Monday, 10 September 2018

A "mamba" Munro and the simple joy of a path

I slept deeply and long at the Tarf Hotel, waking 8am, an unusually late hour for me. A combination of tiredness after a long day and the deep silence of these empty miles on a calm night, plus the absence of the usual bothy mice rustling about were all factors.  I felt refreshed but a bit slow when I got up, and it was after 9am when I set out into a morning with a lid on it.  Cloud levels were down to just above the bothy, the air was still and had that heaviness which often characterises the month of August in the Highlands.  A look back at Feith Uaine; splendid isolation and a haven in truly wild country.

I followed the Tarf Water downstream for a short distance before striking off up a side stream.  A little way up the hill I passed a ruined shieling, evidence that this hasn't always been an empty landscape.  Shielings were summer dwellings used in the traditional transhumance of people and beasts to higher pasture in the summer months.  Sited in the crook of a burn (stream) on relatively level ground, its interesting that the surrounding ground is an area of grass among square miles of heather and moss - I wonder whether the site was chosen for this characteristic, or if the ground was cleared of heather to provide better grazing for the cattle?

Continuing uphill on increasingly rough and difficult terrain brought me to a huge area of peat hags and wet ground.  scattered through the peat hags were the bleached roots and stumps of a long-gone pine forest which once covered the land.  A combination of a cooling climate and felling for timber destroyed these forests - allowing the build up of peat which has left vast areas of empty country.

Soon after this image was taken I walked up into the cloudbase and visibility was reduced to less than 50 metres.  I continued to follow a tiny burn uphill until I reached a bealach (col) between the Munros of Carn an Fhidleir and An Sgarsoch - and also on the Perthshire/Aberdeenshire boundary.  I now had a decision to make.  My next destination was a path which reaches high up the Geldie Burn and lay 3 kilometres to the north of the bealach.  I could either continue a traverse across steep, rough, wet and pathless terrain in low visibility to locate this path, or go over the summit of An Sgarsoch.  The latter route would add a kilometre in distance and 300 metres/1000ft of climbing but would make for easier walking and navigation, despite the additional climb.  After a little deliberation I chose the route over An Sgarsoch and began the steep climb up a broad ridge of grass and moss.

The challenge of accurate map and compass navigation in poor visibility is something I enjoy to a certain extent.  Although carrying a GPS receiver in my kit I resisted using it and was pleased to arrive right at the summit cairn.  An Sgarsoch (the place of sharp rocks) is 1006m/3300ft and one of the more remote Munros.  The last time I climbed this hill I recorded in my journal having a good view, but no such luck this time; the inside of one cloud looks pretty similar to the inside of another!

Unusually for a Munro there's very little in the way of paths on the hill so my navigation still had to be accurate.  I elected to head due north to reach the bump of Sgarsoch Beag (little place of sharp rocks) from where I'd be able to head straight for the path.  This descent proved to be not straightforward as the ground falls away at unexpected angles.  Just as I was tempted to check my position by GPS the ground started to rise and I found the summit of Sgarsoch Beag.

I came out of the cloud just above the path and dropped wearily down to it.  I'd had over four hours of pathless and rough ground, much of that time in poor visibility.  The simple pleasure of being able to relax and walk on a path felt really good, despite the long miles still to go with a full backpacking load.

The path leads to the ruing of Geldie Lodge, another former shooting lodge in a remote spot.  In contrast to the atmosphere of Bynack Lodge, I've always found this place to be an austere setting.  Just below the lodge there's a crossing of the Geldie which leads to the start of a track heading back towards Linn of Dee.

It would have been tempting to have thought the route to be just about finished, but it's 12 kilometres from Geldie Lodge to Linn of Dee, a long way when already tired.  My usual routine on the hill with day kit is to take a short rest every couple of hours or when exploring something interesting; if carrying backpacking kit it's usually a short rest each hour.  My pace dropped on this route back and I found myself having to dig deep.  On the last stretch from White Bridge to Linn of Dee I was resting every ten minutes - I've rarely been so utterly done at the end of a two day route.

This trip into "mamba" country had been a real pleasure, apart from at the start and end I saw not another person in 55 kilometres of walking.  If solitude is your thing - you'll usually find it at the headwaters of the Tarf and Geldie.


  1. Featureless terrain out that way at the best of times never mind in mist. Must be 30 years since my last visit to that bothy. Nice to see over tourism has not reached that particular location yet...

    1. It's that alright Bob. I really like the fact that there are places which you have to work to get to.....the antithesis of the "park and play" approach