I WHIP off my boots and socks to ford the River Affric just west of the Alltbeithe YHA – the remotest youth hostel in Britain, and, from where I’m standing, just the sort of shed that would fit nicely on my allotment. Manage to lose my last blister plaster, which is whisked away for a salmon to eat and, possibly, a tweeded fisherman to marvel at when he guts the beast in his sink. But the cold water does my feet a world of good. After a pleasant walk through alternating heavy showers and bright sunshine I arrive at Camban bothy, which looks homely from the outside.
But it’s a bit grim inside. A Glasgow couple are sitting on stones on the earth floor having a brew. They are doing the TGO Challenge – an annual event in which walkers set off in good spirits from the west coast of Scotland and head for the east coast, apparently arriving in sound mind and body. The woman is quite chatty, but the bloke is very stand-offish.
I brew up and nibble oatcakes while she chats away and the bloke grunts and avoids eye contact. She offers me some meat paste to spread on my oatcakes, and I must admit I am sorely tempted to take up her offer because it looks tasty and smells delicious. But the bloke’s body language – his jerky movements, his busying himself with his stove and brew stuff, his one-word contributions to the conversation and his occasional grunts – indicate his displeasure at my intrusion. Perhaps he has calculated the calorific value of meat paste and how much he needs to get them through the TGO Challenge, and that the gracious offer – if taken up – would leave them short and perhaps flagging with exhaustion three miles from the coast.
I thank her warmly. I prefer my oatcakes dry, I tell her, which is far from the truth. And besides, I have a 500gm pack of unglazed dates I should really be making inroads into because I read somewhere they are the ideal food for wilderness walkers. I open the dates and chew a couple enthusiastically, making a bit of an exhibition of the process.
So we sit on our rocks chatting amiably, me and the woman, while the bloke stands with his back to us, fiddling about on a windowsill with biscuits and brew equipment. I mention that I passed a lone woman doing the Challenge an hour or so earlier, a woman in her early twenties, and that it’s good to see young people out in the wilds – not just battered old diehards like ourselves. At this the bloke turns towards us and joins the conversation.
It’s like watching the effects of global warming. I once camped with my wife on the coast of Iceland in one of the barren valleys where the great Vatnajokull glacier sweeps down to the sea. We climbed up on the glacier, up among great boulders of blue ice, where the air was filled with the gurgle of meltwater and the tortured creaking and grinding of forces beneath us. As I sit on my rock in Cambas bothy, so too does the meltwater gurgle and the ice creak and crack as the bloke warms to the conversation.
We discuss lone women doing the Challenge, and he says how women are probably safer out here in the wilderness than they are wandering the streets at home. And how when you bump into someone on a mountain it’s like they’ve invaded your privacy; that somehow the mountain is your exclusive world and it’s your exclusive right to be there, and anyone else is an intruder who does not necessarily appreciate the splendour.
Half an hour later I am back on the trail, heading north towards Morvich while the couple head south. I decide he is more like me – or me like him – than I had initially realised. I can grunt with the best of them when it suits me.
That night, in my tent at Morvich, I wake suddenly from a dream about meat paste. Achingly aware that I have none, I grunt like buggery and go back to sleep.