I had a free morning in Aviemore, but a pole to fix.

I went into Cairngorm Mountain Sports, part of a small three-shop chain, rather than one of the big nationals – there’s lots of choice in Aviemore.

The guy said, “I’ve got a pair of these, the same thing happened to mine. You do this [inserts scissors into sleeve] and pull this down [the sleeve inside the sleeve]. What you need to do now is araldite the sleeve into place. I’ve got some fast-setting araldite, takes a couple of hours, is that OK?”

What a nice man. When I came back the pole was in perfect order once more, he wouldn’t take even a token fiver in recompense, so I bought some socks as a guilt purchase (though my feet thanked me, my other ones were a bit rank by now).

I’m headed for the beach at Aberdeen

Thursday 19 May 2022: Aviemore to Ryvoan, nine miles

The walk to Ryvoan bothy was just a simple afternoon stroll: past Loch Morlich, quick coffee at the café, little look at pretty Lochan Uaine.

Ryvoan bothy was barely a mile beyond the lochan. This was my only MBA bothy of the Challenge but I hadn’t expected to stay there as it’s not large, easy to get to, and has a reputation for crowds. But not a soul even tried the latch, so I enjoyed a nice quiet night in.

The outside of Ryvoan bothy …

… and the inside

Friday 20 May 2022: Ryvoan to Tomintoul, 15 miles

It took me some time, in planning, to work out the best route for this section. Originally I thought to go north to Forest Lodge and take a path to Attinlea, but Geograph rather scarily shows this reverting to bog. Posting this on the Challenge Facebook site, welcome advice came of a route through the pass of Eag Mhòr.

To get there meant a ford of the River Nethy, but this was far less tricky than the Meig had been and indeed rather fun. Forest tracks then led towards Eag Mhòr – roughly, it means ‘big notch’ but no path through it is shown. Happily, that’s not the case in practice, and it was an enjoyable transit.

The crossing of the River Nethy

The path through the Eag Mhòr

I hadn’t seen a Challenger since leaving Aviemore, but this changed at my lunch break by the road at Ballintuim. I’d not been there long when Challengers Kevin, who I’d last seen on the Burma Road, and Trevor and Alex came past. The latter couple soon went elsewhere, and though Kevin and I were both headed for Tomintoul, he hung back soon after.

The difficulty on the route from here was Glen Brown. Its burn had to be forded. Now, it’s not a big burn, and it wasn’t high either. But the path takes a more or less straight line, while the burn doesn’t, so in practice it’s eight fordings – not an odd number, there’s an extra braid – for the price of one. In spate this would have been quite a conundrum.

Things aren’t too difficult from there. A little car park at Bridge of Avon has more ‘no camping’ signs than places for cars, hardly a friendly approach, but the track from Campdalmore has good views down the valley of the Avon and over the village. Plus I was in time to have a look round the village museum, handily next door to the pub, before the latter opened.

The view down Strath Avon

That evening Kevin found himself perched next to Creagh Dhu Club climbing legend of the post-war years ‘Big’ John Maclean. Kevin’s a climber and I’m not, so it was a case of listen in awe.

Saturday 21 May 2022: Tomintoul to Corriebreck, 16 miles

No way through above Inchnacape

My last day with a high pass, through the Ladder Hills. But first, Glenlivet. Well no – first, forestry above Inchnacape Farm that I could not get through. I knew there was a risk – winter storms had played havoc with forests in Moray and Aberdeenshire. I looked around for an alternatives, but couldn’t see an end to the blockage, so went back to the road and had a rethink.

There was another track into the forest half a mile down the road. It was good and broad when I got there so worth a try. Further up, a path slanted right by a nursery plantation, so that would be OK; and it led me to the other side of the blockage, with no further problems. So dodged that bullet. Leaving the wood I saw the ‘beware of wild boar’ sign, so I dodged that too.

A road walk took me into the Braes of Glenlivet, the top of one of the most famous whisky rivers of them all. The principal distilleries are all downstream but there’s one final one (Braeval), at the village of Chapeltown, beside whose chapel I had my lunch.

Now it was time for The Ladder, the 2400ft pass which lends its name to the hill-group which runs seven miles or so north-east from the summit of the Lecht Road. Its sole Corbett summit, Càrn Mòr, was alas around a mile or so from the pass so I gave it a miss. The village museum had promised that golden eagles still flew here, rather a surprise since the whole area is intensively managed for grouse shooting, but despite an, um, eagle eye being kept, I saw none.

Braeval distillery

The view east from the summit of The Ladder

The sculpture garden at the Lost Gallery

There was the chance of a bit of culture on the descent. Deep in Glen Nochty, there’s the Lost Gallery, run by artist Peter Goodfellow, and I knew I would make it before closing time at 5. I slung down my pack, Goodfellow (or so I presume) came out and barked “Are you coming in?”, and apart from directions to the loos that was the interaction. I’d rather hoped to talk art and walking – Scottish mountains are one of Goodfellow’s principal subjects. But no. There was football on the TV, which I think I was not meant to interrupt.

So a bit of a damp squib. Time to start a look out for a pitch for the tent. I’d identified the ruin of Corriebreck and it worked out fine.

Sunday 22 May 2022: Corriebreck to Tarland, 14 miles

The village of Strathdon, just a couple of miles in, has a good network of local paths which I hoped to use to avoid a deal of road walking. As I set off from the village into forestry, I passed a sign warning walkers of risk to life from storm-felled trees. How bad can it be, I wondered, not least compared to the risk to life on the A944, and continued on.

All was well for a mile when, at a key and helpfully signposted path junction, tree carnage clearly rendered my planned route impassable. The choice: go back or go on. Near the warning sign there had been a helpful map of forest tracks, which I’d copied to my phone, and though mine might be impassable, surely others would work out?

So for an hour or so I marched bravely on, always finding my way clear, open and trouble-free. Indeed I ended up with less road walking than I’d planned, so, despite a modest detour, felt I was ahead of the game.

This was not a long day, and there was just one patch of moorland to cross, Gallows Hill, not very high but enlivened by a view of Mount Keen far away over Deeside. I knew there was a building called Lazy Well Hut on the descent and rather hoped it might be an open, private bothy. Well it was open alright – to the elements, the roof having vanished. But there was a table and benches, so it did for a while.

The edge of the Cairngorms National Park, with Mount Keen in the distance

Lazy Well hut

I’d booked myself in to the Commercial Hotel in Tarland and it was a friendly place with perhaps the best food on the Challenge.

Monday 23 May 2022: Tarland to Crathes, 22 miles

After dinner yesterday I considered my options. Today I was due to walk through forestry to the village of Lumphanan, then go up to a wild camp in Turk Wood, but I did not fancy a further wrestle with storm damage; third time unlucky, perhaps.

I’d seen that there was an off-road path, the Tarland Way, to Aboyne. The Deeside Way runs through Aboyne. Indeed, I could possibly avoid that town if I chanced a tiny section of forestry. If I was going to use the Deeside Way, then apparently Potarch was a good place for a tent. It was just 11 miles away, but on this route I had three days left to walk around 40 miles, so a short day hardly mattered. Indeed the night before I’d booked an AirBnB at Peterculter on Aberdeen’s outskirts for Tuesday night.

So I pounded off along the Tarland Way, its initial burn-side stretch reminding me of the rhynes of the Somerset Levels that I had crossed back in 2010, the low forested hills ahead serving for the Polden Hills. When I came to the branch off to avoid Aboyne, I knew there was a risk of storm damage, but even if things had not worked out all I would have had to do was make a short backtrack. In the event the two miles between Tarland Way and Deeside Way were fine, and in a sense my Challenge was over; designated long distance path all the way to Aberdeen. And the Deeside Way is popular with Challengers, so I could expect some company.

On the Tarland Way out of the village

The forestry link between Tarland Way and Deeside Way

I soon caught up with Challenger Harry, joined by a friend that day; at 79, he would be the oldest Challenger to finish in ’22, and I was pleased to meet up with him again at the Challenge dinner a couple of days later.

There were two pairs of Challengers at the shop in Kincardine O’Neil too, a useful place with good baked goods. After a break here, I left just before the rain started. I was at Potarch just after 2, ready to pitch on the grass, and looked for the tap that I was sure would be somewhere. There wasn’t, and the café was closed.

Well, I could have gone to the river. But I didn’t really fancy long hours in a tent listening to rain, so off I went to Banchory. Eight more miles, on a forestry track that would be no risk due to its LDP status, in the rain, but to a town the other end that would be sure to have a camp site.

At least I was moving well, and the miles flew by. The greatest difficulty was leaving the forest on the town’s outskirts, the way out barred by chain link fencing with varying degrees of No Entry signs banning the way in from the town.

You can get out of the forest but can’t get in!

Just over the bridge, the Banchory Lodge caravan park was clearly a ‘no tents’ sort of place, but the OS map showed a campsite the other side of town, so I rang it, only to find that they didn’t do tents either. I checked in at the town’s outdoor shop for good wild camp options but the guy said there was nothing much, maybe just before Crathes three miles away. I’d done 19 miles already, I said.

(If I had but known, the Feughside site had been just over a mile off route, about four miles from Potarch, and would have been ideal. But I didn’t.)

I tried a pub, full, didn’t fancy the one next door, was warned against the third, and the only B&B listing didn’t do B&B any more. I thought about getting a bus to Crathes – but then would have to get a bus back tomorrow – and realised what I must do: walk the three miles to Crathes. It had at least stopped raining. On my way out of town, I met Challenger Frédéric from France, who was booked in at the town’s British Legion hostel, which I hadn’t tried, but by now I was committed.

And today was turning out to be one of those days when I felt I could walk for ever. Though I was on the look out for pitches all the way, I recognised the spot that the outdoors shop man had described and got the tent pegged down. Nice little chat with a lady who had once crossed the Highlands on horseback as I was doing so. She pointed out the noise from the adjacent rookery, but I put in a nine-plus hour sleep shift, so it could have been the complete contents of London Zoo for all I cared.

Tuesday 24 May 2022: Crathes to Aberdeen, 16 miles

I’d realised, on leaving Banchory, that my ‘day late’ at Loch Monar would now translate as a ‘day early’ at Aberdeen. Even though I had accommodation booked at Peterculter, half way, I couldn’t string out 16 miles into two days.

Just as I was striking camp, Challenger Andrew strode past, and we shared the miles from then on, talking pretty much the whole time. There’s in all honesty not much to say about this part of the Deeside Way; from Banchory, it’s mostly on old railway line, apart from a diversion after Drumoak, and it’s an asphalt surface from Peterculter. A coffee wagon at Cults was a useful break.

Andrew passes wild garlic on the Deeside Way

The partly-restored Culter station

Andrew finished his Challenge in the city centre, but I had always planned to go the mile beyond, to the city’s beach. People think of Aberdeen as the Granite City for its great civic buildings, or more recently as Oil City, but there’s plenty worse beaches in places that think of themselves as holiday resorts.

Off with the boots – they had, bless them, essentially died on the Challenge – for my little paddle, and like I had at St Cyrus in ’19, I found a young couple to take my picture. “I’ve walked from Torridon,” I said. “In bare feet!!?” she said.

On the beach

I honoured my AirBnB booking, even though I had to take a bus back out. Celebrated with fish and chips at the pub over the road. At Challenge Control in Montrose the next day (where all Challengers must sign in), I havered over whether I would be a Challenger again. And who knows – everything has to stay in working order. But if it does, then maybe in ’25, there’s a southern line that looks inviting, Oban to Lunan Bay …

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