Today’s route was due to be 33km with around 400m of ascent and a lunch break in Boat of Garten although, having spent the night in Red Bothy, I’d now have to make up an extra couple of km. The weather was reasonable, if a little cold, and I set off with two targets in mind: first of all, to reach Eil – as that was where I should have started the day – and, secondly, to get to Boat of Garten where I could have something to eat. Breaking my longer days up into chunks helps me to manage mentally, especially when I’m not particularly enjoying myself. I was glad I’d chosen to stay in the bothy, as it made getting dressed, having my breakfast and packing everything away much easier, but my spirits were low and I was starting to get quite disappointed with myself for feeling so miserable.
I’d walked part of today’s route on a previous TGO Challenge but I had some more up-to-date information from my Vetter so knew I’d be able to cross the Dulnain via a bridge rather than fording it near Dalnahaitnach. I’d seen the sign to the bridge last time but then misinterpreted which track it was pointing to and ended up believing that the bridge had been washed away (rather than I’d made a mistake!)
I was convinced that I had never been to Boat of Garten, so it was a very strange feeling when I walked down the main road and seemed to recognise the buildings, shops and even the bus stops. At the bottom of the hill, when I saw the railway and the little ornamental garden, I remembered I must have been here in February 2007 when I spent a week in the Cairngorms. The memory was confirmed when I went into the hotel and sat at my “usual” table in the bar!
The pub triggered memories of my last time here. There were a number of well-heeled, smartly dressed folks having their lunch and a glass of wine. And then there was me looking like I’d just walked over a hundred miles in awful weather and had been sleeping in ditches and abandoned farm buildings for a week. I felt slightly uncomfortable but really shouldn’t have worried as the staff were wonderful. The barman, in particular, couldn’t do enough to make sure I had everything I needed. Along with my food and beer, he brought me a large glass of iced water with a slice of lemon just because he thought I could do with it – and he was right, it was just what I needed.
Whilst eating my lunch, I turned on my phone and sent a Tweet. Almost immediately, Carl tweeted back some words of encouragement. The break and food & drink did me a power of good and I’d made contact with the rest of the Challenge world. I was feeling a bit happier and, not wanting to lose my momentum, I decided to change my route. Instead of going South-east-ish through Abernethy Forest and camping by Loch a’ Chnuic, I would go through the North part of the forest to Nethy Bridge. I’d camped in the snow at the Lazy Duck campsite in February 2007 and found it a simple, welcoming site. If I couldn’t get a pitch there, I could try the hotel. I was happy to camp, but I really didn’t fancy the idea of a wild camp if the weather turned rough again.
I took the waymarked Speyside Way to Nethy Bridge and walked past a couple of groups of Osprey spotters. Although I’d been to Nethy Bridge before, I couldn’t quite remember where the hostel/campsite was, so I looked at the Tourist Information board in the centre of the village. A leaflet reminded me that the campsite only accepted a maximum of 3 or 4 tents at a time – and this was Saturday night. Should I phone ahead and risk being turned away, or just turn up and try to look desperate and pathetic? I decided the second option was more likely to succeed.
As I arrived at the Lazy Duck, I could see a family setting up a couple of tents but the site didn’t look busy so I hoped I’d be in luck. At reception, I asked a young woman if I could camp there. She apologised and said that they had another family arriving soon and had no spare pitches. I tried to stay cheerful and started to ask if I could at least fill my water bottles and have a rest before moving on. Then she noticed my rucksack and asked if I’d walked in to the site. I told her I had. “Oh, in that case, I’m sure we can find somewhere for you”. Wahey! She took me to a patch of grass away from the usual camping field and I started to put up my tent. Two minutes later she came back and said she’d found a better place, so she picked up my half-erected tent (causing me a certain amount of anxiety!) and helped me move to a pleasant spot near to the cooking shelter and from where I could watch red squirrels scampering in the trees.
I’d almost finished putting up my tent when the young woman appeared again with a tea tray. I thought nothing of it, assuming that she was just tidying things up in the cooking shelter, but she came over to me and handed me the tray saying that they always gave refreshments to somebody who had walked in and that she hoped I would enjoy a pot of peppermint tea and a bowl of dates. I was quite touched at this kind gesture and also slightly surprised to find that the mint tea and dates (which wouldn’t have been my first choice if tea and cake had been on the menu) were delicious and really refreshing!
It had been a long day and a slog in places but twice I had received simple, kind hospitality (plus a couple of encouraging Tweets) and that had made a world of difference. I needed good weather if I was to carry on with the route I had planned for the next day, but at least my spirits were a little higher and the odds were now tipping towards me carrying on rather than quitting.