Sunday, 15 September 2013

TGO Challenge 2012 - Braemar to Loch Callater Lodge

Day 10, and the hangover was serious.  Really serious.

The 'deluxe' breakfast at my 'deluxe' bed and breakfast accommodation was hovering at around 'average'.  Some of it struggled it's way into my stomach through the oscillating waves of nausea.  I was most anti-social with the owner of the establishment, which is unlike me in normal circumstances.  Anyway, they deserved little attention for being so average.  Average would have been fine, had they not been so bold about the 'deluxe' offering, and had also not charged a 'deluxe' price.  Enough with the moaning, on to the supersonic day I was about to have.

I had already peeped outside, and had been greeted with the beginnings of a most glorious day.  I left my partially masticated petit dejeuner and swayed my wobbly self up to my room.
Gathering my things together, I packed in a haphazard fashion. I dumped my £300 camera (already confirmed as defunct) in the waste paper basket in my room and made sure it was the only thing I had left behind.  Having already paid, I crept out the front door of the mediocre Clunie Lodge B & B without a word.

Most of the day was spent strolling about in Braemar, I was killing time.   I watched for reds again by the bridge, browsed Braemar Mountain Sports for the umpteenth time, and picked up a teeny Michelin map of Scotland which promised to be perfect for planning my NEXT crossing.  I still  haven't found that map!
I remember very little detail about my day in Braemar, having done little that was either specific, or particularly interesting to anyone else.

The things that do resonate in my mind, are the people. The 'challenge' folk. They (you) are mostly bloody lovely.
I bounced from conversation to conversation with folk like Louise, JJ, Lynsey and Alistair (including a million tummy tickles with Isabel), Alan and Andy, Jim Davidson (who sadly had to leave his crossing due to a family illness), countless others wafted in and out of my day. It became a joy, out of the bleary fog from whence it came.
I guess it was mid-afternoon before I got itchy feet. I had to ensure a healthy stock of malted grains so found myself outside the little co-op decanting golden fluid from a lovely glass bottle into a scabby plastic one in unison with one Andrew Walker. He assured me I would need all of it.  I didn't argue.

I whiled another half hour before setting off down the road past the Golf Course with a lovely challenger called David who was off up Morven to bag it's summit.  It really was a terrific day.  He left the lane and I carried on only to overshoot the turning for the bridge.  Clambering the deer fence and tramping through a mushy paddock, I regained my intended route, realising that I actually hadn't overshot after all. Ahem!

It was a true saunter along the lane to Loch Callater Lodge and I bumped into several folk along the way.  Tim (?) from Manchester (?) was belting up the track when I had paused for a chat with John who was wearing a luridly coloured anorak. John is one of the stronger, more vivid characters that the challenge has to offer.  He has a personality it is difficult to forget. You may have seen his YouTube clip explaining why there were actually just 2 days left of his challenge when he was only two thirds the way done. Look it up on Alan Sloman's blog, it's a smasher.

Arriving at Callater Lodge, I was beginning to get a taste of the magic of the place within minutes.  I was thrust into the little 'kitchen' area and proffered bacon rolls and tea. I stuffed these into my mouth and greedily drank my tea down.  I then stuffed some cash into the tin at the side of the table.  There wasn't a price list or a tender taking money, a most alien feeling for a townie like me where everything is labelled, logged, tilled and overpriced.  The chinwaggery continued for some time and would have never ended, but I pushed outside to pitch my tent.  Space was becoming premium.

An hour or so later the call of "Stovies" was hollered and a few folk headed into the kitchen again.  A huge pot of hot potato & meat 'stew' was bubbling on the stove,  and I was urged again to take a plate which was filled with a dollop of stovies and a handful of oatcakes.  It was was delicious stodge, which I hadn't really earned and again I wasn't charged for.  I stuffed some more money in the tin.
This place is ridiculously fabulous.  Not, I stress, because of the sustenance in vast supply, but the warmth with which it is offered. I was beginning to fall in love.

I realise that I haven't even begun to describe the setting!  I'll let the pictures do the talking.  They are at the end of the post.

More folk we arriving  - Ngumo and Di showed up and set about making camp close by, as did PC Dave Pickles.  He popped his Akto up near to mine, I was glad - he's a diamond.
The afternoon turned to evening, almost without a though I grabbed my whisky and aimed squarely for the lounge, where folk were relaxing and stories were already beginning to be shared.
There was Croydon Mick, Stefan from Belgium (?), Alan, Andy, Lynsey, JJ, Ian C, Doha Jim, John (the aforementioned).  And of course after much cajoling there was Lynsey Pooler, who had a surprise in store for her.  This room must have been palatial, but it wasn't.  It was cosy.   The gas light flickered and hissed and signing began in earnest.  Beer was being handed out, freely.  The generosity was limitless, as was proven when the Laphroaig was proffered to ALL in decent measure.
A quaich was passed gently round the room in a pleasing round and salutations a plenty were shared.  Banter and insults strewn about, the likes of "shut the fuck up!" yelled by JJ to Andy, as he belted another liquor fuelled folk song into the room.  It was a good song too, I recall - "oh good ale, thou art my darling, thou art my joy, both night and morning!".  I could not agree more with the sentiments of this song - I've included a link to it at the bottom of the post.
Bill, the most hospitable, warm, friendly man I have met, was our head host and gave a rendition or three of some lovely songs and verses, my favourite being 'The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen' (a link to this is included at the bottom of the post).  It left tears in my eyes (aided and abetted by the booze, I have no doubt). The situation was so delightful I didn't want to leave.
There was a round of 'music man' too which included the impromptu verse of "I can play the blister scream, blister scream, blister scream" arranged by one Alan Sloman.  Alan had developed a blister in case you didn't know. He was quiet about it though. Never made a fuss once.  Not a whimper.  Nothing - a real 'ard nut.  ;-)  That's about the way of it, Alan.  Right? ;-)

I am well aware that the order of these events may not be laid out precisely as they occurred, but spare me the corrections - I was hammered!

The entire room erupted in a chorus of "Happy Birthday" as a large chocolate cake adorned with a blinding number of candles was escorted into the room for Lynsey, at which point she immediately realised why she had been bullied so vehemently into heading up to Loch Callater.  Lynsey's husband, Alistair, had made the cake and gone to huge effort to get the masterpiece up to the lodge during the afternoon, assisted by others including JJ who had also circulated a birthday card among what seemed to be the entire challenge community.  She was clearly overwhelmed and delighted, if a little abashed by all the attention. 

Long did the convivialities continue until at one point I fell drunkenly onto Stefan who failed to bat an eye lid.  He simply laughed and helped me up into my seat. It was clearly time for me, at least, to retire.  I composed myself as best I could before staggering outside to a sky that was so peppered with stars, planets and galaxies that it hurt my eyes.  I began waxing loudly about them until I was politely reminded by Ian Cotterill where I was.  Yes, I was enthusiastically bellowing out in the middle of a campsite full of sleeping challengers.  At long past midnight!  Thanks Ian, sometimes the drunken one needs a nudge of reality! :-)

I found a suitable place to empty my bladder, and tumbled into my Moment.  I had reached the end of a day had furnished me with such a collection of great memories.  I knew by now that I would be crossing this way again on a future challenge.  I wholly recommend that you do too.

A lovely day in Braemar

The River Dee, Braemar
The track to Callater Lodge
Blue skies over the Cairngorms

Some photos require no caption
Loch Callater Lodge
Charles (Ngumo) and Di.  Triffic pair of challenge folk.
Just a Moment, is that a Laser, or two, and an Akto?
The growing encampment at Loch Callater Lodge
The dim,  and oh so atmospheric, gas lighting of Loch Callater Lodge
The last stand?
Above Loch Callater
Come back again in a few months to see if I have made it to day 11.

The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen
Oh Good Ale

Saturday, 6 July 2013

TGO Challenge 2012 - Mar Lodge to Braemar

Waking at Mar Lodge in the ballroom is, at first, slightly bewildering.  Tearing one's eyes open, the first thing one sees is the front-end remnants of thousands of massacred Red Deer, each gazing macabrely down with eyeless sockets.  After a moment the 'fog' clears and the memory returns.  Thoughts and recollections of the previous day's socialising begin to muster and you realise it is time for coffee. 

I can't remember if l opted for the Mar Lodge breakfast or even if one was available. If there was, l feel sure it would have been magnificent.

There is no need to rush when there is only a couple of hours' walk ahead for the whole day. In fact in terms of pure exploration alone, l really wish l had gone through the Morven Birkwood and up to the Tomintoul view point before heading into Braemar.  Instead, I chose to walk the road, bumping into many other challengers along the way.

Arriving in Braemar was a joy. I located my accomodation - an over-claimed, over-priced and under-performing "deluxe" room at the Clunie Lodge b&b - and headed straight back to town.

l remember now having breakfast at a little café with lots of pine, so I guess I didn't eat at Mar Lodge, or maybe I did both!   Having only just had breakfast, it wasn't quite lunchtime,  so after a coffee and a 'paper I went browsing.

Braemar Mountain Sports had a lot of visitors that day.  I procured some urethane sole repair to re-stick some loose bits on my New Balance shoes. They had fared ok thus far but took a hammering coming out of Glen Feshie.  The sole repair held and I am still using the shoes these days on my Sunday strolls. 

Feeling a little parched, I nipped into the Fife for pre-lunch hydration.  This comprised a good few pints of Belhaven "Best" (ahem!) and a glass of Royal Lochnagar "Special Reserve" (special indeed).  I shared some time with Alan Callow at the Fife. Alan had swapped his Paramo for a brand new 3-layer laminated number at Aviemore.  I remembered him commenting about the Paramo when l had seen him at our Findhorn camp.  Clearly he is a man who confronts his gear problems head-on! 

I was feeling the effects of my 'refreshments' by now so I set about ordering a plate of calories.  I settled on an ironic 'Cumberland' Sausage and demolished it, swallowed another "Best" and stumbled in the sunshine back to my digs for a bit of gear sorting.  I began with the odds and sods bag, putting it on the bed and tipping out all the bits in a heap next to me.

3 hours later I woke up next to the pile of bits and finished the task.

I went back into town for a head clearing gaze up the Dee from the bridge and a general mooch about.  No Dippers this year, but a cool little Red Squirrel made an appearance.

The Moorfield House had promised good music, decent food and fine challenge company.  It delivered on the latter two.  The music, however, was shit.

I managed to locate fellow East Anglian Andrew Walker for the first time and Alan Sloman too. JJ and Louise (comatose - she'd had a rough one) arrived, Lynsey was also in attendance, heck, everyone was there.  I think it was during this evening that Lynsey convinced me to alter my route on Day 10 to drop in at Callater Lodge.  Apparantly it was essential.

It was late when I hobbled down the lane with 'Croydon' Mick and Alan (complete with his blister), so late that there was no time for a last pint at the Fife.  So we went in anyway!  My already hazy memory disappears completely here, so I assume my day reached its end.

The photographs included are all that l managed on Day 9.  Sorry!

Saturday, 20 April 2013

TGO Challenge 2012 - Ruigh Aiteachain to Mar Lodge

It feels like only yesterday that l was writing Day 7. It wasn't. It was months ago!  Nevertheless, here is Day 8.

Waking up early in my usual 'get the day started before it's started' fashion, I crept about the bothy with great stealth.  In doing so I managed to wake up both Grant and Tim from their deep and snoring slumber.
I gathered my kit together, brushed the powdery whitewash from my quilt, and packed my bag. Outside, it was beginning to snow. Just lightly but the wind was coming down the glen. I, was travelling UP the glen.  As I filled my water bottle from the tiny burn above the bothy I surveyed the scene.  Ruigh Aiteachain's curtilage was strewn with temporary shelters and resembled some sort of refugee camp. Looking further into Glen Feshie there were more tents, some by the trail, others tucked in behind a pine or some grassy knoll. 30 plus, maybe?

Stepping down, I bumped into Stickman who was just beginning his morning routine.  We chatted for a moment and Lynsey joined us having surfaced from her tent so we chatted some more.
I had earmarked a spot just past White Bridge to aim for that evening, I could see the weather was a bit grim so I bade farewell to my friends and set off.

Upper Glen Feshie

Upper Glen Feshie

Upper Glen Feshie
I passed a few landslides as the path rose above the Glen floor and imagined myself passing just at the moment they occurred.  The sound deafening, and if too close, I would doubtless be drawn down with the shifting rocks and soil.  I would almost certainly not survive the ordeal.  Oddly, my pace (and heart rate) quickened as I passed each of the scenes of destruction where huge, mature pines had been relocated by a hundred metres or more.


Waterfall - obviously.
I walked alone for most of the first hour or so and the glen was piled with atmosphere, . The paths in the uppermost part of the glen were largely thick and wet black peat, which made the going quite tough.  The challenge to stay upright was, interesting.  During one of the moments I did have a companion, I slipped and slammed into the ground.  Thankfully the impact was softened by the heather and mosses and I escaped without physical injury.  My pride, however, was not totally unscathed.

I walked with these chaps for a short while, and my memory fails me as far as their names are concerned.  Folks, if you recognise yourself in these pictures, I'm sorry - please introduce yourself again in the comments.
Eidart Bridge

Eidart Bridge

Eidart Bridge and the innominate gentlemen

Jim Davidson, where the Glen begins to top out.
Right about where the River Feshie bends away to the south at the top of the glen the surroundings become much more like Pennine moorland - featureless at close quarters. It was here that I became strangely disorientated and lost confidence in my position.  Checking the map confirmed where I was and I set a bearing which pointed directly along the trail I was following at the time.  Nevertheless I didn't believe it was right and the irrational diminution of my confidence continued.  
I didn't like it, and felt very uneasy.
I stopped to scrutinise the facts offered by the landranger, compass, and the surrounding terrain. Everything added up, yet I was still unsure.  I pulled out my 'phone and fired up the mapping application. The GPS got a fix straight away and confirmed what I should have already known - I was right all along. To this day I still can't put my finger on what was going on in my head.

I reached White Bridge and dismissed it as a spot to camp. It was most uninviting, and I wasn't in the best frame of mind.  I already had my spot planned out in my head and kept plodding along.  As I reached my self-allocated pitch I still wasn't happy.  I made the decision to get as far as Mar Lodge.  I wanted company this evening.

As I descended the weather improved.  The Linn of Dee was just a few minutes walk now and memories of a holiday with Mrs M came bursting into my head. It was on that holiday that Linda and I had taken a walk up Lui Water to the Salmon ladder, I spent a good while taking film on my video camera that day, and found a huge Wood Ant hill and took a long time studying their movements around the colony.  As these memories forced their way to the front of my mind my mood changed and I became elated.  The sunshine began to poke it's way through the cloud and I practically skipped past the little signs that the Mar Lodge Estate had put up welcoming us TGO Challengers for refreshments.

Many of you will know Mar Lodge.  For those who do not, this place seems to fit in, where so many other huge shooting lodges do not when it comes to the Scottish Glens.  I am thinking of Coignafearn as an example, which juts out like a boil on a maiden's face on the Findhorn.  Mar Lodge is partially concealed by the trees at the bottom of the glen and for me, it works.  
The ballroom, Mar Lodge

Mar Lodge
I arrived at Mar Lodge and was directed to the Gun Room where all the lovely refreshments of Tea, Coffee, Soup, Rolls and the promise of a nice grassy pitch was offered.  I gladly accepted all of the above and went out to pitch my tent.
The Gun Room, Mar Lodge (Lynsey, Gayle, Mick, Jim D & others)

The Gun Room, Mar Lodge (Colin, behatted)
It was whilst I was waiting for my refreshments I was offered the chance to sleep in the ballroom at Mar Lodge, I had declined the offer initially, having pitched my tent, but was urged to take a look.
The Mar Lodge Ballroom

The Mar Lodge Ballroom

The Mar Lodge Ballroom
I accepted.

I also accepted a three course dinner (with a bottle of red), use of the shower facilities and more tea, which Mick Blackburn (of Mick and Gayle origin) willingly coordinated for us all.  For those of you who have yet to meet Mick and Gayle, you are missing out.  They are truly great, and warm people.  If if you are looking for a backpacking story, they'll not disappoint.  Lovely, lovely couple.  

We sat at our table in the kitchen by the Gun Room and dined like monarchs (albeit not quite in the same robes).
Terry Leyland, and Alan (surname TBC)

Jim Davidson, and Willem Fox, the smashing chap in the middle's name escapes me - help anyone?  Please.

Mick, Gayle, My seat, Chris, and a lovely lady whose name also escapes me.  This is getting embarrassing 
After dinner, we chatted, and finished our beers, wines, etc by the fire in the Gun Room. Dozens of folk passed through that evening and I retired to the Ballroom where sleeping bags we laid out battalion fashion on the floors.  This took me by surprise as my kit was the only stuff laid out when I had left it.

I lay there, stuffed, drunk and satisfied.  Thinking of what had passed, what was to come, and before long I was fast asleep.  

Just 5 miles tomorrow - into Braemar.