Part 8 Forced March
Our route on day three, a gentle sixteen mile amble, would take us first east, then south from Spean Bridge up the valley of the Allt na Leadach, through the Lairig Leacach and down the beautiful valley of the Allt na Lairige, past Creahuaineach Lodge and round the south end of Loch Treig before heading up the track to Corrour Station, from whence we would catch the 3.20pm train back to Spean Bridge in bags of time for a wreath-laying ceremony at the Commando memorial that evening. That was the plan …
Rajiv was due to attend his Junior Leader’s Course shortly, and so Rajen saheb suggested he take the map to practice his map reading. Rajiv took the map and strolled off, the rest of us in tow.
As we strolled along the track through fields of grass where ponies grazed I got talking to Rajen saheb. Prior to having just taken up the role of Gurkha Captain of 70 Gurkha Field Support Squadron, Queens Gurkha Engineers Rajen had been posted toAfghanistanto head the Resources Node responsible for running theEngineerLogisticsParkinKandahar.
The main role of the ‘Res Node’ was to provide engineer resources support and logistics advice to Operation Herrick 7, Task Force Helmand, Engineer Groups, UK Works Group and other British non-Engineer Groups in theatre.
I know that because I have just cribbed it from an article Rajen wrote for the annual QGE regimental magazine. He had explained it to me as we strolled along the track together, but the unfamiliar context, jargon and acronyms had made his explanations virtually unintelligible to me. I’ll show you what I mean …
“Within the Engineer Log Park, GLOBAL, and OLIVER systems are used to demand and account for all MOD stores, VITAL is used to track consignments and the DeMAS account is used for Engineer Main Accounts. Beside these accounts, the Node also operates a very busy LVP account for non-MOD items to be purchased for use in-theatre”.
Got that? I didn’t think so.
Rajen, the laughing family man with two teenage children, was obviously a logistics expert of the highest order and I was delighted to have the honour of showing him the very best of what my country had to offer, even though the bonny purple heather appeared in short supply. He had two uncles in the Indian Army and a brother in The Queen’s Gurkha Signals.
He was due to retire the following summer and was looking forward to returning to his home inKathmandu. Many Gurkhas wish to remain in the UK on retirement because of the higher standard of living, but for Rajen the call of the mountains was too much.
We pressed on and up, making good progress until, approaching the entrance to the cleft between Ruigh na Gualainn and Cnoc nan Ceann Mora (GR256786) we reached a large bend in the track in a dense fir plantation that had been ‘farmed’, stumps uprooted like the detritus of war.
The wide and panoramic view north offered another photo opportunity, which was gratefully accepted. When I had been planning the walk I had based my timings on estimated speeds for different types of ground – 2 ½ miles an hour on climbs, rough ground and open moorland, 3 miles an hour on ground with more defined tracks, 4 miles an hour on level Landrover tracks, plus a 15 minute break every two hours and 30 minutes for lunch.
The one thing I had not accounted for was losing the track in torrential downpours as in day one, the regular first aid stops to treat blisters, and the seemingly endless procession of stops for photo opportunities. You could hardly blame us; we were in stunning countryside and the whole experience was still novel to us all. But it did mean that we were taking longer on each day’s walk than I had planned.
It had begun to rain heavily, again, and an hour later, having crossed the watershed between the Allt na Leadach and the Allt na Lairige (GR280751), we reached the bothy at the entrance to the Lairig Leacach. This bothy was dry and well maintained and it didn’t take long for the boys to shed their wet waterproofs , and in Lal’s case his trainers, prior to pulling out the day’s sarnies, putting their feet up, and having a chin wag. It was very warm and cosy in there, we were all beginning to feel the accumulative effects of the hike, and nobody was in any rush. It would have been idyllic if it wasn’t for the Nepali, or was it Indian, music that was belting forth from Lal’s, or was it Dugendra’s, MP3 player.
I had quickly realised that today’s Gurkhas did not stint when it came to technology. Their mobile phones with integral MP3 players were the latest G3 models that, amazingly, seemed to maintain coverage right across the highlands, while my own ‘economy’ company mobile lost coverage at Mallaig and, apart from isolated spots close to towns, did not gain signal again until we had almost reached the east coast. I had not realised this on the first day or else I could have phoned Temple when we were behind schedule for our first evening’s RV.
Lal was ministering to his seemingly even more blistered tootsies and had by now virtually consumed our entire stock of anti-blister dressings. I could have stayed longer but was cogniscent of our RV at Corrour with the 15.20 train toSpeanBridge. Besides, I had had my fill of the Indian top ten. Slowly we got our act together and headed back out into the drizzle.
We could not immediately find the trail among the muddy churn left behind by a tracked vehicle, but we could see, on the far side of the river, the track that ran down the east bank. We were immediately faced with a choice – cross the river by the nearby small bridge and head down the east bank, to recross the river by the marked bridge at GR307693, or keep on this side of the river on what appeared to be a less well defined track?
When planning the walk I had decided that taking the westerly track down the Lairig Leacach was the more sensible choice as there was no guarantee that the bridge just upstream from Loch Treig was still there, or usable, and so the river may be impassable, trapping us on the wrong side. I decided that this logic still applied, so we plunged on over the boggy morass, zig zagging across the undulating slopes for a few minutes until we found the track, close to the stream.
The track wound its way up and down along the edge of the steep river valley and the grassy slopes that fell away sharply down to the tumbling Allt na Lairige 30 feet below, then meandered across the slope. I was picking my way ever more carefully, aware of the drop to my left, when I realised that I was actually on a sheep track.
A slip here would almost certainly result in a nasty injury, so I cut uphill at 90 degrees to reach the real track at the top of the slope. I had had a similar, but potentially far more serious, experience many years before when climbing Loch Vorlich and Stuic a Chroin in Perthshire with Colin Stevenson. In impenetrable mist we had been following a track that ran along the crest of a ridge that ran upwards towards the summit of Loch Vorlich.
The ground to our right rose slightly as the ground to our left began to fall away. Within minutes we sensed, rather than saw, that we were on a very steep slope. We had, quite literally, blindly followed a sheep track that had contoured the slope instead of keeping to the top of the ridge. We cut uphill to gain the ridge track.
Two hours later the mist cleared as we sat on the summit of Stuic a Chroin looking across to the southern face of Loch Vorlich and the seemingly vertical rock face that we had been about to traverse. It was a ‘gulp’ moment and a reminder, if one was needed, of just how treacherousScotland’s mountains can be.
The sun had come out and it began to get warmer. The path and the river now began to level out as we entered a truly delightful grass meadow dotted with silver birch trees. It looked like it had been cultivated at one stage and would have been an idyllic spot for a campsite. I looked at my watch. It was 13.30; an hour and three quarters to catch the train. I checked the map. About nine kilometres, say six miles. We needed to do 4 ½ miles an hour non-stop for almost two hours to get there in time.
“We need to press on boys” I said as I lengthened my stride. Five minutes later I looked round to discover that I had left them all 200 yards behind as they ambled along contentedly, enjoying the tranquil setting. Obviously the message had not got through! I waited for them to catch up.
“Saheb, we have a problem”. I explained the situation. “Hunchha, saheb”, replied Rajen, a Nepali expression that means, OK, understood, so be it. The race was on …
I was seriously worried. What a twit I had been not to keep a closer eye on our progress. If we missed the 15.20 train there wasn’t another one till the next day. It was a very long walk back along the railway line to Fersit, whereTemplecould collect us, and there was no way we would be back in Spean Bridge by6.00pm for the wreath laying ceremony we had planned. It wouldn’t look very good to the local press and TV if the fabled Gurkhas failed to turn up because we had missed the train!
Within minutes we had reached the southern end of Loch Trieg and had swung round past the deserted Creahuaineach Lodge and over the stout bridge that spans the deep and dark Abhairn Rath. It was a really beautiful spot and I would have loved to have lingered to enjoy the peace and the setting, but alas, not today.
We had reached the Landrover track that skirted the southern end of the loch and our infantrymen had stormed ahead, setting a cracking pace. I was on their tail, followed by a limping Dugendra. Rajen however, accompanied by the ever attentive Rajiv, was a long way behind, and it was evident that he was carrying a very sore knee that was proving to be a real hindrance.
There was also the physiological issue of Gurkha’s legs. These are normally short, with calves like a large, well-cooked haggis and thighs like Linford Christie’s. They are ideal for driving heavily-laden soldiers uphill or as shock absorbers when bouncing downhill (anyone who has seen a Gurkha khud, or hill, race will testify that Gurkhas do indeed bounce). But they are not designed for leaping raging torrents, nor for high-speed walking.
At five foot eight and a bit (the bit may have disappeared over the past few years) I had never seen myself as being of the ‘rangy’ variety, and so was secretly delighted when the Gurkhas kept referring to my long legs and the length of the strides I took, which was, comparatively speaking, true. With just under 200 miles to hack I reckoned that the least wear and tear would result by taking the least number of steps, so the longer the stride the better.
On a decent track it also meant I could maintain a pretty respectable pace. Rajen however, at five foot three with legs to match, was not so fortunate.
I paused to check on Dugendra, concerned that he was now wearing two knee bandages and that he appeared to be moving rather slowly. Dugendra had completed the 120 km Trailwalker Challenge in 2005, 2006, and 2007 so he was obviously a tough one and I wasn’t concerned at his ability to finish this jaunt, but anybody can be affected by a twisted knee and this was no time and place for casualties.
“Tikchha Dugen?” OK?
“Tickchha saheb. Prevention is better than cure”. I nodded in understanding. A minute later Rajen and Rajiv had caught up with me.
Rajen’s face was twisted in pain and I thought, we’re not going to catch this train.
Catch up with Gurkhas in the Mist – a coast-to-coast walk across the Highlands