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Friday, 1 January 2010

The 2000 Challenge, Day 1: Mallaig to Sourlies / Finiskaig

Having travelled to Mallaig by train, and enjoyed a very nice meal and a comfortable night in a very pleasant hotel, I signed the Challenge register and hefted my back pack (all 22 kg of it ... I hadn't really got the hang of lightweight expeditioning back then!) then headed down to the harbour. The little ferry to the Knoydart peninsula - one of the remotest parts of the British mainland - was absolutely packed with Challengers, all chattering merrily. The sky was cobalt blue and the sea was like glass as the little boat carried us across the head of Loch Nevis to Inverie Bay.

Disembarking at Inverie, the first thing we saw was .... a pub! Many of my fellow challengers stopped for a quick pint before setting off on the walk. But not me. Oh no, no quick pint for me. You see, by the time we landed, it was lunch time. So a decent meal seemed in order - as it was going to be nearly three whole days before I had another chance to eat something other than pre-packed "Wayfarer" meals, heated on my little MSR petrol stove. (Don't get me wrong - there's nothing wrong with Wayfarer meals. But freshly prepared, real food is MUCH better - particularly when it is served to you by a cute Australian barmaid with extraordinarily stunning legs ... )

The key to eating in little remote pubs like this, is always to order from the "Specials" board. In this case, that meant a plate full of the most amazing, freshly caught Loch Nevis prawns, each as thick as my finger and so succulent I can still remember the taste nearly ten years later. Like I said, there are FAR better ways to start a challenge than a quick pint ...

Eventually, having finished my prawns and downed more than one pint, I tore myself away from the delightful charms of the Australian barmaid, shouldered my sack and began walking, following the track up the Inverie River and then the path up Gleann Meadail to Mam Meadail. It was hot alright, and I soon needed to stop to refill my water bottles. In the boguille (pronounced bo-glee: it just means a pass or col) between Sgurr Sgeithe and Meall Bhaister I stopped for a chat with a group of older walkers who were sitting beside the path, boiling water for tea on a primus stove. How very civilised, I thought. I should have liked to do the same, if my stomach could take tea. But it can't.

My next conversation was with some ambitious Challengers who had gone high, and had been walking the ridge from Druim Righeanaich over An-t-Uiriollach to Meall Buidhe and Sgurr Sgeithe. I think they had had it in mind to do some more tops before the day was out, but now they had thought better of it. "There's nothing to drink up there," they bleated. "All the streams are dry, and we were getting hopelessly dehydrated". So low level it was, then ...

The descent to Carnoch was tougher then I expected. I had not, as yet, been to see the podiatrist who sorted out the orthotics I needed, and my knees were letting me know they were unhappy. I was glad of my walking poles, that's for sure. And I was glad when I reached Carnoch - although the "nice flat bit" past Eilean Tioram to Sourlies was harder than I had expected; the final half kilometre or so along the beach particularly so. Walking on sand can be tough!

At Sourlies bothy, a muscular young man sat in the doorway, where a rather attractive young lady lovingly massaged his shoulders. "Alright for some, eh?" I called to him. "I deserve it: I've climbed seven Munros today," was his cheerful reply.

It was obvious from the number of rucksacks stacked outside the bothy that there would be "no room at the inn". Perhaps this is why so many Challengers had preferred a "quick pint" at Inverie rather than a decent lunch: they were in a hurry to secure somewhere to sleep at Sourlies. But it was a lovely evening, and camping would be just fine. I hadn't been planning on using the bothy in any event - indeed, I hadn't even been aware that it WAS a bothy - so I pressed on to Finiskaig and pitched my tent on a nice flat patch of grass, along with maybe two dozen other Challengers who were camping in the immediate vicinity.

After supper I made myself a cup of coffee, and climbed to the top of a little knoll where I sat facing West while I drank it, enjoying the warmth of the evening sun on my face. Looking back down Loch Nevis towards Kylesknoydart, I watched the sun set and then turned in for the night. It was the perfect ending to the first day of my first Challenge.

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