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I have walked the Speyside way from Newtonmore to Buckie, but I hadn't done the spurs to either Tomintoul or Dufftown which was the aim of this year's Challenge. As always the real highlight was bumping into people on the way, the unexpected acquaintances, meeting people I wouldn't normally have spoken to and the drinks in the pub. I'm no Bill Bryson but here is my diary from 2019, written at times lying on my stomach exhausted in a tent.
(sorry for the lack of photo's, I can't work out how to upload them)
The TGO Challenge 2019
Strathcarron – Lunan Bay
Thursday 9th May
My flight from Luton to Inverness was delayed by 90 minutes due to an air traffic controllers strike in France but I waited until 7pm before giving in and having a glass of wine. The flight was full and low cloud prevented me from seeing anything until we landed. I walked off the plane and found that my rucksack was the first bag to come off the baggage carousel and then got straight onto a bus and into town. Plane to bus in less than five minutes, very impressive. Travelodge for the night.
Friday 10th May
When Weatherspoon’s opened at 7am I was the first one in as I wanted a breakfast before my train to the Kyle of Lochalsch less than two hours later. On the train I shared a table with Mike and his son, Mike I had met on last year’s challenge when he woke me up with a Welsh accent. At Strathcarron we got off and went to the adjacent hotel to sign out. Seventeen people had already signed out today, all of them at 9am. We had a mug of luke-warm tea each and then got going on this year’s TGO Challenge.
I walked half a mile down the road, hopped over two fences to clear the railway line and then wetted my boots in the sea and picked up a small pebble to carry with me. I went back to the road, walked the half mile back and then took a path south to Bendronaig Lodge. I met an American chap coming the other way who was on the CWT. He said hello but weirdly was putting on blue surgical gloves. His German girlfriend followed him 20 yards behind and was far more sociable and stopped for a chat. Later on I caught up with Mike and son and Lindy who had all stopped to talk to two others walking the CWT. After that we all walked to Bendronaig bothy where we stopped for lunch.
After 45 minutes I bade farewell and started walking north on hydro tracks until they ran out at Loch an Laoigh. After this the going got tough and became very wild. I saw one man camping 300ft below me in the valley and then came across another one putting his tent up in a storm who wasn’t in the mood for a conversation. The hail was intense and I put on my waterproofs only to find it stopped almost immediately. I crossed the bealach and headed down on a path to cross the Allt a Chonais where there is a wire bridge which I didn’t need to use as the water was so low. Then it was on a good land rover track to Glenuaig Lodge where I found a Dutchman and Dave. Dave I knew from last year’s Challenge when we stayed at the Shelin of Mark. After chatting I went to bed sleeping in an outbuilding that had been left unlocked.
Saturday 11th May
I departed at 7.02am and walked east down the valley over rough ground before finding the path. It was a fabulous walk in wild, remote country with the solitude such countryside deserves. The path disappeared and then reappeared and I made it to Loch Beannacharain where I walked on the south side of the loch in very rough terrain. A mile out of Inverchoran whilst having lunch I met two day hikers who had left some supplies at Luipmaldrig bothy for their wives who were on a hike together. Two hours later I made it to the bothy and discovered they had left coal and what looked like gin which I left untouched. I rested for 45 minutes and then pressed on.
After leaving Luipmaldrig I crossed the river and had a most glorious walk along the river towards the Orrin Reservoir. The reservoir only extends as far as it does on the map during flood, but the rest of the time and certainly during this dry period, it was down a long way. In the dried up bottom of the reservoir I could see all the petrified remains of forests from thousands of years ago. It was at this point that I looked over and saw three women 50 yards away. Strange to see someone here I thought, but they turned out to be the “Osprey Girls” (as they called themselves) who were on their way to the bothy where they told me that two of their husbands had left supplies for them. We had a chat and carried on. The terrain is wild and slow going and the path frequently disappears. Eventually I reached a bulldozed track that took me to Hydro bothy and then walked a further three miles on good tracks to camp next to a locked building at a place called Tighachrochadair which was an estate house that had been abandoned when the final tenant moved out 25 years ago. It was gone 8pm and I had walked 26 miles so I pitched my tent in the lee of the building had some food and got my head down for the night.
Sunday 12th May
A cold night with a frost but my three / four season sleeping bag kept me quite warm. The walk in the morning was quite easy and I walked the seven miles to Beauly in just 3.5 hours where I arrived at the railway station just three minutes before a train to take me to Inverness. I had burger and chips in Wetherspoon’s and bought some more provisions in Blacks. Whilst waiting for a train to Beauly a chap asked me if I was on the Challenge. He was as well but is in the control room next week so is on a short northerly crossing this year. I chatted to him and his wife and then got the train back to Beauly and booked into the Priory Hotel. Dinner was fish and chips and a can of McEwans beer sat outside the chip shop. Lots of work on the feet tonight with various creams.
Monday 13th May
Excellent breakfast and then off over Lovat Bridge and into the The Aird Forest. The going underfoot was nice and firm but navigation was a bit difficult in the trees. I walked along the Great Glen Way for a short while and met several people who I ended up explaining the Challenge to. After Achpopuli I was on rough trackless ground again for a mile or so until I picked up a track down into Drumnadrochit. Here I turned west for half a mile to go to the Nessie Hotel for a rather expensive coke and ice cream. Then it was a miles hike east to Temple Pier for the boat across Loch Ness. Only three of us were waiting at first but by 4pm there were 15 of us and 12 went on the first boat across. At 5pm I was on the list and it took 35 minutes to reach Inverfarigaig on the other side. Then it was a two mile plod up a road, up a hill to Ault na Goire where we were met with tea and cakes. Dinner I was in the second sitting and had leek and potato soup followed by lasagne, potatoes and salad; then rhubarb and ice cream. Those with wine shared it around and we sat and chatted. Great company but what wonderful hospitality! Twenty three tents camped here tonight.
Tuesday 14th May
Ault na Goire cooked us all a full breakfast along with tea, coffee, cereal and toast. This plus dinner and camping they charged us £23 which I thought was excellent value. I also had a change of plan and rather than disappearing into the Monadhliath on my own all day I decided to walk with the others and enjoyed a pleasant few hours walking with Mike and son, Louise and a couple of others. Near Aberarder House we all stopped for a rest next to the river, initially just us then seven of us by the time I left to start the ascent with more on the way. We climbed up Allt Mor at our own paces, taking our time and trying to stay cool in the bright sun. At a shooting hut we all rested for half an hour before I got going and climbed another 300ft to the summit and then had a long descent down the other side into Glen Mazeran. At Glenmazeran lodge I joined a road and then half a mile up the road left to cross the River Findhorn by Dalmigavie Lodge. Here I rested for 30 minutes drinking directly from the fresh mountain water before starting another hot climb.
The sun shone long and hard and it was very hot so I stopped frequently for water. Close to the top of the rounded hill I stopped for a break at a shooting hut and then ploughed across thick gorse to cross out of the Monadhliath and down towards Carrbridge. I was very unsure of where I was and I checked my direction several times with a compass, but it turned out that my navigation had been spot on and I camped at 8.30pm 100 yards from a farm called Insharn next to a gurgling brook which I drank from. I ate some camp food which was very warm due to being heated up by the sun all day. I also found my chocolate had melted and was very runny.
Wednesday 15th May
I got up at 7.30am and left 45 minutes later. I was tired and sore after yesterday but I knew it would only be a short four miles into Carrbridge due to all the miles walked yesterday. The station is actually half a mile outside the village and I got there in just over an hour, and was able to catch a late running train southbound to Aviemore. Here I washed my clothes in the laundry, replenished my supplies and posted some maps home. After drying everything I went to the community centre for a shower where I dried myself using a hair dryer as I don’t carry a towel. Lunch was chicken and mayonnaise baguette and a pot of tea. A lunch time pint before the train back to Carrbridge and then another couple of pints were consumed whilst waiting for my B&B to open. Dinner was in the hotel up the road and I had gammon, bacon and mashed potato.
Thursday 16th May
A long day but good underfoot conditions made for fast walking. I left Carrbridge and was in Boat of Garten 2.5 hours later. Then I made for Nethy Bridge where I stopped at a shop for food. Whilst sitting outside I was joined by David, also on the Challenge and who described his experience so far as being really rather dull. We were then joined by a cyclist and we all sat and chatted at a picnic bench for half an hour or so.
After lunch I shunned a path and went straight up a road instead. It wasn’t a bad decision as I passed 6 or 7 groups of youngsters doing the DoE and I stopped and chatted to all of them. I met one of their teachers at the top of a track and he kindly topped up my water bottle for me from two containers in the back of his car. About an hour later I walked round a corner and bumped into Lindy who I hadn’t seen since the first day. After a chat I got going and walked the remaining 8 miles into Tomintoul and got a B&B for the night.
Dinner was mince and onion pie with potatoes and peas. The beer was good, but it was only in the evening when it got cold I discovered I had lost my jumper. I think I must have left it in the pub last night.
Friday 17th May
I bought a new jumper in the shop next door when it opened at 9am. This forced me to have a nice long lie-in and a late breakfast, but I am on holiday. Then I got going on the unwalked spur of the Speyside Way I was yet to complete. The weather was sunny but windy and I was glad I had my new top to put on. The walk was easy to follow and well-marked out and by 4pm I had completed the spur and was stood on the A95 wondering what to do next. The plan had to be to head into a forest and camp, but I noticed it was on a hill and that it was being cut down, surely not a safe place to camp. I looked at google maps which told me I was just 1hr 52mins from Aberlour, so I put my map away, turned east and walked down the road. It was dull, soporific and little to commend it. I arrived shortly after 6pm and Airbnb found me a room in the Aberlour Hotel just across the road. I had a lovely shower and then sausage and chips from the chippie across the road and then a few pints. I saw no-one from the Challenge today and met only a single solitary walker on the Tomintoul spur of the Speyside Way who commented that she walked here frequently and I was the first walker she had come across!
Saturday 18th May
I was about ten miles ahead of schedule which meant I could use today as a rest day. I walked east down the long high street, joined an old railway line and then walked the six miles to Dufftown. I saw few walkers and the walk was pleasant enough although it was raining fairly heavily. At Dufftown the first thing I came to was the Keith and Dufftown Railway where I stopped for a pot of tea in the buffet. Afterwards I went to find my Airbnb which was a huge apartment which I had to myself and is probably twice the size of my flat. The shower was hot and there was a washing machine which I made use of. I walked back to the railway for the 1.30pm return trip to Keith and ended up chatting to an ex-eurostar train manager. A visit to the co-op got me a frozen pizza for dinner and then I relaxed in front of the TV watching Man City stuff Watford in the Cup Final.
I had a couple of beers in local bars but had a problem in one where a very drunk local man decided to sit next to and then start hugging me. I walked away and threw darts at the dartboard for 15 minutes until I could finish my pint and escape. In The Seven Stills pub I looked at the bar and saw no beers. I asked what they served and was told they only served bottled beers and there were people waiting to be served in front of me who wanted whisky. I took the hint and left the pub without having anything.
Sunday 19th May
At the last moment I chose to take a valley route rather than go over the tops and with hindsight it was an excellent choice and one of the best bits of the challenge. I walked down Glenfiddich, passed the derelict Glenfiddich Lodge and then followed the River Fiddich on a land-rover track south up and over the watershed into Glenlivet. The Glen was very close in at times and it’s quite amazing they put such a well-made track down here in the first place. It was fast, beautiful and I didn’t need my trekking poles. Signs both ends of the pass say it is 15,500m in length, quite way they don’t just call it 9 miles is a mystery to me. After 4.5 hours I came to Suie bothy where I noticed in the guest book that a challenger had stayed here last night. After a half hours rest I took a path south-east up the Kymah Burn which gradually got fainter and fainter until it disappeared altogether in the peat hags on the rounded top they call a summit. Eventually I located a land-rover track and this took me down to Glenbuchat Lodge then over a small hill on a tarmac road. It was on this stretch I came across four people on a meander from their holiday cottage a short way away.
I ended the day at the village of Bellabeg. The spar shop had closed hours ago, this being a Sunday, but I found an excellent place to pitch my place at a picnic site next to a public toilet and just 50 yards from a very famous sign point to a place called Lost. As one challenger later pointed out, my campsite sounded like a Premier Inn compared to wild camping!
Monday 20th May
It had rained during the night but it hadn’t been too bad and I was packed and away by 7.20am and in Ballater by 12.30pm. Eleven days of walking has left me with good strong calf muscles which made mincemeat of the hills today. In Ballater I went into the first café I came across and found three Challengers who invited me to share a table with them. Hot soup restored my spirits and then I lounged around until I could get entry into my hostel at 4pm. Here I had booked a single room with en-suite shower and toilet which meant no sharing with snorers! Dinner was from the local chippie as the waiting time in all the local pubs was so long. Then I had lots of pints with my fellow Challengers and began to enjoy myself again.
Tuesday 21st May
It rained and rained and rained all night and I was glad to be in the hostel and not camping. I later found out that burns and rivers had risen by 3ft due to the torrential downpour and there was at least 2 inches of rain.
I had breakfast in a local café then returned to the hostel to pick up my belongings and got going again. I went over the bridge to the south of Ballater and then into a wood and came up onto the tops. I followed a path which I lost but found later on by following a fence over open moorland until I found a gate in it. I came across two challengers who I walked with, before leaving them to make my own way up Mount Keen and then down to Tarfside, passing some more people on the way. I arrived at 6pm and was told they couldn’t fit me in for dinner until 9pm, so I pitched my tent and had a couple of burgers from the barbecue outside the Masons Arms as well as a couple of pints and a chat with various people. I went to bed at 10pm when there was heavy rain, but my trusty little Blacks one man tent stood firm and kept the rain out.
Wednesday 22nd May
After last night’s rain came a frost and I had to scrape the ice off my tent before putting it away. The guy ropes wouldn’t bend either as they had got saturated with rain and had then frozen. I didn’t have time to wait though and I packed everything up and by 6.45am I was outside the lodge at Tarfside waiting for breakfast at 7am. I was the first one in and had egg, bacon, sausage, beans and toast for a fiver. When I left at 7.20am there was a queue of people waiting to come in. Then I lifted my pack onto my back and started my penultimate day on the Challenge.
To begin with I walked with Simon, then David and Simon , then Simon then just me again as I made my way into Edzell. In Edzell I was the first one into The Tuck Inn café where I had an egg and bacon roll and enjoyed the camaraderie of the Challenge as people gradually arrived from Tarfside. Then I walked the six miles down the road to Brechin where I had a mug of tea in a café and used AirBnb to book myself into a B&B as my tent was still sodden from the morning. In the evening I walked round Brechin looking for somewhere for dinner but couldn’t find anywhere I liked. Then at the last moment I found a chippie with a restaurant above it and had lasagne and chips with a pint of cider.
Thursday 23rd May
I was away by 8am and had a fairly easy couple of hours walking. Then I came off the road to follow a path over Rossie Moor to Nicholl’s Loch but I lost the path. The loch was nowhere to be seen, but I suspect the marshy area in front of me was the loch and I didn’t fancy going up to my waist in bogwater so I climbed over a fence onto the edge of a field and followed it to a road, ending up a quarter of mile from where I had left it 45 earlier. At least I knew where I was and I took farm tracks to a road and then down a narrow road which isn’t often used. I could see some wooden things about 3ft high with stones on the top on the right hand side. I didn’t stop to look, but as I passed them I heard a buzzing noise and then got stung on the top of my head. I ran 100 yards down the road and heard more angry buzzing and realised something was caught up in my clothing. I dropped my rucksack and watched a bee fly away.
I got to Lunan Bay 20 minutes later and found two other Challengers there. The tide was out so I had a bit of a walk to get to the sea and here I wetted my boots in the North Sea as I had done in the Atlantic Ocean fourteen days earlier. Then I took the stone out of my bag that I had carried from Strathcarron and tossed it into the sea. I enjoyed the moment, contemplated my achievement and then went and got a tea and ice cream in the café where I was joined by the other two challengers. We got a taxi back to Montrose which cost us £5 each (the best £5 I have spent on the Challenge said one of the others) and we got out at the Park Hotel in Montrose. Rucksacks and camping gear were everywhere and I went to the first floor where I signed in, collected my certificate and goody bag and had a cup of tea and a chat. I had a couple of pints in the bar and then walked to the campsite where I pitched my tent and let it dry in the sunshine and dry wind. Then I showered, changed, put on my new challenge t-shirt and had a cup of tea with some challengers in the campsite before heading for the Park Hotel and the evening meal. I got back to my tent at 11pm, drunk but happy.
Friday 24th May
It was no use trying to sleep in and besides I needed the loo, so I got up early, showered, changed took my tent down and went for a bacon and egg roll and tea in Subway. I got a coffee in Greggs and then got the train to Aberdeen where I had a hot chocolate in Burger King. I was wasting time but I didn’t waste it enough and I got to the airport almost 2 hours before check-in. Then I got stuck to talking what turned out to be an absolute bore who talked at me even though I wasn’t interested. I got up and walked around to get away from him, but he found me in the departure lounge and continued talking. To be fair he did give me a bar of Fry’s peppermint cream of which he is also a fan, but it doesn’t make up for droning on at me.
My flight was almost three hours late leaving for Southend. The original aircraft had developed a fault and they got another one from Orkney but this took time. Once in Southend I was picked up and was in my front room within half an hour. Shattered.
Another one of your astounding routes Paul, well done! It was a pleasure to walk with you to Allt Mor, I enjoyed the company, thank you.
Wow, Paul! you were certainly well organised with your shopping trips and accommodation, and you covered some big distances too. Yes, it was me in Suie the night before and very grateful for the comfort, warmth and a settee to sleep on.
Sorry you found Aberlour boring. The deli has the most amazing take-away coffee and cakes at very reasonable prices and the public loo is always open and well maintained. Not to mention the Walkers factory shop at the north end of town where "seconds" of all sorts of goodies are cheap as chips. Then if you are a whisky drinker, the Mash Tun is a must, (but it would cost a fortune for B&B).
No Kirsten, the walk down the road was dull, boring and soporific not the town itself. I found Aberlour to be a rather inoffensive little place. Quite nice actually.