The Great Outdoors (TGO) Challenge 2016

The 18:20 from Glasgow Queens Street to Mallaig halted at Garelochhead because of a fire close to the tracks. I joined the crew and passengers enjoying the sunset. It was a clear evening.

Looking at the surrounding mountains I recalled some of the highlights of my previous years. In 2012 walking along Loch Leven in very high wind and horizontal cold rain wondering if this was normal for the TGO. That day is now referred to as Hurricane Sunday. A few days later I fell into a fast flowing burn. Somehow I managed to extract myself and finish at Luan Bay. With many blisters and physically drained.

Memories of the great wild campsites. Corrour Ruin, with snow during the night, Pennan Bay, Loch Tummel. One very cold morning I was offered a cup of tea by a couple in a camper van parked next to my tent. They said “we were cold last night so you must have been freezing”. A cup of tea never tasted so good!

On my first challenge I knocked on the door of a Pub at Inverkeil before opening time. When they heard that I was 2km from finishing they gave me a pint as they could not legally sell it.

Places like Falls of Glomach, Glen Affric, Ruigaitechain Bothy, Cona Glen and Glen Feshie. Traversing the Fetteresso Forest with Andy and Humphrey finding the campsite and a special Ice Cream Parlour in Stonehaven. So many good memories.

The solitude of walking for hours alone, other times meeting old and new friends at a camp or pub. No Cell phone or internet!

The pain of the blisters, the cold wet nights in the tent, the tiredness and the many Km of cold deep bogs have all faded from my memory. Only good memories remain.

Two weeks later I was cooking my last breakfast at Bridgewater Campsite. This was another clear and dry morning. This time my thoughts were of this year’s trip.

The ferry crossing from Mallaig to Inverie was a calm and clear day. Then an easy walk to Sourlies to a good camp site.

The long tiring climb along Allt Coire nan Uth, and steep descent the other side then along the left bank of River Kingie, with a heavy first days pack.

Day three started easy but soon the track on the map was not on the very bogy ground. It ended at a 2 meter fence that I had to climb. An emergency camp site was not found until 8pm, making a 12 hour day. I had my best nights sleep!

Dinner at Ian's Restaurant.
Dinner at Ian’s Restaurant.

After a night in Fort Augustus, over the Corieyairack Pass, to Garva Bridge. Ian Sheil met 5 wet and tired walkers with hot cups of tea from his camper van. He had a bowl of soup for us at 7.30pm.   People like him make the challenge special.

On to Coylumbridge campsite via Laggan and Newtonmore. Over Lairig Ghru to the social centres of Braemar, Ballater, and Tarfside. With a stops at Mar Lodge and Balmoral Castle for tea and sandwiches. Each place memorable in their own way. For the first 8 days I met few other challengers. Now every day, like ants drawn to sugar, challengers were appearing at every watering hole.

Some mountains disguise themselves with easy approaches. They entice backpackers with gentle climbs through beautiful forests. Just as I wondered why the Vetter required a Foul Weather Alternative the going suddenly got tough. The Corieyairack gives you very cold strong winds at the summit. With Lairing Ghru several Boulder fields have to be crossed. There is no way around them. The narrow valley at over 900 meters means the winds will funnel through here on most days. Snow fields were crossed. I would not want to be in either place in bad weather. I was lucky that the weather was good. Good for Scotland that is…

Mount Keen is different. She stands proud and tall for everyone to see. What you see is what you get! The trail would be a river on wet days and it only gets steeper as you near the top. Down the other side is a very rocky path. Then a long hike passing Queen’s Well, before the heavy rain started. The refreshments in Tarfside make it all worthwhile.

The TGO is a unique event. You choose your route and do it at your own pace. If your backpacking experience is on “manicured” paths that are marked, and the hard parts made easy by boardwalks and handrails, you will be in for a new experience. In Scotland trails on the map may not exist on the ground. New forest and wind turbine roads appear that are not on the map. Bridges are washed away every year. Some are dangerous but are crossed with care and a prayer. Rivers have to be waded. Sometimes you have to walk a long way up-stream to find a safe crossing.

The mountains, valleys, rivers, forests and wildlife make each hour enjoyable no matter how hard the terrain underfoot is. Even on the wet days with low cloud cover the rivers and mountains have their own beauty.

I always meet someone when advice or encouragement is needed, or just someone to walk a few Km with. Or to share a dram or a pint with in a remote wild camp.

All too soon it was time to pack up my tent, put on my backpack for the last time and walk to the coast. Challenge Control, run by an excellent team of volunteers, is at the Park Hotel and they give you a warm welcome. The bar is well stocked. I know I will be back. Hope to see you then.

Andy Howell has produced The TGO song, which when sung as a group, makes the miles pass quickly.  I was honoured to hear a live performance on the final day in the Fetteresso Forest in 2015.

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