I woke with the alarm. It was 4.30am and still dark. You could have heard a mouse squeak if it wasn’t for the background noise of wind and running water. It sounded like it had been raining during the night. I leaned over the chair in front of the window and parted the curtains to check the weather. My right ankle gave way. I managed to stop myself falling, but it was an ominous sign that bits of me were beginning to creak. Getting going in the morning was taking longer each day.
I rose quickly and quietly, dressed and climbed the stairs to the garret room where a do-it-yourself breakfast of cereals, milk, juice, bread and butter and marmalade had been laid out for us the night before. Five minutes later I was joined by Rajen, then, one by one, the rest of the troops, thenTemple. White Van Man invariably had the air of a slightly naughty, public schoolboy; even more so that morning. In a previous incarnation he had run a wholesale fruit business and getting up at4.30am.
Breakfast was taken in ‘tactical mode’, with barely a word spoken. We tiptoed back downstairs so as not to wake the other hotel guests, emptied our rooms, packed the van and were on our way to Dalwhinnie. Farewell Roybridge. The hotel had been pretty basic, but was cheap and had served our needs. Tonight we would be resting our heads on the feather pillows of a lovely old B&B in Braemer. But heads now rested on whatever was available as the boys tried to snatch another few minutes sleep before the off.
Day five was a monster. Forty miles, from Dalwhinnie to Glen Feshie and along the Geldie Burn to the Linn o’ Dee and Braemar. Neil had warned that if we were to reach Braemar in time for a late supper every minute counted and that there was little time for dawdling and enjoying the view.
He had also stressed that it was important to find the little, wooden footbridge that crossed the River Tromie at GR764890. Knowing this, I had recce’d the first part of the route back in June with John Lang. We had found the bridge, which crossed a deep, rocky gorge, hidden from view from above by dense birch forest. It was a stunning little glade in the summer sun. We turned south to loop round the bottom ofLochan t-Seilich, but not before inspecting Gaik Lodge, apparently unoccupied, which dining room contained a mural by Edwin Landseer, the landscape painter.
We had then returned over the high plateau south of Bogha-cloiche. This had turned into an epic in its own right. The weather had turned glorious, the 360 degree views of snow clad mountains were spectacular, and we didn’t see another soul all day. But we did see herd, after herd, after herd, ofred deer. It was, quite literally, deer central.
The weather today however was drizzly, chilly and breezy with very low cloud cover. Sweat shirts and waterproof jackets were the chosen order of dress. I knew from my recce that it would take about 1 ½ hours to climb to the coll between Bogha-cloiche and Meall Chuaich where the extremely rocky Landrover track gave way to rough, boggy, heathery scrubland and so it was that at exactly 8.00am we found ourselves at the trackhead, in thick mist.
My plan was to contour east across the northern slopes of Bogha-cloiche, keeping as high as possible to avoid having to cross the many steep-sided, muddy stream valleys that drain north into the Allt na Fearna. Count them on a map. There are 13 of them. I know, because we dragged ourselves down and up most of them on the recce. The military believe that ‘time spent on reconnaissance is time seldom wasted’. Never was a truer word spoken.
Crossing undulating, featureless moorland in thick mist and driving rain that reduces visibility to yards isn’t much fun and requires navigating by compass, so I took the relevant compass bearing, urged the boys to stick together, as losing a Gurkha would be negligent, and set off into the mist. It was hard going; wet, knee-high heather interspersed with muddy holes. A few minutes later a hole appeared in the mist to my right and there, 100 yards above me stood a beautifulred deer. Someone behind me had seen it also, as I heard a whistle and an excited voice,
A few yards further on another patch appeared in the mist, which then cleared completely in the chilly, southwest wind to reveal a herd of deer disappearing into a cleft in front of me. I heard a whoop above me to the right and saw Arjun chasing straight up the hill after the first deer. Did he seriously think he was going to catch it? Probably; snow leopards catch deer, surely?
Then another herd appeared to our left, springing up the side of the mountain in an effortless display of power and athleticism. There were murmurs of approval; these were indeed regal looking beasts. I could see requests for venison curry tonight.
Thank goodness we were heading east, with the wind coming from behind and across our right shoulders. Had we been walking into a rain-laden headwind it would have been a very depressing experience indeed. Half an hour later we crested the ridge overlooking the River Tromie and looked south, downLochan t-Seilich to see Gaik Lodge.
I wondered if anyone was in residence for the grouse shooting or deer stalking. This was two days after the Glorious Twelfth, when all sensible grouse go on holiday, and on the recce I had noticed grouse butts plonked across the moor.
To ensure we did not disturb a grouse shoot, or end up with a Gurkha-shaped colander, I had emailed CKD Galbraith, the managing agents, to request the contact details for the estate Factor so as to clear our passage with him. Robert Rattray of Galbraiths had been happy to oblige, his Grandfather having served with the 5th Gurkhas. (I was slowly coming to the conclusion that there was not a soul inScotland without some ancestor who had served with or alongside Gurkhas).
There was no squeak from the Factor however so I took that as tacit approval. At least he couldn’t say he hadn’t been told. Given the miserable conditions the boys were for pressing on, but I persuaded them to pause for yet another team photograph.
Dugendra’s knees had been playing up and it was with some alarm that I saw the slow, painful and laboured manner in which he made his way down through the deep heather to our crossing point. We were not a third of the way to Braemar yet and if he was this bad now I was concerned that we weren’t going to be having any dinner tonight. There was a whoop from Lal however as he saw the bridge and the deep gorge it spanned.
“Just likeNepal saheb!”
I looked down at the rushing waters and the overhanging birch trees. This would have been a perfect place for a leisurely break, but it was only mid-morning, we couldn’t afford to stop, and the weather was awful. But apart from that it was perfect.
On the far bank we climbed up the slope, crossed the road to Gaik Lodge and pushed on over the rise towards the weir where we would cross the Allt Bhran. This small river drains west into the River Tromie, which itself drains north into the River Spey, which brings the waters back on themselves to drain east into the Moray Firth at Spey Bay. The track on the north side of the Allt Bhran was not well defined, at least we couldn’t find it, so we just bashed on along the many sheep tracks that cover the highlands.
There is another military aphorism and that is that all battles are fought on the corners of maps, resulting in the requirement to have four maps when one would otherwise suffice, maximum inconvenience and increase in the probability of error. The trail we were on took us to the top corner of OS Sheet No. 42, apparently heading due east, but having barely made it onto Sheet No. 43 appeared to be going due south, where the track we needed to take immediately branched back on itself to head due north up the 80 Easting at the very edge of the map.
It took me a minute or two with compass and two maps flapping in the wind to sort out which path we needed to take. At least it had stopped raining and the sun had appeared.
The trail turned uphill, north towards Carn Dearg, to skirt a thickly wooded pine plantation to our right. The map showed a foot track contouring its way through the trees, across the open hillside beyond and through a second plantation to meet the Landrover track that would take us north east into Glenfeshie.
When we got to the foot track however it was so overgrown that it was virtually impenetrable. We had to keep on up the hill to eventually reach a Landrover track that continued even further up the flanks of Carn Dearg before swinging round and down to join the Landrover track to Glenfeshie. Lal and Arjun were not impressed with the prospect of slogging up a looping track only to slog all the way down again, so, true infantrymen that they were they plunged off downhill bounding through the deep heather towards the path that I had originally planned to take.
I would have gone with them, but if the path through the first plantation had been overgrown there was every possibility that the path through the second plantation was similarly overgrown. I had tried at various times over the years to trek through thick pine plantations and it invariably ended in tears.
“They’ll see” I thought to myself smugly as I toiled up the rocky vehicle track behind the others. I had forgotten the third military aphorism however – that there is no real barrier to a determined infantryman. Ten minutes later, as I reached the highpoint of the track, there was a loud whistle and whoop as our two doughty infanteers emerged on the far side of the plantation 200 feet below us. Buggers. I consoled myself with the thought that it was obviously beginners’ luck.
We had lunch at the trackside and watched Arjun add even more zinc tape and blister pads to Lal’s feet. I couldn’t imagine what discomfort Lal was in, but he never complained. Every time I asked how he was he just replied,
“Tikchha, saheb”, with a look that said he was far from tichha.
As we made our way down the rocky track into Glenfeshie the clouds disappeared and the sun shone out of a clear blue sky. While previously we had only seen isolated patches of purple heather, here the mountains were covered in the most dazzling purple hue.
“Welcome toScotland!” I roared, arms outstretched. This was more like it.
Glenfeshie is an absolute gem. Purple clad hills surround a green flat plain, interspersed with silver birch trees and the ruins of bothies, through which runs the River Feshie on its way north to join the River Spey. Maybe it was because the sun had come out; perhaps it was the spiritually uplifting purple, but there was a feeling of peace and tranquillity quite removed from the sense of awe and grandeur generated by the mountains to the west. The 42,000 acre Glenfeshie Estate remained in private hands, but there were conflicting opinions on the benefit of this.
One body of opinion believed that the estate had been poorly managed by various owners over the previous decades from an environmental point of view to the detriment of the wildlife. Another body of opinion felt that only well-meaning and environmentally-aware private owners could ensure its future.
One thing was for sure; previous overgrazing by red deer had done great damage to the natural habitat, with deer fences round the plantations resulting in the loss of many wild birds, including the rare crossbill which was not to be found in many other places in Britain.
We had to cross the River Feshie before turning east along its north bank. There were no bridges in this part of the river however, so we would have to wade. It took several minutes, and abortive searches for strategically-placed boulders or tree trunks to be used as improvised river crossings, before everyone came to this conclusion. It wasn’t a huge problem. The river was not in spate and the water wasn’t too deep. But it was cold, draining as it does the Cairgorm mountains, and very pebbly, so painful on bare feet.
Each man chose his own little spot and set about the task of shedding boots and socks, securing same in suitable fashion, and teetering across on frequently squidged tootsies. My walking poles proved a God-send, again, as they helped balance me and bear my weight as I edged my way across with my boots round my neck. Rajiv, five yards downstream, didn’t have poles so he carried his boots and socks in his hands. All it took was a slight slip and wobble and his socks took off down the fast running waters bound forSpeyBay.
“Never mind Rajiv,” I said. “At least you’ve got your spare dry pair.”
“Those were my spare dry pair, sahib.”
When, a few minutes later, the team regrouped and the story of the socks was told the squeals of laughter could have been heard in Aviemore.
“Why didn’t you go in after them, Rajiv, you’re a deep diver, no?”
More squeals …
I sat basking in the warm summer sunlight gazing at my Nepalese friends. I was, for a moment, overwhelmed by pride and emotion. How honoured I was to be there, in that glorious place with these wonderful men. How on earth had I, a Teuchter (a Lowland Scots word used mainly for Northern, Highland or Doric speaking Scots) lad from Huntly, got here?