Part 9 Forced March (cntd)
Four hundred yards to our left, down on the boulder-strewn shore of the depleted reservoir that was Loch Treig, were two four-wheel drive vehicles, three ponies, a quad bike and a rigid inflatable boat with outboard motor.
This whole area formed part of the 48,000 acre Corrour Estate, owned by the Rausing family of Tetrapak fame, and I assumed that this was the Rausing family at play. There was no time for socialising however and so I hoofed on up the hill.
The Landrover track seemed to go on and up for ever, with bends and false crests offering false hope of a sight of the railway line that crossed the track and that we would follow to Corrour Station. The sun was now blazing out of a cloudless sky and with the steady but unremitting ascent I was sweating profusely, leg muscles screaming, temples thudding. I paused to check time and distance and immediately the lactic acid in my legs led to the ‘wobbly leg’ shakes.
The thudding also seemed to be getting louder. I suddenly realised that it was Dugendra’s MP3 player blasting out his musical favourites. The music came to a pause and I asked him, very diplomatically I thought,
“Dugendra – do you have any Rolling Stones?”
“No saheb!” he replied gleefully as another burst of exotic warbling issued forth.
Call me a curmudgeonly old bugger, but I do believe that part of the joy, if in fact not the major joy, of being in the hills is the peace, the silence, the lack of the clutter that demands to be part of western civilisation, the cleansing effect of space that is thousands of years old.
There is nothing like the gentle caress of a mountain breeze, the sensation heightened by the call of the wild; the trill of a passing curlew or lapwing, the ‘gebak, gebak, gebak, gebakgebakgebakgebak’ of a startled grouse, the distant roar of a rutting stag. To obliterate this from your consciousness with blaring music or by having two lumps of ear-splitting plastic stuck in your earhole, seems to me to be missing the whole point of the exercise.
I do however concede that if you live in the foothills of the Himalayas and the walk to the nearest road-head or town is measured in days, anything to kill the fatigue and boredom is good news.
So I pressed on, focussing on the dry, dusty, stony track three strides ahead of me as Dugendra tagged along to my rear. After a few minutes I began to think that I was imagining things as the music seemed to be not only getting louder, but was in stereo. I then realised ‘Mr Mountain’ had joined us and he too was in broadcasting mode.
‘Dear God’, I thought, ‘it’s a battle of the bands, sub-continent style… aaaarrrrgh’
Minutes later the railway line came into view. Hallelujah. But where were Lal and Arjun? We had to turn right, south, off the Landrover track, to follow the footpath that ran alongside the railway embankment, but there was no sign of them on the track. Obviously. They had been so far ahead for the past 30 minutes that I had not been able to brief them about turning off the track at the bridge where the railway line crossed the track.
They then appeared 400 yards ahead, still following the Landrover track as it climbed the hill beyond the bridge. Our frantic whistling had no affect in the gentle breeze that blew into our faces. This was silly. I had been going through the fallback options. If Rajen couldn’t get to the station in time, but the others could, I could ask them to ask the train driver to stop and pick us up as he passed us on the way north. If this ploy failed they could attend the wreath laying ceremony, and I would stay with Rajen to slog it back out along the railway line.
It now looked however as if half my team was about to disappear over the horizon, never to be seen again. Oh dear. I started to jog up the track to re-gather my flock and having gained the bridge and climbed the embankment at last Lal heard me. Mad arm waving got the message across that they were to cut right off the track and across the boggy moorland back to the railway line.
It was at this point that one of the four-wheel drive vehicles appeared under the bridge. I waved them to stop, bounded down the grassy bank and vaulted the barbed wire at the bottom. A jovial young gent was behind the wheel accompanied by a pleasant looking lady with a slight European accent and another gent behind.
“I say, are you the Gurkhas? We thought you must have been. By jove, you’ve been going some speed”
I replied that we were heading for Corrour Station two miles down the track to catch the 15.20 train to Spean Bridge, but that one of my team was carrying a bad injury and would they mind giving him a lift to the station. They said they would be delighted to help and so I waved to Rajen, who by this time had mounted the embankment, to come down. He was having none of it, waved a dismissive arm at us, and ploughed on down the railway track. Stout fellow, I thought.
We made it, with ten minutes to spare.
Corrour railway station is one of the most remote stations in the United Kingdom and is not accessible by any public roads. The station opened to passengers on 7 August 1894 and was originally built to serve the Corrour sporting estate, whose owners were investors in the railway.
Guests visiting the estate for deer stalking and grouse shooting were taken from the station to the head of Loch Ossian by horse drawn carriage. A small steamer then transported them to the shooting lodge at the far end of the loch. At over 1,300 feet above sea level the station provides a convenient starting point for hill-walkers and Munro-baggers. Loch Ossian Hostel, one of the most remote youth hostels in the UK, is about one mile from the railway station overlooking Loch Ossian and has a view to die for.
The original Station House, which included a bunkhouse, was reopened in 2006 by Beth Campbell and now provides an excellent cafe and bed and breakfast accommodation.
Waiting on the platform and looking somewhat bemused by our breathless arrival was the serene figure of Allison Barratt from Newcastle on Tyne. Allison had been coming to the Loch Ossian Youth Hostel for 40 years and after a blissful few days at the hostel was heading back to Tulloch Station to collect her car for the journey home. Looking about me at the surrounding grandeur, the sun dappled mountains and scattered pine forests, I could see why someone would want to return.
As the train made its sedate way along the west facing slopes overlooking Loch Trieg I looked back to see the deserted lodge at the foot of the sun speckled loch. It looked even more attractive that it had done as we sped past it some two hours earlier. One day I would return. Twenty minutes later we were at Roy Bridge Station and there to meet us wasTemple.
It had become something of a tradition that the Gurkha Highlander team would lay a wreath at the Commando memorial in a simple ceremony in honour of those Commandos who had paid the ultimate sacrifice, both in the Second World War and in more recent conflicts, and tonight was the night.
It felt particularly appropriate to have Gurkha Engineers present as The Queen’s Gurkha Engineers is the only Gurkha regiment to have a Commando element. As we arrived in the van there to meet us was Piper James Craig of the Army Piping School in Edinburgh. We had tried to find a local piper but without success, so James had kindly agreed to drive all the way from Edinburghto play for us.
Also waiting to meet us was Andrew Kirk, President of theDunfermlinebranch of the Royal British Legion who had been a Navy medic attached to the Commandos during the War and a photographer from the Sunday Times who was to take photos to accompany the article by Richard Wilson.
I quickly agreed the ‘order of ceremony’ with Rajen and briefed James and Andrew, who would also be laying a wreath. The boys lined up to face James and Andrew and after a short speech from me to explain to the various onlookers who had gathered what was happening and why, Rajen marched forward, laid his wreath, stepped back, saluted and marched back to his place with the same quiet dignity that he had displayed at Prestonpans. He was followed in turn by Andrew. James then played the haunting pipe tune The Flowers of the Forest, which was followed by a few moments silence.
The whole ceremony could not have lasted much more than five minutes, but there was a quiet intensity to the moment in that glorious place that said more than any words could. Our wreath carried the inscription, “From mountain men to mountain men in sad remembrance and proud affinity”. Gurkhas take the memory of their own and other people’s war dead very seriously.
The Gurkha motto states, “Khaphar hunnu bhanda, marnu ramro chha” – it is better to die than to be a coward. The expressions on the faces of the young soldiers left no one in any doubt as to how proud they were to be representing every Gurkha, past and present, in paying tribute to these brave, fallen comrades.
Being a highly spiritual people, many are Buddhists, Gurkhas are said to have no fear of death. The recently deceased former Chief of Staff of the Indian Army, Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw, is quoted as saying, “If a man says he is not afraid of death, he is either lying or he is a Gurkha”.
This apparent lack of fear, together with the centuries of tradition, pride and ethos that goes with being a Gurkha soldier, is one reason why Gurkhas and Gurkha regiments have won so many awards for valour. There have been twenty-six Victoria Crosses awarded to members of Gurkha regiments. The first was awarded in 1858 and the latest in 2008 when Johnson Beharry was awarded the medal. Thirteen of the recipients have been British officers serving with Gurkha regiments, although since 1915 the majority have been received by Gurkhas serving in the ranks as private soldiers or as NCOs.
In addition, since Indian independence in 1947, Gurkhas serving in the Indian Army have also been awarded three Param Vir Chakras, which are roughly equivalent. There have also been two George Cross medals awarded to Gurkha soldiers for acts of bravery in situations that have not involved combat.
uch more recently, in Afghanistan, five members of the 1st Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles were warded the Military Cross and two were Mentioned in Despatches. The Battalion itself was awarded the Canadian Forces Unit Commendation, an award that has only ever been presented to four other non-Canadian units. The recent campaigning by, among others, Joanna Lumley in respect of Gurkhas’ rights was accompanied by a press photo of La Lumley flanked by two wheelchair-bound Gurkha Victoria Cross holders, Rifleman Tulbahadur Pun VC and Rifleman Lachhiman Gurung VC. It was a compelling reminder of what friends Britain has in its Gurkha colleagues in arms.
With the ceremony done we had to have our photo taken for The Sunday Times. The photographer wanted an action shot of us as walked up a slope withBen Nevisin the background. It took three attempts to get it right. He obviously didn’t think we were very good at walking.
That evening it was a proud, happy and slightly knackered group that enjoyed a curry in, fittingly enough, the Everest Indian restaurant in Fort William. Temple then told us about his ‘two-headed’ moment.
The night before I had askedTempleto get me some bicycle clips. I had provided the boys with ankle gaiters to help keep their feet dry and to stop mud and heather seeds getting into their boots, however the tops of the gaiters proved to be too wide and didn’t really do the trick. Various solutions were tried by the team but I thought bicycle clips were the answer.
Temple now explained that he had failed miserably to purchase the requested clips but that he had procured elastic boot laces, which was fine. It had however led to the first of what proved to be several ‘two-headed’ moments thatTemple was to experience during the journey. He had driven into Fort William that morning and managed to find a bike shop. You know the kind of thing – windows full of bright, shiny machines, gadgetry and clothing that would not look out of place in a James Bond film.
“Good morning. May I have a set of bicycle clips please?”
“Bicycle clips …”
“You want bicycle clips?”
“That is correct”
“Ah’ve no got bicycle clips, son. Ah’ve neoprene cycling boots. Ah’ve hi-tech, light-weight crash helmets. Ah’ve LED headlights. Ah’ve gel-cushioned, lycra cycling shorts. Ah’ve self-wicking, breathable, wind and water proof lycra tops. Ah’ve titanium racing bikes, mountain bikes and hybrid bikes. Ah’ve Polaroid chromatic glasses. But ah’ve no got bicycle clips”
Two heads indeed.
Catch up with Gurkhas in the Mist – a coast-to-coast walk across the Highlands