It was 2.30pm. We were about half way. Twenty miles to go, six hours to do it in if we wanted supper. Three and a bit miles an hour. Tough, but do-able. At least the sun was still shining. I dragged myself slowly to my feet. I had decided not to change my socks as they were still dry, there was a long way to go and I had no idea what conditions ahead were going to be like.
I had been lucky; two and a half days in and no blisters. I put this down to a combination of factors; I had done a lot of miles in training; my boots were two years old and fitted like a glove; I was wearing two pairs of good socks, the inner pair thin, self-wicking wool; I had been applying Gehwol anti blister foot cream since day one.
My right ankle however was sore due to the pressure of the boot on my inside ankle bone. I had anticipated this and was wearing orthopaedic padding, but it still ached.
I could see the boys were tired too as we set off up the trail, steep slope to our left, the fast-running river close in to our right. The river course swung away towards the far side of the valley and the path dropped down onto the flat flood plain. We were walking through emerald green grass and the most purple heather I had ever seen.
The surrounding hills were blanketed in the same, bright, regal hue. It was a little piece of paradise. Soon the river had swung back to our side forcing the path up the slope. At one point the track had been swept away in a landslip necessitating a scramble up the bank and round the top of the exposed soil. The river was about thirty feet below. A slip here would have deposited me on to the large rocks lining the river. I have no head for heights, so I focussed on the slope in front of me trying as hard as I could to ignore the drop to my right.
The path slowly made its way upwards towards the watershed beyond which it would follow the Geldie Burn downhill, eastwards to join the River Dee. Down to our right raging waterfalls forced their way through large clefts in the rock. It was a wonderful sight and I would have liked to have enjoyed it, but time was our master. I was now just following the track in auto pilot; no map reading necessary as there was only one track and that was headed for Braemar.
I was suddenly surprised when our route was blocked by a river. It was thirty feet across and relatively shallow, but not shallow enough to cross by jumping from boulder to boulder. Damn. We would have to wade it. I then noticed a sign behind me on the bank that indicated the presence of the ‘Eidart Footbridge’ half a mile upstream to our left. My heart sank. I could do without an extra mile of trekking, there and back, but I could not be bothered to take off my boots, wade the stream then put my boots and socks back on again.
Besides, a check of the map showed that this was the River Eidart, draining the Cairngorms to the north, and the path beyond the bridge swung away from the river to contour the slopes of Cnapan Mor towards our destination, so the bridge it was. I am glad I took the bridge option as the little steel structure spanned a most impressive gorge through which roared the River Eidart.
It made an awesome noise, with spray rising almost to the bridge itself. It had also begun to cloud over, the sun had gone in and the temperature had dropped markedly. My enthusiasm waned in the dull chill. There was a distinct chill within me too as I made my way carefully over the steel structure, not daring to look downwards.
As we regrouped on the far side of the raging torrent to follow the path over the moors towards the Geldie Burn, I noticed Rajen wasn’t with us.
“Where’s Captain saheb?”
“He waded saheb. He’s coming, look”
I looked over the grey moorland and there, appearing from behind a low ridge a hundred yards away, was Rajen saheb. We paused to wait for him. I then noticed his boots were round his neck. He was walking in bare feet over the scrubby heather. The boys whooped with laughter as Rajen sat down on a tussock to put his boots back on his muddy feet. Thank goodness there were no reporters or photographers present as I could just see the headline in the next day’s press;
“Gurkhas forced to march in bare feet!”
We had now crossed into Aberdeenshire. Flat, open moorland stretched into the distance ahead of us.
“Lal, do you see that mountain on the horizon? That’s Lochnagar. We will be climbing that tomorrow”
In the dull, grey light it looked like it was a hundred miles away. I looked at his face and thought, maybe I shouldn’t have said that.
The miles passed in a dull, painful haze. The rain was relentless and Beelzebug had returned with a vengeance. Behind my midge net I felt like a priest taking my own confession.
“Lord, forgive me for I am a twat; please don’t ever make me do this again”
It took what seemed forever before we hit the Landrover track from Geldie Lodge. Nine miles to go to Linn of Dee. Three hours. Then another five miles to Braemar after that. I had stopped measuring progress in distance achieved or miles to go. Instead I just thought about time. Another three hours. Just keep moving for another three hours. At Whitebridge the Geldie Burn met the River Dee tumbling down from the Lairig Ghru to the north. Eventually the trees at the Linn of Dee came into view.
There, parked at the side of the road, was WVM himself. The sight of Temple’s jolly countenance with flasks of hot tea at the ready flooded me with relief and brought out ecstatic shouts of ‘GURKHA HIGHLANDERS!’ from the boys, although drinking tea in a midge net without getting eaten alive wasn’t easy.
We were pleased to have got here but I was also concerned. It was7.30pmand we had another five miles to go to Braemar. If we kept going all the way to Braemar we would miss our9.00pmsupper, which had been prearranged at the Inver Hotel, ten miles down the road from Braemar. If we stopped now we would have an additional five miles to do the next morning before we officially started our Day Six trek. I put it to the boys and following a quick discussion we agreed to keep going for another hour, to get as far as we could before packing it in for the night.
The tarmac road was very hard under foot, especially as we had now been walking for over 13 hours. I was on auto pilot when I was puzzled to hear what sounded like a mad duck chasing me with a high-pitched, “Quack, quack, quack …”, which then doubled into light infantry pace;
I turned round to see Rajen doubling up the road behind me in flip flops. Apparently the only way he could keep his flip flops on in the wet conditions was to take little trotting steps. As he passed me, complete with walking pole, my addled mind thought of a new Trivial Pursuit question;
“What looks like Ghandi and sounds like a duck?”
At 8.30pm we reached the ornate Victoria Bridge that crosses the River Dee at GR102895 where Temple was waiting for us. A quick dash to our B&B in Braemar to dump our gear and have a quick cat lick saw us sitting down at 9.15pm on the nose at the Inver Hotel, ten miles down the road. Chris and Susan Snell have become a regular stop for Gurkha Highlanders after the ‘long one’ and new what to expect. A very fine curry was served with rice, and more rice after that. Then more rice. Then ice cream! I fancied the apple crumble on the menu, but it was ‘off’.
We would be seeing Chris and Susan again the following evening as we had been invited to supper there by a Mr Rose on behalf of his friend, the Lord Lieutenant of Aberdeenshire himself. We were a bit vague on the details as all I knew was what Susan had told me a few days previously when she had rung me to confirm our arrival time and ask what we would like to eat, given that the kitchen would normally be closed by then.
A Mr Rose had called her to make arrangements to entertain us on the Saturday evening, but Susan thought we were arriving on the Friday? She was confused. So was I. In fact both statements were correct.
That night I had a large comfortable double room all to myself, complete with feather pillows. I had, as per normal procedure, booked twin rooms for us all for the sake of economy, but our wonderful landlady, Mary Morgan at the Mayfield Guesthouse, who had been hosting Gurkha Highlanders since the 2001 walk, treated Temple and I to our own rooms. It seemed ages since our stay at Roy Bridge and I wasn’t sorry to see the back of our rather Spartan room and small single beds. I was also looking forward to a peaceful night’s sleep without the nasal reverberations of the team driver.