When I was a boy I was never drawn in to the spectacle of football or any sport that would demand competitive athleticism, I was always that kid who skipped P.E. in school and at the weekends I’d be watching movies, listening to music or reading comics and books instead of running around playing or stirring up trouble like other kids in my neighbourhood.
Though after high school and as I grew older, I felt drawn to change all that and simply just get outside and try to improve myself physically beyond the body I was born with.
I stand less than 6ft and weigh around 140lbs, so I’m relatively skinny and wanted more than anything to change that. But not so much that I’d want to humiliate myself in front of body builders and fitness nuts in my local gym, or by biting the bullet and start playing all the sports I grew up hating, so I went for a different approach.
I went Hiking.
Rural Scotland has no shortage of hills, valleys, forests and grand vista’s to explore, and for years I’ve now spent my free hours traversing trails and uncovering beautiful landscapes I never thought my eyes would ever physically witness. I loved the outdoors, and while a lot of my friends didn’t share the same enthusiasm, they’d still tag along for an outing simply because it was a rare chance to see one another again.
In our later years, we’ve all had busy lives and finding the free time where we could all get together and share a laugh and a drink was a rarity at best. So for me, trekking off into the heart of nature was truly my heart’s desire, I loved it.
And now, I’m terrified of it.
A few months ago in the middle of spring, it was one of the warmest we’d ever had, as spring in Scotland often means rain, more rain, and yes. Even more rain… But this time we’d lucked out, Mr. Weatherman had forecasted a week long heatwave and I had some time off work for Spring Break, so we were going to take advantage of the glorious weather and head off on a weekend long trip.
Three days and nights in gorgeous sunshine with clear blue skies.
And better yet, a friend of mine had a great place in mind for us all to visit.
He said he was recommended to visit a Gorge by an online buddy of his, a place where a river cuts through a layer of scarlet sandstone and orange clay and when it hits high noon and the sun shines directly overhead, the sunlight beaming down turns the river blood red!
It sounded awesome! And I was eager to explore it and the supposed caves which accompanied it, because rare places like these were exactly the reason I enjoyed these expeditions.
So we got to packing and prepping for the journey, there were at least six of us going so we had a lot to bring along for the time we were spending out there, food, water and especially booze were the required necessities of our little fieldtrip.
Our motley list of explorers consisted of myself, who had a fair amount of outdoor experience.
There was Keith who was the most experienced of us in the group and was probably the one who got me interested in hiking in the first place. He also happened to be the one who found out about the gorge we were going to visit, so he was leading the way this time around.
My other buddy Paul was coming along and he was not as enthusiastic about the great outdoors as I was, but he was a long-time friend of mine since primary school and he loved an excuse to go out and get drinking.
He was bringing along a buddy of his; Thomas Fitzpatrick or “Fitzy” as we called him, who was a good guy to have around on the longer treks, he was pretty chatty and would talk up a storm about pretty much anything you could imagine.
Linda was Fitzy’s Girlfriend and I’m pretty sure that she was only coming along because she thought Fitzy might have gone looking for girls behind her back or something… She was an odd one; after all we were going into the woods, not a bloody strip club...
Anyway, lastly we had Martin who was a work-mate of Keith’s from the factory. He stood nearly 7ft tall and was built like a brick wall. Though he’d never been camping in his life and seemed eager enough to give it a bash.
We drove for around three hours in Keith’s minivan, a relic from the Scooby doo era of psychedelic colours and even more psychedelic substances. And even though it looked like a dumpster with seats and a steering wheel, it was a hardy little thing and I’m damned surprised it managed the journey to our destination.
It was the crack of dawn, we’d need plenty of daylight to reach our camping spot, and once we’d get there we’d set up the tents, get a fire going and have some hot grub and maybe a few drinks around the fire too.
Tomorrow we’d set off to the gorge, explore it to our leisure, maybe even go swimming, and then head back to camp for dinner. The next day we’d pack our gear and head back to the minivan at first light.
At least that was the plan anyway…
Instead I’ll recount events as they actually happened.
We stopped off the main road at a small dirt pathway flanked by dense rows of spiny pine trees and this was to be our parking spot. And while the minivan survived the three hour drive, it would never survive a drive over this kind of terrain… We would have had better luck riding in a shopping cart instead.
The walk to our campsite would take approximately four hours including time for some breaks to have a snack and catch our breath, and as long as we stuck to the deer trails and made it to the river, we wouldn’t even need to look at our maps, or so Keith said. A pretty straight forward affair, with the only real issue being the time the journey would take.
Grabbing our bags and following Keith, we wasted no time moving briskly down the muddy road and crossing over into the first trail, letting the woods swallow us one by one as we broke past the treeline.
Above us, we could hear the birds protesting our invasion with loud chirps and I remember clearly seeing a hare gallop away like a stallion in the distance as we plodded along at a steady and clumsy pace. Our two newcomers, Linda and Martin seemed to be having a good time at this stage, and I was glad to see it.
But anyway, as I was saying…
Two hours in and we took our first break for lunch, my shoulders showed their gratitude the moment I slid the backpack to the ground, and that bloody cramp which had been building in my back from hauling the extra weight was finally allowed to lay limp. And I just let myself sink into a sitting position near a hollowed out log.
“I am bloody knackered already…” I heard Paul grimace with a laugh as he too let himself drop onto a patch of moss like it was a freshly made bed.
“If you have a heart attack by the time we get there, I want your boots.” Fitzy chimed in as he started throwing a chocolatey snack bar from his pack to Linda.
“Sure, you can have them; there’ll be nothing left of them when we get to the place.” Paul laughed before turning to Keith. “By the way, how much father is it?”
“About an hour or an hour and a half, I think.” Keith responded. “We’ll chill here for a bit and then head off when the feeling comes back to our legs again.”
Nearby while we snacked on chocolate and sugary treats, I could hear the faint gushing roar of water in the distance and pondered whether that was the river Keith said we would be following to the campsite. I excused myself to check it out and Martin pepped up that he’d come with too, he was a city guy like myself, but I don’t think he’d ever been close to an actual river before.
Surprising since he was like the oldest out of the group by around ten years or so, I would have thought he’d have travelled some at least once…
We followed our ears towards the sound of rushing water as we awkwardly stepped up a steep hill of moist black soil, using branches from crooked saplings to pull ourselves upward and onto a small trail which bordered the riverbank.
Once we got to the top, the roaring sound of water seemed to engulf my ears completely and Martin and I had to shout to one another just to hear each other. The water flowed in a torrent which would likely sweep away anything caught in its grasp; it splashed onto nearby rocks with explosive white froth and I remember the air was filled with the scent of fresh water and wet soil.
“Keith tells me that the gorge flows into that.” Martin shouts loudly casting a hand towards the river.
“Aye, but I’ll be damned if I’m going swimming in that.” I shoot back and start following the riverbank to get a closer look.
“Well you can jump in easy enough, but getting back out that’ll be the hard part.” He laughs back, following along as we start exploring the sides, snapping a few photos of the gushing river on our phones as keepsakes for later.
It was just then as I was scanning the sides and fumbling past some of the water slick stones, I noticed an immediate foreign presence ahead of me on our side of the riverbank. It was a sudden clash of neon yellows and pinks’ which were totally out of place from the usual natural greenery of the forest.
It was a man, dressed in brightly garbed clothing you typically associate with hikers and usual outdoor enthusiasts, also wearing a small black woolly beanie on his head which hugged tightly like a little crash helmet. He seemed to be just staring out towards the river, presumably just admiring the view like we were.
I sounded out a Hello, and his head snapped to look at us like a deer struck by oncoming headlights.
Without saying anything he simply turned and ran, dashing along the riverbank before breaking to the side into the forest, vanishing from our sight.
“The fuck is his problem?” Martin asked bluntly.
“I dunno maybe he thought we were gonna start some trouble with him or something?”
“Probably just a homeless dude, like he’s gone Schizo after years of wiping his arse with leaves. I know I would…” Martin turned and motioned to follow back to the rest-stop where we never said a word about the guy to anyone. I didn’t think it was too important at the time and we couldn’t waste too much time if we wanted to get to camp and get everything set up before sunset.
It’s none too fun trying to set up a tent in the dark…
But the dude didn’t strike me as a homeless guy; his clothes looked like the typical flashy super expensive outdoor gear that you pay like several hundred quid to purchase. It would be the urban equivalent to see a junkie dressed in an Armani suit…
I shrugged it off, it wasn’t our problem. And if it became a problem, there would be six of us to deal with it.
Following the river, we wearily lumbered through the last stretch of our march, led forward by Keith’s insistence that we were nearly at our prime camping spot. We didn’t have a lot of information about the place itself, I was mainly sold on the fact we were going to explore a gorge with the blood red river, but Keith reassured us that we’d also have a decent place to pitch our tents as well.
And after maybe another hour of walking up a steep incline, we’d finally made it.
A small clearing, perhaps no more than fifteen to twenty feet of flat ground and in the centre was a small circle of stones for use with a campfire, even near that were two fallen logs acting as makeshift benches.
The place had obviously seen use in the past by other campers, and for the six of us, it would be a tight fit to get all the tents set up, but we’d manage. After all, some of us were sharing tents anyway.
After taking a short break to catch our breath, Keith, Fitzy and Linda began setting up our tents, Paul and I were on firewood duty and I can’t remember what Martin was doing at the time, but I don’t think it’s important right now.
Paul and I started wandering around the outskirts of our small clearing, and armed with a small hatchet we started hacking apart dead limbs and smaller saplings where we could find them.
It was Paul who noticed it first though.
Around many of the trees we’d visited, much of the bark was missing in long vertical gashes which had a series of gouges cut deep into the inner wood. And it wasn’t just one tree which had been vandalised in such a way, but pretty much all of them around our campsite.
At the time, we’d chalked it up to either badgers or deer marking their territory in this area, I’d heard of bears having similar behaviour, but Scotland doesn’t have much in the way of deadly wildlife. Unless you count the Midgies…
But thinking back on it now, I can’t help but wonder if it was related in some way to our incidents.
It just seemed, unusual.
But once we had our firewood though, the rest of the evening played out like many of our other excursions. We ate meals around a blazing campfire, told stories of past embarrassments and whatever tall tales that carried a healthy dose of humours with them. We drank, sang songs off key, made up new lyrics to replace the ones we forgot.
And as the sun set and the shadows crept and spread throughout the forest, we retired to bed in a drunken stupor. Hangover or not, we’d need to be up early if we wanted to catch a glimpse of the gorge at high noon.
Of course, as drunk as I was, I was awoken in the middle of the night by the very urgent need to empty my bladder. It was pitch black and despite the warm spring air we enjoyed during the day it was surprisingly cold, so with shivering steps I tip toed outside the warming embrace of my sleeping bag and stepped into the night before I pissed myself...
Although something almost immediately caught my eye as I left my tent, and there on the logs by the ashes of the campfire, sat Keith slumped over and staring at his feet.
I greeted him but got no response and just assumed the silly bastard had fell asleep sitting by the fire, and I would have attempted to wake him but I had bigger things to worry about. One bladder sized problem that needed to be relieved.
But after I had finished “marking my territory”, I returned to find that Keith was no longer present by the campsite, out of curiosity I decided to check his tent, hoping he hadn’t woken up, wandered off and gotten lost. But there he was, lying snoring in his sleeping bag.
Again, at the time, I thought nothing of it, because in my head, Keith fell asleep by the fire, woke up when he heard me pissing and then went to bed and fell back asleep.
That’s what made sense to me.
But today, I wonder if that was really Keith I saw that night…