Jessica and Chris’ TGO Challenge Part 4: Braemar to Tarfside 

Our 10th day was the longest we had planned: 30km from Braemar to Ballater. We strapped up my leg, got all our things together and, after saying goodbye and good luck to all the other challengers, left the hostel at 8.10am. The first stage of the walk took us through some lovely forest and past the Lion’s face. There were signposts as we entered the forest and at one point in the forest, but in between the navigation was quite tricky as there were lots of paths.

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The woods around Braemar

We emerged onto the A93 and followed it south-east. We crossed the Invercauld Bridge over the Dee, built as a result of the Battle of Culloden. Then we followed tracks through more forest to the south of the river. There were lots of big mounds of ants nests swarming with great big Wood ants. At one point, we stopped for some food and I quickly found my legs covered in them having paused in the middle of one of their trails! We quickly found a new spot to sit down. As we approached Balmoral Castle, we passed fields of beautiful ponies and immaculate stables and farms.

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The river Dee

We took a path along the river around Balmoral Castle and managed to stomp right past it without really realising or getting a good view, which was a bit of a shame. Instead we stopped at the Balmoral Distillery, where they kindly gave us a taste and topped up our water!

Then it was just road and more road for the rest of the day. It had also become really quite warm which made the walking more difficult  too. By midafternoon, I was getting pretty tired, so we stopped on the verge of the B976 to eat lots of chocolate (thank you Jen and Ade!) And drink the beer Chris had picked up from the free food shelf at the hostel.

Further on we had to refuse a lift from a very nice lady who made sure we knew we still had quite a way to walk to reach Ballater. By the time we reached the town, I was suffering from blisters and walking very slowly, so it was a huge relief to make it to the campsite. Despite the distance it was only 6pm, so we had made surprisingly good time and our longest day was over!

We hardly ever use campsites and when we’ve had to we haven’t enjoyed them much. However the campsite in Ballater is very nice with really good facilities, which we were actually pitched very close to; I don’t appreciate having to pay to stay somewhere where I have to walk miles to go to the loo in the night, rather than pay nothing and be able to just pop outside the tent! There were even bluetits nesting in the cigarette boxes on each end of the toilet block!

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A risky nesting box!

Once we’d showered and set the tent up we went into Ballater to hunt down some food, and by happy coincidence we chose the same hotel as all the other Challengers. We both had steak pie, which isn’t something I’d usually choose but was one of the most satisfying meals ever! The heavy rain storm even waited for us to get back to the campsite before starting.

We were pleased we’d planned for the next day to be a short one. We shared two bacon and a sausage roll for breakfast (there were three whole sausages in one roll!) And stocked up on food in the Co-op. Walking began again at 10.30am when we headed back to Bridge of Muick.

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Can anyone tell us what this is about?

The path towards Mount Keen was well signposted, along landrover track and past a strange little statue. Once up quite high, the signs directed us off the track and across the heather moorland, which was novel for this trip and very pleasant.

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Navigation was very difficult

We had a few nice stops in the warm sunshine, and enjoyed relaxing in the heather. As we descended down into Glen Tanar we found two large antlers, but sadly decided it wasn’t very sensible to take them both with us so we just chose one.

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What a stag!

We had planned to stop in Glen Tanar, leaving Mount Keen for the next day, and our camp sight soon came into view: a perfect flat grassy area above the river and below the munro.

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The path down to our wild camping spot and then up the Mounth Road to Mount Keen

We reached it at 2pm and made ourselves a cup of tea, before having a wander around our camping site, watching the birds, rabbits and hares. It was such a nice spot we were amazed to have it to ourselves. Later in the afternoon we timed erecting the tent perfectly, as it started to drizzle just as we put the bags inside. We had a slightly odd dinner in the tent, of flavoured couscous with beef and broccoli rehydrated stir-fry, and lazed around until bedtime.

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Dinner out of the rain; it was tasty at the time but looks awful now in the pictures!

It was a fairly nice in the morning if a bit grey, but Chris wasn’t feeling 100% (the stir-fry didn’t agree with him! ). We set off up the path to Mount Keen at 8am. We had been wondering whether to bypass it but my leg felt ok and it didn’t look too difficult. However, it actually turned out to get steeper and steeper with what felt like endless false summits !

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A very pleasant pitch all to ourselves

It was very windy at the top but the views were great: we could see across the Cairngorms to Lochnagar and beyond to the west and to the sea in the east. It was too cold to stay at the top for long, so we soon headed down the much nicer path on the other side.

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We made it to the summit of Mount Keen: the only munro on our route and Chris’ 100th munro!

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Summit selfie!

It warmed up fast and we started shedding layers and getting the suncream out. As we reached Glen Mark, it had become really hot and we stopped to paddle in a stream. This glen was lovely at the top but it was a long, sweaty and tiring walk out of it.

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Glen Mark: it was weirdly hot despite the clouds

The road was a little easier thanks to the shade of the trees but we were soon exposed again as we took a track east past Westbank and passed through fields and over the hill to Tarfside. Those fields were absolutely teeming with lapwings though, which were making their crazy calls that can sound like a computer game!

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Last stretch before Tarfside (note the antler!)

We were given an absolutely amazing welcome at Tarfside! After introductions, tea, squash and a bacon roll, we headed off to set up the tent before coming back for a shower and dinner. This revived Chris who had been feeling tired and out of sorts all day. In fact it was a wonderful evening and if we do the challenge again, we’ll definitely make sure we pass through there again!

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Thank you very much to all the volunteers for making us feel so welcome and feeding us so well; we had a brilliant afternoon and evening in Tarfside!

After a very sociable evening with the other challengers and volunteers (all of whom had completed the challenge previously and seemed to know everyone) we headed back to the tent with just two more days of walking remaining.

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Our last wild(ish) camp of the Challenge in a field in Tarfside

Day 10: Braemar to Ballater –  30.1km / 18.7miles (10 hours)

Day 11: Ballater to Shiel of Glentanar – 11km / 6.8 miles (3.5 hours)

Day 12: Glentanar to Tarfside – 16.1km / 10 miles (6 hours)

 

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)

Knoydart: beautiful and wild

From the moment when I first heard that the Knoydart Penninsula is the most remote area on the UK mainland, I have wanted to visit. At Easter, we finally made the trip.

The Knoydart Penninsula sits between Loch Nevis and Loch Hourn on the west coast of Scotland. It has no road links and can therefore only be accessed by boat or by foot. We decided that several days walking here would represent great training for our TGO Challenge, which is now only a few weeks away!

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The stags were waiting to welcome us into Knoydart

We decided to start our walk from Kinlochourn, which is reached via a long drive down a very bumpy single track road off the A87. We encountered a lot of red deer in the road so drive carefully. There are two car parks at the end of this road: one for day parking and one for overnight with a £1 charge per night. We left the van there on Thursday morning and set off along the path on the south side of Loch Hourn.

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Setting off along Loch Hourn

It is instantly beautiful. The loch was peaceful with just a pair of grebes floating nearby and the surrounding hills dropping steeply to the shores. The path was muddier than we had anticipated and we had to stop after just 10 mins to put our gaiters on: an early sign of what was to come!

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Barrisdale Bay

The path follows the loch shore for about 8 km before it turns south and heads inland as a landrover track to Barisdale. This area is relatively bustling compared to much of the rest of the penninsula, presumably because it can be accessed by boat and there is a path linking it to Inverie. Camping here is restricted to the campsite opposite the bothy; there is a £3 charge per night for both. Also, if your gear is wet, there is no longer a fireplace in the bothy, but there is running water and a toilet.

Once past Ambraigh the route towards Inverie starts to climb. The intermittent showers also became more persistent. By this stage we had seen more deer than I have ever seen and the effect that they have on this environment was clearly illustrated by a large area on the opposite side of the valley from which they have been excluded. The deer fence marked an extraordinarily well-defined line between the short brown grass on our side and the deep heather and young trees or saplings on the other side.

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The first Bridge of Doom in Gleann an Dubh-Lochain

It felt like a long ascent to the bealach (saddle), where the wind caught us. We could now see Loch an Dubh-Lochain ahead where we intended to camp. The descent was simple enough, we just had to avoid the boggy sections: there were many! There were also numerous streams running down, crossing the path and we encountered the first Bridge of Doom (falling apart!). The ground on this part of the valley was unexpectedly and beautifully covered in primroses.

 

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Unexpectedly pretty among the wilderness

We also came across a lone highland calf which Chris announced was dead, before it got up and trotted off.

 

Our camping spot was right beside the lochan and I was very happy to reach it; I felt amazingly light and floaty when I took my rucksack off.

 

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First pitch beside Loch an Dubh-Lochain

Unfortunately it rained on and off constantly while we set up camp and made dinner, so that by bedtime we were soaked again, which didn’t make getting into the tent easier or more comfortable. By the time we were inside we were effectively barricaded in by the piles of wet boots, gloves and waterproofs in the tent porch. We did have a lovely 12 hour sleep though!

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Gleann Meadail

It was nicer in the morning so we set off wearing all our wet outer-layers to dry them out. We turned off the main path to Inverie and headed east up Gleann Meadail. This was a lovely valley and we found a wonderful spot for a camp, where we had our first snack stop, before starting the long climb up to Mam Meadail. Part of the way up, we stopped for lunch and I had just taken my boots and socks off to freshen my feet in the stream, when a big burst of heavy rain hit us. By the time we had scrambled to get our waterproofs on and everything was wet again, it had stopped; this was to be the course of the day.

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A long slow ascent up to Mam Meadail

From the highest point we could see the pointed summit of Sgurr na Ciche shrouded in cloud; we even glimpsed a golden eagle before it disappeared into the mist on the upper slopes. We were slow on the descent down to Carnoch and the marshy land around the River Carnach didn’t look very inviting.

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The mouth of the river Carnach and the BOG

We followed a track up the north side of the river, without crossing it as is shown on the map, but this soon turned into deep mud before disappearing. We weaved our way through the boggy ground, trying to avoid the wettest areas, which was extremely hard going and made for very slow progress. Tracks and paths were occasionally visible but they didn’t help much as we just ended up ankle deep in mud rather than water.

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Down the river Carnach as the valley begins to narrow

Eventually we reached a wooded area that redeemed the afternoon by being absolutely stunning! The valley here narrowed and became steeper, the river also narrowed and ran over rocks, forming waterfalls and cascades, more streams gurgled down through the trees on our left. The bank became steep and we had to climb through trees and rocks but at least it wasn’t so wet.

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Passing  around the foot of Beinn Aodainn

Then, as the river turns east around the foot of Beinn an Aodainn, we came out under a dark cliff that dropped into a gorgeous pool of clear green water. Trees hung over one end and at the other the bank sloped down gently forming a little beach. It would make a perfect campsite and a superb swimming spot in warmer weather. This section was so calm, unexpected and wonderful, I found myself thinking that it could be one of my favourite places in Scotland – on the otherhand, it could just have been the relief of getting out of the endless flat bog!

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Why can’t we camp here?

More waterfalls appeared as we climbed higher and then we were back in the bog again. Here the path on the map disappears; we followed the river, planning to ascend up to reach another path that would take us east to Loch Cuaich, where we intended to camp. However, we came to an apparent dead end when the valley narrowed again and steep crags blocked the route. My feet were tired, absolutely soaked and after such a difficult day I definitely didn’t fancy scrambling about, then walking another hard four km, so I suggested we stopped at the one small patch of dry grass beside the river.

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Waterfalls below Beinn Aodain

 We had dinner – instant custard makes quite a nice dessert – and made it into the tent just a few minutes before torrential rain started to fall. Heavy rain and hail rattled on the tent all night, interspersed with violent gusts of wind that I could hear rushing up the valley before they buffeted us and it was much colder. I didn’t have a good sleep imagining the tent blowing down and the water that was all around us rising up to flood the tent.

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Dinner preparations after a hail shower

However, everything was absolutely fine (I feel bad to have doubted our little tent!) and in the morning the hill tops were all covered in snow. It was dry for breakfast and we set off eastwards to follow the north side of the river to Lochan nam Breac as described in the hill tracks book. Five minutes later and that route was clearly impassable without getting into the river, so we back tracked and scrambled north up the steep slope, aiming to hit the track somewhere above us. This worked and gave us some fantastic views of the whole valley in both directions, before making our way east again. This valley feels seriously wild and committing, it’s a very dramatic, craggy and remote landscape.

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View back down the River Carnach on the last morning

By 11am we were north of Lochan nam Breac and stopped to look at the map; it had taken us nearly 2 hours to walk about 2.5 km. We were astonished! It had felt like we were moving well, but the boggy ground was clearly slowing us down and it was still raining. We had intended to head back to Barisdale along the Abhainn Chosaidh and then through Glen Barrisdale but those valleys were riddled with streams and were not recommended for wet days! Adding that to our slow progress and a big potential river crossing, we decided it was safer to turn back and return via Gleann Unndalain instead.

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Lochan nam Breac

Once we started climbing Mam Unndalain, the bog reduced dramatically and we made much better distance. Glenn Unndalain is a lovely valley but felt much greener and friendlier; the sun even came out for a while, making the numerous streams and waterfalls sparkle.

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Out of the worst of the bog at last and climbing Mam Unndalain

By 3pm our progress had improved so much, we were back at the Barisdale campsite, where we had a hot chocolate before carrying on, intending to camp on the tip of land pointing out to Fraoch Eilean. Howewer, it was only about 4.30pm when we got near and we decided that it would be good training to do a longer day, so we pushed on back to the van. It turned into a beautiful evening as we marched back along Loch Hourn, with the evening sun coming out between showers to light up the moss, dead bracken and granny pines on the shore.

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Granny pines after ANOTHER shower

We got back to the van at about 7pm, sorted out our kit and made an excellent dinner with all our remaining food!

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Evening on the shore of Loch Hourn

Details

Distances: Day 1 – Kinlochourn to via Brisdale Loch an Dubh-Lochain ~ 18km; Day 2 –  via Gleann Meadail and up the River Carnach to the most northerly bend ~ 18km; Day 3 – back to Kinlochourn via Glean Unndalain and Barisdale ~21km

Total: 57km

Comments:

Knoydart is an absolutely incredible place, I would highly recommend going! However, good care and planning is required as the terrain can be difficult, weather forecasts are unreliable and it is very inaccessible and remote: in three days we saw 7 people between Kinlochhourn and Barisdale, and only 1 other person beyond that. Ensure you have plenty of supplies, escape options prepared and enjoy the heart of Scottish wilderness.

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!

Camping in the Cairngorms

Walk report

Last week I created my “munro map” on the Walkhighlands website, which showed me just how few I have climbed and filled me with motivation to get up some more at the weekend. Chris also had his new MSR Wind Burner stove to try out and our tent hadn’t had an airing for a while, as we’ve been using the van for our trips (eg. Kintyre, Cairngorms and Galloway and Dumfries), so I suggested that we go for a two day walk with a wild camp. On Thursday evening, we got the OS maps out and Chris showed me all the multi-day walks he has done in the Cairngorms, and I proposed a trip that combined two routes from the Munros book (Cameron McNeish) and included five new munros for me and four for Chris, with an obvious area for a camp (the first time I have come up with a route for us!).

We left on Friday night and drove up to Braemar with our usual lunch boxes of pizza for dinner; it such a bright night, the moon was casting shadows on the mountains. We had a fairly laid back start on Saturday, not leaving from the Lin of Dee until about 9.20am. We set off following the signs up the track through Glen Lui, towards Derry Lodge, as we had done a month or so ago. We stopped for snack but our break was cut rather short by the large number of midges, many of which were hiding in Chris’ rucksack. Rather than heading north into Glen Derry, we continued east to the Luibeg Bridge. This whole section is fairly flat with excellent paths and lovely scenery: we spotted lots of male bumblebees on the Devil’s-bit scabious and a red squirrel near to Derry lodge.

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After the bridge, there is a little bit of ascent that gives you good views down Glen Dee and Glen Geusachen, and then as the path curves around the bottom of Carn a’Mhaim, you get the first sight of the Devil’s Point and the Lairig Ghru.

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View from the Luibeg Bridge

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The Devil’s Point

We left the main path up the Lairig Ghru and crossed the river Dee at the bridge, heading up to Corrour Bothy. It was actually the first time that I had been inside a bothy and I honestly think that in summer I’d rather camp, although I can see that it would be much nicer in there if the weather was bad!

I actually found this long flat first stage the most difficult of the day; we left the bothy and attacked our first real ascent at 2pm and I found it much more enjoyable, perhaps due to the effort distracting me from aching feet and shoulders! Once onto the plateau, we nipped up to the Devil’s Point, where I looked up from chatting to sudden and absolutely amazing views that makes it feel really remote. There were also a couple of ptarmigan that waddled along ahead of us for a while: seeing them always makes me happy.

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From the top of the Devil’s Point

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Having taken in the endless landscape as best we could, we retraced our steps back to the top of the path above the bothy and then followed the edge of the plateau over one summit and on to the summit of Cairn Toul.

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Happy summit selfie (Cairn Toul)

Both of these summits are made up mainly of boulder fields, which isn’t too bad for the ascent but makes descending a bit trickier. At the top of Cairn Toul there are two cairns, the more northerly one (the second you reach from this direction) is the highest but the first is worth going to as the views are better, and they are pretty spectacular.

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On the way to Angel’s Peak

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Admiring the view

It didn’t take us long to follow the top of the cliffs down and then climb up to the top of the Angel’s Peak (Sgor an Lochain Uaine), which was our final munro of the day.

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Down into the Lairig Ghru

We then left the views of the coires, the Lairig Ghru and Ben Macdui behind us and descended south east down the ridge. There was no path here and we just picked our way down the patches of grass and boulders aiming to camp somewhere near the bottom of the saddle above Loch nan Stuirteag. As we wanted to be near some water and the flatter areas at the bottom looked boggy, we moved onto the north eastern side of the ridge and found a flattish patch near the streams that become Allt Luineag: it turns out slightly damp grass and moss makes a very nice tent base: easy to put the pegs in and very soft to sleep on.

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A lovely evening

The tent was up in minutes; we love our tent, it’s so sturdy and easy to put up and down. A herd of about 20 red deer watched us as the sun dropped. Dinner was also ready in minutes, which was a vast improvement to our last camping trip when we froze waiting to eat half crunchy, barely-warm noodles. So we were very impressed with the MSR stove performance, although conditions were very benign: there was almost not enough wind to keep the midges at bay.

We both had a lovely sleep: decent camping mats and sleeping bags have made a world of difference to our camping experiences! We woke up in a cloud as usual but the sun was trying to break through as we left camp at about 8.40am.

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Misty morning

Once we were up the steepest section of Monadh Mor, visibility became pretty poor and as the slope flattened off we started navigating properly and I got some great practice walking on bearings and timing distances. There was no obvious path and we walked to a bearing all the way to the saddle between Monadh Mor and Beinn Bhrotain, where the cloud lessened a little and clear path led up to the trig point.

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Chilly on top of Monadh Mor; not much of a view either.

All we needed to do from there was find our way down onto the track beside the river Dee to the White Bridge: easier said than done. We didn’t really want to climb the steep looking Cairn Cloch-mhuilinn and there was a lot of bog between us and it, so we tried a short-cut down beside the Allt Garbh straight to the track. No luck. Once around the shoulder of Cairn Cloch-mhuilinn, it became steep and there were other streams and gullies to cross, so we bashed through the heather all around the shoulder, under some slabby cliffs, back to the flatter ground leading to Carn Fiaclach. Short cuts never work and we had to break out the chocolate raisins! There was still no sign of a path and the ground wasn’t very easy as we made our way towards Carn Fiaclach. Don’t go right up this: it’s steep down the other side! We had to go down the south side and stomp through the heather and lumpy, holey ground right down to the track.

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The Allt Garbh is very pretty

I have to say, these last two munros were not much fun to get off and wouldn’t be much fun to get up either, so this route is a great way to get them done, without making a special trip for them. We had a paddle in the stream and ate our last rolls before marching along the path to the bridge. Here we had a little lie-down in the sun and some more chocolate raisins. From this point there is only the 5km or so to walk back along the track to the Lin of Dee, which didn’t take too long; we were back at the van by 4.30pm and ready for a meal in Blairgowrie on the way home.

A superb weekend!

Details

Distance: ~42 km

Time: 2 days (9 hrs + 7 hrs)

Summits: 5 munros, the Devil’s Point, Cairn Toul, the Angel’s Peak (Sgor an Lochain Uaine), Monadh Mor and Beinn Bhrotain

Comments:

Two good length days with a long flat walk-in and out. Excellent first day! Lots of  good paths but also some sections with no paths, so good navigation required in poor visibility. Good area to camp halfway with access to water. Not too boggy except for some patches on descent on the second day.

 

Most useful piece of kit/advice:

Jessica says: Make sure you know how to use a map and compass and take midge repellent. Chocolate raisins were also essential for this walk.

Chris says: For long distance walks it is important to conserve your energy. Using walking poles is a great way to do this: it saves the knees on the down hill a bit too.