This year’s TGO Challenge felt different to the ones I have done before. I wrote here about my pre-Challenge nerves. Chats with fellow Challengers showed that I wasn’t alone in feeling anxious. Fitness, the summer heat, midges, Covid (restrictions and maybe even catching it) – these are tangible, logical worries but there was also a more vague nagging worry which I think was caused by the mental upheaval of the pandemic and lockdown. Many of us were setting out to do something which should be normal for us ….. but which felt so strange and which I wasn’t completely convinced would ever actually happen after two postponements. Travelling for many hours on public transport; being so far from home; making a “non-essential” journey; eating in bars and cafes; mixing with people; all of these things contributed to my anxiety and I believe others had similar concerns.
A Kilchoan start was always going to require at least an extra day so, for the first time, I travelled on the Thursday and had the pleasure of meeting several Challengers on the journey. At Oban I waved them goodbye and caught the ferry to Mull, then the bus to Tobermory. A night in a B&B (booked whilst on the train North; most of this year’s planning was last minute, partly due to my inability to believe that the Challenge would happen) gave me a comfortable base from which to explore the town and walk up to the lighthouse. A beautiful location which I decided would have been worth the trip even if I gave up now and went home.
I forgot to dip my toes in the water at Kilchoan but I’m counting my Tobermory to Kilchoan ferry, on Friday morning, as an appropriate alternative.
My day 2 camp was my first bad midge experience. It was horrific. I felt trapped in my inner tent by a huge cloud of them. At around 1am, so in the very brief period of (almost) dark overnight, I woke up gasping for air. I was so hot in my tent; I needed some air ….. but I couldn’t open the inner tent door because of them. I tried to calm down, but I felt so panicky. I wrote in my diary that “I wanted to turn on the big light” – ie I didn’t want to be in a hot, enclosed space in the dark. I’m not scared of the dark; I usually love camping or bivvying at night, but I felt so claustrophobic, it was horrible. I decided to go outside and run around a bit. It was cooler outside and there didn’t seem to be any midges. Returning to my tent, I thought calm thoughts – mainly about that day’s boat crossing of Loch Shiel which had been such a joy – until I fell asleep.
That experience put huge doubt in my mind about my ability to complete the crossing. Usually, in May, I can camp high or low or find stealthy spots in woodland as I near the East coast. This year, though, I might find myself trapped inside a small tent slowly poaching. I could lose most of the pleasure of camping.
When I reached the Corran Ferry on Day 3 I bumped into John, a Challenger, who was hatching a plan to alter his route to miss out Lundavra and instead go through North Ballachulish on the road. I was physically exhausted and mentally scarred and realised that there were hotels and B&Bs along that road; I booked one whilst on the ferry! I tweeted about my struggles and got so much support from people telling me that adapting my plan was very sensible and not a sign of weakness (although I could only half see that myself).
Most of Day 4 was spent walking with Graeme who, I think, had also altered his route. It was great to have some company on the road walk into Kinlochleven and for coffee and lunch. It’s possible Graeme saved my Crossing as his company was a welcome distraction from the self-doubts that were nagging away at me.
From then on things started to get better. My back had been absolutely killing me due partly to the weight of my pack but also probably due to the relatively thin padding of the (old style) Osprey Exos rucksack. I gave myself regular rest stops but found that anything over 12 or so miles was a chore. At least the weather was generally ideal for a rest; I’d have probably kept walking in the rain.
I booked a couple more (unplanned) rooms along the way; 7 of my 13 nights were in the tent. Knowing that only every other night would be midgy gave me the confidence to camp and I didn’t have another night as bad as that second camp.
By the start of the second week I felt that I would finish. I’d found a way to cope with the additional challenges I was facing this year and I was actually enjoying myself. There were so many flowers compared with in May. I saw a stoat, lots of frogs, loads of birds, and deer – including ones with antlers (which I hardly ever see). I was also followed by a swarm of black flies which spent the night bouncing between my inner and outer tent but didn’t bite.
I’d bought a new mobile phone a couple of weeks earlier and could now, for the first time, carry the offline 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 OS maps for my whole route. This made a huge difference and saved so much time compared with the compass and 1:50,000 map method or even getting a grid ref from a GPS. I did use my printed maps and compass, as I find that a quick and satisfying navigation method for open country, but the OSMaps app was heavily used for confirmation and checking detail.
As usual, I made some navigational bloopers; usually when I knew exactly where I was and didn’t need to pay attention to map, compass, or common sense. The descent into Glen Clova, over a steep, bracken and heather-covered hillside was not fun and could have been avoided if I hadn’t been blasé about which track I was on.
From Clova I tweaked my route and tagged along with Alan, Barbara and Lindsay for a couple of days. They were good company and I think we all kept each other going. We climbed the Stile of Death, scared off some ne’er-do-wells (who possibly had crossbows ….. but the story gets more far-fetched with each telling), ate fig-rolls and, in Brechin, drank beer.
My final day was spent on my own and, with no comment on the previous days’ company, I was glad of that. The weather was beautiful and I enjoyed a slightly meandering route to the coast. There was no rush; I could enjoy being by myself and eke out the final hours of my walk. I was horrified to see the St Cyrus sign when I reached the place marked as Cocklem Bents on the (1:25k) map. I swore, many years ago, that I would never finish at St Cyrus as it’s a very popular finish point and I’m contrary. It turns out that the St Cyrus nature reserve is a little down the coast from the village of St Cyrus.
The beach was wonderful. I went for a paddle then sat listening to the waves. OK, I may have shed a tear, too. I was so pleased that I’d not given up when the going was tough. I’d managed to work though the difficult times, with support from people both remote and present. If I’d given up, I’d have added to the list of worries which were weighing me down at the start.
This was my 12th crossing and in many ways unlike any of the others but I think it highlights what the TGO Challenge is known for; individuals facing their own unique challenge and finding their own way, with the moral support of fellow Challengers, to succeed. I’m so glad I did it.