Renewed hope surges through me, thanks to the liberal application of whisky last night and some ibuprofen this morning. To cement the deal, a big cup of tea for breakfast and then I seek out the “facilities” – it’s my belief that this quartet can cure pretty much anything on the trail. Or indeed, in life.
I resume my progress down the stream, treading carefully. Each day I tend to limp the first couple of hundred metres until my foot gets comfortable inside my shoe, and then it’s forgotten about. Today I tread a little more gingerly – if I have hurt myself properly, then I’ll still need to get off the hill. As it turns out, my foot feels no worse than on any other day previous, and couple that with joining a track not that far from camp, I’m soon merrily crunching stones on my way down the Allt an Tudair to the Red Bothy.
I pop inside the bothy, mostly out of curiosity as it’s a bit early in the walk for an actual rest. A bit of a look around and a read of the visitors book and I’m off.
The Bothy seems to be a psychological turning point as foot woes are forgotten and I begin climbing upwards on the Burma Road. This will take me all the way to the outskirts of Aviemore – no more uncertain ground, no difficulty navigating, this is just what is needed when you’re looking after damaged body parts. I take the climb slowly and steadily, not just for my foot, but also because I’ve got loads of time today. I’m eagerly scanning around me and see a hare bounding across the heather. Further in the distance deer sweep across the hillside.
I’m climbing the track when a party of cyclists approach, pelting it down. I keep close to the left hand side leaving them the other side of the track and a bit more – even so, one of them can’t resist passing within inches of me. There may have been some rude words uttered.
Gaining height now, I spy a flash of colour over to the right amidst the sea of heather, and note the furtive movements of the Lesser Spotted Wildcamper. This guy appears to be taking a pretty leisurely approach to the whole thing and as I draw level it’s clear he’s breaking camp. At 11:45 that denotes a serious lie-in. Waves are exchanged and I climb up to the crest of the track.
Here I have a decision to make, and it’s made in the form of “if there’s an easy path or track up there, I’ll go up”. I’m not doing unnecessary heather-bashing today. A path is found and a little while later I’m at the summit of Geal-charn Mor, a Corbett, and indeed the first bag of the trip.
The mystery of the Phantom Laid-Back Camper is soon solved as it approaches the summit just as I’m leaving, and the Phantom is revealed to be none other than Phil Lambert, who had to pull out early in the Challenge. You’d think the poor man would be allowed to lick his wounds, but it appears Messrs Sloman and Williams have pressed him into being a beer delivery service. I duly wonder in awe at their commitment to the cause of alcoholism.
The downward slope of the Burma Road is plagued with cyclists, although thankfully not of the ilk encountered earlier on. It’s a pleasant enough walk though, made more so by the comforting fact that it’s really just a gentle afternoon stroll down to Aviemore. The number of people doing just that reinforces the feeling. Even so, I’m looking forward to Aviemore.
I decide to forego the leg of my route that would take me over to Lochan Dubh and Craigellachie Nutre Reserve. This is mostly decided when I see it involves some up, quite apart from a lot of heather. No, a more direct course to Aviemore will do fine.
And then it’s done. I’m off the hill and finishing off the road walk into Aviemore. Naturally, the place I’m staying is at the far end of town. I try to tell myself that this gives me the opportunity to reconnoitre what Aviemore has to offer. It doesn’t work. Neither does my quest for food. I’m not taken with what’s on offer at Mackenzies Highland Inn, although I make this discovery after sitting down with a pint. This is repeated next door in the Winking Owl, although here it takes the form of “no you can’t have one of those empty tables, we’d rather you waited an hour.” Third time lucky and I’m in Skiing-Doo restaurant, an odd place, but one which has the essential requirements of beer and steak.
Gill and Pat walk in and I join them after my meal for a beer. That soon escalates into “popping in” to the Cairngorm Hotel, where the bulk of the rest of the Challengers are. A couple of pints beyond my usual safety threshold, I stagger home to bed. Despite its shortcomings, Aviemore has been just the blowout I needed.