TGO Challenge 2014: prologue

OK, strap yourselves in ‘cos we’re going on a walk for two weeks. The TGO Challenge has become a bit of an obsession for me. In 2012, I took part and had to retire after six days suffering from a stomach bug. In 2013, I was on the standby list but just failed to get on.

Since the email informing me that I was on the 2014 Challenge, I had been planning and plotting my walk. My route was one of the first to be vetted. All my accommodation had been booked well in advance. My train ticket had been purchased as soon as they were released.

Leaving as little to chance as possible, I started my training in February, backed up with two backpacking trips in April, one to the Monadhliath and one to Dartmoor. I felt physically fit and well prepared. What could possibly go wrong?

The first good sign was that the tube strike had been called off, so I had an easy an easy journey from home to Euston station. I always enjoy the quizzical looks from fellow passengers as I travel with rucksack and walking gear.

Soon I was at the Bree Louise pub near Euston meeting fellow nutters Challengers. Alan Sloman and Phil Lambert were deep in conversation with Jeremy Burrows. I feared to interrupt, but I plucked up the courage.

IMG_0927In the Bree Louise

Many introductions were made. I knew Shap McDonnell from the 2012 Challenge. It was good to catch up with him. I had a chat with Ray Disson, who I would meet again later in the Challenge. Most of us were on the early sleeper, so we tootled off to the train at around 9 o’clock.

Safely ensconced in my berth, I decided that I wouldn’t join the inevitable booze up in the restaurant car, partly because it was some way away and secondly because I’m teetotal (migraines).

I checked my emails. I had emailed Gordon Menzies about the Loch Ness ferry before I had left, to secure a place on the Tuesday morning ferry. I caught his reply that he was putting together the lists that night and would let me know later.

Five minutes later I had an email saying I was booked on the Tuesday evening ferry! Disaster. This would mean losing a whole day. I emailed that I really needed to be on the morning ferry. I fired off a second email to John Manning to ask whether, as a fall back position, getting a taxi from Drumnadrochit to Inverfaragaig would be within the rules.

As I was waiting, I looked at my route maps. I couldn’t see any way that I could reconfigure my route to accommodate an evening crossing without a couple of much longer days. A few minutes later, I had a reply from Gordon. He had made a cock up on his spreadsheet and I was indeed on the morning ferry. Phew! Panic over.

The sleeper is a very civilised way to travel. However, there was a good deal of stopping and starting, which prevented me from having a really good night’s sleep. In the morning, the steward gave me a “breakfast”. To be honest, it was pretty poor, given I was travelling first class.

We arrived at Inverness on time. Reaching the station concourse there was a gaggle of Challengers. I met Shap again and we decided to go to the bus station for a bacon butty to supplement the meagre rations provided by Scotrail.

Shap led the way and we were joined by Martin and Paul. We had a bit of time to kill as Shap and the others were catching a mid morning train, while I was getting the midday one.

After second breakfast, a bit of supplemental food shopping was in order. Demonstrating a level of sophistication unexpected in the uncivilised Highlands, Inverness boasted a Marks & Spencer’s (that was a joke BTW). Extra special goodies were purchased.

While Shap went back to the station, I went on the hunt for some Sellotape. I couldn’t find a stationers, so I went back to the station. Of course, there’s always a WH Smith at stations, where they sell…….Sellotape. Doh!

IMG_0928Bert and Suus packing

By this time other Challengers had arrived. Most notably, Bert Hendrikse , who had vetted my route. He was accompanied by the lovely Suus Hubregtse. They had come across from the Netherlands and were packing some parcels to send ahead.

Mid morning, most of the other Challengers left on the train to Kyle and we were left alone. The wait at the station was enlivened by a rather large seagull, which scavenged from the litter bins and the tables of the station restaurant. It also dive bombed the stewards pushing the refreshment trolleys used on the trains.

IMG_0929Hungry seagull

Towards midday, we were joined by another vetter, Colin Crawford. Eventually, it was time to board the midday train. I sat with Colin. This was an excellent move. We had an interesting and varied conversation on many topics. As with all the experienced Challengers I met, Colin was happy to share his experience without a hint of condescension.

IMG_0932Strathcarron Hotel

The journey to Strathcarron flew by. The hotel is next to the station and staying there proved to be a good idea. The room was very good. I did a bit of unpacking and had a shower. Colin was camping opposite. We met in the bar for a drink and a bit of food. We were soon joined by Ian Sommerville and then David Creighton and Andrea Carrington.

Other Challengers starting at Strathcarron filtered in, including the famous Denis Pidgeon. I decided on an early night. Paranoia struck as I felt I might be getting a cold. Fortunately, this proved to be a false alarm. I drifted off to sleep, wondering what the next day might bring.

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