Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Blogging for somebody else

For the German speakers among my readers: I am currently in Berlin, reporting from the BDEW-Congress (energy and water suppliers) for the German youth press. We'll be producing a newspaper at the end of the event, and we are blogging and tweeting regularly until Thursday. So please feel free to have a look at our blog and tweets.
Cheers :)

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Day 6 - Land of the thousand lochs

When I wake up, my legs are covered (well, almost) in insect bites. There must be something living in the bed. Well, at least I managed to feed a few hungry creatures.
The guys arrive quite late, but as soon as start walking, we are back in yesterday's fast pace again. We pass a little church, and then walk along the shore of the loch, enjoying the splendid views over the crystal-clear lake.

Using tiny paths leading around some farm buildings, we come to the Frank Bruce Sculpture Trail outside of Kincraig. Frank Bruce, who died in 2009, was an artist and sculptor who used woodcarving as a way to express himself in a way that words did not offer him (he was dyslexic and left school at 13). The sculptures are very impressive and thought-provoking, and it's a pity we don't have the time to look around a bit more.
If you want, have a look at Frank Bruce's very inspiring biography:
“Essentially, the reason for the sculptures was to say that I’m still here. I am here and I’ve got something to say.”

Soon after we arrive at Feshiebridge, where one of the men decides to take a bath in the icy waters. He takes off his clothes, and jumps. I take up position on the old bridge and get some lovely pictures of him hurling himself from the rocks. Enjoy :)

Brave man...

After some trouble finding the right way (some signs and way marks mentioned in the guidebook no longer exist), we continue walking on broad forest tracks. There are several junctions, and as I seem to be the only one with a map/guidebook, I lead the group (fun).

We're having lunch at Drake's Bothy, where I also scale a lovely climbing tree (and notice that I'm a bit out of practice).

Now out of the forest, we walk through an open heather landscape, with birch trees and little muddy mini-lochs scattered all over the place. There are fantastic views over the Cairngorm mountains, the highest of which are still covered in snow.

After passing small Loch Gamhna, the track is plastered with puddles. The men have fun dropping heavy stones into the mud to have brown water splash over everyone and everything - including me :) It's getting even more hilarious when the people at the top of the group start building tree barriers for the rest of the walkers:

Mud-splattered, we arrive at the beautiful Loch an Eilean, where - after taking a wrong turn once again - we finally make it to the visitor centre (lovely ice-cream). From the shore of the loch we have a fantastic view over the loch and its island castle. No wonder this was voted "Britain's best picnic spot".

From the loch, we use some nice paths to get to Aviemore, passing another small Loch and the Rothiemurchus Estate, which offers a variety of activities, both on the water and on land. I wanted to do the Treezone activity there, but I was too late that day.

Soon, we arrive in Aviemore, and after having a quick drink in a pub, it's victory photo time - at the station opposite:

In the evening, the men put away their kilts and step into weird and wonderful costumes. There's a 3-course dinner at the hotel they're staying, and I'm invited along. It seems to be tradition for them to have this costume evening, and there are some really great disguises present. There's Darth Vader (who looks great sitting there texting on his phone - ever seen him do that before?!), a pink hippo (who wins the prize for best costume), a very serious looking Sherlock Holmes, and many, many more.
In the evening, when it's time to leave for the station, Darth Vader, a pirate, a clown and Elvis accompany me there - very much to the amusement of the passengers of an earlier train (before which the station manager actually announced "Elvis, please move away from the platform" via the speakers) and later, my own one.

Now, this has been it - my East Highland Way trip. It was full of surprises (who could have guessed I'd end up walking with twenty men in kilts?!), sunshine, rain and blisters. And it brought me about 600 photos. I might post a few more over the next couple of days, and I also plan to write something of a concluding text, with some tips and ideas for other people wanting to do the walk (i.e. the practicalities). Until then, have a look at the fantastic EHW website...

Monday, 11 June 2012

Day 5 - Of cows and men

The bed in Newtonmore Hostel is the best ever! It's extremely hard climbing out from under the comfy blankets, especially when seeing the rain running down outside the window. After five days with fairly good weather, the rain god has decided to stir things up a bit.

I'm having breakfast in a lovely tea room (Betty's Pantry and Tearoom), where the owner lets me copy her tablet recipe. Something to try out at home...
The guys turn up late (again), this time, only a few are wearing kilts, most are - like me - in heavy rain gear. But thanks to the rain the air is fresh and cool, and the clouds give the mountains a mystical appearance.

Because we don't fancy walking several miles on a tarred cycle path and because it is too wet for the alternative boggy route, we take the vans to Kingussie, from where we start the walk. The first leg of the trek takes us to the impressive Ruthven barracks, built in 1719 after the first Jacobite uprising. There's a Highland cow standing directly in front of it; it almost looks as if she (?) was posing for a picture.

After the barracks, we leave the road and begin to follow the way marked Badenoch trail. It takes us on small footpaths through lovely birch forests and over open farm- and moorland. There are several bird hides on the way, but unfortunately we don't stop to have a closer look. Our walking speed is the fastest yet; luckily my blisters have disappeared and my fitness seems to have improved quite considerably.

We have lunch on an old stone bridge (built in 1728) leading over a gurgling river. I manage to drop a few oatcakes into the water, but at least that might feed the fish in there.

By now, the rain has stopped, and we rid ourselves of the sweaty rain gear. The men are all wearing bright orange T-shirts with the name of their charity and all the walks they've done in recent years on the back. Next year they will walk the Great Glen Way and have already invited me to come along. Tempting...

After the bridge, the forest becomes darker and darker - at least compared to the bright birch forests from earlier - and the forest track gets thinner until it's no bigger than a comfortable path. After all the tarmac roads of the past days, this is heaven for our feet (or maybe - a bit more down to earth - like a nice massage).

We pass through two tiny villages nestled deep into the forest.

The path ascends quite heavily, and with our pace being as fast as it is, the group splits up - as so often -  into two parties, the fast and the slow. But this time, I am in the faster one - yippieh :)

The trail passes over some boggy ground, and one of the walkers slips and lands on the muddy ground. Luckily, he's alright - and a source of amusement for the next hour or so.

After some time, the forest gets less gloomy and we begin to meet some other people - walkers, elderly gentlemen walking their dogs and a group of people looking at fallen trees on the ground (maybe they plan to plant some new ones). Soon, Loch Insh comes into view, a large lake close to the village of Kincraig. After a lot of up-and-downs on tiny footpaths, we arrive at Loch Insh Watersports Centre. The vans with the other charity walkers that didn't take part in today's leg are already there, and together we sit down for a pint (and some lovely ice-cream). There's a large group of children out in the water being taught how to windsurf - it must be freezing in the water today.

From here, the lads drive me to my hostel, Cairngorms Christian Centre in Kincraig. I have to wait for half an hour or so for someone to arrive and let me in - mobile reception here is as bad as it was everywhere along the way, and the nice lady who then shows me around the centre never got my message. After leaving my stuff in the hostel, I have a look around the village shop (and get a newspaper - more sudokus for later on), and because it has started to rain again, I seek refuge in the Ossian Inn, a hotel in the village (and the closest place to get some food). The kitchen is still closed, so I sit down with some tea and read the paper, until the chef arrives (but the food later on is very much worth the wait).

Here a final group picture that didn't fit into the entry above:

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Day 4 - Wildcats of the Glen

The Rumblie Guesthouse feels more like a hotel. I have a wonderful twin room with an ensuite bathroom (boasting a shower with two shower heads that make the water rain down on me from all directions) and even a little TV. This morning, I'm having smoked haddock and poached eggs - after that I am so full of energy that I can't wait to start today's walk.
Just after 10am, the men in kilts arrive. Just outside Laggan, we pass Cluny Castle, which - according to the owner of last night's accommodation - is now owned by a Norwegian businessman, who only lives there a few weeks a year.
Behind the castle, a track leads up into the hills. The route follows the (way marked) Glen Banchor trail, so this time the chances of us taking a wrong turn are fairly slim (and we actually manage to follow the official EHW route all day). Today, there are almost as many men walking as on the day I first met them.

The path is much nicer than the tracks yesterday, and the route is the best so far: It takes us high into the glen, sporting a rugged, beautiful landscape.

After crossing a shallow stream (oh, how I missed all the stream crossing), we arrive at a lonely stalker's bothy. Sitting on the ruins of some former dwellings, we have lunch (and meet a German couple walking the EHW there - in the Highlands, all people you meet seem to be either Scottish or German), before proceeding over more and more boggy ground.

There are more streams to cross (after some time you develop a tactic that works most of the time), but all of them shallow enough to cross without much effort. We come across several frogs and toads, some very interesting birds, some of which I have never seen/heard before, and even a pheasant.

But we are probably too loud to see any deer or wildcats. After about three hours of walking through beautiful Glen Banchor, the path becomes a more sturdy trail which leads down towards Newtonmore.

But some of us decide to take the slightly longer, but much more beautiful wildcat-trail into the village. This area is known for its wildcat population, and there is not only a way marked trail through this cat territory, but there are also dozens of painted wildcat statues to be found all over Newtonmore.

Newtonmore is a nice little place, with my hostel in the middle of it. I'm in a private twin room, because the owners didn't want to out me into an all-male dorm.
Later, I go to the pub opposite, where I meet the German couple I saw near the ruins earlier today. With a delicious haggis and some local Dalwhinnie whisky, we get talking. It's strange speaking German...

Read more about my East Highland Way trip here.

Day 3 - Blisters, bogs and bridges

Yesterday, walking with the men in kilts was so much fun, that they arranged to pick me up at my hostel after breakfast. When they come (half an hour late), they take my backpack into the van and off we walk. Belinda at the Station Lodge recommended a shortcut, which we - well, let's just say we try to take it. With very limited results. Limited to walking on railway tracks, climbing under a viaduct, crossing rivers (again), and climbing over a few more fences. It's definitely never dull walking with those guys.

After even more river and fence crossings (just to add to the fun), we end up on the same railway track we have left half an hour earlier. But this time, we think we see a path (the one we've been looking for the whole time), so we climb over the rustiest fence so far - and from then on we are lost. We climb a steep hill while navigating around dead wood and broken branches, until after what seems like a very long time we arrive on a forest track (not the one we were looking for, but better than no track at all).
We have some trouble orientating (phones have no connection up here, and compasses are so old-fashioned), and so we manage to walk into the wrong direction (again) for about a mile, until we realise our mistake when the dam we are supposed to be passing is on our left instead of on our right hand side.

While taking some pictures on the dam, one of the men drops his guidebook into the water. Even though he manages to get it out - after several attempts - it's too late. The book is ruined, and we leave it behind as a warning to the next EHW walker.
So back we go, and then onwards following the forest track for a very long time. It's nice and cool in the forest, especially after the last two days of extreme heat, but the forest road is uncomfortable to walk on. Unfortunately, there won't be many nice tracks today.
After a steady ascent we leave Corrour forest and are rewarded with fantastic views over the Moy reservoir and the hills behind, shrouded in mist.

After a short break we're back in the forest again, descending towards Moy Bridge.

It's early afternoon by the time we get to Moy, and - to save time - we decide to cross a field - only to discover a bit too late how boggy it is (probably the reason why the road leads all the way around it). One of the men, Paul, has to discover this the hard way by sinking knee-deep into the mud (poor kilt).
After some time, we arrive at Loch Laggan. By now, my feet are starting to hurt, and our energy levels are dropping rapidly.

After two hours or so on the banks of the loch, we arrive at a EHW signpost - the first one (it's not an official trail yet, so there is no way marking otherwise). It marks the diversion around Ardverikie estate, where the TV-Series "Monarch of the Glen", and - more recently - the film "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" were filmed. Because the diversion was mentioned on the EHW website, we decide to follow the signs just to be on the safe side. But soon we regret this decision, when we see how far this route is taking us away from the banks of the loch. So we take a turn marked on the OS maps, and arrive at the estate. There is no one to be seen, and we use the beautiful house as a backdrop for dozens of pictures.

From then on, it's getting tedious. We're exhausted and our pace has decreased to an all time low. We can see the sandy beach (the largest freshwater beach in Europe, or at least that's what it says in the guidebook) we want to reach, but it takes over half an hour until we're finally there. 

Near the beach, we get picked up by the vans, and they give me a lift to my Guesthouse in Laggan. Another day has ended, after 33 kilometres :)

Read more about my East Highland Way trip here.

Day 2 - Twenty men in kilts

I am sitting in an elderly couple's back garden in the sunshine with a wonderfully cold glass of coca cola. I was on the hunt for something to eat in the village of Achluachrach (unpronounceable name, I know), but according to the couple, the next pub is a two-hour walk away. So the man offered me lunch - and minutes later I'm sitting on the grass, holding a plate loaded with cake and cookies.

The morning started fairly late with a fruit bun and newspaper in my log pod. With everything packed up, I had to cross the river Spean again. The camping site owner was kind enough to lend me a big wooden stick, which made fantastic pole for crossing the river without getting my feet wet at all (this time). 

I returned to path I had left yesterday afternoon by climbing under a fence (one of many to come) and then continued on the nice forest track up onto a kind of plateau, mainly inhabited by dozens of sheep.

From up here I have fantastic views over the nearby mountains, and I can see a little crofter's hut up on the hill next to me where an old railway line used to be.
It's extremely hot, so I am glad to pass a sun-lit forest before arriving at Monessie Farm. The gates here are actually tied shut, and I feel a bit like I'm trespassing when untying the ropes.

Shortly after the farm, I take a wrong turn and end up at a river ford instead of a bridge. So, back again to the junction, where I take another wrong turn (before I didn't even notice this was a junction, so it's amazing that the second path I took from there was a wrong one as well) that leads deep into the forest. There is supposed to be a bridge somewhere, but when I finally find it, I am separated from the bridge by a high fence. Back again at the junction I finally find the right path, that gets me to the suspension bridge. It is very wobbly, and looking down on the gurgling water in the gorge below me doesn't help. There's also a lovely waterfall, which probably looks a bit more impressive after rain. On the other side of the bridge is the elderly couple's back garden...

The next stop is an old church on a hill behind Achluachrach. It's quite a steep ascent, so I leave my backpack on the side of the road. The view from Cille Choirill Church is amazing...
I sit down on a bench (you can see it in the picture above) and relax - until a group of very young teenagers arrives.
Back over the suspension bridge it goes, and over fields. After a whole day of meeting nobody but sheep on the walk, I can suddenly see some colourful moving dots in the distance. On coming closer, they turn out to be about twenty men in kilts (and some of them are wearing nothing but those).
It turns out, they are walking the East Highland Way for charity - fundraising for the Edinburgh-based charity CCLASP. They are an interesting bunch, and soon we get talking. As we are taking the same route, I decide to walk with them - and put away my guidebook, because they look as if they knew where we have to go. Well, they don't.
We get lost quite a few times, which is fun, and we cross the (same) river four or five times, which is also fun (especially because my shoes get wet only once). We climb fences (including some barbed wire ones), and cross a wet bog.

At some point, we reach a road, where some of the guys get a taxi back to their vans, so that they can pick us up later. They also take my backpack with them, so I'm walking much easier from now on. After even more stream-crossing and boggy ground, we walk over the railway tracks and suddenly stand on the A86 again, where we get picked up by the vans.
The men give me a lift to my hostel in Tulloch, which is part of the station there. I am the only guest, and get a private room instead of a dorm bed. Interesting how the day turned out. Had someone told me that I would walk the EHW with twenty men in kilts, I would have laughed...
Read more about my East Highland Way trip here.