The road to Ben Nevis Nov 2009

The road to Ben Nevis Nov 2009
The road to Ben Nevis Nov 2009

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Thursday, 28 August 2014

The TGO Challenge 2014 - putting it all together

The TGO Challenge

The TGO Challenge takes place in May and it is now August, and for some unexplainable reason I still have not completed the write-up. Probably I should learn from Martin Banfield who I found shut up in his tent in the middle of Fetteresso forest writing his blog. Last time, in 2012, I did a bit of writing 'on the hoof', but getting the typing technology right is rather critical and this time I decided travelling light was more important.

What is the TGO Challenge? I don't need to tell you - find out here!

A large part of the fun is in preparation. Planning the route. Fine tuning the equipment. Testing. Getting in shape. Working out a food strategy. Arranging the transport and accommodation.

Then, one Wednesday in May a stirring takes place in odd corners of the UK and other parts of the world as 300 or so TGOers from all walks of life put aside their daily chores once more and head to the transport hubs that will lead them to Scotland and their chosen start point on the west coast.

TGOers awake!
 Here we can see a collection of TGOers limbering up for the night train from London to Scotland. The one with the light shining through shares his experiences here.

What's new since 2012?

What is different for me this time?

  1. Feet. In 2012 the number 1 problem came from my feet. My boots were fine for walking in the dry, but with several days of continuous wet I got sores and blisters which I was ill-equipped to treat. After trying many different types of footware I settled on a new pair of lightweight Scarpa boots which were satisfactory, but probably more significant was my use of moleskin to protect areas of my feet from rubbing.
  2. Maps. Last time I printed my route from OS Getamap on pages of A4 paper. This is risky - if the paper gets wet it disintegrates. This time I used plastic - a product from Xerox called 'nevertear'. And as I no longer have access to a colour duplex printer I had to find a print shop to prepare these sheets for me. With sore feet I had wanted to vary my route but this was not possible without maps covering other areas. So this time I took a couple of OS maps, and sent a couple more to one of my stopping off points. The only map I used was for the Cairngorms where I added an extra day's walk when I realised I would reach the end too early.
  3. Electronics. Charging phones and computers and camera batteries was quite a palava, sort of helped by a clever universal charger which covered all batteries. But it still needed mains electricity. This year I bought a cheap and simple Nokia phone which would not need to be charged at all over the two weeks. I took two spare AA batteries for the GPS (which I rarely use) and for the camera I carried 6 replica Olympus batteries bought very cheaply on E-Bay and Amazon. So no electricity necessary.
  4. Gear updates
  • I treated myself to the new NeoAir sleeping mattress - the Xtherm version. This was a good buy. The weight at 480 gm was less than my previous mat a Thermarest Prolite and warmer. I chose 'regular' size - which is probably longer than I need and the extra 10 grams over the medium size did not give me any advantage. 
  • I replaced my Alpkit sleeping bag with a new one bought in the PHD sale - a non-standard Minim 300. Without a zip, it weighed 735 gm about the same as my Alpkit 400 down bag but was more roomy and a little warmer. Strangely it weighs more than that stated for the standard PHD Minim 400. (Is there an explanation for this?). 
  • I used Crocs as camp shoes and for river crossing - they are very light, but a bit bulky to carry. I swapped these for old stock Saucony running shoes this year. Quite smart, these are even lighter, but they do take time to dry out. This is a disadvantage not only after river crossings but also after nightime walks around a wet campsite.
  • Although I rarely use a GPS I'm really appreciative when I do get it out. My old Magellan had a button which sometime did not work so after some investigation I played safe and bought a Garmin
  • After finding my old Tikka head torch, used mostly around camp, was quite useless for night walking on a mountain I bought a new Tikka XP which seems well rated. In Scotland in May there are not many hours of darkness and I never used it. 
  • I like my British ergonomically designed Pacer Poles and for this year I treated myself to the camera attachment which is great for holding the camera steady and for selfies and meant I could dispense with my mini-tripod.

The Journey

From here ...
.. to here!
The links below reach descriptions of sections of the route which were walked from Torridon on Friday 9th May to Dunnottar Castle on Thursday 22nd.
  1. Torridon to Craig via Sgorr Ruadh and Fuar Tholl

  2. Craig to Maol-bhuidhe bothy via Lurgh Mohr & Bidein a' Choire Sheasgaich

  3. High level route from Iron Lodge to Glen Affric via Stuc Mor & Sgurr nan Ceathramhnam

  4. Glen Affric and Cannich to Drumnadrochit and Errogie

  5. The Monaliadth from Errogie to Feshie

  6. Drake's Bothy to Derry Lodge via Glen Einich, Braeriach and Cairn Toul, and Corrour Bothy

  7. Braemar / Ballater to Ballochan

  8. Ballochan, Glen Dye, Fetteresso Forest to Dunnottar Castle & Stonehaven

The walk ends on the west coast followed by public transport to Montrose for check-in and a gathering.
The lighthouse from Montrose beach
For me a BandB with a hot bath. For many, the final day on the campsite is an important part of the overall experience. This year it was full of caravanning fans of the group Status Quo who were appearing on Friday night at the Montrose Music Festival. The Park Hotel came to the rescue and opened a corner of their garden for those left without a plot.

Status Quo fans attending the Montrose Music Festival ..
.. filled the campsite so TGOer moved to the Hotel Garden
Celebratory dinners are held on Thursday and Friday.

Somehow the hotel produces enough dinners. Speeches celebrate the walkers, the organisers, the sponsors, the helpers, and a lot of quite old people have a great time.
A Famous Raconteur
The Dutch Crew
Vetter Iain Shiel
Lessons learned? A few here (and maybe more later) ...

  • On Food. Dry biscuits travel better than sandwiches. Forget about porridge and go for granola mixed with dried milk which is good cold or warm.
  • Paramo. Some of the time my Velez smock was ineffective. Its poor protection from the wind blown rain and that from my Paramo trousers caused misery on the last day. Last time I used a heavier Paramo Alta jacket without a problem. The great thing with Paramo is you just walk - no need to stop to put on rain gear and then stop to take it off again, but maybe a rethink is necessary for longer trips like the TGOC.
  • Camping. I've been using the Trailstar for a few years now. There are still a few more tweaks to my system to improve my comfort. There's plenty of advice around -see here for example.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Ballochan, Glen Dye, Fetteresso Forest to Dunnottar Castle & Stonehaven

I left Tony and Jackie tucked up in their tent and worked my way across to the track up White Hill on the other side of the valley.
Birse Castle and Ballochan from White Hill

From now on the mountains are behind me. I move eastwards trying to keep to the relatively high ground of the hills and moorland as far as Fetteresso Forest.
This is shooting country and land rover tracks reach much of the high ground. Moving from one area to another may require a pathless tramp over a valley which borders land belonging to two different owners. On the high resolution OS map it mentions 'grouse butts' in many places. These are lines of shooting stations built on the hill side.
a grouse butt

Pathless tramp from one landholding to another
The ridge heading east from Mount Battock provides an easy route with a distinctive rock pile as a target at Clachnaben above Glen Dye. Here are many day walkers enjoying the spring sunshine.

Clachnaben at the end of the ridge
The green of grass in the Dye valley and the wooded areas ahead contrasts attractively with the barren grouse moors, and the windmills looking over this scene from the far side look like something from Doctor Who.

Beautiful Glen Dye from Clachnaben overlooked by windmills (click to zoom in)

path down to Glen Dye
The map shows a footbridge across the Dye just below Heatheryhaugh. Described by many as a 'locked bridge' I am keen to investigate. In fact it is a basket on a wire which goes high over the river and, as many writers have noted, it is padlocked to prevent use. Strangely there is no obvious path on either side of the river so even the key holder may not use it.
locked 'footbridge' over the Dye

I was ready to turn back and use the road bridge, but the river was low and I found I could wade across just a few meters downstream.
Dye is fordable

The spooky windmills visible earlier but now out of sight form part of the plantation of Dennytys at the western edge of Fetteresso Forest. Heading this way, beyond the farmstead of Heatheryhaugh the path works its way upwards and into an enclosure. A narrow path (therefore most pleasant) traverses around the contours of Little Kerloch before hauling up to the last high spot of Kerloch itself at 534m. From this vantage point the full extent of the wind farm is evident stretching eastwards with miniature figures of workers and their vehicles dotting the access roads.
Dennystys Plantation

My camping spot was well planned –  a narrow green strip on the map between the trees with a stream. I expected an easy walk around tracks shown on the map, but on the ground navigation for this last 2km was difficult and I reach for both compass and GPS for help.
Camping in Fetteresso Forest

Eventually I found my spot, only with a tent already parked there! Tiny and closed up tight with walking poles tucked neatly in to the side, it felt strange to put my trailstar on the same bit of ground, and also strange to be surprised to find someone else here. Flattened grass on the other side of the stream indicated that others had used this location in the last few days and I settled there.

Half an hour later a cheery Martin Bamfield announced himself. It was his small tent. He had closed it up in order to get on with a bit of admin, and blog writing over he was ready for some conversation. His plan was to leave early, 'very early', so he could reach Stonehaven by midday, and as he needed to get to the Pyrennes for a walk that weekend. I expected to see him as I woke before 5am, but he had already gone –  I learned later he had left at 4:15am.

By morning there were two other tents there, apparently Bernie Clark and Stefan, I set off before there was signs of life from these two.
Large scale development requires large access roads!

Footpaths seem to have got lost in the development

Fetteresso is notable for the large scale works over the last year or two, and there is a network of wide and well made access roads to match. Walking here between 7 and 8 in the morning there is a intermittent stream of traffic traveling in the opposite direction –  all following the protocol of driving at 20mph with emergency light flashing. It may be possible to find footpaths, but the signs I saw were often blocked by the road workings and seemed not to lie on a path and indicated places not shown on my map. Using my OS map I managed to navigate the access tracks to the eastern edge of the forest. I emerged by a car park at a place shown on the map as Swanley.
Here is an example of one of the frustrations of OS mapping: what is a path? In OS 1:50000 a path is shown as a dashed black line; in OS 1:25000 a dashed black line is a border of some sort, whereas the path is more like a green, brown, or black dotted line. If you look at the 1:50000 map there is a path leaving the forest eastwards and crossing open ground to a farm called Blairs. Now zoom-in to 1:25000 –  the path has disappeared, but maybe there is a road or track not shown on the other map which heads south from the car park parallel to the electricity pylons before heading east to another farm called Hindwells. How was it on the ground? Well there was no obvious path or track, although both may have existed and become overgrown.

Having a large pack and with bad weather forecast I was not going to spend time to investigate.

The tramp around the road was only about 1km anyway, and brought me nearer to Fetteresso Castle. In a field just to the east of the building is possibly the oldest intact dove cote in the country.
14/15th century dovecote
dovecote interior
dovecote rear view

This was probably built in the 14th or 15th century, and as I stuck my head in the entrance a couple of blackbirds escaped. The picture shows the concept with tiered bays inside, row after row in which a bird can roost.

Heading towards the bottom of the field I found the bridge shown on the map –  a steel structure looking unused and unsafe and with an uncertain destination.
Footbridge near Fetteresso Castle

I followed the stream Carron Water for quite a way until I found somewhere I could cross while keeping my boots on. Then by backtracking a little on the railway embankment I crossed over a little used bridge.
Railbridge near Fetteresso Castle

As it started to rain I look back northwards across to the road where I could make out three shapes with backpacks marching eastwards. I was not alone!
The Hardy Gang on the Match! (click to zoom in)

The final two or three kilometers are inevitably on road, and it is a relief to reach the car park for Dunnottar Castle. Here a bearded anorak announces himself as an ex-TGOer waiting for the Hardy Gang. I'd already heard they had 'plan' including beer and a lift for their arrival at the east coast, so I was happy to let the man know that I'd seen them not far behind.
Dunnottar Beach
Dunnottar Castle

Reaching the beach was the end of my crossing. All I needed now was some sunshine to let me dry out and enjoy the feeling of arrival. Unfortunately my need was left unmet. The Hardy Gang arrived as I left for the 2–3 km walk to Stonehaven getting colder and wetter.
The Hardy Boys

Stonehaven has an 'award winning' fish and chip shop; there's also some attractive Inns overlooking the harbour. With wet-through clothes and pack, however, it is uncomfortable everywhere. I decided to go for the fish and chips and walked in from the harbour only to find that the award winner was the 'home of the deep-fried Mars Bar'. There was no restaurant. Eventually I found somewhere else where I could recover my spirits with some food before finding the bus that would take me to Montrose.
Stonehaven Harbour
 For all the pictures look here:-

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Deer don't do plums

After Badgers and then foxes trying to shake the plums down from the tree I expected the deer to do the same. But apparantly deer don't do plums!

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Braemar / Ballater to Ballochan

Someone calls Ballater their 'secret weapon' for the TGO. I'm not sure why, but it does seem counter-intuitive to head this way when wilder scenery of Lochnagar beckons to the south east. It is a pleasant town with a range of restaurants and other facilities and a campsite right by the centre.

The route from Braemar is straight forward – through the grounds of Balmoral. The woodland path emerges by fields populated by aristocratic cattle and then horses, with a team of young women in golf carts cleaning dung from the grass.

Balmoral Castle
Eventually the Castle comes into view, and suddenly tourists are milling about. A good spot for a cup of tea from the friendly folk at the Royal cafe.
Balmoral Castle
From Easter Balmoral a small road takes you to the Lochnagar Distillery where it is possible to taste something. Their whisky is only available in glass bottles, but they do stock something else in plastic miniatures –  handy to carry in the pack if you can manage with just a wee dram.
Road to Tom Bad a'Mhonaidh
A few hundred metres beyond the visitors' carpark a long, straight track takes off to the right, heading to open country and the abandoned and atmospheric farmstead of Bovaglie.
Bovaglie House
Bovaglie Farm buildings
From here you look over the valley of Girnock Burn to the east, with rising ground beyond to a ridge of small hills. By following the track down to the river you reach the site of a bridge now destroyed.
Girnock Burn
Here it is possible to wade across then, marching up hill, trackless, you reach the small top of Meal Dubh. This spot provides a fine viewpoint looking northeast along the valley to Ballater and beyond.
View to Ballater
Below, the ground slopes to a large enclosure of conifer and once through the boundary and on the service road it is easy to navigate a route northeast and down to the road. From here there's 5 km of tarmac to reach the bridge over the wide river Dee to the town.
Dee Bridge at Ballater
In the campsite is a sleepy looking Alan Hardy and his gang. They've had a day off to sunbathe and drink beer. As I'm setting up a voice calls 'Paul, I recognise those feet!'. I scramble out from under my tent to meet a complete stranger. Kirsten Paterson was also surprised as she had quite a different body in mind.

I've almost set up my tent when it is time to join others at The Alexandra Hotel for dinner. I sit with Alan and David and Bernard and learn a little about walking in Essex. TGO girls monopolise another table with Kate who attended the spring gathering in Derbyshire.

The local Spar supermarket is well stocked and open late, here I meet the Pete Dixon gang who have foregone the Trailstars for a night in a hostel and Chris Peart who has yet to find a spot for his.

The hills to the east of Ballater have a network of paths which join with those through the Forest of Glen Tanar. This is the route to take me east to the small settlement of Ballochan.

House of Glenmuick
I head up through the woods behind the House of Glenmuick to the open moor on Pannanich Hill.
Pannich Hill with Lochnagar behind
An easy track heads south then, over low ground as I am searching for the route to the east I find Kate travelling in the opposite direction.
Mount Keen - useful for keeping bearings
Kate powers across the rough
Turn right for Keen and left for Tamar

A lone signpost indicates the way and we walk together until the Tamar valley when she heads south to Mount Keen, and I in the opposite direction.

Forest hides the landscape for the next few kilometres and as I approach the junctions of the Tamar and Allachy waters more and more day trippers appear –  with dogs and bikes and children. Thirty minutes later they have all disappeared as I follow Allachy looking for the route upwards to the boundary of the forest and the moor.
Halfway Hut in Tamar Forest
Tamar Forest track

Once on the Hill of Duchery I can see my camping spot in the valley below and the track leading up the far side which I will take tomorrow. The path down leads to Birse Castle. Here the owners have negotiated with the Scotland Rights of Way Society for some signs which urge you onto a rather uncomfortable path to the south of their land –  probably adding 1km to the natural route.
A long diversion around Birse Castle
I followed the advice of a local walker and headed for flat ground near a small church. I made a brew and pondered on the rights and wrongs of camping in a churchyard.

Church at Ballochan
I decided to put up my tent later to avoid offending anyone when along came two TGOers who immediately wanted to negotiate the pitch. They were not at all shy of camping on hallowed ground so we set-to making camp and then reconvened on the benches against the wall of the south transept for dinner.

Jackie and Tony, no spring chickens, honeymooned on the TGO in 2013. That was Tony's first trip. Jackie's first crossing was some years earlier to support her parents on her 80 year old father 'final' trip. She has done several more 'final' trips with them since then. Probably 2014 is the final final for the older couple as they had to drop out this time.
First Holy Pitch
There are two people plus luggage in this tent
It was fun to sit with them and hear their story, but also because they had a strange cooking set-up. As I busied myself boiling water and rehydrating my meal-in-a-bag thay both just sat each with a plastic lunch box on their lap. After 15 minutes of chatting first one then the other box began to spout steam from the edges of the lid.

This system comes from a company called 'Trekmate' and uses chemical sachets which generate enough heat for the task in hand. Small sachets for a hot drink, larger for a meal.

For the full slideshow including a few pictures taken en route from Derry Lodge to Braemar look here:-