|Day 2: Glendessarry to Tomdoun|
It had been a cold night but I had been cosy and warm. I was relieved that my new, lightweight sleeping bag had coped well. I'd been assured that it's rating, down to 5 degrees, was a little conservative. I reckon the temperature had been down to 2 or so. It was nice to know that the bag was up to the task; it was one less thing to worry about.
I had my first porridge breakfast of the trip, mixed with dried milk, home dried fruit and so muesli. I knew from experience that eating porridge for days on end could be very boring, but this is a slow release food and so it makes sense to start the day with a good bowl full.
The sun came up clearing away any condensation that had gathered in the tent. By 8.00 am I was on the move, clambering up over grassy slopes to rejoin the path that runs through Gledessarry. It was a fine and sunny morning. Two cuckoos, one on either side of the glen kept me company all of the way down; or was it just one cuckoo and an echo? Either way the cuckoos kept me company all the way to the east coast.
The map shows two buildings in Glendessarry. Upper Glendessarry is a small farm workers cottage, Lower Glendessarry is much finer, a large, splendid and reasonably modern building, perhaps used as a sporting lodge as well as just for farming I wondered. The day was so clear that I could easily see right down the Glen to Strathan at the edge of Loch Arkaig. But my route saw me turn to the north at this spot and climb up to the Bealach through which runs the Alt Na Faine burn.
This was wonderful walking. I was alone again, fabulous mountains stretching out all around me, the sun picking out the gold, browns and yellows of the high pass. My solitude was abruptly broken by a small dog that came whizzing past my ankles, soon followed by its owner, a young local woman carrying a very light looking day sack. For a while I envied her as she danced away down the crags towards the river Kingie. But then I remembered that my pack gave me the freedom to go where I wanted, to walk until I was ready to stop and to wild-camp in stunning locations. Is there anything any finer?
My original plan saw me stopping for the evening at the Kinbreak Bothy a mile or so down the Glen, but it was only mid morning and I pushed on to reach Tomdoun a day ahead of schedule. I crossed the Kingie at this point, a river that can be quite difficult when in full flow, but this morning I simply crossed by hoping from stone to stone. I soon joined a four wheel drive track that gradually climbed as it skirted the hill to my left. As a sharp valley headed to the North East I crossed over and continued along my track which continued east towards the forest above Glengarry.
It was now lunchtime, the sun was out and I was able to enjoy the forest. Forest walking is the worst kind of walking. I always think of Forestry tracks in Wales, line with densely packed Scandinavian pines; inevitably I get lost on these walks. But the Caledonian forest is an altogether more pleasant place. The Scots Pine does not grow in such dense clusters; the sun can get though and you regularly pass accessible burns with grassy banks that would make fine camping spots. This was the most pleasant forest that I could remember walking in for years. I found a lovely, grassy slope and lay down for a hour, the sun gently flickering in and out of the foliage above; could there be any better place for an afternoon nap?
Not long after I started walking again my solitude was interrupted by the sound of clattering trekking poles; I was being chased down - at a rather alarming rate - by a man who was easily in his seventies. He was from Inverness and was responsible for a regular count of the bird life in between the woods and Kinbreak. This was his patch and he covered the ground once or twice a month. Today he was quite excited. After years of trying he had finally convinced the Forestry Commission and a private gamekeeper to allow him to drive his car up and along the forest tracks, making for a much shorter day out. He was hurrying to catch me to offer me a lift down to the road. I explained about the coast to coast thing and we walked together for a while, happily chatting about the bird life.
Soon he was gone and I was on my own again. Just when I was feeling that this forest walking lark was pretty simple I came across a cairn and a bright yellow ribbon that were clearly urging me to leave the track. The map suggested that this was the way down to an easy river crossing and so it was; no bridge this time but some large stones that made for the most secure river crossing so far. On the other side a track struck off through fallen trees which made the going quite difficult. There should have been a track leaving off from my left but I couldn't see it. Soon I was out of the forest and facing a large expanse of wet, marshy ground. I could see where I was from the map. The track I'd wanted, that took me down to the bridge onto the main road, had clearly gone. The map suggested another path along the edge of the forest, and within a deer fence, but this was too overgrown to be passable. There seemed to be another way into the forest at the point in which it ran down to the river side. The only way forward was to tramp over the marsh land which was heavy, wet and sow going. I found the track, cut off on a smaller on to the bridge only to find my way blocked by a deer fence. A quick ferret around revealed that someone had been there before me and had cut - or trampled - through the fence. Soon I was across the bridge and walking along the road towards the Tomdoun Hotel.
Only at this point did it strike me that, while I had a reservation for the bunkhouse, I was arriving a day early. Would they have space? I could see few easily places at which to wild-camp.
The owner of the hotel had one space left in his bunkhouse. The bunkhouse is a bit of a tip, a long wooden construction that is separated into three rooms, one of which had a fire; mine didn't. There was a shower at the end of the block but it was without water. I was invited to use a bath in the hotel and I spent a rather luxurious forty minutes or so soaking in peat-coloured water, with bubble bath, before reviving myself and doing some laundry.
The hotel proper was far more attractive than the bunkhouse. The Tomdoun announces itself as a "Sporting Lodge and Hotel". All around the walls of the bar were huge stuffed fish, pike and some river trout of a highly unlikely size. A certificate in the reception hall proudly announced that the Tomdoun Hotel had been designated "Best Fishing Hotel in Scotland, 2006". I remembered that, not long after I had booked, the hotel had emailed me and asked would I mind voting for them in this competition and I had done so. I'd certainly earned my bath.
I settled down in the bar for another stunning, fish meal. At another a group of other challengers sat. As I earnestly consulted my maps I heard someone saying that "the trouble with Challengers these days is that they are too serious; they don't have time for a brew in the middle of the day". Soon I got talking to Rick at the bar and was invited to join him, Sue and Lindsey. Between them they seemed to have an impressive number of crossings under their belts, even though it had been fifteen years since Lindsey had completed her last Challenge. I was a bit confused as to how quickly they had got to the hotel but they explained that Shiel Bridge and Glenelg were shorter routes; and people starting from here had been able to start walking at 8 rather than at 11 to 12 as it had been at Inverie.
We had a nice evening. This was just the right sized group for me.