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Wandering in the Wilderness

Dave W and I set off from the centre early in the morning on Sunday to meet the four girls on their Duke of Edinburgh Expedition at Kinloch Rannoch. We picked them up here and drove down the road to their start point.

The aim is to always know where they are and be able to intervene if necessary, but trying to let them feel like they are on their own.

After a little chat to frame the next four days, Dave and I stood outside a little way up the track and waited for them.

Some of you may be aware that when you plan an expedition for DofE you need to have an aim and spend some time working on it each day. The girls were spending approximately half their time walking and the other half on their “aim".

This meant a lot of stops and for a good 20 minutes each time.

Over the course of the four days, I drifted between frustrated and pleased with this rate of movement: as I changed between standing in a bog, in the rain and being pestered by midges, to, sitting at the top of two glens, in the sun, with a breeze to dry my shoes and keep the midges away.

I feel that I always appreciate the areas I visit, but when you are forced to spend more time there than you usually would, you notice various aspects of the environment in more depth!

The best view for me on the first day was at the end of the day when the rain had stopped and a round the corner appeared home for the night, Ben Alder cottage.

Ben Alder cottage is a bothy managed by the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA). A bothy is not just an abandoned building but an opportunity. It signifies a chance to dry out some clothes, cook dinner without being eaten by midges or beaten up by the weather… and, if you are lucky, meet some new people and enjoy some conversation whilst you do all of the above.

I was a lucky man. There were five chaps inside who had spent the whole day gathering firewood, and therefore had a blazing furnace roaring away with some hot food finished just as I walked in. They extended a hand to welcome me, and after a quick exchange of names, offered me some hot food as they had cooked plenty.

I had a great evening in the bothy and after sharing the night with a scurrying mouse, it was time to leave. My stuff was now dry, and the sun was trying to cut through the cloud, and so a good day was sure to follow.

I could see the the girls had left their campsite and I packed up my belongings, said goodbye to the chaps and followed on about half an hour later.

Soon, I stumbled upon the DofE girls sitting down, discussing their aim… So I hung back and waited for them to move on. A couple of hours later, I walked ahead of the girls up to the bealach behind Ben Alder and sat down to enjoy the view.

As I waited on the little knoll at the top of the pass, I had the chance to pull off a tick, take some pictures and air my, now wet again, feet in the mountain breeze. I let the girls gain some distance and put my waterproofs on as I had detected a change in the weather.

Within an hour it started hacking it down, and the girls pressed on past their planned campsite (way too lumpy) and stopped by another bothy, Culra lodge (currently shut due to asbestos).

I assembled my tent for the first time in a long time, slipped into my sleeping bag and started cooking dinner. I looked at my watch and it was only 5pm! Oh well. After dinner I pulled out my book that I brought with me and blitzed through a few chapters. I had a great night's sleep, despite the rain, and was totally refreshed in the morning and excited for the day to come.

That morning, the girls set off and I packed my stuff away at a leisurely pace to follow on with my remote supervision. Their route took them along the South shore of Loch Pattack. Before I reached the shore I stumbled into a small patch of phone signal, so I rang Rachael at the centre to update her on the progress of the Exped. After that, I rang Phil who was cycling in to meet us and finish assessing the group for the afternoon, last night and their last day.

Following the track along the shore was wet in places and had an interesting bridge to cross.

The girls’ route took them on an out-and-back leg up the glen and back towards the loch, so I found some high ground to wait for them. Whilst I was waiting, I pulled my tent out and spread it out to dry in the wind, and then Phil appeared pushing his bike along the rough boggy track. We sat and chatted about all sorts, including the Exped, and soaked up some sun.

We hadn’t seen the girls for a while, and so packed up to set off and find them. Just as we were ready, they appeared back over the horizon. Hooray!

Phil and I decided we would camp by the loch: it was a wonderful evening, warm and breezy. After dinner, Phil asked me “How warm do you think the water is?”

As we were both barefoot, we simultaneously dipped our toes in the water and remarked at the same time… “Oooh, that’s actually quite warm!” Phil articulated what we were both thinking by saying “Let’s go for a paddle.”

We waded around for an hour or so, enjoying the warm water lapping around our shins. It was shallow for a long way which meant we could explore the area. As the evening drew on, the clouds and subsequent rain encroached on our position and forced us to retreat into our tents for some sleep.

During the night my sleep was disturbed by the distant sound of a fox, and some snorting from what was apparently some highland ponies. I checked in with Phil for some reassurance that we would survive the night. He even stuck his head outside to check that we weren’t overrun with wildlife!

The morning came though and I was still alive, and was welcomed with a splendid view.

Because it was so beautifully still, the first hour was spent fighting off midges. Then a light wind helped relieve the strain and made the rest of the day more enjoyable.

It was the last day of the Exped with the route leading us to Dalwhinnie and the van. Phil and I paced off towards our goal and overtook the girls at about 11. We planned to meet them at the van and set off to let the parents know where we were and what time the girls were likely to finish.

It was a lovely thing to sit on a soft seat in the shade and rest my feet after four days of wilderness. On the way to the van we passed Ben Alder estate, which has a huge castle on the shore of Loch Ericht, including a helipad, and it has two, yes two, gatehouses!

Once I was home I njoyed a shower and an early night. I had to work the next day, but I then had three days off in a row.

On the Saturday I nipped up to Fort William to see Nate and Lizzie and their new dog Olaf for the first time since I’d left Whitthaugh. The original plan of a mountain day fell through due to horrific weather, so indoor climbing was plan B.

It was amazing to catch up with this quality couple and hear about all their adventures and plans. It was also good to go climbing, but we could’ve done anything and I would’ve enjoyed it!

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