Ah, day 11, my nemesis. For some reason the day leaving Braemar has always been troublesome for me. On my first Challenge in 2017, I made the mistake of regarding Braemar as the point when I knew I’d make it, and fate unleashed itself on me – I got knocked off Carn of Claise by the weather and into the wrong glen. I then spent the rest of the Challenge recovering. In 2018, I nearly pulled out in Braemar, at the point when my undiagnosed (except by Louise) asthma peeked. I gave it a go, and things got better, at the cost of a long hard day of tarmac.
In 2019, the day started pleasantly enough, but a vicious downpour at the end of the day completely changed the mood and sowed thoughts of bailing out.
Approaching Braemar on day 10, one of the other usual worries is how bad will day 11 be, leaving this supposed oasis of delights.
So the day 11 curse is in my mind as I wake this time, but something is different. I’ve had such a let down of an experience in Braemar this time, that there is none of the regret at leaving the place – indeed I can’t wait to see the back of it. I’m hoping that this difference in mood is balanced out by a better day 11, for once.
We can’t leave just yet though. Paul (remember him?) sent a parcel to the campsite, and that needs to go back to him. Another trip to the Co-op is in order. And with Gordon’s being firmly closed up at this time of day, the alternative is the Bothy for breakfast, and we pile in along with assorted other Challengers. The food is good, but takes its time coming. It’s after 11am before we set off for real.
There’s no way we’re walking back towards the campsite to take the Lion’s Face route, and we strike out along the A93. It’s not far to Invercauld Bridge anyway. The road sign reads like an itinerary for the next few days.
We negotiate the locked gate just before Invercauld Bridge, walking along a wall to do so. Then we’re in the forest, again having come this way the previous 2 Challenges too. I even sort of remember the way and manage to not walk past Garbh Allt Shiel. It’s not long before we’re at the usual coffee stop of Connachat Cottage. Being trolls, we duck under the bridge, or as near as we can get, obviously.
As there’s a bit of breeze and a few spots of rain, it’s also an opportunity to put my new layer through its paces. It’s pretty ticky here though, and I spend quite a while exterminating before getting up to go again.
We have the usual conversation about spotting the meagre path to Gelder Shiel, which doesn’t matter that much as we’re not going that way. The track takes us towards Balmoral, and following the Exit signs (always a weird feeling following a sign for an exit when you’ve not been through an actual entrance) adds a bit of confusion. The exit itself is surely different to last time I came this way – I don’t remember going through a gift shop.
We are spat out onto the B976, and Darren mentions the post office just the other side of the Dee – he is once again in ice cream hunting mode. We head for the far end of the Balmoral car park and find it – closed. What it does have though, is a water tap, which I make good use of. We head back to the southern bank by way of the bridge.
Now we’re onto the dreadful part – the long road walk. But our late start this morning means we don’t have to (and have no chance of doing) the whole of it today. We spend much of the trudge looking out to the sides of the road hoping to find a decent spot to stop for the night. We eventually try a narrow gate through a high deer fence and walk up a path for a few hundred metres to find a spot. It’s a bit uneven in places and near some disturbingly soft and squishy ground, but the spots we put our tents seem dry and ok. Concerned it may be a bit ticky though.
It’s not actually been such a bad day 11 after all.
We wake, pack up and set off with a promise – of fried pork-based products in Ballater. We’re both looking forward to Ballater much more than Braemar. Partly this is because Ballater is the point where we diverge from our planned route, or rather commit to an extension of what would have been our FWA.
We skip along the B976 and as we approach Ballater find several caches of trail magic.
We bump into Lee at Bridge of Muick and chat for a few minutes. There’s another chocolate tub of goodies here too. Then we’re off into Ballater itself.
The key challenge facing us in Ballater is deciding which cafe to grace with our presence. We mull this as we head for the Co-op – another parcel to send, and a few top ups of snacks. We eventually choose one of the more downmarket-looking caffs and head in. It’s pretty busy and all of the vacant tables are reserved. There’s one that is reserved for a time decently after we can be gone, but we’re not allowed to take that one in case the customer comes early. Hackles up, we leave and give money to the butchers opposite instead. It’s a bit of a wait for the bacon and sausages to be cooked, but we do at least get the satisfaction of seeing our actual bacon being carved off a huge lump of late pig.
We devour our food on a bit of grass opposite the church, then can’t really put off walking any longer. We head for the former station to start the Deeside Way. There’s an ice cream shop here though, so we have to go in their first.
The Deeside Way is easy walking as it follows the trackbed of the old railway. But measuring progress is difficult as in places it’s the same view for huge chunks of time. A little riverside section just before Cambus o’ May bridge offers a bit of relief.
The next section to Dinnet goes on forever. It’s all the same.
At Dinnet, it’s a bit disappointing to find none of its, admittedly meagre, offerings open. We sit on a bench in a car park for a snack and brew. Out of nowhere, Darren makes a phone call to the campsite at Aboyne, and secures us a couple of pitches – the Aboyne campsite doesn’t actually take tents, but they make an exception during the Challenge, it seems. I’m taken a bit by surprise as I thought we were going to try to find a wild camp by the Deeside Way. I have to say, though, that the prospect of an actual camp site appeals, albeit at the cost of a lot more walking than I was expecting.
We set off, at least heading for some certainty now. With feet tired and past the point I was ready to stop, I resort to the music and am soon tearing ahead. I just need to get it done, now I’m committed to an actual end point for today.
We roll into the campsite and it takes a while for someone to actually turn up to check us in, and issue us with keys for the facilities etc. The tent “field” is a tiny triangular scrap of thin stony grass near the chemical disposal point. There’s one other tent here.
It’s a quiet night, and we have no idea who the other occupant is, although clearly a Challenger. I guess we’ll find out in the morning.