Just past the lodge we turned east off the Landrover track onto the foot track that makes its way along the side of a mixed copse and then climbs up the side of the Uisge Labhair for 5 miles to the bealach or coll between the lofty heights of Ben Alder and Aonach Beag.
It was a warm, sunny day with very high, thin cloud cover; perfect walking conditions. The last thing we wanted was for it to be too hot and sunny as we would quickly become tired and dehydrated. Grey and cool was best for long distance walking, but that was not going to show the mountains off to their best, which I was desperate to do. So warm and sunny was OK by me.
Arjun was leading the way followed by Lalbahadur, then myself. There can be no more depressing experience than to be following a Gurkha going up hill, other than to be behind one going downhill. I had shown the previous day that I could stick with them on a forced march on a Landrover track up an incline, but this was rougher and steeper.
Pushing vigorously on my climbing poles like a cross-country skier I focussed on the track two yards ahead. Lal’s huge, dark, muscular calves stared me in the face as they pumped their way upwards, one two, one two. He reminded me so much of a bullock; rock solid, immovable, and, blisters notwithstanding, he and Arjun were often at the head of the pack. Lalbahadur, Red the Brave, was a Limbu from Itahari, north of Biratnagar in East Nepal and had been in the army for 14 years.
A married man with two children he was posted to the Sandhurst Demo Company from 2 RGR and had the look of a middleweight boxer. Tough as teak, he had his Para’s ‘wings’ having completed 34 jumps, but his physical presence was matched by his twinkling eyes and mischievous smile. Just being in his company made me feel good.
Whereas Lal was like a bullock, Arjun was more of a mountain leopard. Taller than Lal and more athletic, he too had a ready smile and with a dry sense of humour was always ready for a laugh. Being stuck behind Arjun was equally depressing as those powerful legs virtually loped their way effortlessly uphill. Arjun, a bachelor from Baglung in West Nepal, was due to rejoin 1 RGR the following year when the battalion returned from Brunei.
Like many British Army Gurkhas his father had been a soldier, in the Indian Army, with 9th Gurkhas. Our third infantryman, Rfn Kalbahadur Pun of 1 RGR, was also a married man with two children. He was from Myagdi, a remote village high in the western mountains north of Baglung, and was also the son of a 9th Gurkha.
A typical short, stocky Gurkha Kal was not as confident with his English as the others and so appeared shy, but he was one of those quiet, resilient types that you knew wouldn’t let you down in a tight corner. I felt privileged to be with them.
When India gained independence in 1947 a Tri-partheid Agreement between Nepal, India and Great Britain saw the bulk of the British Indian Army, including the Gurkha regiments, remain within the Indian Army.
Four Gurkha rifle regiments, whose terms and conditions of recruitment were defined within the Tri-partite Agreement, transferred across to form the British Brigade of Gurkhas – the 2nd King Edward’s Own Gurkha Rifles (The Sirmoor Rifles), the 6th Queen Elizabeth’s Own Gurkha Rifles, the 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles, and the 10th Princess Mary’s Own Gurkha Rifles. In time Gurkha Engineer, Gurkha Signals and Gurkha Transport regiments were formed to support the rifle regiments.
Following the ‘Options for Change’ reorganisation within the Army in the early 1990’s that also saw the amalgamation of the Scottish regiments, the four original Gurkha rifle regiments were amalgamated to form one new regiment, the Royal Gurkha Rifles, with two battalions, 1 RGR and 2 RGR. One battalion is based in Brunei and the other at Shorncliffe.
The Engineer, Signals and Transport regiments were subsumed into their British Army equivalents. In the case of the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers, 69 Gurkha Field Squadron and 70 Gurkha Field Support Squadron became part of 36 Engineer Regiment, based in Maidstone.
The slope steepened as we climbed up to the Bealach Dubh, or black coll, beyond which the path was downhill all the way to Dalwhinnie. Ben Alder lay to our right, at 3,766 feet, the highest mountain we would be passing. Aonach Beag to the left, at 3,661 feet, wasn’t far behind. I had been here in winter and it had been a cold, forbidding place, the two great mountains forming a natural wind tunnel. Yes, it could be very black.
Today however, in the sunshine, it was pleasantly cool and the breeze, firm but mild, helped to keep the midges at bay. We stopped at the coll and looked back, south-west from whence we had come. There, in the far distance where land met sky, beyond the sparkling waters of Loch Ossian, was Corrour Station. You couldn’t actually see it given the distance, but we could see where it would have been. Rajiv turned to me, eyes wide,
“Wow, saheb, so far!”
It did indeed look a very long way, but I estimated that we were still less than half-way to our destination at Dalwhinnie. It does not take you long to realise, if you try and walk across it, that Scotland is bigger than you think and sitting at the coll with views to the far horizon in both directions, I sensed the scale of what we were doing.
We sat on warm, grey rocks to enjoy our sandwiches, crisps, fruit and chocolate. Yes, my lunch box was still giving Linford Christie’s a run for its money (probably an inappropriate analogy in the circumstances). It was a quick lunch however as, despite the breeze and relatively bright conditions, Beelzebug was out and intent on mischief.
Heading down the trail, with Loch Pattack ahead of us, Ben Alder to the right, Aonach Beag behind us, and the sharp point of Sgor Iutharn, 3,373 feet, to the left I was overwhelmed by a feeling of joy, pride and place. I felt as if my heart was going to explode. This was, to my mind anyway, and at that exact moment, the best place to be in the whole world. My major happy attack was short lived however. Behind me came the unmistakable sounds of Cpl Dugendra.
“Dugendra, you should be a disc jockey when you retire”
A true ‘sarchasm’ – the gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.
As we approached Culra Lodge, not a stone edifice but a rather swish mountain bothy, I saw, 50 yards ahead of me, two shiny mountain bikes lying in the heather to the right of the track. They obviously belonged to a couple of Munro baggers somewhere above us on the tops. I assume that the bikes were thoroughly padlocked, but the owners would never know how lucky they would be to have bikes to return to, given the longing, lingering and rather guilty glances cast by every Gurkha ahead of me as they passed the hi-tech machines.
It was now very sunny and very hot. The cloud cover had burned off to leave an occasional white clump of cotton wool suspended in the azure blue sky. The mountain track had given way to a Landrover track, which although level, was rocky and rather hard on the feet as it skirted the flat, polished waters of Loch Pattack.
The surface was dappled with slowly expanding rings indicating the presence of feeding trout. Gentle rings meant the trout were sipping nymphs suspended in the surface film. In a short while the nymphs would break through the surface and become ‘dry flies’ sitting on the water’s surface to dry their wings, at which time the rings would become splashes as the ‘takes’ became more aggressive. Dry fly anglers exist for such moments. I stopped to watch the action and to admire the sight of the sky, clouds hills and forests reflected in the still waters.
Rajiv, as was his wont, had been ambling along on his own a hundred yards to the rear; tuned in, turned on, chilled out (at least he kept his music to himself – Dugendra, Lal and Arjun seemed determined to broadcast their favourites to every living creature in the wide, blue yonder). He stopped to take a 360 degree view of the surrounding hills and then approached me, arms akimbo.
“Saheb, this is wonderful. I could live here. Why does no one live here? It’s beautiful”. I said I couldn’t agree more, but that if you started building houses willy-nilly across the highlands it wouldn’t be the highlands. Which was why much of it was designated protected areas.
“Who owns those horses, saheb?” Rajiv asked, pointing to the hills west of the loch.
“They’re not horses Rajiv, they’re ponies. They probably belong to the Loch Ericht Estate that owns all this land. Dear stalking is big business in the highlands and the ponies are used to bring the carcasses off the hill to the trackheads where the Landrovers can pick them up”
It was now very warm indeed and I was feeling extremely weary. Thank goodness we hadn’t had this kind of weather all the way. It made for a wonderful change from the first couple of days, but you can get too much of a good thing.
Rajiv, at 23 years the youngest of the Gurkhas, came from Pokhara in the west of Nepal. I was familiar with Pokhara having visited it on two occasions, the first time as a young QGE officer on duty trek and the second time with Memsaheb for a regimental reunion. It is dominated by the striking peak of Macchapuchari, the fishtail, to the west and the Annapurna range to the south. The view north across Pokhara lake to the town on the far bank and the mountains beyond is one of the most iconic of Nepal’s sights and the panoramic poster adorns many a tourist hotel in Kathmandu.
Unusually for a Gurkha Rajiv did not come from an army family; they had their own technology business in Pokhara. His feet were the first of his family’s to be thrust into boots, duty, moulded sole. He had packed a lot into his 4 year’s service and was already a qualified electrician and deep diver, thereby earning himself the soubriquet of the most highly paid Sapper (equivalent to the rank of private) in the Regiment.
He had trained in the Pyrenees with the French Foreign Legion and volunteered for covert duties. He was army barmy, loved the life and the adventure it offered and is doubtless bound for the top. (He was down to do his Junior Leader’s Course soon, so is probably a General by now). His English was excellent, he had a naturally inquisitive mind and we nattered away as we ground out the hot miles.
“Saheb, do you know the film ‘The Last of the Mohicans’? The theme music is Scottish. I have been playing it all the time on the walk. I love it. You must listen to it”. I promised to do so on when we got home, although I couldn’t quite grasp the connection between Scottish music and North American Indians, but that’s Hollywood for you.
As the track left the open expanse of the Ben Alder Forest and made its way down through thickly wooded slopes to the shores of Loch Ericht the shade gave welcome respite. Down through the trees to the right we could just glimpse Ben Alder lodge. This was a new building that replaced the original building on the site. Fifty yards further on we passed the Gate House, also new and built in the same neo-Victorian, granite clad, conical-towered style. Neil Griffiths had described it as Disney meets Carnegie. He was right.
We were all on automatic pilot now, just trying to put one foot in front of the other as the heat began to take its toll. I tried to encourage les autres by pointing out that, where the ridge on the far side of the loch sloped down behind the ridge to our front lay the end of the loch and Dalwhinnie, our journey’s end (not quite – we had another two miles beyond that in order to reduce the length of ‘the big one’ the next day, but they didn’t know that). A few minutes later we rounded the ridge to our front and saw, through a gap in the trees, the dam at the loch head, still a good five miles away. Hearts sank.
Suddenly a mud-spattered old Landrover came thundering round the corner and pulled to a squeaky and dusty halt beside us. It was Chistine Crighton, wife of the Head Gamekeeper on the Ben Alder Estate. She had been hoping to catch us she said. Her father had been born in Calcutta and her Grandfather had fought on the North-East Frontier. She had been well versed as a child on the merits of the Gurkha soldier. She thrust £20 into Dugendra’s hand.
It was slowly beginning to dawn on me that, although there were formal relationships going back almost two hundred years between Gurkha regiments and British units that had fought alongside each other in conflicts past, today’s relationship between the Gurkhas and Britain was based on the experiences of people like Christine, the Glaswegian we met at the Commando memorial on day one, and Mike Roberts at Mallaig; ordinary people who had, even in a sometimes tenuous way, a personal experience of the men from Nepal and what they stand for.
We reached the dam just after 5.15pm. There waiting for us was the jolly sight of white van man himself. He had been joined by Betty Pentland, a stalwart of the Gurkha Welfare Trust in Scotland who had been awarded the MBE for her work for charity, and her husband. They were bound for their holiday cottage at Kingussie, having earlier that day attended the funeral in Edinburgh of Rachel Hedderwick, a dear friend and another stalwart of the Gurkha Welfare Trust in Scotland, but she wanted to meet us to wish us well and thank the boys for their efforts.
Despite his obvious fatigue Rajen responded in his usual charming and ebullient manner, much roaring laughter included. What a star the man was. Tea was served from the back of the van together with delicious Scottish shortbread. This had not come a moment too soon as the supply of shortbread from our friends at Prestonpans had finally run out that morning. Pity about the sausage rolls though.
But we had to press on. We still had another two miles to do that evening, along the aquaduct to the village of Cuaich on the A9 where the track turns east to head into the hills, before we drove the 30 miles back along Loch Laggan to our last night in Roy Bridge. We had almost 40 miles to walk the next day, which would necessitate a 4.30am reveille as we had to get to Braemar by 9.00pm in order to ensure a hot meal, so any opportunity to reduce the distance and the duration had to be taken.
It was one of those glorious, soft, late summer evenings that are unique to Scotland. The heat had gone out of the day and the sun descending in the west bathed the mountains in a golden light. The view west to Glen Spean, Creag Meagaidh and the Rough Bounds of Knoydart beyond was spellbinding. I was truly happy and looking forward to the challenge the next day would bring.
We had curry that night.