Tamworth to Oban in a day is doable, but, means an early start. I had a taxi booked for 0545 in order to catch the 0610 train from Tamworth to Crewe. My journey to Glasgow was to be First Class. The small First Class section of the train to Crewe was only different by having different coloured seats. No drinks or food service.
After a short break at Crewe I boarded the train to Glasgow. This was real First Class and I was fed and watered. Of course, First Class these days is not first class like it used to be.
In Glasgow, I popped in to Tisos - as I've always done before: walked round and walked out. Never yet bought anything there: didn't need to. I treated myself to coffee and cake in John Lewis and picked up a bottle of water for the journey.
After a couple of hours I was on the platform of Queen Street Station waiting to catch my train to Oban. It splits in two at Crianlarich and one half goes on to Mallaig. On the platform I joined Kirsten, Ted and Jenny as we waited for the train to arrive. We chatted away as the time went by and the train was late: very late. We eventually boarded about an hour late. Kirsten to the Mallaig section and Ted, Jenny and me to the Oban section. The Oban part was just two carriages. All the while on Queen Street platform I was chatting away and didn't think to have a pee before boarding the train: they have a toilet after all.
Last year I had a UTI infection and other issues - all resolved. If you've had a water infection it starts with many many visits to the loo for a pee. The journey to Oban is in the order of 4 hours. When I eventually thought to pop to the toilet it was not working! Thankfully, I was by no means desparate and I didn't need to use my Pee bottle ( a backpacking essential ) which was easily accessible.
The toilet on Oban station was well used and I managed to be first in there!
I made my way to the Corran House Hostel which had a single room en-suite overlooking the sea.
I decided to eat in Weatherspoons. Fish and Chips and a beer for around £11. This was instead of going to EE Usk which does really good seafood. I had a few more pints and returned to my room for an early night.
DAY 1 OBAN to GLEN CRERAN VIA LISMORE Wednesday 11 May
For someone who avoids Westherspoons, usually, I decided to have breakfast there. It's on the pierside and only a short walk to the ferry boarding point. Breakfast was good, and you can refill your coffee cup as much as you like.
The ferry left at 0900 from Oban to Lismore. I was taking the same start as 11 years ago. There were around 9 of us on the crossing to Lismore. The trip takes around an hour and we all started our walk to Point, to cross back to Port Appin. Jeff, Ted and Jenny were amoung the group although we all separated to go on slight alternatives. I started by keeping close to the sea, but, it was very wet underfoot and I came back to take a track to join the road.
We all reached Point in good time to catch the ferry. It was while I was in the waiting building that there was a heavy shower. This turned out to be the only rain that day. The little ferry was very new looking and soon had us in Point where most of us headed to the hotel for lunch ... and a pint. Cullen Skink went down very well, as did the beer.
The road away from Port Appin eventually leads to a cycle path. This was walking on road, but without the traffic. My original route was to camp up in Gleann na h-lola ready for a day up and over Fraochaidh. But, the weather forecast for Thursday was not good.
I decided to continue on to Glen Creran and eventually reached a spot to camp where I had last been 11 years ago. It was on a slight raise away from the path up towards Beinn Fhionnlaidh. The ground was a bit soggy and the air was still as any wind was cut off by the trees nearby. A few midges came out to play and I briefly put on my headnet. This was not comfortable, so it soon came off.
I heated water for my soup and dehydrated meal inside my tent in the large vestible. ( One thing I made the mistake of doing was filling my bio-ethanol burner on the foil insulation on top of my Cascade Wild ultralight folding table. Both caught fire! The table was ruined, but, I continued to be able to use it for the rest of the crossing. It was binned in Montrose and a new one is now on order ). The midges weren't biting much and I soon had the door open. A small 100 ml bottle of whisky proved to be a good nightcap and I slept very well.
DAY 2 GLEN CRERAN to GLENCOE YOUTH HOSTEL Thursday 12 May
I packed up in the dry and made my way back in to Glen Creran and past Elleric to join the track that goes over towards Ballachulish. The track winds it's way up to a point where there is a fairly steep path up and over to Gleann an Fhiodh. The path up was OK but the path down was very wet and bog soggy. Luckily I was able to wash my shoes in the River Laroch crossing.
Then the rain started. I was glad the river wasn't in spate, as it could have proved tricky. There is a fairly good path down the Glen and I was soon on the outskirts of Ballachulish. Here, I found a lean-to out of the rain. I was able to phone in to Challenge Control and also to book a room in Glencoe Youth Hostel.
The campsite I originally put in my route didn't take tents any longer. There was another site in Glencoe Village and there is the Red Squirrel site, but, with the rain and wind, I decided on the Hostel, a shower, and a meal in the Clachaig. The bar is much more touristy than it used to be, but the meal was good, as was the beer. The rain continued all night and I was happy with my decision to stay in the hostel.
DAY 3 GLENCOE YOUTH HOSTEL TO KINGSHOUSE Friday 13 May
I am not superstitious, but ...... Friday 13 was not the best of days. After breakfast in the hostel I eventually set out on the minor road towards the A82. It was raining and windy and I had thoughts of a rough day walking by the busy road.
Well, the wind and rain kept up all the way to Kingshouse, but, to my surprise there was a mix of paths and old roads all the way. I was almost blown off my feet twice and had quite a battering from the wind. The old road was extreamly boggy and soggy and my trail shoes were soon very wet. Yet still felt comfortable.
I must have got to Kingshouse around 1345. The wind was whipping in the rain in horizontal sheets and a decision was required. Have a sleepless night camped outside ( where I have been before ) or go for a room in the hotel. The thought of not sleeping that night was too much and I went for a room - managing to get a discount. It was still, erm, expensive! A few days later I would camp in some strong winds and rain - and sleep very well, but, for this night it was, erm, worth the extravagance. Not posh, but pricey.
The locals had no fear of people around the hotel. Apparently the bunkhouse was very good, as I learnt from Ted and Jenny, who stayed there. But, it is booked up solid for ages: being on the multi-national West Highland Way.
I had a good meal although I did expect fine dining and was a bit disappointed. The bottles of beer were good. I slept well that night.
DAY 4 KINGSHOUSE to LOCH LAIDON Saturday 14 May
The track towards Rannoch Station was good for a long way past Black Corries Lodge. I eventually caught up with Ted and Jenny and we walked together for a fair part of the way towards Rannoch. The track runs out and the route onwards was very easy to follow as it followed the line of the phone pilons.
It was wet and rough underfoot, but not for too long. Ted and Jenny stopped for a break at one point and I decided to continue.
I had planned to find somewhere to camp by Loch Laidon and then make my way to the Tea Room on Rannoch Station. I wasn't sure what to expect, but, was pleased to find a perfect camp spot just off the beach.
I soon had my tent up and got to the Tea Room at around 1530. I had heard good reports on the food there and was looking forward to a good meal and even a few beers. When I arrived I was the only one in there, although they had been very busy earlier in the day.
I asked for a beer and soup to start, but, they had run out of soup. Still the beer went down well and I ordered a toasted sandwich. This turned out to be very good and very filling. Two more beers went down. Ted and Jenny arrived shortly after 1600 ( the Tea Room closed at 1630 - ish ). They were camping further down the road towards Rannoch and just had a cake and tea. I treated myself to cake and coffee and a whisky. All this went down very well.
Sure enough I got my bottom bunk. In fact I had a choice of any one in the room as I was first there. Surprisingly, the dorm wasn't full and I had no one above me.
I didn't see Ted and Jenny again until Montrose. I returned to my perfect little camp area and was joined later by Lindy. Great to meet her again, although we didn't talk much. I had a very good night's sleep.
Lindy was away quite early the next day.
DAY 5 LOCH LAIDON to BENALDER BOTHY Sunday 15 May
There is around a 9 km road walk before turning off the track towards Ben Alder. This was a very peaceful walk and the track was good for most of the way with great views. Shortly after the track reaches Loch Ericht it deteriorates into a bogfest. It was not that easy to follow but cycle tyre tracks in the boggy ground plus old wooden posts helped and Benalder bothy soon came into view.
It was too windy to camp outside. Inside there are two big rooms and one small room with two bunk beds. Nobody else was there and I had the bottom bunk.
The bothy is well maintained and I even had a solar light - that is left in the window for people to use. I made myself comfortable and then, after a couple of short walks outside, prepared my meal for the night. Before setting out this year I decided to cut down on the food I was carrying. One less packet of cup-a-soup and no custard powder. I really missed the custard powder and was craving it all the way ovet to Montrose.
Anyway, I ate well and listened to music before getting to bed just after 2200. Then I heard voices. Benalder is supposedly haunted. It turned out to be a group of 4 who had come over from Dalwhinnie via Ben Alder. I popped out to say hello and they were soon fed and in bed. Thankfully, they were too tired to stay up late and all slept well.
DAY 6 BENALDER BOTHY Monday 16 May
The day was meant to be Ben Alder and Beinn Bheoil. The weather was not playing ball. It was wet and windy with poor visibility up high. I had been up both these Munros before and the thought of going up in poor weather was not appealing. My FWA was to go to Culra Bothy to camp there. Or, I could stay for the day in the bothy. No wind or rain to contend with. And, it was easy to get to Dalwhinnie in a day. Decision made. It is surprising how easy it is to pass the time in a remote bothy.
In the morning two figures approached from the way I had arrived at the bothy. They were Cathy and Pat - both on the Challenge. They stopped for a brew and then were on their way up and over the bealach. No one else appeared until late afternoon when a guy on his bike turned up. Can't remember his name. He took the big room with the sleeping platform and we hardly spoke while he was there. I had my whisky nightcap after my meal and enjoyed another good night's sleep.
DAY 7 BENALDER BOTHY to DALWHINNIE Tuesday 17 May
My cycle companion had warned me that he was an early riser. However, I was up well before he left. I took my time getting packed up. I saw him disappear in the distance as I started off on the well made path up to Bealach Cumhann. This was the only day on the Challenge that I put on a pair of liner gloves, for about 10 minutes. It was not cold on any of the days. The day was fine and progress was quick and easy. I continued round to Bealach Dubh where I met Douglas - a Challenger as well as quite a few backpackers going towards Corrour. Culra bothy had been closed because of asbestos, but, I heard that someone had stayed there the night before.
I passed the bothy and got onto the track which goes by Loch Ericht. It was too late in the day to include The Fara - which was a great walk back in 2019. The railway crossing at Dalwhinnie was closed to hillwalkers, but the alternative was an easy detour to go under the railway and come out near the petrol station. The Loch Ericht Hotel was open and there were a number of other Challenge folk in there.
I had a beef roll and a beer and was preparing to leave for my camp spot by Loch Cuaich when I picked up on the fact that the hotel was happy for Challengers to camp by the hotel on quite a fair sized piece of ground. I think 7 tents were pitched there in total. I got a good level spot and soon had everything set up for the night. Can't remember exactly when, but, the weather changed to rain and strong, blustery winds which hammered the tents. There were two guys camped by me in solid geodesic tents: heavy, considering they were going for 50 Munros on the Challenge. My X-mid was rock solid. A good meal and a few pints had me sleeping well through the wet windy night.
DAY 8 DALWHINNIE TO KINGUSSIE Wednesday 18 May
The Hotel did a good cooked breakfast and I was soon on my way by the viaduct to Loch Cuaich. A good track led from the Loch all the way to Phones. It was a warm sunny day and I had a Buff sun visor on to stop my nose from burning. Only thing is it heats up your head. My nose got burnt.
At phones there is more of a path that follows the old General Wades road. This eventually leads onto the main road, leaving a few hundred metres of traffic blasting by before dropping down to the minor road leading towards Ruthven. The walk into Kingussie is short from here and I soon checked into the Silverfjord Hotel.
First task was the local Co-op for Cup-a-Soup and Birds Custard powder. They didn't have any. My only post on parcel had a couple of packets of dehydrated meals and coffee. Got back to my room to realise I forgot the whisky. This goes into 100 ml plastic bottles - and depending how I feel last me one or two nights. They only had half bottles of blended whisky, but this would do. Kingussie has changed: no Tipsy Laird and one or two other closures. I checked out the Gordon Hotel and found that they did meals: set up for the evening.
Back in my room I was about to get ready for a shower when there was a knock on my door. It was Mike @peakrambler who I knew on Twitter, but, had never met. We half arranged to meet in the Gordon Hotel later.
Getting ready for the shower I noticed a small blister under one of my toes. Didn't even notice it when walking. I popped it, put a small plaster on it and forgot about it. I don't normally do blisters ( except for one Challenge when the bottoms of my feet turned to a white mush - I still finished )
I met Harry, the oldest Challenger and Rob, again. Rob had a room in the Loch Ericht bunkhouse overlooking my tent. The bar meal was good and Mike joined me for a drink ( non-alcoholic ). Rob and Harry were in the Hotel and eating in the main dining room.
That night Rangers were playing in the European Cup final and back in the Siverfjord, there was a small crowd of locals, plus 2/3 Germans. Rob joined me later to watch the proceedings. I left for bed before the final result. Rangers lost a close match.
DAY 9 KINGUSSIE to RUIGH-AITEACHAIN BOTHY Thursday 19 May
The Silverfjord did me a very good breakfast and when I apologised for not doing the bacon justice I got the obvious reply - I could have asked for it well done! ( Not to be forgotten ).
Another dry warm day and the road walk to Tromie Bridge past Ruthven Barracks was very pleasant. In fact there were a couple of cycle paths to divert walkers off the road. There were a couple of Challenge folk by the bridge, but, I can't remember their names. We kept passing and repassing each other on the way over to Baileguish where the old ruins made a good venue for a lunch break. Off with trail shoes and a great spot to enjoy chocolate and biscuits.
From here the route over to Glen Feshie was pretty straight-forward. The ( I think Danish ) landowner had invested a good deal of money into the Glen and the paths heading up river had been improved since I last came this way. Even the landslip section was less tricky than on previous times. There was one bit that was very close to the river and this did need some care, but, was avoidable. Landrovers get all the way up to and beyond the bothy.
The bothy was even better than before and Lindsay, the bothy manager, who stayed there too, was very welcoming.
He made me real coffee and offered a variety of teas to Jenny - also on the Challenge. I met Craig again and I enjoyed a good chat with him and John. Heidi, who I had met a few times also enjoyed the hospitality. Lindsay was a real character and fascinating to listen too. Later, Louise arrived - big hugs and Emma - equally big hugs. At one point Lindsay was handing out bottles of beer - amazing! Quite a few had decided to stay in the bothy, but, John, Craig and I camped outside.
I did decide to have my meal in the bothy. There were 2 or 3 kettles on the hot stove, but when I used some " hot " water to do my cup-a-soup it wasn't warm enough. I fetched my little stove to make sure the water for my main meal was boiling.
After some good conversations I retired to my tent, with music and whisky. As usual, I slept well.
DAY 10 RUIGH-AITEACHAIN BOTHY TO CHEST OF DEE Friday 20 May
The initial walking through Glen Feshie is magnificent. Today it was dry and I enjoyed the walk.
Photos don't do justice to the scenery. It is wide open country approaching Geldie Burn.
People who have been this way will remember the old Red House which you could shelter in, even though it was " dangerous ". It was so good to see the MBA working on restoring the building for future use as a bothy. I had a chat with one on the MBA volunteers and they had every reason to be proud of the work that they were putting into the building.
Shortly afterwards, I turned off the track to one of my favourite camp spots in the Chest of Dee.
I pitched first before a walk down to the Dee. Here the water was more lively than the Geldie Burn.
I was looking forward to seeing a herd of deer wander around on the open ground, but a night of rain prevented this. I don't know if the deer appeared or not. There is something very comforting about camping when it's raining: especially as there was hardly any wind, and no midges.
DAY 11 CHEST OF DEE to BRAEMAR Saturday 21 May
Another dry day. I decided to call in on Mar Lodge for coffee and biscuits, but when I got there, the usual place was closed off. I was about to leave the estate when a fellow Challenger explained where the tea and coffee etc were being served - in the Stables block. I was in no rush so headed there. A good number of Challenge folk had passed through here and they had signed a white-board to say when. Ian was there along with the 50 Munro guys and Cathy and Pat. It was great to meet Tim again and too many others to name.
On the way into Braemar I rang the Youth Hostel to ask that I have a lower bunk in the dorm. A sleepless night on a top bunk in Mallaig had put me off top bunks.
Sure enough I got my bottom bunk. In fact I had a choice of any one in the room as I was first there. Surprisingly, the dorm wasn't full and I had no one above me.
I met Martin outside the Bothy. We had a brief chat but I joined the queue for food in the Bothy. I left my pack by a table and it took ages to be served. But, it was worth it. I had an open toasted sandwich and a bottle of beer. Just as I was about to leave, Rob joined me and we had a couple of cups of coffee as we chatted. He explained that he had booked a table for 4 at Farquarsons but that there was a spare place available if I wanted to join them.
After checking in to the Hostel and a shower. Rob and I headed for Farquarsons when we met Carl and Gabriella. A very brief chat established that they had started the Challenge but had to pull out. Rob was concerned that we were keeping our meal companions waiting - they were German.
Turned out they were Michael Friebe and his son Daniel. Michael was on the Challenge and Daniel had travelled over to join him for the end part of the Challenge. Michael had been in Scotland many times and had a house on Knoydart. Daniel had worked as a ghillie and suffice to say they were very interesting company. The meal was very good and we all enjoyed a great evening. The hostel was too warm but I slept reasonably well despite this.
DAY 12 BRAEMAR to BALLATER Sunday 22 May
Today it was salmon sandwiches and coffee in Balmoral followed by the endless minor road into Ballater. The weather remained good and the welcome at the campsite made up for the road walking.
I was soon pitching near a couple of tents which turned out to be Frederic and Colin. Colin I knew from Twitter, but had never met. I had met Frederic on his first Challenge when his feet were a real mess. How he made it across to the East coast that time still amazes me. This was his 7th Challenge - and his feet were in good condition. A few other Challenge folk had booked in for an Indian curry and I suggested to Frederic and Colin that we go to the same place. Frederic and I had a couple of pints in the Alexander and made our way round to the curry house - which was an Italian restaurant! The Inn on the Green was no more.
I hadn't come across the Lochnagar Restaurant before. Frederic and I made our way there and it was very busy. After a short wait we were shown to a table having explained that we were expecting one more. Time went by and we had just placed our meal order when Colin turned up - at a nearby table. Slight confusion. However, he hadn't noticed us and joined us at our table. We chatted away, before, during and after the meal.
The food was not the usual curry house fare. It was much better. I had a dish of monkfish and prawns which was superb. The others equally enjoyed their meals. The Cobra beer was good too. Much better venue than the Inn on the Green.
DAY 13 BALLATER to TARFSIDE Monday 23 May
I was up reasonably early. I left by myself on the " trade route " over to Tarfside. On the road before I turned off and just before the road to Glen Muick a car stopped to offer me a lift up Glen Muick. I thanked him and explained my walk. He wished me well and was on his way. The way over to Glen Tanar is acctually very scenic and photos don't do it justice. It was fascinating watching showers fall in distant glens while walking in the dry.
The showers were setting off all around and the sheets of rain were visible for miles. After lunch in Glen Tanar, by the bridge I made my way up Mt Keen. The track turns into a well built path that goes virtually to the top and made progress easy. I stopped at one point near the summit to phone Challenge Control and explain my change of planned route to the coast. After the meal in Ballater, I wanted to enjoy the social side of the Challenge as much as possible. The rain was all around as I neared Queen's Well and I evenually stopped to put on my waterproofs. These were on for no more than 10 minutes and it stayed dry over me. Rain was still sheeting down in the other glens.
I reached the Tarfside camping area to find only 2 or 3 tents there. St Drosten's was open but I decided to pitch first in case it did start to rain. I popped in to be greated by Ann and Alvar and Gus who were volunteering at the retreat. Mark had a great smelling bacon sandwich and I decided that I too would like one - having initially said I was OK for food. I had it well done and it was delicious. Martin appeared as well as Andrew - both were staying in St Drostens.
News was that the Masons would be closed this yeat. But, it was going to open that night especially for Challenge folk! And there was to be a BBQ. What a great evening! Around 25 of us sat outside with beers and burgers having great conversations. When it became cooler some, but, not all, moved inside. You need to experience the Masons to appreciate the great hospitality and the meeting together of fellow Challenge folk.
Without going OTT I went back to my tent for a good night's sleep. More tents had arrived during the evening.
DAY 14 TARFSIDE to NORTH WATER BRIDGE Tuesday 24 May
Not my original route plan. The walk to NWB is really not that bad: along the road and then by tracks that eventually lead to a minor road before cutting off on a path-ish that goes off road to the outskirts of Edzell. I was looking forward to a good lunch and a couple of pints in the Panmuir. But, it was closed. The Tuck Inn was closed. Then I noticed a small group of Challenge folk outside Sinclair's Larder. Salvation. I had a coffee followed by a superb open toasted sandwich. It has an Italian name that I can't remember.
We sat around chatting for a good while. Eventually Martin, Andrew, Carl and Gabriella joined us. Carl was a real gent: he was now driving around meeting folk and offered to transport the beer etc that folk wanted to NWB campsite. Four cans of beer made their way in style. There had been a few brief showers in Edzell and these continued after folk arrived at NWB. A few sat out during the rain, but, I was in and out of my tent trying to keep dry while preparing my food. NWB wasn't to be like on previous dry evenings and most of us retired to our tents early.
DAY 15 NORTH WATER BRIDGE TO KINNABER LINKS Wednesday 25 May
I set off by myself for the walk to the coast. The day was dry and the road walk wasn't too bad. Near to the coast is " Strawberry Cottage " which was a " must " to visit. I didn't know that Charleton Farm was " Strawberry Cottage " and even after getting a friendly greeting by some of the people working outside there, I decided to walk on looking for " Strawberry Cottage ". Of course, I saw many photos of the strawberry delights that were served up there.
The tide was high and I dipped my feet in the sea. The end of my 10th TGO Challenge: except for the walk into Montrose: a couple of miles.
I must admit, it didn't feel like a great occasion. I had a good time getting across, even though I was a bit anxious before the start. I had done plenty of walking prior to the Challenge and was backpacking fit. I made it.
I checked in to the Links before making my way to Challenge Control. I checked in and said hellos to a good number of folk. Then I came back and had a shower before setting off for a couple of pasties and then the pub on the High Street. Here I met Dave Skipp, Dave and Adrian. Later Douglas arrived. 3 pints and good conversation later I made my way back to the Links.
I popped into the Park bar around 1800 and it was great to see a fair number of Challenge folk in there. I got chatting to Bernie and Jeff for a while. Ted and Jenny said hello and Croydon and Tracy " Croydon junior " also said hello. Many others, of course, but, I'm useless at names. The dinner call had us in at around 1915.
There were less in the room for dinner: because of the staggered start. Sue said a few words about the first timers etc and before I knew it I was being announced as No: 10. Usually, there are a few doing their 10th or 20th even. But, this night there was just me. Nowhere to hide. Sue gave me my plaque - I gave her a hug - and thankfully, it was over very quickly.
I must admit, I'm not a fan of Prosecco and managed to share it out. I did tease Sue about the lack of whisky, which used to be presented to those who did 10 or 20.
I'm not the best at farewells and left the room after the meal to go back to my room in the Links.
Next day: home on the TGO Express. 1033 to London, although I got off at York before X-country to Tamworth.
Thanks to Sue and Ali for running this great event. My thanks to those I met. Equally, my apologies for not including all the names of people I met. There were a good number who I had long chats to and they helped to make the Challenge what it is: a great event.
Oh, and thanks to my wife, Barbara, who enabled me to do this.
Now, what about 2023?