Red hills, grey skies

We arrived at the Linn of Dee around 2pm, later than planned. 
We'd never walked in from here before, and the car park was busy - the summer influx.  It's amazing how much fuller Scotland is in the summer, tourism is a big part of the economy.

The walk in is long but kept that way deliberately by NTS who own the Mar Lodge estate - if this were Spain, Derry Lodge would be a cafe, a trailhead with a turning circle.  As it is, a few midges hassle us over a late lunch, as we sit on the edge of a warm woodland embrace.  It is one of the most gently beautiful places, but also the fringe and gateway to perhaps the fiercest, most exposed tops in the country. 

We have no particular plans or ambitions other than to explore a little more of the Cairngorms over the next 2 days - maybe a munro or two but no stresses if not.  Usually we take our marching orders pretty seriously, but not this time - this is R&R only.

The paths here are well maintained and lead us gently up Glen Derry towards an early camp where the Scots pine peters out.  Past a mountain biker struggling with the rooty track, past a fledging Eagle learning how to soar high above the canopy, past an ant motorway, past deadwood and rushing river and heather in the first flush of soft summer colour.  Again, that juxtaposition I've seen here on every visit now - hardness and softness, together side by side.

We decant kit from our packs and position ourselves on a small rise under a tree, hoping for some breeze to keep the bugs away.  The high tors of Beinn Mheadhoin keep watch over us in the distance, far down the track ahead.  We wander around in a nearby boggy exclosure examining the regrowth, before turning in early.

At night the breeze picks up and I wonder about the wisdom of pitching under a pine.  I get up at 2.30, tighten the guylines.  A few stars but only for a minute at most - no chance of seeing the meteor shower predicted.  High above us on the plateau, the wind will be howling hard.  Gimme shelter.

The morning was wet.  We move up the glen, stopping for lunch in a cold, damp Hutchinson hut.  Cord hung outside rattles around in the breeze.  We chew our food slowly - flatbread turns to dough in our mouths.  The cloud is a low slung shawl on the shoulders of the mountains but moving fast.

Up and over by Loch Etchachan - elemental and lonely.  Ben Macdui would only be box ticking today - it can wait.

So, to the Shelter stone and Loch Avon, exploring the rock pools and dwarf juniper and gravely beach at the western end.  A team of path workers are camped up in small portacabins, tied down with no windows, repairing the footpath down from Macdui.  It looks like hard work.  The cliffs above are cloaked.  Sometimes it's good to stay down. 

Then along the northern shore of Loch Avon, a sense of sadness, light high on the Saddle.  The path is thin and worn and rough.  It takes an age to reach the eastern shore, and the muggy, heavy weather gives us both a dull headache.

Towards the fords of Avon is even slower, sodden, the ground wet through.  The atmosphere fairly hangs off the moorland.  We head towards the refuge, rebuilt in the last year - little more than a shed but a godsend in a gale no doubt.  We pitch on an awkward slope of grass near the dudb lochan, a little dehydrated.  Tiny brown trout dart in the shallows as I collect water.

As I emerge from the tarp to make breakfast a fox runs from the lochan.  It seems so strange to see him here.  He looks much healthier than those I am used to in the city, feeding on our rubbish.  I imagine him with a winter coat.  The morning weather is better, and we climb up to Beinn a'Chaorainn almost as an afterthought.  Once high we have lunch and look over towards Bynack More and Cairn Gorm.  With the scope we can see the weather station perched foolishly on top.  Hard to believe how different it looks in summer, even harder to believe just how hard Bynack More kicked us off in January, it looks so green and elegant now.  

The enormous plateau of the Moine Bhealaidh stretches out forever towards Ben Avon.  We walk parallel through peaty bog and marvel at the open plains on either side of us.  We talk about routes we know from the map now made manifest on the ground - see the great loops that can be made in the future.  Ben Macdui has shed it's damp shroud, but it doesn't last for long.

Clouds move in and thunder is heard.  Within 20 minutes the plateau is no place to be.  In torrential rain and with the storm growing closer we aim off for a spur by the Coire an Fhir Bhogha, which may even have a stalkers' path.  We contour down and around.  The rain stops and the storm retreats.  Clouds of hungry midges attack from the grasses as I try and fail to take photos.

The forest embraces us once again.  I see the woods for what they are now.  Steaming foilage, pinks, yellows greens and golds, the insect life in mayhem.  A temperate rain forest.  A million points of light as the sun returns.  It's dazzling.

The high path back to Derry Lodge is magnificent and offers great views back up the glen.  It would be wasted on a foul weather route for the TGOC, and demands another visit in the winter, or earlier if possible.

We pitched at the campsite at Braemar, had a shower and dumped our gear in their dryroom.  We tried the Invercauld Hotel for food but walked in to the lounge as the opening bars of the Cabaret started.  ''I wanna be - CLAP! CLAP! - Bobby's Girl..."  The tin pot Victoriana architecture combined with contemporary flock wallpaper and rictus grins set my teeth on edge.  Fish and chips from the Hungry Highlander were preferable to a Butlins' version of The Shining.  We went for a drink (not red rum) and then back to the shelter to be kept awake all night by the site ducks.

The following morning I would drop T back to work through a cloud inversion on the high pass above Glen Shee, and make my way to Knoydart for a six day solo circuit.