These Boots are Made for Walking

RoutePlan12015 will see me take on what will certainly my biggest challenge yet, as I aim to complete the The Great Outdoors (TGO) Challenge in mid-May. The TGO Challenge is a self-supported trek through the Highlands of Scotland, crossing from the west coast to the east coast within 15 days. It will be a test of stamina and endurance, not to mention my ability to pack light and the qualities of “suck it up” and “get on with it”.

Unlike many other long-distance treks, the TGO Challenge doesn’t follow a way-marked trail on its route from west to east. Participants start from any one of 13 sign-out points in towns and villages on the west coast, and finish anywhere along the east coast of Aberdeenshire or Angus, between the towns of Fraserburgh in the north and Arbroath in the south. The route between those two points is entirely down the the participant, and can be as demanding* and long as you choose to make it.

The 2015 event will be the 36th TGO Challenge, with around 300 participants taking part. Many not for the first time either; I’ve found a couple of names on the list that will be attempting the challenge for the 23rd or even the 26th time! Participants are travelling from all over the world to take part, including Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, and even New Zealand. We’ll be in good company.

Gourdon Harbour in a winter storm.  If I stand at this point long enough the tide will come in, and I won't have to end my trip scrambling over seaweed covered rocks to reach the water.
Gourdon gutty harbour in a winter storm. Stand here long enough and the tide comes in, so there’s no need to end the trip scrambling over seaweed covered rocks to reach the water.

Since receiving confirmation of my place in the Challenge in November, I’ve been poring over maps and guidebooks to work out the route I want to take. The choice of an end point was an easy one as my parents live on the Aberdeenshire coast, in a little fishing village called Gourdon, right in the middle of the finishing area. Not only does it have a good pub, the Harbour Bar, with a chippy, Hornblower’s, just next door, I’ll also have good access to a bed, hot shower, comfy sofa, and WiFi; exactly what I’ll need after two weeks of trekking and camping in the wilds of the Scotland. (If I’m really lucky, someone might also do my laundry, but I better not push it at this stage of the plan).

To balance out my familiarity with the end of the route, I thought I’d start in a place I’ve never been to before. There’s a few options on the list, mainly the more remote and rural, but as we’ve got to travel up from the south of England to start the challenge we need somewhere fairly easy to get to using public transport. We’ll take the overnight sleeper train to Glasgow to start our journey north, then take the route to Fort William.

MuddyBoots1From there, I’ve opted for a TGO Challenge start in the fishing port of Mallaig, at the far end of the scenic West Highland Line. It’s a place I’ve visited several times before, but one thing I’ve never yet managed to do is take the small ferry to the village of Inverie, on the remote Knoydart peninsula. Although part of the mainland of the UK, the village of Inverie is not connected to the national road network, and getting to and from the nearest towns involves either a ferry trip to Mallaig, or a 25km (16 mile) hike through the “rough bounds” to Kinloch Hourn.  It’s also home to the Old Forge, the most remote pub on the British mainland.

Now I just need to join the dots between the two points**. It’ll only be approximately 290km (180miles) from one to the other.

What am I doing?

 

*Bear in mind, even without side-tracks and summits along the way, participants undertake a demanding hike for several days on end in remote backcountry, and contend with the notoriously fickle Scottish weather.  And most likely, the ferocious Scottish midge. 

** Plus some training hikes to break in my new boots.  And practicing my navigation skills.  Oh, and sorting out all the kit I’ll take.  Then throwing half of that out my rucksack when I find its too heavy to lift.  And testing some dehydrated hiking rations.  I’m sure there’s something else, but I just can’t remember right now…

5 Books to Celebrate Burns Night

AmReading1I’m thinking about all things Scottish this week, after a Hogmanay promise to host a real Burns supper for friends on the 25th. Although the food forms the centrepiece of celebrations, a Burns Night isn’t complete without performances of some of the poet’s best-loved works, classic poems and songs. So, inspired by these great works of literature, this month I’m giving you a selection of some of my favourite works of modern Scottish fiction to influence your visit to Scotland. Sorry, not a single time-travelling kilted warrior included.

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Thor Heyerdahl, 100 Goats and a Viking Wedding: Why I Didn’t Visit Oslo

It’s long been an ambition of mine to see Kon Tiki, the balsa raft that carried Thor Heyerdahl across the Pacific from Peru to Polynesia, and captured my imagination as a child reading his account of the adventure. The original raft was wrecked on a reef in the remote Tuamotu archipelago, ending the 101-day voyage, but a replica is the centrepiece of a museum in Oslo dedicated to Heyerdahl and his expeditions. Nearby are other boats that I want to see, the Oseberg and Gokstad ships, in the Norwegian Viking Ship Museum, and Fram, the expedition ship that took Fritjof Nansen north, and Roald Amundsen south, on their quests for the poles. (I like boats, ok?)

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Oslo Waterfront from the Opera House. Photo Credit: ïCliff on creative commons

My plan was pretty straightforward. Sign off from Draken Harald Hårfagre at the end of the summer’s expedition, and catch the coastal ferry from Draken’s home port of Haugesund to Bergen. Train to Oslo, a seven and a half-hour journey considered to be the most scenic route in the world. Arrive in the evening, check into the hostel, stretch my legs walking in Viglandsparken Sculpture Park. Spend the following day at the museums, explore more of the city, then fly home the next morning. Sounds great, doesn’t it? I love it when a plan comes together.

And yet I was here. Midnight was long gone, and my sandals were attempting to follow. Cold mud oozed up between my toes as I stood in a dark field. Below on the hillside I could pick out the outline of a barn, lit by candle lanterns and flaming torches.
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My Goals for 2015

Kaikoura Dawn2I really love this time of year. Those few days between Christmas and New Year are always packed with activities, obligations and chores, then the celebrations themselves fill your time. But now, a few days into the new year, it really does feel like a fresh start.

It’s exciting and motivating, and naturally it feels like time to set goals for the year ahead and think about the things I want to achieve, while I’m galvanised to action. I do like the idea of New Year’s resolutions, but never manage to pin down my hopes and intentions into one fully-formed idea in the past, let alone strive to keep to a plan or smash a target by a certain time. And don’t New Year’s resolutions tend to end in failure anyway?

But, I think it’s essential to keep developing as a person, to learn new skills and improve or master others, to try new experiences and fulfil ambitions, in short to become a more rounded, insightful and appreciative person. So, I’m going to go with the crowd and set myself some goals for the year ahead, keeping them bite-sized and thus hopefully achievable.

Here’s what I’ll be working at in 2015…

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