Almost as soon as I'd finished the Pennine Way last September I started thinking about what long walk I might try next. Flushed with adrenalin, and post-walk enthusiasm, I made my way to WHS, where I bought a copy of TGO Magazine - something I'd enjoyed in the past, but hadn't read for quite a while - and thereby stumbled entirely by accident upon an application form for the 2005 TGO Challenge.
The Challenge, (or The Great Outdoors Challenge, to give it its full title), has been running now for 26 years, and, in the words of the TGO Challenge website, it's:
"...an annual self-supported walking event across the Highlands of Scotland, west coast to east coast. It started in 1980 and was the brainchild of the well-known writer and mountaineer, Hamish Brown. The Challenge is held every May and is sponsored by TGO, the walkers' magazine."
The first part of the challenge is to work out a route, which involves signing out from any one of 11 permitted start points on the west coast and eventually finishing - anything up to 15 days later - somewhere between Fraserburgh and Arbroath in the east. Routes are submitted for consideration by experienced and helpful vetters, and once a route has been approved then the challenger can go away and make detailed plans for accommodation - people can camp, enjoy B&B or take in a mixture of both - re-supply points and other such interesting matters.
I could hardly believe my luck in finding something that sounded so extremely exciting, just waiting to be done in only 7 months' time! I dashed straight home, clutching the magazine to my breast, and retired immediately to a quiet corner of the garden, where I spent a happy hour or so drooling over Gear-Guru Chris Townsend's facinating article about precisely what kit he'd carried on the 2004 Challenge.
By the time I'd finished I was already worrying that I might not be able to get a place. A self-supported walk across Scotland is potentially a hazardous undertaking, and so naturally TGO require evidence of sufficient previous relevant walking experience before they'll be willing to accept an applicant for their event. In addition to that, places are limited, and so there's also the chance of failing to get through the draw. Still, I completed the application form, sent it off and spent the next couple of months in a state of high excitement.
Fortunately, the day did eventually arrive when I learned that I had a place :-) I then spent a couple of months consulting books, staring at the Anquet Great Britain North maps and vacilating about what sort of route to attempt, but I eventually decided - as first timers are encouraged to do - to go for a low-level route, and I based it on the route described by Hamish Brown in his book 'Scotland - Coast to Coast: A Long Distance Walk from Glen Shiel to Arbroath'. I sent off the route for vetting, incorporated a number of very helpful suggestions made by my vetter, Colleen, and decided to finish in St Cyrus rather than Montrose, which had been my original plan.
I planned a route that would take me 14 days, and cover some 215 or so miles, with the intention of attending the post-walk dinner in Montrose on the Thursday of the second week and travelling home by air from Aberdeen the following day. I intended to camp for most of the time, but planned to spend a couple of nights along the way in a hotel or B&B, so that I could have a luxurious soak in a long, hot bath. In the event, I made some modifications to my intended sleeping points in order to cope with delays caused by the weather, and to take advantage of gorgeous wild camping opportunities that arose unexpectedly along the way. The route I followed was the one I'd planned, though, and I arrived at St Cyrus early on the afternoon of Thursday 19th May, with 6 other Challengers, to finish the walk with a freezing dip in the icy cold North Sea!
I've set out below links to a description of my experiences from day to day, and also details of the kit I carried, along with a broad outline of the route I took and of the places I stayed. I hope there might be something here of interest to those who might like to do this sort of walk in the future, and perhaps some parts of it may ring a bell with some who've already done it :-)
Finally, I'd like to say thank you very much indeed to those at TGO who organise this walk on an annual basis. To take part in a Challenge really is a life-enhancing experience, and it simply wouldn't happen without the organisers, so sincere thanks to Roger, and also to JD for kindness and conversation from Challenge Control. Most of all, though, I want to thank those of my fellow Challengers that I was lucky enough to meet along the way - on the journeys to and from Scotland, on the crossing itself and at the wild post-walk bash in Montrose - all of whom added to the richness of my experience.
As for Barbara, Jean and the Boys from Balerno - I'd be very happy to share a G&T, a bottle of red wine and an emergency ration in a cow byre with you any day of the week, to say nothing of a reprise swim in the sea off St Cyrus! Hugs, kisses and warm thanks to all of you, for one of the best times of my entire life :-)