ORGANISED BY CHARITY VETRUN180 AND FACILITATED BY SANDGROUSE TRAVEL & EXPEDITIONS, A GROUP OF FELLOW VETERANS SET OFF ON AN INTRIPID COAST-TO-COAST ADVENTURE ACROSS SCOTLAND
Words by Jonny Stage, edited by Craig Allen, and photography by Simon Green Photography - as per full feature in Land Rover Monthly Magazine (November 2020).
Every so often in life the opportunity for a grand adventure presents itself that cannot be passed by. What's more, you know if you don't jump at it, the chance will not arise again in the future.
That's exactly how Jonny Stage, founder of Sandgrouse Travel & Expeditions, felt when British military veterans' charity, VetRun180, approached him to discuss plans for a unique Scottish Highlands expedition. It didn't take long before planning was in full swing for an off-road operation across the Scottish Highlands, from east coast to west coast, passing through Scotland's most infamous but hidden Highland estates.
A team of 13 men, including ex-Royal Marine and ex-British Army personnel, would drive their specially equipped Defender 110s across the whole country, 90 percent of which would be off-road. Of course, in Scotland the ability to wild camp only adds to the sense of adventure and with some of the camps in the UK's most remote locations the stage was set for a truly memorable expedition.
The trip started with two days training at Land Rover Experience North Yorkshire in England, laid on by the charity. Here the participating veterans were put through their paces with a baptism of fire, gaining both LANTRA off-road driving qualitfications as well as First Aid at Work. Both a precaution for the upcoming expedition, but also handy to have in civilian life for employment opportunities going forward.
The official start point for the expedition was from the iconic Dunnottar castle near Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire. This entailed a lengthy road-move north on a Friday evening with the group coming from Yorkshire and heading for the border. A gloriously sunny Saturday morning saw the veterans, including their Land Rovers, line up for an official photo whilst being serenated by a local clan bagpiper. The Commander of Clan Baird even came down to wave us off - Welcome to Scotland!
The following days would see the convoy trundle and bushwhack its way over and through both moorland and forest. The convoy moved right out Royal Deeside towards Braemar, before crossing the mighty Cairngorm mountains and heading out west to an almost fjord-like landscape. Among many others, the charity was fortunate enough to gain access to the Royal family's private Balmoral estate, crossing infamous challanges such as the 'Burma Road', so named for its appalling condition! As the group negotiated back-to-back obstacles team work and military professionalism prevailed, characters came out of their shells, bonds were formed and a sense of camaradarie flourished. The charity's purpose was clear - 'therapy through adventure' - with the understanding that 'if it doesn't challange you it won't change you'.
One hugely memorably escapde on the trip came early on, as light was fading. The convoy had just reached its highest point on the route, just short of 3,000 feet south-west of Braemar. the next few kilometres would see the group trailblaze across the mountain following only a compass bearing, before dropping into a remote glen for a wild-camp many thousands of feet below. With light rapidly going and with it any decent visability, the group had to somehow find the best lines across both rock scree and peat bogs! Almost inevitably, yet incredibly only a few yards short of hard standing, all six Land Rovers became bogged down, just as the light finally went and a rain storm came in sideways. Team work once again prevailed, roles were designated and tow ropes were secured. Several hours later the veterans rolled into camp where once again despite being cold, wet and tired, their indomitable spirit prevailed. Without a murmur of discontent, these veterans mucked in to set up camp, cook a hot meal (egg banjos!), and get the hot brews on before turning in.
The following days would see the group wild camp in remote locations, see incredible Scottish castles and visit one of Britain's longest rifle ranges. They also visited the site of the famous WW2 Commando Training Centre at Achnacarry before finally arriving at the UK's most westerly mainland point - Ardnamurchan Lighthouse. A wild and remote place to finish this audacious expedition. A quiet sense of satisfaction was shared by all involved. No fanfares or welcoming committees, just a few exceptional guys around a final campfire on the beach, regaling stories of recent days adventuring.
VetRun180 is a UK-based military veterans' charity, formed by Simon Dedman and ex-Royal Marine Matt Abbot in 2018. Matt himself is an Iraq and Afghanistan vet. This young and hugely exciting charity takes phyically injured and mentally (PTSD) injured veterans on challenging expeditions around the globe. It is on these unique journeys where the teams are re-invoking their sense of adventure and teamwork. VetRun180 is genuinely saving lives through the spirit of adventure - a concept that will strike a chord with many of our readers.
The relatively young charity has made leaps and bounds in just a few successful years with an impressive number of exciting expeditions now under its belt from Swedish Lapland to the Empty Quarter in the dersert in Oman. With such exciting work it is little wonder VetRun180 has attracted notable patrons such as Brian Wood MC and Rusty Firman (ex-22 SAS Iranian Embassy hero).
VetRun180 is consistently providing 'adventure therapy' to groups of medically discharged UK-forces personnel. Although a simple concept, the charity has already racked up dozens of moving testimonials from UK veterans who have all been greatly helped by the charity's vital work.
A chat with team member Keiran Rafferty serves to illustrate the point. Raffs to his mates is ex-45 Commando and has completed multiple operational tours of Afghanistan. He was subsequently diagnosed with PTSD and has been helped by the NHS Veterans Support Team since leaving but still has difficulties adjusting to civilian life. He had previously attented a VetRun180 trip to Sweden and found it hugely beneficial so jumped at the chance to attend the Scottish Coast to Coast. The experience of working in a small team and overcoming the challenges thrown up by the trip have helped with his condition and he has made new friends amongst fellow veterans. He told me he could recognise others at different points on their road to recovery and together they operated as an informal self-help group.
The best parts of the military experience, working outdoors as a teamand overcoming challenges were all there, but without the bombs and bullets. Fireside chats provided a chance to talk with others who could recount similar experiences and everyone was helped in the process.
The team leader Ross meanwhile served for 19-years and was medically discharged in July 2015 but struggled to adjust to civilian life. After trying various jobs but finding nothing really worked for him, he saw an article in a local newspaper about VetRun180 and gave Matt a ring. Rocking up for his first expedition he says was like being back with his old Troop. the banter and team work was all there. Since then he hasn't looked back and as he says there is always someone there to have a brew and a chat with when and if you need it.
Expedition photographer Simon Green meanwhile learned his camera skills in the military as a trade photographer. Diagnosed with PTSD after several operational tours it has been a long road to recovery further exacerbated by the recent loss of his wife. Nothing he tried really helped until he met up with VetRun180 and joined his first expedition. Since then he has been able to reignite his passion for photography documenting the expeditions for media use and to promote the charity. He has also completed a Universtiy course and now runs his own successful photography business. As you will see from the pictures within this article, he knows how to use a camera and finds attenting these trips of huge benefit to his condition.
It's clear that these Land Rover based overland expeditions have a positive effect for all the veterans talking part. During and after an expedition, reports quickly come in that the guys have a more positive mindset and future outlook - as well as rediscovering a common bond, camaradarie and sense of purpose. Post expedition, these rekindled emotions live on and help to steer VetRun180 team participants onto further positive milestones on their personal roads to recovery.