Morning in Ballater came with hot sunshine and a clear sky. The River Dee sparkled as I left the town for the long climb to Mount Keen, the most easterly Munro. However as I gained height I came into a cold south-east wind that took the warmth from the sun and had me donning my windproof jacket. High thin clouds began to drift across the sky too, turning the sun into a hazy white ball. To the west Lochnagar was still shining under a blue sky but eastwards the sky was darker and the land less bright. And east was my direction.
|The River Dee at Ballater|
From the summit of Mount Keen, which gave extensive views over rolling moorland hills with a western backdrop of snow-streaked steeper and higher mountains, I followed sketchy paths over a series of lower heathery tops – Braid Cairn, Naked Hill, Hill of Gairney, Cock Cairn – before camping in a narrow col below the last where there was just room to pitch my shelter on some tussocky grass between steep heather slopes. These hills are heavily managed for grouse shooting with many areas of burnt heather and many new bulldozed roads but from this site I could see little of this and it felt quite wild.
|Camp below Cock Cairn|
The following day the damage done by what appears to be an attempt to so sanitise the experience of grouse shooting that those involved need never feel they are outdoors or in the hills at all (at one point metal steps led up to a wooden-floored grouse butt so the user need never tread on the actual ground) was much more extensive with new raised roads everywhere – roads along which I could drive my Ford Fiesta. There are buildings too, presumably so people can stay inside if the weather should dare to be inclement. And also fences, many fences. Double fences, electric fences, deer fences. There are gates in the fences – big metal gates, wide enough for lorries to drive through, with side gates for walkers. There’s one of these gates right across the summit of 723 metre Tempie. I escaped these developments briefly on the greener slopes of Mount Battock, on the summit of which I met three other Challengers and four day walks – the most people on any top, but they could be seen all around.
From Mount Battock I continued over more grouse moorland, mostly on new roads, to the distinctive tor on Clachnaben, the last summit on the walk. After the brief easy scramble up the tor, which resembles those of the high Cairngorms away to the west, I finally left the hills to descend through some lovely mixed woodland to the Water of Dye and the less attractive commercial Fetteresso Forest plantations. Looking back to Clachnaben I could see the sun splitting the sky over the summit, with dark clouds to the north and blue sky to the south. The clouds appeared to be winning.
I knew that a wind farm was being constructed in the heart of the forest but I hadn’t realised just how vast an area it covered. The wind farm isn’t on the maps yet and the forest tracks marked have been obliterated, along with the trees. For the only time on the walk GPS was useful, for finding a way through the maze of new roads. The clouds were thick and low now, with the turbines disappearing into them, and the north wind was cold. Finally escaping the turbines and back in the trees I had a last camp on a cut line in the forest, a pleasant grassy site with no roads or turbines in view.
|View from the last camp|
I woke the last morning to mist drifting in the tree tops and drizzle pattering on my shelter. As I set off the last turned to steady rain and I was soon exposed to the strong and cold north wind. This lowland walk to the coast turned out the coldest and wettest day of the whole walk so I was relieved to finally reach Stonehaven and the comfort of a café. My 15th TGO Challenge was over.
There was of course still the matter of catching the train to Montrose, checking in and collecting another t-shirt, certificate and badge, chatting to other Challengers and attending the big dinner in the Park Hotel. Here I was privileged to sit next to Roger Smith, editor of The Great Outdoors when the Challenge began and the man who ran it for many years. Roger and I reminisced about previous Challenges and how it had changed from that first one 35 years ago when just 60 of us had set off. We are both somewhat astonished - and pleased - at how the event has lasted and how successful it has become.