17 October 2012

Hiking the swamp II: Scotland

“Hadrian’s Wall, that’s in England!” Last year there had been a hike with some of my oldest friends on Dartmoor, and they had enjoyed the rain and the pubs. So they wanted more. A plan had been made to have a sequel in Scotland; as much rain there! Someone had suggested Hadrian’s Wall. Hugh, however, had been invited too, and he’s not very gullible; he figured immediately that you can’t go to Scotland and follow this wall at the same time. He wanted some Scotland, and preferably some wild tough parts of it. So he suggested the Cairgorms. And after some mailing up and down, and some checking of logistic possibilities, the die was cast, and Cairgorms it would be. To be entered from Aviemore.

Two days before we left I checked the weather forecast. A weather warning for heavy rain! If it’s heavy by Scottish standards it must be ghastly. Oh well. We don’t go for comfort.

We met at Edinburgh Waverley ticket office. It was great to see everybody again! The Dutch contingent was the same as last year. And that’s a very good contingent. And when the tickets were purchased some of us went into town to buy the last supplies: bread (which is best bought as late as possible to preserve freshness) and fuel (which we couldn’t bring by plane). Viking and I volunteered for keeping an eye on the luggage while enjoying a pint. And a sandwich later we were in the train, seeing the sun set and the rain fall. We reached Aviemore where a cab awaited us, and brought us to the campsite, where we were greeted by disapproving grunts by the off-duty warden. He objected to us arriving after dark, apparently unaware this had been OK’d by the proprietor. Feeling somewhat indignant we pitched our tents, cooked pasta, and enjoyed the beers the shopping party had spontaneously added to the shopping list. And we turned this into a musical-style hike. Nothing you can say that can’t be sung! “The pan won’t hold all of the pasta” will surely soon be a chart topper.

The next morning it rained, but not very hard. After breakfast we left, to start our marvellous hike. We were forced to start on asphalt, but soon we found ourselves on cute, well-maintained little paths through impressive autumnal terrain. Slowly the rain got heavier while the terrain got wilder and the trees sparser.
During our first break the trouble started. Both Maaike and I had to conclude our brand new, rather expensive GoreTex jackets were not at all waterproof. Some of the other jackets were not up for the local conditions either. This could become a rather wet hike!

The start, on asphalt

Soon replaced by a cute path

The very autumnal landscape

The trees soon vanished

Soon after this break we reached a saddle in the valley. The terrain got blocky, the path vanished. We managed to scramble over the slippery blocks, but not entirely without problems; Roelof slipped, and scraped his hand and wrist along the jagged rock. That was only a scratch, but this terrain could easily inspire heavier injuries. We had to be careful!

The blocky terrain; somewhat treacherous when the rock is all wet

After the saddle we found a swamp, and then a valley, largely hidden in clouds. Somewhere in this valley we had a cold and uncomfortable lunch. The rain hadn’t stopped for even a minute! And there was no shelter.
At around four o’clock some people were suffering from sore feet and similar ailments. And we were all cold and wet. We walked past a small field that wasn’t too swampy or bumpy, so we decided to take no chances, and camp there for the night. A waterfall provided drinking water; small lakes offered the option for a bath, but strangely enough nobody was keen to take up the invitation.

Packing up after lunch

The weather is bad, the mood is fine!

Many of the lakelets we passed were probably dry land under more normal circumstances.

We pitched the tents. As mine is the biggest, I offered to pitch only the shell, so we would have maximum space inside. After all the tents were pitched, and several people had gotten into something dry, we gathered in it. We all fit, including Hugh’s and my backpacks. And then we managed to light a stove! Roelof surprised everyone with making fresh and multi-coloured krupuk inside the tent. We had two Trangia’s and one MSR whisperlite; it’s not recommended to light a whisperlite inside a tent (even though I admit I have done it), but a trangia is rather harmless. I never had green and pink krupuk, let alone freshly fried; I didn’t expect to have my debut in my tent!

Colourful krupuk in the tent! Made by Roelof, who keeps his hood on, to be sure...

This was the view (or what passes for it) later in the evening

With all seven in the tent, and a lit stove, it got very steamy inside. But better steamy than rainy and cold, as it was outside! It was actually quite snug, although the population density lead to some sleeping limbs and cramping muscles.

While we were gathered anyway we talked through the plans for the coming days; my suggested route was clearly too ambitious. And the fuel was running out faster than anticipated too. We decided to turn back the next morning, and at the first opportunity where we could escape this valley we would decide on what to do next.

When dinner (rice with quorn and gado-gado) was eaten all dispersed. This was our cue to pitch the rest of the tent, and to finally get into something dry. I hadn’t dared change much more than my shirt, as I feared everything I touched would make my until-then dry clothes wet too. But now we were inside the inner tent, and the microfleece trousers could appear. Snug! It was a nice night with lots of listening to the wind and the rain chastising the tent. But when I woke up I heard no wind and rain.

Our camp in the morning

I got out. It was a bit hazy, but dry! I was very glad. I immediately seized the opportunity for a bath – I like bathing on a hike! But not the night before.

The bathroom!

We had pancakes and coffee for breakfast. While we were enjoying that a red deer came majestically walking past on the hillside above us. What a start of the day!

The deer in the mist

Only lightly sprinkled with rain we walked back down the valley. Even though we walked through a negative gradient of landscapely roughness it was beautiful. And this day we even came across other walkers; first a British couple going the opposite way, and later a solitary Dutch bloke, who immediately recognised us as (largely) Dutch too, by the four pairs of camouflage GoreTex trousers…

The relatively dry second day

Viking and Roelof

At the point where we had to decide on the route we simply decided to keep following the river. It would lead us into the woods near Aviemore. At first it lead through swampy heathland, but slowly the trees returned. And finally, also the sun. When the first ray hit us we met a ranger, who commented on all these Dutch (and other non-UK) people that seem to like hiking in autumnal Scotland. Hmm yes, we might be a bit strange…

Where to go?

Into the valley

I was there too!

Erik being theatrical

Lunch with mackerel in tomato sauce!

The terrain got woodier

I met this little chap only days earlier in Finland!


Soon afterwards we found a perfect camping spot. One could tell it was in use more often! Henco and I kept an eye on the bags (and a hand on the whisky) while others checked if there was an even better place, but we stuck to this one. This evening we had a curly kale with death-by-sausage feast. And lots of whisky! This trip was showing its opulent side.


Vain attempts to dry some kit in the tree underneath which we were cooking

And opulence reached a peak the next morning. We couldn’t bring fuel back, so we had to finish it all. The slogan was: coffee and pancakes until the fuel runs out. A dream come true! The next morning I jumped out of bed. Pancakes and coffee until the fuel runs out! The thought alone had me outside the tent before the morning pink had left the sky.

Pink morning sky!

Our camp in the morning

It WAS great! Even though we ran out of syrup (the best thing on pancakes!) Erik decided to use “sour faces” instead. I can tell you, these melt in heat. And draw sticky threads. Brr!

Pancakes! With syrup!

Erik makes his dubious "sour faces"-pancake

Just when everybody was satisfied the last stove went out. Brilliant! So we packed up, and headed for town. We planned to not take the straightest route, but be in town in the early afternoon anyway, and then first check out the Old Bridge Inn (I had checked their website during the preparations); and the ranger we had met the day before ad also said something about a bunkhouse. That may come in handy…

Just before we got to Aviemore we got a goodbye present from the weather gods...

As soon as we reached town we reached the inn. Excellent! We enjoyed a beer and lunch while the bunkhouse decided whether it had space for us. Fortunately it did, but unfortunately not all together; we were spread out over two rooms, and both rooms also had additional guests. We would not make us popular with them… We were a world of dubious, damp smells. And we saved the worst for the drying room (yay! A drying room!) but we did have enough left to infest the sleeping rooms too.

When we had all showered and changed we went back to the pub, for more beer, and a meal. The meal was excellent! Amazing deer, and ditto chocolate mousse. This trip had turned from hardship through opulence to luxury. And after dinner there was more beer. And a pub quiz. Roelof was disappointed in the questions on philosophy, and I was disappointed in my answers on 80’s lyrics (though I had extensively practiced! “A path to walk on, without hurting your ankle, oh baby, don’t look any further”...). And we all disagreed with the booklet that claimed Snæfjell lies on the Isle on Man.

View from the pub! We were snugly inside. 

With my reputation shattered by recognizing lyrics from “Rent” (Pet Shop Boys) we called it an evening and went home. We were just in time to witness that Erik wasn’t feeling very well, in a rather noisy way. Poor girl sharing the room with us… but apart from that, the stench, and Roelof’s snoring, all was well. And the next morning everybody felt fine again! We just turned the bunkhouse’s kitchen into a cloud of smoke by finishing the pancake batter at record speed, and then we left the place to its own peace.

We all caught the same train, but in Perth Hugh and I had to change. Our flight form Edinburgh had been cancelled, and we had to go back over Glasgow. We said goodbye in haste on the platform. This was the end of Zomphop II! It hadn’t gone according to plan, but I had had a lovely time. I suppose I even would have if we would have crouched in sewers all the time; these friends are special and splendid. But getting their company AND beautiful landscapes AND bonuses as pancakes, deer and beer really can’t go wrong. Next year Snowdonia? Lake district? I can’t wait!

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