the dry but it started to rain as we left, creating a lovely rainbow over Loch Affric. It was too warm for waterproofs so fortunately it didn’t get any worse and the sun soon came out properly. We followed landrover tracks through the mixed woods above Loch Affric and then along Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin, before turning east and climbing uphill into conifer forest.

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Affric Lodge

We then descended out of the forest and into the sunshine and farmland before walking into Tomich, where we stopped for our first pint of the trip at the hotel.

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A hard earned pint in the sunshine at Tomich

We then had a steep climb onto moorland to our planned camping spot between Loch a’Ghreidlein and Loch na Beinne Moire; however, we decided to carry on a bit further and reduce the distance we had to walk the following day. Normally the forest path should have been a nightmare of bog but the weather had been so dry it was no problem at all. We stopped to camp beside the River Enrick, near a bothy where four other challengers were staying. We had dinner in the sunshine before joining them in front of the fire to hear stories of past challenges and challengers.

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Our planned camp site for the second night, which we didn’t use in the end

It was lovely again in the morning, reminding us why we love camping! However, we were woken by a very strange bird with a bubbling call interspersed with shrieks like a strangled cat!

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Wild camping is lovely when your hands aren’t freezing off and it’s not pouring with rain!

The previous evening the back of my ankle was tender and swollen but it seemed to have gone down. Our third day of walking wasn’t so fun: new landrover tracks took us north-east to Corrimony, followed by road then when we rejoined the Kintail-Affric Way more forestry tracks uphill. The views were limited and it was hard going; my ankle was getting quite uncomfortable by the end. The walk down into Drumnadrochit was nicer but we were tired and hot; we did see an owl in the woods though!

Finding our hostel was the hardest navigation yet but we still arrived  much earlier than we had expected. The staff were very welcoming and we did some washing and collected our food parcel. Note: the Lochness Backpackers Hostel doesn’t have a drying room or phone signal for most networks, which makes arranging the ferry for the next day tricky!

We made a huge dinner of chilli and smash and spent a the evening chatting to other challengers and worrying slightly about how much my ankle was hurting.

We had completed the first section!

 

Day 1

24.4km / 9 hours:  Kintail Lodge to Athnamulloch ( we actually camped at the jetty about 1km further along)

Day 2

24.1 km / 9 h 40 mins: Athnamulloch to Loch a’Ghredlein (we actually carried on to the River Enrick about 3.5km further)

Day 3 

26.1km / 5 hours: Loch a’Ghredlein to Drumnadrochit (actually from River Enrick to Drumnadrochit)

*Planned distance / actual journey time: Planned route (actual route)

Three days to go

Just three days left before we set off on out TGO Challenge!

Our food parcel has been posted; all the essentials have been bought; the kitchen is full of chocolate raisins, oat cakes and protein bars; the tent is airing and all our gear has been washed and proofed. Ticks are starting to accumulate on our to-do list and packing will soon begin!

If you’d like to show your support by sponsoring us, details of our charities and links to donate can be found here: Jessica & Chris’ fundraising team

TGO Challenge 2017 route

We now have an approved route for our backpacking trip across Scotland! All 291km (181 miles) of it!

We have planned to do this over 14 days, with 10 nights camping, two of these being on a campsite while the rest will be wild, and 3 nights in hostels (to dry out!). We aim to walk an average of just under 21 km (13 miles) per day, with 30.1km as our longest day and 11km being the shortest.

We have decided to start our route from Shiel Bridge, so our first three days will take us through an area that is totally new for us both: Glen Affric to Drumndrochit on the banks of Loch Ness. Here, we will have our first night indoors before taking a ferry across the Loch and traversing the northern edge of the Mhonadliath range via Glen Mazeran, before descending the Burma Road to Aviemore. We chose this route as we haven’t explored any of this region except for Aviemore; we have heard that Glen Affric is lovely and reading reports of some of the other routes across the Monadhliath put us off, as we didn’t fancy endless eroded landrover tracks, wind farms and power lines. Glen Mazeran also appeared to be recommended as a nice place to spend the night.

TGO MAP

Starting at Shiel Bridge in the west and finishing in Montrose in the east.

From Aviemore, we intend to walk via Glen Feshie and White Bridge to Braemar. I have never been down Glen Feshie; Chris has but it was during his ML assessment and therefore he didn’t really take it in.

Our longest day will be between Braemar and Ballater; we have driven this section and it was beautiful, so hopefully this will distract us. Then we’ll have a short day to recover, before taking in Mount Keen. There were a fair few alternatives for crossing the southern Cairngorms, and we originally wanted to go via Jock’s road but this required a long foul weather alternative. We therefore decided to go over Mount Keen, as it was simpler for planning purposes and is a munro that would otherwise require a lot of effort to bag. We will then descend to Tarfside, followed by a final camp in North Water Bridge before hitting the beach at Montrose. This means we don’t have to worry about transport from our final destination to Montrose for signing out and the celebration dinner!

We’re very excited but also a little nervous as neither of us have done anything like this before, so we’re expecting it to be very challenging. It has also required a lot of planning, organisation and preparation, so we’ve decided to try to raise some money for two charities while we do it: Scottish Mountain Rescue and Bliss. Please have a look at our JustGiving pages and support us by supporting them!

The Great Outdoors Challenge 2017

In May, we will be taking part in the TGO Challenge. This is a non-competitive backpacking event in which 300 participants walk from the west coast of Scotland to the east. It has been running every year since 1980.

Chris and I discovered its existence separately last year: I heard about it via Twitter, and Chris heard about it by meeting a Challenger in the Cairngorms during his Mountain leader assessment. We had been vaguely considering undertaking a long trip, with Chris mentioning the Cape Wrath Trail every so often, and we quickly decided to apply for the TGO Challenge. A really interesting aspect of this challenge is that every group plans their own route, so although 300 people are crossing during the same fortnight, we can all go different ways. It therefore combines a long-distance journey and wilderness, with a sense of camaraderie and companionship.

Having been accepted, we are now deep in our route planning! We’ll keep you updated as our plans progress.

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Our living room is currently carpeted with OS maps. A little furniture rearranging meant that at one point we were able to fit in the whole width of Scotland!