Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Long distance dining: food on the Tay watershed walk

The makings of a feast in Glen Feshie
Food is fuel and is thus a big deal on a long distance walk, but get the balance right in your food bag and it's not something you need to worry about too much. I did a lot of research on food and nutrition before the Tay watershed walk, reading outdoors blogs and loitering around the supermarket aisles looking for likely items, reading calories and ingredients.

As part of the planning and preparation it was time well spent as I ate well with little hassle throughout the walk. I didn't buy a single item of fancy, costly freeze-dried expedition food, and thrived on what was available in your average small-to-medium sized grocery shop in your average Scottish village. I hit on several things I liked and stuck with them, so kept it simple with just enough variety to avoid boredom.

For me, there were seven main considerations when working out my diet for the trip:
  1. Do I like it? Peanut butter got the heave-ho after a few days. I'd packed it due to its high fat, protein and calorie content and thought that pragmatism aided by hunger would overcome my distaste for the stuff. It was not to be. Peanut butter is just too horrible.
  2. Weight and bulk. The lighter and less bulky the better, of course.
  3. Calories. Needs to pack a high calorific punch relative to weight and bulk. For an evening meal it was easy to knock something together that matched, if not exceeded, the calorie content of an expensive freeze-dried outdoors meal. For hot drinks and to mix in with breakfast porridge I used a full-cream milk powder called Nido. This is the only foodstuff I bought in advance, and I sent supplies to myself at a couple of hostels I'd be staying at. Outside cities it's difficult to get, and shops tend to stock skimmed milk powder instead - useless for the hungry backpacker.
  4. Nutritional balance. Carbohydrates yes, but also protein and especially fat, which packs a mighty number of calories relative to weight and bulk. Protein and fat make you feel fuller for longer too. I've learned through personal experience that relying too heavily on carbs for energy leads to blood sugar crashes, irritability and ultimately a lack of stamina and energy.
  5. Easy to make. No dishes of Heston Blumenthal-esque complexity, no sweating wannabe Masterchef impressions. The journey from packet to stomach needs to be reasonably quick with as few steps as possible. Saves fuel too.
  6. Indestructible. Can it stand up to being squashed into a backpack and jiggled about all day? I plumped for tortillas over oatcakes as the lunchtime staple for this reason. Moist cereal bars were in, dry crumbly ones out (that means you, Nature's Valley!).
  7. How long will it keep for? Fresh fruit and veg were out, obviously. Around once a week, when I had a rest day, I'd stoke up on them: a carton of orange juice at breakfast, a few apples through the day, salad with lunch and dinner. I didn't get scurvy and was in rude health throughout the walk. Maybe the kids are right - greens are overrated! On the trail, tortillas kept well, tubes of Primula squeezy cheese were fine, and for protein smoked sausage and tinned fish.
 So, taking these considerations into account, this is what my daily menu looked like:
  • Breakfast: Porridge with a couple of spoonfuls of Nido; tea or coffee; a handful of nuts and dried fruit. Sometimes I'd have a tortilla with honey too.
  • Lunch: I like to have a proper lunch stop when I'm walking. I'd have a couple of tortillas with cheese spread and slices of smoked sausage. I'd also have something sweet - chocolate, a cereal bar, a couple of Tunnock's caramel wafers - whatever snacks I was carrying with me at the time. If the weather was good I might set up the stove and have a brew, but more often I didn't bother.
  • Dinner - main course: The big one, and the meal I looked forward to most. The basis of the meal would be either a packet of flavoured couscous (the Ainsley Harriott range is good as it contains some dried veg), Uncle Ben's flavoured rice (reassuringly short list of ingredients), or a packet of dried pasta and sauce cooked with a dollop of Nido in lieu of fresh milk. Then I'd add either a tin of fish - usually sardines or mackerel - or sliced smoked sausage, and finally slosh in some olive oil (this would go in at the start with pasta). My personal favourite was Uncle Ben's Mexican style rice with sardines. The rice is parboiled so the packet is relatively heavy, but on the plus side it only needs a tiny amount of water and is done in three minutes. This meal, including olive oil, packs around 750 calories. Beat that, la-di-da freeze-dried expedition food!
  • Dinner - dessert: Sometimes I'd just have a snack bar or mixed fruit and nuts, but on really hungry evenings I'd make up a packet of custard powder. Packets like the one in the photo above make up about 450mls of custard, which is a lot. Some Nido and raisins make it even more calorific.
  • Snacks and drinks: Throughout the day I'd have a few snacks. These varied but generally involved a bag of some sort of dried fruit and nut mix in the hip belt pocket of my pack, chocolate biscuits, chocolate bars, cereal and fruit bars, and occasionally beef jerky though this was often hard to get hold of. Whitworth's chocolate-covered raisins became a favourite treat. As soon as the tarp was pitched in the evening I'd make a massive mug of tea. I was using as a mug one half of the plastic caddy I used for carrying the stove and associated paraphernalia. This could take at least 700mls, so I'd boil around that much water and use two teabags and lots of Nido. Tea would be taken with a few squares of dark chocolate. In the morning I like a coffee. I'm a sucker for the real stuff so usually had Lyons coffee bags, a bit pricey but worth it for a morale-boosting start to the day.

I walked the Tay catchment boundary for two great charities, Scottish Wild Land Group and Venture Trust.
You can still sponsor me by making a donation to Scottish Wild Land Group here: https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/taycatchmentwalkswlg

Thursday, 17 July 2014

A sheltered life

Walking and camping: the yin and yang of backpacking. I've written quite a bit about the walking, so here's the story of the campsites. I remembered to take a picture of all except one. Camping in a big puddle in the pouring rain at the back of the Kingshouse Hotel, I wasn't in the mood.

The morning of the first day, making porridge and tea at the Tayview caravan park in Monifieth. It's mostly static caravans, right on the seafront, with a little lawn for tents. I arrived by train in Dundee the afternoon before, stomach in knots as what I was about to do sank in, far too late. I bussed out of town. Do you know Monifieth, asked the smiling conductor. She made sure I got off at the right stop.

The caravan park has a little cafe and I ate omelette and chips and listened to the aftermath of St Johnstone's Scottish Cup victory over Tayside rivals Dundee United. Synchronicity? The cafe owner came over to chat and dispensed a promising long range forecast when I said I was 'walking to Braemar'. Clearly I was no longer in London.

Camping on a thick carpet of leaves under mighty beech trees at the end of the first day's walking. I slipped into this lovely woodland, trying to ignore discouraging (if not outright forbidding) notices about shooting, and followed an increasingly grassy track to this sublime spot far from any houses or roads. As dusk encroached I fired up the wood burning stove. The leaf litter by the flat rock on which the stove rested started to move slightly and a large earthworm emerged, blindly fleeing the heat.

I don't know why, but something clicked in that moment, and I was enchanted. Maybe I'd experienced something more real and immediate than I was ordinarily used to beyond my children. The nerves and doubts receded. I was right to do this, it could be good, a different headspace. Next morning I woke at sunrise to see a pair of roe deer browsing leaves maybe 20 metres away. Maybe this tarp arrangement would work out too.

After a hotel night in Kirriemuir, it was into the Mounth and a first hill camp north of Cat Law, at the top of the pass between Glen Uig and Glen Quharity. Misty cloud mantled the hills, rain fell in the dead of the night, as it should, and I drifted off to the drumming of snipe and the bickering of grouse. A wonderful spot.

A long, long day into the really high stuff. Windy but sunny. After summiting Mayar I dropped down to the corrie immediately above the mighty Corrie Fee. Changes were afoot. The first picture shows the original pitch in the evening overlooking Glen Doll. Later, baroque clouds rolled in and the wind changed direction. Not for the last time I had to move the Trailstar door. By morning - the second picture - it was claggy, cold, and rain was in the offing.

Loch Vrotachan on a beautiful evening, the perfect antidote to a stuffy overcrowded dorm at Braemar youth hostel, and first camp on the Cairnwell to Dalwhinnie stage. The sunset here was astonishing, the clouds made it so. It didn't last; next day was pretty wet.

Loch nan Eun. The following morning the cloud was right down and so thick that I couldn't even see as far as the water. It was fun watching it all slowly break and wisp away though.

This spot felt remote, at the wild, wide land at the head of the Tilt, on the cusp of the West Mounth. That's Beinn a'Ghlo in the distance. In the early hours I was raided by a rodent which chewed a hole in my food bag and the mesh panel on my pack, and even had a go at the heat-resistant rubber coverings on the handles of my pot.

After almost being struck by lightning I camped by the Allt a'Chaorainn below Carn an Fhidhleir. The evening was so lovely you'd think butter wouldn't melt...

After all that drama I needed a break from bleak exposed moorland so I dropped into Glen Feshie and camped among the magnificent Scots pines, all Lord of the Rings-like. I was woken around midnight by a Landrover driving along the track nearby. I was close to the track but thought I maybe hadn't been seen. That olive-brown Trailstar is pretty stealthy.

A big long day up and over to the Gaick Pass via Leathad an Taobhainn and a precarious stalkers' path above a spectacular ravine. Minutes after I took this photo in the morning all that non-photogenic colourless cloud burned off and a flawless hot and sunny day followed.

Camping by the burn near the defunct Culra Bothy, closed earlier in the year after asbestos was found. Ben Alder and Bheinn Bheoil are up there somewhere. As you can see, it was wet.

Here be midges, lots of them The first serious encounter with them happened here at Ben Alder Bay, Loch Ericht. I mooched around the bothy a bit, but it was gloomy and dark and I preferred my tarp. It wasn't really a wild camp as many others had clearly camped here before, but it was okay.

By the Allt Eigheach near Rannoch Station and a view to the Bridge of Orchy hills. A nice spot, evening and morning dry and sunny, midges not too bad.

After the soggy Kingshouse camp and a night drying out in Tyndrum, it was back to Bridge of Orchy and a long, sunny afternoon over Beinn Achaladair and Beinn a'Chreachain. This was a poor pitch but a great location at the bealach west of Beinn a'Chreachain. It was all about the clouds here. Beinn Heasgarnich wears a fluffy white blanket in the picture above, whilst the hidden sun backlit clouds erupting over Chreachain's north ridge, cooling through every shade of yellow, orange, red, to stony cold grey.

The morning after a biblical downpour near the head of Auch Gleann. I pitched the tarp over a semi-embedded rock and sat on it as the groundwater rose.

After the Tyndrum hiatus, another wet one between Beinn Chuirn and Ben Lui. The worst midges I have ever experienced.

Can you spot the Trailstar? Ben More is the one with its head in the clouds.

This magnificent camp felt like a fair reward for a wet and tiring day over Stob Binnein and the Braes of Balquhidder. I was joined by ducks late in the evening. Next day was scorchio; the summer starts here.

Same place - so good it deserves another picture.

Immervoulin campsite and caravan park just outside Strathyre. A tranquil pitch by the river, perhaps not so during school holidays when many more caravans are occupied. It was horribly hot and I didn't sleep well. I was used to high camps by now.

Lochan a'Chroin below Stuc a'Chroin, last big mountain of the walk. Highlands behind, Lowlands below. I wasn't in a hurry to move on this lovely morning. It was all drawing to a conclusion at last.

When I think of Braes of Doune I think of this now, not just the monster wind farm about a mile away.

The last wild camp of the walk, in the Ochils near Tonguey Faulds. A shepherd on a quad bike patrolled the skyline as I took this early morning photo, so I got on my way fairly quickly.

And that was it. From there on, wild camp sites were non-existent or in the wrong place, formal camp sites simply non-existent, so the last three nights were in B&Bs, also in short supply. A disappointing anticlimax in a way, but a sign I was off the beaten track. I was walking where long-distance walkers seldom tread, but really should - and perhaps will now a new section of the Fife Coastal Path is open from the Tay Bridge to Newburgh.

I walked the Tay catchment boundary for two great charities, Scottish Wild Land Group and Venture Trust.
You can still sponsor me by making a donation to Scottish Wild Land Group here: https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/taycatchmentwalkswlg