Day 10 – 19/05/2018 Braemar to Ballater 19 Miles
It has taken me a while to sit down and start writing this post. It’s the last part of my adventure and I don’t want it to end again on paper. The last four days were great for the most part, but underlying them was the simple fact that it would be ending soon and I wasn’t ready for that.
Mum was walking with me today, which was nice – she’d been doing a lot of walking in preparation and I was a bit worried she would be striding off without me! I was feeling lazy after two nights of good food, a cosy bed and hot baths full of epsom salts. So we left at a leisurely pace around 9am (it might have been 9.15am…) and headed through the village towards todays trail. We passed Gordons Tearoom and who was sitting in the window eating breakfast – Margaret and Alan Brown!! It was great to see them again; the last time had been at Cougie. Margaret almost ran out of the door to greet me and there were big hugs. All our news was exchanged in a matter of moments and I was sad to learn that they were headed in a different direction and wouldn’t arrive in Montrose until Friday; I wouldn’t see them again, at least on this challenge!
We found the trail for the Lion’s face with relative ease; I’d heard people had often had trouble in the past. Chris and Ray caught us up in the forest, and joined us for the days walk. Chelsea was taking some time out and would meet up with Chris and Ray at Tarfside to finish their last couple of days together. The sun wasn’t shining today, and the sky was grey and overcast but still warm. We wound our way through the forest until we reached the dreaded A93. A 2km road walk on the A93 on a Sunday morning was possibly the most terrifying experience. Cars, motorbikes, campers, and buses whizzed past us, rarely slowing down and there was very little verge at times. Thankfully we soon reached Balmoral Estate and were able to follow forest tracks well away from the road, although we could still hear the screeching motorbikes. The hike through the Queen’s Estate was interesting if not a little monotonous. Mainly pine and well maintained forestry track, the odd cottage or memorial made it a little more interesting. We came across a few other Challengers, Emma, Louise, Lindy and another whose name I’ve forgotten, we stopped briefly to chat before heading on.
Just before lunch we came across a perfectly placed port-a-loo. Not a fan of the outdoor facilities available, my Mum was delighted with the find. We puzzled over why there was a port-a-loo in the middle of the forest, and in relatively good condition, before putting the pieces together. The royal wedding was the previous day and there was no doubt some celebration at Balmoral which had something to do with it. We lunched at the cricket pavilion; there was a bench, a tap, more port-a-loos and even bins, very luxurious as lunch spots go. The advantages of town days meant that lunch was fresh pasta salad and pancakes – no dehydrated meal for me today. I love how good eating fresh food feels when you’ve become accustomed to dried long lasting food. After lunch we skirted round the castle, admiring it from afar and carried on through the estate to Easter Balmoral – a gorgeous little hamlet.
From here the rest of the day would be spent avoiding road walking as much as possible, although not very successfully. At least it was a quiet country road, we found a couple of nice tracks to walk along parallel to the road. Even discovering a beautiful wild flower garden and orchard at Abergeldie Castle, before having to rejoin the road. It felt like it was going to be a long 6 miles to Ballater. Chris took a side trail into the forest for an hour or so to give his feet a rest from the constant tarmac. Ray, Mum and I continued on the road some more and met back up with about an hour later. We trudged on, heads down, one foot in front of the other, without much chat. A couple of miles outside Ballater, Dad pulled up in the car to collect Mum. I was feeling pretty proud of her for doing 17 miles with us especially given the boring underfoot conditions and warm weather!
It felt so good to finally get to Ballater, road days are so long and hard compared to hill days but unfortunately necessary sometimes. It was one of the first days on the challenge where I felt that I couldn’t physically have walked another step, luckily they were rare. I was looking forward to a shower and tomorrows first ‘off route’ day to Tarfside.
Day 11 – 20/05/2018 Ballater to Tarfside 18 Miles
Luckily the sun was out again today; I’d missed it the previous day, although I’d somehow still managed to get a little burnt. I’d spied the track that would be taking us out of Ballater the previous day. It looked horrific to be frank, a steep winding track up a bare hillside. As I ate breakfast I felt a little sick and wondered whether I should have just stuck to the safety of the Deeside Way. It was too late for that now so the Mounth Road it would have to be! I was secretly excited about the prospect of adding a Munro to my route.
The Mounth Road
Again I surprised myself, setting out from Ballater around 9.30am; I was stood on the top of that very hill looking at sign for Mount Keen by 10.45am. By midday we were sitting by the River Tanar enjoying lunch in the sunshine. Here we met another challenger called Chris, he was heading for a different Munro, having done Mount Keen twice before but promised to catch up with us at Tarfside. Todays lunch was Chilli Beef, Mac and Cheese – I’d saved this one as I thought it sounded amazing. It was good, but a little spicy – I missed pancakes. On the bridge I found some super cool sunglasses, which I modelled for a quick selfie, but then returned to hopefully be reclaimed by their rightful owner. I spoke to a couple of day hikers who asked how long I’d been out; when I replied that this was Day 11 they were pretty amazed and impressed
We were now right below Mount Keen, the path was a pretty big scar across the hill, but it looked doable. I was feeling strong, we’d flown through seven miles in less than three hours and it was a beautiful day. We started our ascent, the path was steep and uneven, and it was obviously a popular route. There was still a little snow on the northern face of the mountain but well away from the path. About three quarters of the way up Mount Keen there is a choice to be made, take the easier path over the saddle or detour over the summit before rejoining the saddle path on the far side of the mountain. The whole way up to the path junction I was having an internal fight in my head, could I do it or not. In the end I knew I would regret it if I didn’t try and the summit looked so tantalizingly close. Ray had chosen to take the saddle path, so Chris and I headed for the summit path alone. We counted steps, a hundred at a time, with little breaks in between. It took us nearly 800 steps to get to the top. It was definitely worth it, the view was great, and if it had been a little less hazy the North Sea would have been visible. It was chilly though and windy so we didn’t linger and headed back down to find Ray.
On top of Mount Keen
It was a long rocky descent down to Glen Mark, we were all underwhelmed by the Queens Well, and that we still had six miles to go to Tarfside. On we trudged, finally reaching the public road and then the track past the Hill of Rowan, we vaguely joked about climbing that too.
We arrived at Tarfside to be greeted by lots of familiar faces; we booked in for dinner and celebrated our successful day with a cider. The atmosphere was fantastic, everyone nearing the end of their journey now and enjoying the feeling of near success. It was nice to see Ann and Alvar again and meet some other Challenge volunteers. St Drostans lodge is a great place too, owned by the Church but available for private parties to rent out. I was really glad that I’d changed my planned route.
Tarfside itself was a little further on from the Lodge and the ‘village green’ made a great showcase for many different lightweight and backpacking tents. The public toilets were open for challenge use, there was a playpark, a BBQ and the Masons Arms were open for business. The whole thing could have been mistaken for a music festival, albeit a quiet one. I found a lot of friendly faces in the Masons Arms, Alan Ross, Tres Amigos Locos, the two guys whose names I still don’t know and Chris from earlier on at Glen Tanar were all there. It was nice to catch up with Alan R and Kent from Albuquerque, who I hadn’t seen since day 2 in Glen Affric. It’s one of the great things about the challenge, you greet people that you only met once (and briefly at that) as the best of old friends.
Tarfside Tent Village
I went to sleep buzzing about the day, when I started this challenge I thought I would struggle with even the smallest climbs, one Munro later I was feeling invincible and craving more.
Day 12 – 21/05/2018 Tarfside – Edzell 12 Miles
The day of two breakfasts. My first day of two breakfasts, the first one was a bacon roll and coffee at St Drostans and the second was a scone and apple juice at the Retreat not more than an hour later. I was feeling sluggish and over tired, despite having slept really well, maybe I’d overdone it the past couple of days. At this point I definitely wasn’t going to walk past a coffee shop especially when they were offering free wi-fi. I hadn’t checked in with Sam for a couple of days so I sent him a couple of messages relaying my victory over Mount Keen. ‘There’s no stopping you now’ was his response and that’s exactly how I felt too.
Today I was firmly back on familiar territory, having grown up less than 20 miles away from this glen. I was looking forward to the Rocks of Solitude and getting to Edzell where a hotel room was waiting for me!
First it was a long walk down what quickly became known as ‘shotgun valley’, because of the millions of shotgun shells left lying on the track, and then ‘rabbit death lane’. There were miles and miles through fields of sheep and cows before finally finding a bridge to cross to the right side of river for the walk through the North Esk gorge. After navigating a dodgy planting scheme and having to climb a barbed wire fence, on which I got my pack completely caught, I finally saw the sign post for the RoS trail. I don’t know whether it is a blessing or a curse knowing exactly how long you have to walk for the day. Today it was definitely a curse, I was feeling exhausted, at one point I put my pack on the ground and curled up beside it, I felt utterly defeated. The second last day of the walk, I should be enjoying every minute but I really wasn’t.
It was great to walk through the North Esk gorge though, it is a place that I have visited since I was a child, first with my parents for weekend walks and then later with friends from school, to swim in the river and enjoy long summer days. These memories kept my mind busy and distracted me from the exhaustion I was feeling. Seeing the little blue door come into view was another boost, only another mile and half down the river to Edzell.
At last a well-deserved pint was had at the Panmure Arms, another gathering outside the pub had made it impossible to pass. It was only 4pm but I felt like I’d been walking for days.. well I had but you know what I mean!
Edzell must be the longest village in the world and my hotel was at the other end of it. It was well worth the extra mile though, the comfy bed and free jelly beans went down very well, as did the afternoon swim that I enjoyed in the hotel pool. The pork and black pudding burger and Mr Whippy cone from the Tuck Inn later that night, also made up for the days shortcomings. Maybe the day hadn’t been so bad after all.
Day 13 – 23/05/2018 Edzell – Montrose 12 Miles
The last twelve miles, the last twelve miles all on road and the last twelve miles of my first ever TGO challenge. It was a bittersweet day. On one hand I was so excited and proud of myself to reach the end of this challenge but on the other I didn’t want it to end. I’d caught the thru hiking bug and I wanted to walk and walk and walk.
I had a delicious breakfast of boiled eggs and soldiers, and was on my merry way by just after 9am. There’s not much to say about the days walking, it was all on tarmac – the only saving grace was that I was moving quickly, spurred on by the lure of the coast. Crossing the A90 was a pretty terrifying experience, making a dash for it between lorries and cars probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. More country back roads, thankfully pretty quiet but still incredibly boring, led to the House of Dun and an equally boring lunch spot. A vague plan to find a way to walk along the basin to Montrose was completely thrown out the window when a four mile marker post came into view, indicating a route along a cycle path beside the main road into the town. Four miles was all that was left. It was however a pretty unpleasant four miles along the busy main road, traffic was moving fast, unlike me.
Arriving into Montrose was probably one of the most underwhelming experiences of the whole challenge. It reminded me of exactly why I hate towns and cities. They are so impersonal, nobody cares what you’re doing or why you’re there. Montrose was also a lot bigger than I remembered and it seemed to take ages to reach the actual beach. I knew there would be tears, although not as many as I’d expected. Exhaustion probably had a lot to do with that, and that the realisation of what I’d achieved hadn’t yet sunk in and wouldn’t for a couple of days.
On the beach we took some photos and did the traditional toe dip into the North Sea. I was happy to have reached the East coast, and with some good friends who I had made along the way. I sat on the steps down to the beach for a while and thought about how different this side of the country was to the other. Chris remarked that he now understood why the Challenge is walked from West to East and not vice versa. I couldn’t walk a 22 mile day on the east coast, I’d die of boredom and traffic fumes.
There wasn’t much to do but head for the Park Hotel to sign out. Another mile back into town but it felt nice to be heading to Challenge Control, where our efforts would be appreciated and rewarded. The reception was littered with backpacks and weary Challengers, all offering congratulations to each other. It was great to see Ali again and meet the voices behind Challenge Control, and I was excited to get my certificate and much talked about t shirt. I was not excited about waft of smelly hiker that hung around the Challenge Control HQ. There was however tea, biscuits and chatter with other Challengers who were slowly arriving into control. It’s all a bit of a blur to be honest. I was restless, I’d expected to feel overwhelmed with happiness at the end of the challenge but I was mainly just sad that it was over. What now but back to reality.
I don’t really know how to end the story. I had a very different journey across Scotland to the one that I had originally envisaged. That was as much to do with the people I met on the challenge, as it was to do with the strength I found inside myself. I’ve never been one for cheesy, over the top, motivational statements, but if you believe you can do something then you can.