Tuesday 13 June 2017

Challenging Reflections on the 2017 TGO Challenge

Early Morning Reflections in the River Findhorn 

And then it was over.

The Beach at Redcastle

Paddling in the North Sea at Redcastle
Alan Sloman at Redcastle
We arrived at the wonderful beach at Redcastle in beautiful sunshine, I pouted for the last time as Al pointed his camera, then mine, to capture the moments, and after that we walked to the Lunan Bay Cafรฉ to eat cake and ice cream and phone a taxi to get us to Montrose.

It was lovely to get to The Park Hotel. It was heaving with Thursday finishers and too many old friends to mention. Robin Evans, Johnboy Sanderson, John Woolston, Andy “Mad ‘n’ Bad” Walker, Crocodile Dundee from Croydon with his new hat, Hugh and Barbara Emsley oozing their loveliness, Mick and Gayle, Humphrey Weightman and many, many others. Happy, smiley fit people. People who, as Al says, are made of “the right stuff”. The people who make the Challenge what it is, and why so many come back year after year. People were already discussing where they would start from in 2018.

As for me, I know I shall not be back (what I should write really is “I do not think I will be back”).

My 2017 Challenge was a very different experience to those I did in 2013, 2014 and 2015. The weather, in the main, was better for a start. And I climbed more hills on the way across, including five Munros, and generally walked longer days, with longer stops and pitched camp later.

Oh! Another difference! I bought an excellent cap, in which, at a hundred metres or so, I could be taken for Field Marshal Rommel. Yes that cap. Hideously overpriced at £20 in Braemar Mountain Sports when it is on sale for £19.99 in at least one online retailer.  Al loved it so much he got one as well, but in a different colour. Mine is a steely grey, which will nicely set off my eyes when I wear it in the early evening sunshine.  I later found that Johnboy also has one that is identical and, to quote him, “it’s essential backpacker apparel to engender fearlessness and occasional foolhardy actions. People will look at you in a way which says there goes a man who embodies the very essence of an outdoors expert”.  How right he is. I shall wear it on all future backpacks.

Field Marshal Rommel of the Africa Corps in a bunker on Driesh
The main difference, though, was the fact that I had a walking companion for the entire crossing. This did not, of course, make the Challenge any less demanding physically.  I was still exhausted at the end of most days. But it made an enormous difference. For me, without a shadow of a doubt, it is far easier to successfully complete the Challenge if walking with someone rather than going solo.  It’s all in the mind you see. The extra sense of reassurance, especially for a born worrier, of having someone with whom to share (or indeed take on) most of the decision making does make the event that much less daunting. The companionship goes without saying, although say it I just did.

It seems to me that there are three wonderful things about the TGO Challenge. Firstly, the sense of achievement it provides. I know that my crossings are something that I will always be proud of. That's always and for ever. Right to the end when I shuffle off this mortal coil. Secondly, the Challenge has a spirit of its own, especially of commaraderie. The people you meet, the friendships you form are what make it so special. This has to be so as we could all go off and do long backpacks anytime and anyplace rather than stumping up our £50 entry fee to the publishers of the TGO magazine. And thirdly, there is a wonderful, liberating simplicity in the rhythm and routine of a long walk. You get up, you walk, you cook dinner, you go to bed. Only if you have experienced this day after day can you understand, and the Challenge, at two weeks, starts to provide a little understanding of the motivations of those who through hike the much, much longer trails of the USA and Europe.

But I will not be there next May or in subsequent Mays. I think not. You see I did not relish the Challenge of the walk. I'm not made of the right stuff. On too many mornings I woke thinking more of the difficulty of walking up to 30 km in a mountain environment, knowing for much of that time I would be shattered. Too often I did not appreciate the magnificence of my surroundings, but rather wondered how much further I had to go to our chosen camp spot or B and B. I don’t think there was a single day when I was not thankful when it was over. For me, as I approach 60 years of age, walking for up to ten or more hours with a large backpack starts to make each day a chore rather than a joy, in a way in which a four or five hour walk does not. I am not made of stern enough stuff.

Then there is what is happening to Scotland. The wild landscape is being trashed with the connivance of rich landowners and the government. Wind turbines and massive electricity pylons blight extensive parts of the Challenge area. And the massive and numerous new hill tracks. I need to be clear that I don’t think on the Challenge I have ever not thought 'thank goodness' on getting on to one of these and being able to walk on it after being on rough or boggy ground. But they are despoiling the landscape in the most appalling way. Any mountain lover must weep, at least metaphorically, when they they see what has happened to large parts of the Highlands. Again, you have to see and experience these to understand the point. Those that run elevated over the the summit plateaus are perhaps the worst of all. I do not understand how the nation of Scotland, so proud of its Highland heritage, can have allowed this to happen.

And finally, when I am away I miss my family and I miss my dog and it puts additional burdens on them, even though they are able to eat salad every day and can skip meat and starch and puddings and stuff (not the dog obviously, as he shares my attitude to salad, which is distinctly hostile).

The TGO Challenge: In the words of Scotland's finest, The Proclaimers, it's Over and Done With

Despite the paragraph above I hope I will do more longish backpacks before I hang up my boots and bin the sleeping mat, and not just of the overnight variety. But it will not be on the Challenge. I am almost sure about that.

And my final words on my 2017 are simply this. Thanks, Al. It was a privilege to walk with you. Only eight more to go and you'll have done thirty. And you mind what you write about me when you get your own blog written.

Alan Sloman: A True Gentleman of the Road


  1. Well done on your crossing and keeping Sloman in some sort of order. I must say I found this a tough Challenge despite the generally better weather. I think I will do it again though. It's easy to underestimate how much it takes out of your body. I reckon it's taken until now to recover properly.

    1. Thanks Robin. We both did well. Nay, we all did well.

  2. Hmmm...I always thought the Challenge wasn't for me. Then I thought it was. Then it wasn't. I do admire those who tackle it though and send my sincere congratulations David. But I think you've finally convinced me...

    1. Applying for 2018,then, Geoff?

    2. Alan is correct, Geoff. You're comment is certainly ambiguous. My feeling is you would love the Challenge, for you are a sociable person, whilst I am simply a miserable sod with a very fine Africa Corps cap.

  3. Well done, I know what you mean about the way Scotland is currently trashing many wild beautiful places. Being of the dinosaur age, I can recall a time when Scotland was a lot less commercialised and wild places abounded.

    1. Thanks Dawn. As I wrote, I just find the despoilation of wild landscape incomprehensible.

  4. I'm sure that whatever you decide regarding the TGO Challenge, that new cap will see you along a few more treks over the coming years; short or long, Scotland or otherwise. A few years away from the uniqueness of the event may bring a longing to do it once more. But the land rover tracks, pylons, pipes and fences detract from the adventure a little more as each year passes. I managed to avoid them in large part on my last two crossings, but there's something sad about plotting a course through Scotland, trying to avoid damaged landscapes. Like deliberately avoiding taking photos with pylons in to give the impression they don't exist.

    Well done on getting across David .... it's been a long haul over the last couple of years, but your legs did you proud.

    1. Most kind, John. The legs did more than ok, and I praised them frequently and loudly as I walked. I started with low confidence in them and finished thinking they had done me proud. I'm sure there will be other trips ahead. And that I shall eventually see you on one of them. But not the Challenge.

  5. Sorry to hear you're not planning any more Challenges Davis - I was hoping to see you again next year. I agree with you that one of the delights is the simplicity of the whole thing - walk, sleep, eat with an occasional pint on the way. I don't think you get this on a shorter walk.

    You're quite right to stop if it becomes something to be dreaded rather than enjoyed.

    Re wind farms etc. It's a pity there aren't starting places further north so that many of these could be avoided.

    1. Thanks Ian
      I'm sure that we can plan to meet on a hill someday, preferably on a sunny day, with a lovely peaceful, flat, dry wild camp spot next to a beck or a burn.

  6. I totally agree that the Challenge land is being destroyed by speculation and greed under a faint umbrella of Green saving the planet that fools those that are generally Green from their nice laptops in Surbiton. But as we know it is 99% profit driven in the disguise of psuedo green.
    Some Green arse will pop up and get all shouty now ๐Ÿ˜ฑ๐Ÿ˜‚.

    Other than that, I am the opposite view, maybe I am the right stuff, maybe and more likely, I am "Mad 'n Bad" deranged.
    But I love the daily challenge of pushing the distance and the envelope of what may break me.
    Ok, unless it is pissing with rain and no visibility, in which case, charge up a valley and find a hostel or bothy.

    So, sir I hope to see you in the hills. Maybe not the Challenge, but Lakes, or Dales, or Shropshire some time before the year is out.

    Be good, be safe, but most of all, BE HAPPY ๐Ÿ˜Š

    1. Andy
      You have accurately diagnosed your condition. Deranged is the very word I would have chosen for you. :-)
      We will walk together again. Of that I am absolutely certain.

  7. Well Sir.
    I'm standing at the wicket with my stumps scattered about the place.

    You have always been the right stuff in my and Lord E's eyes. I thought we both coped with those long days admirably, David. Indeed I was generally hanging onto the back of your rucsac for support at the end of them.
    As Mr Sanderson has noted, your wobbly legs proved to be 'strong and stable' and lugged you across quite a tough route...

    Perhaps next time it might be more prudent to not carry five days scoff at the outset. That might have made life a little easier...

    Whatever you decide to do, David, you would be very welcome to walk with us both again, either on the Challenge or elsewhere.

    You really are made of the right stuff.

    1. Most kind, sir, most kind.

      I do hope you plan to write up your account of the walk on your blog. I need to know what really happened!

  8. Well done on another excellent , enjoyable, and very honest account of your 2017 final challenge David. I found my head nodding in agreement as i read along. Dragging my old bones through this magical landscape does make one think WHY? Then you meet one or some of the "challenge gang" in a sun kissed glen or a windswept hill,& it all makes sense. I totally agree with your thoughts on the landscape. Nearly every hill where i stood & took a minute to look around, there where vehicle tracks on the horizon.
    I wish you well on your future walking adventures wherever they lead you, and if you fancy a day or two in company in the lakes sometime,it would be a pleasure to join you dear fellow. Most of all, be happy.

    1. Thank you John. Despite you sharing some of my feelings I have no doubt you will be propping up the bar in The Park Hotel again on Thursday 24 May 2018.
      And remember the experience of 2013, Loch Arkaig: ticks head straight for your groin. :-)

  9. So the rumours are true. The SWL team, not safe working load but Sloman, Williams and Lambert brigade has fought its last battle. That bunch of pals carefully selected from a whole bunch of cast offs is no more.
    However I believe that in the next few days when your sat on the floor outside an offy in Penrith, clutching a brown paper bag with someone else's Whisky bottle in the right hand and a large certificate tube in the other, you may be tempted to have just one more go.
    Passers bye will be heard to talk, look at that guy sat there, he was a challenger you know, you can tell by the worn down stilettos and peat up to the knees.
    They were real men, who wore the badges of honour on their livers, fought bravely through Braemar and escaped benightment at the battle of Callater Lodge. Tuff as old boots.
    The regiment will never be the same without a Williams staunchly tied to the front of the string just in case of steep drops ahead in foggy weather. Never again will the poly bag of porridge and custard see the light of day.
    Who will we have to laugh at now. ๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚

    1. No Alan. I do not think I will be tempted. But I have not ruled out trips elsewhere so the instant custard made in a poly bag will still feature in my life. ๐Ÿ˜

  10. Well then.....so where are you starting from next year?

  11. Ha ha JJ.

    Actually the boy is deadly serious. It's over and done with.