Saturday 16 June 2018

First crossing

The Great Outdoors Challenge 2018

Yay! I found time to write this brief summary of my 1st (TGO Challenge) crossing from West to East Scotland, non-stop (almost) over 13 days covering some 200 miles.
As The Great Outdoors Challenge website site says "The TGO Challenge is a self-supported Scottish Coast to Coast backpacking adventure.  In essence it is about experiencing the remote parts of Scotland you can only reach by foot.  Wild camping is a large part of the experience."
I started from Mallaig, simply because 1. It has a direct train line from Glasgow. There were quite a number waiting for the train and I'm not saying that all Challengers are old, but Glasgow's Queens St Station had the look of a Saga day trip! 😜 2. the boat has an attraction, and 3. there is remote wilderness from the start! 
I walked solo, but inevitably, met and talked with other Challengers along the way.
'Check in' at Mallaig

Beautiful start day of the Challenge

Lots of Challengers thought this was a great starting point!
The weather was great to start this year's challenge. Having met one or two folk on the train from Glasgow, I didn't feel lonely. Indeed, before I got off the boat at Inverie, I had made 'friends' with a few challengers including Itai, Dara, 'Croydon', and last but not least, Jim D! More of him later :)
Below decks, and a wee dram with one of my new friends!

Day 1 - 11 May 2018
  • planned - Mallaig to Kinloch Hourn - 15.2 miles/Ascent 1159 mtrs 
  • actual - 15.8 miles/Ascent 1289 mtrs

And so we start.. (thanks for taking this Dara)
The Knoydart peninsula has the reputation of WET! however the first day started relatively dry...although I soon found out that meant underfoot!

So, that was the afternoon, then the clouds lowered. and we had some 'traditional' Scottish weather...

Looking back along Loch Hourn the end of the day

Day 2 - 12 May 2018
  • planned - Kinloch Hourn to Garryghalach - 12.6 miles/Ascent 589 mtrs 
  • actual - Kinloch Hourn to Bunkingie Forest to Doire Garbh 19.6 miles/Ascent 939 mtrs

This was an epic 10 hour walk, ave 2mph! Bunkingie Forest is not nice (be warned!), with overgrown tracks, thick low branches, fallen trees, and wet boggy hills), I probably covered 5 miles more than necessary!
Morning - damp tent - clear sky!

Loch Cuaich with peaks Meall a'Choire Charnaich & Bhuidhe

Knoydart bog...heading towards Bunkingie

Day 3 - 13 May 2018
  • planned - Garry Ghalach to Invergarry - 9.2 miles/Ascent 300 mtrs 
  • actual - Doire Garbh to Invergarry 10.5 miles/Ascent 311 mtrs

Nice steady day after yesterday's other extreme. Mainly forest tracks, which I had camped beside after failing to find the intended stop due to absence of a RoW. Arrived Saddle Mountain Hostel about noon, and couldn't get in until 4.00, but helpful hosts invited me to use the washing line/grass to dry stuff.. thanks, Helen & Greg. Rehydrated and filled my belly at Invergarry Hotel, at both lunch and dinner time! 😋 
When I got back to the hostel, who was in the room? None other than Jim D! Two days after I shared a pre-boat cuppa in the Cafe in Mallaig, this was the first time I had seen him since!

Sunny finish to Day 2

Day 3 morning cloud/drizze...

..which turned into rain...but sunny PM, and dried out at Saddle Mountain Hostel (recommended!)

Day 4 - 14 May 2018
  • planned - Invergarry to Black Burn Bothy -  16.5 miles/Ascent 752 mtrs 
  • actual - 17.6 miles/Ascent 838 mtrs

Jim D was still sorting himself out, when I left the hostel. After the enforced afternoon break yesterday, my feet had stopped 'talking to me!' No blisters, but I had felt like I was walking on pins and needles 😱 Another gorgeous day (most un-Scottish!), with more forest track, some road, Fort Augustus, and then my first section of General Wade's Military Road up to the Corrieyairack Pass
Loch Lundie

Overnight at Black Burn Bothy
My first overnight stay at a Bothy, was made all the more memorable by a fellow occupant, Alan B, bringing coal and making a great fire...very cosy! Chatted with fellow Challengers, Sally and Kevin, during the evening before they retired to their respective tents. I stayed in, and had difficulty sleeping, probably because of the warmth!

Day 5 - 15 May 2018
  • planned - Black Burn Bothy to Sherrabeg -  15.2 miles/Ascent 612 mtrs 
  • actual - Black Burn Bothy to Spey Dam 17.4 miles/Ascent 714 mtrs.

Again, early is best for me, and I was the first to leave the Bothy, to more sun. What happened next...? A little dot on the track ahead got closer, and it's someone walking towards me, I see now, it's a man, and then just as we meet and make eye contact, it's none other than Jim D! Strange, as he's currently walking WEST! His cooker had failed, and he's trying to get it sorted.
More interesting scenery, only spoiled by electric lines. Still a little snow on the high slopes

view from Garva Bridge - welcome coffee provided here by Steve (a former TGOCer)

Day 6 - 17 May 2018
  • planned - Sherrabeg to Kinguisse - 18.8 miles/Ascent 441 mtrs 
  • actual - Spey Dam to Kinguisse - 18.0 miles/Ascent 444 mtrs.

Spey Dam has few decent camp spots, but I found some flat land beside the river, got some sleep, then onto Laggan, or to be more precise The Laggan Stores & Coffee Bothy. Two breakfasts later, I was off to find Wade's road again. Appropriately nearing the middle of my walk, I find/pass the 'Centre of Scotland'! Crossing the (dangerous) A9, I find a huge empty space for 6 miles of total (stunning!) isolation before arriving at the impressive Ruthven Barracks and on to Kingussie 

Zero Day - 17 May 2018

  • planned - REST DAY in Kinguisse
  • actual - REST DAY in Kinguisse 😊 with my friend Ed Smith, adventure and landscape photographer (here's his website). Ed kindly taxied me down to Newtonmore Hostel where, apart from food and drink, is the full time base of the TGO Challenge Co-ordinators... as before I met more NEW friends to chat with, then off to see a (secret) waterfall in Glen Feshie. Also met more Challengers in the evening at The Tipsy Laird.. Frank & Ann-Sophie, Itai (again!), and Phil. Food and drink was consumed in great (international) company! Thank you all!

Day 7 - 18 May 2018
  • planned - Kinguisse to Ruigh Alteachain Bothy - 12.6 miles/Ascent 461 mtrs 
  • actual - Kinguisse to Glen Feshie (nr. Creag na Gaibhre) - 15.5 miles/Ascent 702 mtrs.

More beautiful landscapes, and dry weather as I set off into Glen Feshie! My plan to stop at the newly refurbished bothy was discarded, when I again arrived too early (4pm) to stop. With such long days, I like to keep going, assuming I'm feeling ok.

The power of water!

Glen Feshie

There's a tent under that there tree!

Day 8 - 19 May 2018
  • planned - Ruigh Alteachain Bothy to Ruigh Nan Clach - 12.6 miles/Ascent 401 mtrs 
  • actual - Glen Feshie (nr. Creag na Gaibhre) to Braemar - 21.3 miles/Ascent 626 mtrs.

Egged on by a couple of rouges (who shall remain nameless 😛), I walk much further today than intended! Passing White Bridge, lunch at Lin of Dee, tea and biscuits at Mar Lodge, and onto Braemar campsite for a welcome shower! After a bit of rehydration and FA Cup action, I happen upon Rob and Graham in the Hungry Highlander (and enjoyed my favourite meal of the walk - see below), then back to the Invercauld Arms Hotel, for drinks and more chat!

 Battered Haggis and Black Pudding with skin on chips - YUM!

Day 9 - 20 May 2018
  • planned - Ruigh Nan Clach to Garbh Allt Shiel - 15.3 miles/Ascent 264 mtrs 
  • actual - Braemar to Balmoral Estate - 9.8 miles/Ascent 308 mtrs.

Sooo...fortunately, I'm now 1/2 day ahead of schedule, and with a (small) hangover from last night, I actually wake after 6am! Left campsite at 10am, and passed today's planned stop point about 1pm, so continued into the Balmoral Estate. Although I felt OK, pushing onto Ballater today would mean arriving 24 hrs early! It seemed sensible to find a quiet spot on the estate for the night. I found the Woods of Garmaddie.
Hungry Highlander, Braemar

Secret spot in Balmoral Estate

Day 10 - 21 May 2018
  • planned - Garbh Allt Shiel to Ballater - 13.7 miles/Ascent 216 mtrs 
  • actual - Balmoral Estate to Ballater - 11.2 miles/Ascent 260 mtrs.

Bad day... not the weather, just me being ahead of schedule..I arrived at Lochnager Distillery at 8am! It doesn't open till 10, then at 9, staff started to arrive and the one of them kindly let me know the first available 'tour' was 11....😠 Doh.. I decide to walk on to Ballater, where I had booked the hostel for the night. Arrived Ballater at 12, and of course check-in is 5pm! Time for a familiarisation walk around the village. Lunch on the green, where I met Markus and Silke, both of whom were friendly, chatty, and positive. Lovely to met you both! Then more rehydrating and dinner in the Alexandra Hotel. 

One of the many commemorative monuments. Paid for by the servants! 


Day 11 - 22 May 2018
  • planned - Ballater to Tarfside - 16.7 miles/Ascent 983 mtrs 
  • actual - as planned - 17.1 miles/Ascent 1179 mtrs.

This is the day of my 1st Munro! Mount Keen. 939 mtrs. you can see below, it was a bit of a non-event. Cloud had descended, where the sun shone on the previous day...remember, the day I was kicking my heels, looking around Ballater wasting time...😡 Still, that's the way the cookie crumbles..
Tarfside was amazing, with the good folks a St.Drostans doing sterling work, and then the 'Club' near the field of tents, was cosy and great value alcohol..again, shared in great company! Oh, and Jim D was there! 

There's a summit there somewhere!

Alll downhill from here!

Day 12 - 23 May 2018
  • planned - Tarfside to North Water Bridge - 15.4 miles/Ascent 244 mtrs 
  • actual - as planned - 16.9 miles/Ascent 270 mtrs.

A relatively flat walk for the penultimate day, the morning spent in the company of Jim D!, and Sue Oxley in the afternoon. Great to chat to these experienced Challengers, it was a privilege. Thank you. 

Tarfside refuel point

River North Esk

Naughty @ The Tuck In, Edzell 😍

Day 13 - 24 May 2018
  • planned - North Water Bridge to Montrose - 11.7 miles/Ascent 128 mtrs 
  • actual - North Water Bridge to Kinnaber Links - 7.5 miles/Ascent 117 mtrs.

Last day 😥 but a nice short stroll to the coast. I joined up with a fellow Challenger (Stuart?), who made the mundane road walk bearable, then we continued onto Montrose. 
North Water Bridge

The North Sea - Kinnaber Links
So there it is, my 1st crossing completed, and an unforgettable experience. I found the walking relatively easy, but that was probably due to two things; 1. I had planned a '1st timer's crossing', which was not sufficiently demanding (with hindsight having completed the 630 mile SW Coast Path last year, with ascents equivalent to 5 x Everest, I should have gone higher) and 2. the stunningly good weather. 
I learnt so much about the country, and hope to come back to put that experience to good use. The friends made a long the way have made this so much more than a long walk! Thank you all so much, especially the ones I haven't mentioned (mainly because there were so many!). Also, a big thanks to those wonderful individuals that donated to my appeal, raising money for the Scottish Mountain Rescue service. The page is still open if you feel you can support this great cause HERE
If you would like to see more images from my crossing click HERE for my Flickr album

A footnote about footwear...After reading the TGOC message board, I decided to hedge my bets, and add the option of a pair of 'Trail Running' shoes to my traditional leather walking boots, mainly because they dry out! So I purchased a pair of Salomon XA Pro 3D shoes in March, but in just two months of serious training, the tread was worryingly low! I contacted Salomon and they agreed to replace them under warranty. I opted for the Speedcross Pro 2 shoes (slightly more expensive, but lighter) they arrived 7 days before the Challenge start! I have to say they were superb, definitely lighter and less bulky than the XAs, also a great fit despite being narrow. They worked so well in the swamp (AKA Knoydart!), as they seemed to squeeze the water back out as I walked! BUT, the tread is soft just like the XAs, and I have just submitted another claim because I believe they should last a bit longer than 250 miles! Am I asking too much of this type of shoe? I have asked Salomon the same question.

Dinner Night - with excellent speakers

I found this remarkable mural decorating a car park in Glasgow on route home


  1. A bit late finding this (2 years!)...greetings from the US Neil. I agree that was a very enjoyable international dinner in Kingussie! Hope you and your family are healthy and doing well. Phil

    1. Hi Phil.. lol! It was fun! Yes thank you, all well here, and I hope you and your family are well too. Take care, and you never know we may meet again in that beautiful country!