|Mick 'Crocodile' Dundee: One of the Southern Hemisphere's finest sons
Mick and I walked from Kingussie to Braemar together. He seemed content to follow my lead in Glen Feshie, not bothering to consult his map, but demanding absolute precision from me. "You said it would take 45 minutes from the bothy to get to this camping spot you want us to head to", he said at one point, "you ought to know that we have exactly 8 minutes 42 seconds left to get us there or you'll be eating my old jockstrap for your pudding this evening. And there had better be a nice flat spot for my tent, and I expect the creek to have plenty of the cold crystal clear stuff in it for me to cool down my tinnies before I get me barbie going". As we arrived he stated that we were 17 seconds late but he'd let me off my jockstrap dessert as he'd stopped for a pee, which just goes to show the magnanimous nature of our colonial cousins. He showed further generosity of spirit the following day when I took him off route from White Bridge up to the Chest of Dee in the rain and wind. I had been assured by another Challenger, who I will not name publicly, but just refer to as a retired Professor of Software Engineering, 'IS' from Aberdeen, that there was the best wild camping spot in the whole of Scotland if not Europe there, but all Mick and I found was a pretty stream, lots of deer shit and ruffty tuffty hummocky stuff. As it happens, we were happy to walk on towards the Linn of Dee and a very pleasant spot to pitch.
It was great walking with Mick. I had thought that my planned route would see me having another social Challenge but this hadn't entirely been the case. On the first day I walked a short way with Ray Disson. Then from 1.30 on Friday afternoon I didn't see a soul for over 49 hours until I was approaching Cannich in the middle of Sunday afternoon. The next day saw me walk with the Clegg brothers, Roger and Peter and occasionally others, and then all my walking in the Monadliath for two days was on my own, as was almost all my final two days. Allt na Goire saw about 10 lovely people, and me making 11, squashed around the Sutherland's dining table for dinner and breakfast, and from Kingussie to Tarfside there was much company and sociability.
To me there is only one real advantage of entering the Challenge, and that is to be amongst fellow Challengers, at least for parts of your walk. Almost all the rest of the great things about it could be had simply by going off on your own, and walking a route across Scotland. And Challengers are an incredible bunch. Most exude fantastic traits. They come from a very diverse range of backgrounds and places, most have amazing outdoors curriculum vitae, and many have shown vast amounts of determination and courage in adversity. Some are gobby extroverts, some are quiet introverts, some are cerebral or cultured - and some are not. There is much humour, much self-deprecation and much friendly mickey taking of others. And quite a number not only carry hip flasks but they pass them around in the evening too.
And so from Kingussie I enjoyed Mick's company and along the way that of several others. Braemar was less busy than in my two previous years, what with the Fife Arms being closed. The Old Bakery Cafe also seemed quieter when I arrived, although I fortunately found Linda Griffiths and her husband lunching there, so I wasn't quite Billy No Mates. I spent much of the afternoon sorting and washing in my B and B. I had, however, arranged in advance to meet up with four people with whom I had walked in 2014 and had booked a table for six at the Braemar Lodge Hotel, confident that we would find another to join us. In fact, the booking turned into one for eight, and it was super to meet up again with James 'Bongo' Boulter, Ian 'Steve Ovett' Sommerville, Hugh and Barbara Emsley, Vicky and Toby Grace and Stan Appleton for what turned out to be a more than decent meal.
Meeting old friends in Braemar gave me the chance to walk in the slip stream of Ian Sommerville again. We arranged to walk together to Ballater and were careful not to disgrace ourselves as we had done in 2014 by getting off route (ie a bit lost) between the town and the Lion's Face, and we sustained interesting conversations for the entire walk - well Ian was interesting and he certainly listened politely to my wittering. As we gorged ourselves on over priced refreshments at the Balmoral Castle Tea Shop Hugh, Barbara and Stan arrived. I had walked with Hugh and Barbara for a few days in 2014, and the meal the previous evening and this lunch stop confirmed that Barbara oozes loveliness from every pore. And Hugh? Well Hugh wears his Paramo smock and his buff as if they were a silk cravat and smoking jacket. The word 'urbane' must have been invented for Hugh. I cannot think of Hugh without transporting him in my imagination to a bungalow on a tea plantation in Darjeeling in the 1930s, pouring a gin fizz for his guests as the sun sinks behind the hills, and the insects start to chirp their evensong, a jazz record playing quietly on the gramophone in the background. I suppose it is just possible that in real life he leads the Portsmouth Headhunter gang of football hooligans or some such, but somehow I doubt it.
|Hugh Emsley, Stan Appleton, Barbara Emsley and me, myself and I suffering in the sun at the tea shop at Balmoral Castle. Ian, who is something of a photographer, had insisted we move the lunch debris from the table before he could take the photograph
It did seem that one of the social hubs of the Challenge had shifted to Ballater from Braemar. The camp site was heaving, and others were staying in town in more luxurious accommodation. So the camp site was choka bloka with Challengers and I had a big man hug with my Twitter pal Carl 'the Birdman of Alkatraz' Mynott, and a girl hug with lovely Lyndsey Pooler who had escaped her mum duties for a fortnight leaving Alistair holding the baby. And not only that but Challenge legends Alan Sloman and Phil Lambert were drinking beer in a camper van, with Alan's spitting image of a brother Dave. Which meant that in that van there were exactly the right number of human kidneys - although not necessarily shared out two a piece.
Standing on the camp site, Ian telephoned the Indian on the Green to book us a table. "I'll book for four", he said, "we are bound to find a couple more who want to go". Before he had finished the sentence not only had the two other places gone, but I was calling across to Ian to change the booking to one for six as Gordon Green, Roger and Peter Clegg and Stan were all shouting "and me and me". And an excellent meal it was too, with various freebies provided to supplement our order, and I got to have a decent chat with Gordon, too, who I had last seen limping down the road from Tarfside with a very poorly foot in 2014.
|Stan, Roger and Peter Clegg, Gordon Green, me and Ian Sommerville at the The Indian on the Green in Ballater
I could, and should, go on and mention all the others who made my Challenge special, and those who I missed or hardly saw or didn't see enough off, who would have made it even more specialyier. At the real risk of inadvertently missing people out, there were the fabulozy and unfeasibly youthful looking John and Norma Keohane, who unbidden altered their dining plans to come to the Park Hotel dinner with me on the Wednesday. There were Martin Rye and Keith Willers, James of the Bongo, Vicky and Toby Grace, Andy Walker, Robin Evans, Emma Warbrick, and John Jocys who I missed or didn't see much of. Johnboy Sanderson whose legs I had planned to hobble like a camel so I could keep up with him going up Mount Battock. Steve Rouse who kept me going as I flagged in the rain over the last few km to Tarfside and as I tired again towards North Water Bridge, David and Margaret Brocklehurst who added sanity to a meal with some rather more raucous Callengers in the Tipsy Laird (you know who they are Andy and Carl!), Graeme and Marion Dunsire....and others I know through social media and didn't get to see such as Ali Whitaker. I could go on and on. And I usually do, drone, drone, drone.....
Thanks to all named and to many others for their companionship and good humour and tolerance, and especially to Mick, Ian and Steve who were prepared to plod along the miles with me and make the experience so memorable.
|Ian Sommerville basking in glorious late May weather on the summit of Mount Keen