A lot can happen in four months. You can start a new job, attend a film festival and watch an entire season of American TV, if you wanted to.
I did, it seems, as I’ve spent the last however many weeks staring at computer screens, cinema screens and television screens.
Most dramatic of all, however, is how much your health can change in the same amount of time. Back in April I was the fittest I have ever been, having spent weeks preparing to walk the West Highland Way and, on the first of that month, finally setting off in earnest.
Of course, I didn’t realise just how unfit I’d become until I hit the highlands once more. Moving east, Paul and I this time set our sights on the Cateran Yomp — or at least the six miles of the it that runs from Enochdhu to the Spittal of Glenshee.
Despite the trail’s proximity to Dundee, the area is only irregularly served by public transport. As such, and given that we had an entire day to kill, we resolved to double the distance by returning to Enochdu in the evening. Even twelve miles seemed somewhat pedestrian to us seasoned hikers (we had been used to covering twenty a day), but it would do us until we could find the time for something a little more ambitious.
The day did not get off to a promising start, however, as I slept in, missed my train and found myself beset by Rewind revellers long before I had even reached Perth. Upon my arrival, Paul then proceeded to take a wrong turn and drive us almost to back to Dundee. We found Enochdhu eventually, however, taking our place in the parking bay alongside an apparently abandoned car that nevertheless had its keys still hanging from the door.
After serendipitously placing the keys back in the car where they were less likely to be spotted by thieves, we finally embarked on the Cateran Trail. The sun was out in force, and before long we were soaked with sweat, surrounded by flies and suffering from an unquenchable thirst. I would have taken some comfort in the promise of a mid-afternoon shower, had only I remembered to pack my waterproofs in my late-morning rush.
But it was beautiful — astonishingly beautiful. Swat away the flies and squat long enough for your vision to clear and you are treated to an ever-evolving array of undulating hillside and the looming distant mountains of Glen Shee itself. Dodge the barking dogs of a nearby farm, turn left at the fire tower and clear the plantations of Creag na Ballaige Wood and you emerge onto open countryside — utterly empty, save for you and a few hundred sheep.
We stopped briefly at the Lunch Hut (literally a hut that is — or at least was — intended for lunching in) long enough to read the graffiti and for Paul to sit in bird shit, then pressed on as the trail took us uphill. Despite walking in the highlands, we had yet to encounter a proper peak; Conic Hill had been a struggle, and The Devil’s Staircase had tested our mettle, but we’d stopped short of climbing Ben Nevis upon our arrival in Fort William.
On this day we found ourselves pushed to our very limits. The ascent was gentle enough to begin with, but constant all the same. Before long, however, we were red-faced, dispirited and footsore. We spent hours on that hill, though once we reached the peak the views out over Spittal of Glenshee just about justified the effort. Paul retrieved a pair of solid metal binoculars he had lugged up the hill, we glanced briefly into the viewfinder, shrugged, then he stowed them back in his pack for the descent.
Half-mad with exhaustion, we trundled into the hamlet ready to eat meat and drink beer. Unfortunately, the Spittal of Glenshee Hotel, which had looked so promising from afar, was closed for business — unlikely to open again this side of Easter. Disappointed but undeterred, we pressed on over the bridge to Gulabin, an activity centre advertised as having a shop and cafe, only to find it was closed too. That left the posh estate 1.5 miles away, but we were too tired to walk and most likely too shabby to dine there even on the off-chance we didn’t collapse on the way.
Luckily, we caught the eye of Gulabin’s owner as he prepared to welcome pre-booked guests, and though he said he didn’t usually cater for drop-ins he agreed to make us each a cup of coffee. I added a carrot cake muffin to our bill and we headed outside to enjoy our drinks. Unluckily, the carrot cake muffin that I was suddenly so excited to devour was covered in a suspect fuzz killed my appetite long enough for us to return to the trail.
Having just tripped and tumbled down the hill in order to reach Spittal of Glenshee, we knew all too well how steep the north-facing side was. It had taken us just shy of 30 minutes to make our way down into the village, but well over an hour to drag ourselves back up to the top. Suddenly I had a headache, heartburn and — as the sun slowly burnt through our sliver-lined cloud cover — heat exhaustion. I turned to glance at Paul and noted with a certain degree of reassurance that he looked just as bad.
By the time we reached the summit I just wanted it to be over, but alas we still had five (maybe even five and a half) miles to go until I could sit down and eat something. We saw a deer, which was nice, and passed a few foreign cyclists, but there was little distraction from the ever-increasing discomfort. We regrouped with the flies we had earlier managed to shake, and spent the next hour in an electric haze as the buzzing grew louder and louder. The West Highland Way seemed like such a long time ago, and the hot tub at Balmaha a long way away.
Five hours after setting off we made it back to the car, somehow managing to separate ourselves from our second, insect skin. The other car had disappeared, hopefully with its rightful owners inside, so we departed at once. Right back to square one.
You can read Paul’s account of the experience here.