Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Bikepacking with a difference.

I'd been planning to do a ride from Rannoch Station for a while and back at the end of September 2017 I had two days off and a decent weather forecast. I'd reckoned that my proposed route would take me a couple of days as I wasn't super fit so I intended to carry overnight kit with me on the bike so that I could stop and wild camp somewhere on the route.
I left home early in the morning to drive to Bridge of Orchy station where I parked the car, unloaded my bike and gear and then sat and waited on the platform for the train to arrive.

 I'd pre-booked myself and my bike on the train and when it arrived I loaded the bike and luggage into the Guard's van and settled down for the short journey to Rannoch Station.
Rannoch Station has a cafe so before setting off on my ride I treated myself to breakfast. The first section of my route took me from Rannoch down the road to Bridge of Gaur where I crossed the River Gaur and rode along the singletrack road that follows the southern shore of Loch Rannoch.
I followed the road for a few miles until eventually I reached the turn off for the Old Kirk Road which leads from Loch Rannoch over the Lairig Ghallabhaich to Glen Lyon.

This initially took the form of a narrow path that climbs through the woods and forestry, it was hard work on a loaded bike but good fun and quite picturesque.

After a while I emerged at a reservoir in the forest and stopped for a breather before pushing on up the forest track climb that forms this section of the Kirk Road.
Eventually the trees thinned and the track emerged onto the open hillside above Loch Rannoch (which was hidden by the low cloud).
A deer fence and gate marked the start of the Lairig Ghallabhaich proper and the track began to undulate rather than just being a relentless climb.

 After a while the track started to descend towards Glen Lyon and the village of Innerwick.
Initially the descent was gentle but it turned into a steep, fast ride down the final section of the Old Kirk Road until it emerged at the tarmac road at Innerwick.

A short ride along the road took me to Glen Lyon Tearoom and as it was lunch time I stopped for some food. If you ever happen to be passing the tearoom I'd recommend stopping to sample the food, it's very good.
After a hearty lunch of soup, sandwiches and cake washed down with a pot of tea I hit the road again. Initially my legs felt tired but soon the energy from my lunch kicked in and I felt much better as I tackled the short sharp tarmac climbs of the Glen Lyon road. Although this section was a road it was very quiet and scenic so was an enjoyable ride.
Eventually the road reached the Stronuaich reservoir.
By this time it was mid afternoon and I'd progressed much further along my route than I'd expected, my thoughts started to turn towards where I'd stop for the night. I reckoned that I'd push on to Loch Lyon and reassess my progress there. Just before the tarmac road ended at Pubil I stopped to have a look at a memorial to Robert Campbell a founder of the Hudson's Bay Company who originated in Glen Lyon.
At Pubil I left the road and climbed steeply up a track that would eventually emerge high above the dam at the eastern end of Loch Lyon. There is a choice of routes here, you can either follow the northern or southern shores of Loch Lyon until the two tracks converge at the western end of the loch. I chose the northern track.
The view back east along Glen Lyon (the way I'd come).
 The dam.
The way ahead, west above Loch Lyon. 
The track alongside Loch Lyon was a rough rollercoaster of a ride. There was nothing technical on it but there were some fast bumpy descents punctuated with water erosion damage that meant concentration had to be maintained to pick the right line. I was also very grateful for the suspension forks on my bike which added a little much needed comfort on these teeth rattling descents. After a couple of miles I crossed the Allt Meurain stream, this was a ford that could be a potential problem if this route was ridden after a wet spell of weather. 
 The view back east along the loch was spectacular, highlighted by the dramatic clouds hanging over the mountains.
At this point my thoughts turned again to an overnight stop. It was late afternoon and I'd made far better progress than I'd expected. My plan had been to stop for the night near the watershed at the head of Strath Tarabhan but it was now dawning on me that I could easily complete the ride in a single day. I was a little bit torn as I love wild camping and this was a spectacular setting to spend a night but I now felt the lure of the challenge of getting round in a day. 
As I rode over the watershed the lure of the challenge won and I decided to push on down towards Gleann Achadh-innis Chailein. 

The descent down towards Auch Glen was really fast and fun with multiple crossings of the Allt Kinglass river by way of fords. Soon the familiar viaduct that carries the West Highland railway line across Auch Glen came into view (except this time I was viewing it from the opposite direction from the usual vantage point of the A82 road). 
After passing under the viaduct I joined the West Highland Way for the last few miles back to Bridge of Orchy. It was strange seeing all the walkers on the path as I'd hardly seen a soul for the last few hours. 
Nearly there!
Made it!
The final push back to the car was soon done with and it was time to reflect on a trip that hadn't panned out as expected. I'd ridden further than I'd imagined I could have managed and obviously had more in reserve than I'd realised. I'd missed out on my night out but the sense of satisfaction from completing the route in a day made that worthwhile. Next time I'd definitely do it without the extra 8 kilos of luggage on the bike though! 

Monday, 5 February 2018

Scratching the Hebridean itch.

For quite a few years now I've harboured a desire to travel to the Outer Hebrides and with the recent acquisition of our new van this year seemed like a good chance to finally scratch the Hebridean itch.
 My "summer"annual leave allocation for 2017 fell from mid May until early June which I thought would be a good time to visit the Outer Hebrides but I didn't want to commit to the trip until the last minute in the hope that I could get a feel for the weather conditions that we were likely to encounter (I didn't want to submit Val to days of howling gales and driving rain). Plan B (for a poor forecast) was to head for the south west of England. With a few days to go I decided to risk it, the forecast wasn't perfect but it wasn't too bad so I bought an Island Hopscotch 8 ticket from CalMac ferries and reserved a place for us on the lunchtime ferry from Oban to Castlebay (on Barra).
The big day arrived and we managed to pack the van with everything we thought we'd need (and a lot we probably wouldn't!) and set off in good time. As we drove towards Oban I received a text from CalMac saying that the ferry would be delayed until that evening as it was stuck at Castlebay with a rope fouling it's propellers!  We were already on the road so there was nothing for it but to continue on to Oban. We parked up at the ferry terminal and went for a wander round town, enjoying a nice leisurely lunch and doing some last minute shopping to kill some time before heading back to see what the latest news about the ferry was. We were told that the ferry wouldn't be arriving until 7pm which meant we wouldn't be arriving on Barra until the early hours (the crossing takes five hours).
 Val waiting for the ferry.
Finally it comes into view!
There was an impressive Dutch sailing boat moored close to the ferry terminal.
We finally boarded the ferry at around 8pm, I was disappointed as it had been a nice day and I'd been looking forward to doing some wildlife spotting during the voyage. In reality we only had a short period of daylight before darkness made spotting anything impossible.  
Still it was good to be on the move again and we ate dinner onboard before getting a little sleep. We arrived at Castlebay after 1am and joined a convoy of campervans and motorhomes all heading for the campsite at Borve. We were greeted by Donald (the campsite owner) who had waited up to show us to our pitches (he even rigged lights so that some cycle tourers wouldn't have to pitch their tents in the dark!) We quickly sorted out the van and went to bed. 
The next morning we drove out to see the remains of a crashed WW2 Catalina seaplane and see the lovely twin beaches on Vatersay. 

On the way back we stopped at a viewpoint overlooking Castlebay and Kisimul Castle. 

We stayed on Barra for three nights in total so had plenty of opportunity to see the sights over the next few days.
 The northern end of the island near Eoligarry

 The famous "airport beach", the planes land on the sand at low tide.
An Oystercatcher on the rocks near the campsite. 
The cemetery at Gob Bhuirgh.
 An evening lap of the island on my bike.

On our last evening at Borve I was chatting with Donald (the campsite owner) who mentioned that they often had visits from a pod of dolphins in the bay. He said that the dolphins usually came at around 9:30 in the morning or 9:30 at night. I was a little disappointed that we hadn't seen them during our stay. Later that evening after dinner I saw some of our fellow campers rushing out with binoculars and cameras and went looked to see what they had seen, sure enough it was the pod and it was almost exactly 9:30! We spent the next half hour being treated to an amazing display as the dolphins repeatedly breached while chasing fish. As it was late the lighting conditions weren't great but I put the long lens on my camera and starting snapping away. The resulting pictures aren't brilliant but I'm really pleased that I was able to capture some snaps of these beautiful animals. 

The next day we were booked on the ferry from Barra to Eriskay, the forecast wasn't very good for the middle part of the day and it absolutely poured down as we waited for the ferry at Ardmhor. 

 Fortunately it dried up for the short crossing to Eriskay. 

It was quite late in the afternoon when we arrived on Eriskay so we didn't linger and pushed on across the causeway to South Uist where we were booked on Kilbride campsite for a couple of nights. 
 Spot the Stormtrooper!
A nice sunset at Kilbride.
 Looking back towards Barra.
 We went for a bike ride following some trails on the South Uist machair.

Our ride passed this ruined church which we explored. 
The weather took a turn for the worse just after we'd finished our bike ride (fortunately we were safely ensconced in the Kilbride Cafe eating lunch by then) and we spent the rest of the day hiding in the van. 
Next day it was time to move on again. We would be driving up the South Uist coastline which I'd read had some beautiful places to see. In reality the weather was really misty meaning that we didn't see much at all. We did pause for a while at Kildonnan Museum which provided a fascinating insight into the history of the island. 
Next it was on up through Benbecula and across another causeway to cross onto North Uist. We pitched up at Moorcroft campsite in a very strong wind and under grey skies. 
The campsite was almost deserted when we arrived but filled up as time wore on, we began to notice that some of our fellow campers were matching our itinerary closely and there were some familiar faces from previous stops on Barra and South Uist. 
The next day the weather was due to improve so we set off in the van to explore North Uist. First stop was a stone circle called Piobull Finn (Finn's People) near Langass Lodge. Access involved a short, picturesque walk during which we saw a bird of prey soaring and hovering (I'm not sure what it was, I suspect may have been a Hen Harrier). 

We also passed close to Barpa Langais a ruined chambered cairn. 
We drove over to Lochmaddy on the east coast for some lunch and did a little shopping then completed the loop back round the north of the island before heading back south down the west coast. 
 On the way we stopped off near Grenitote for a walk on the huge beach at Traigh Ear.
Obviously this was at low tide, at high tide this would all be flooded. 
 Loch Scolpaig and it's tower folly.
Beyond Loch Scolpaig we could just make out the outline of St Kilda approximately 40 miles offshore.
 When we got back to the campsite I got out for a paddle in the packraft before dinner. 
 Sunset at Moorcroft.

Evening stroll down to the water's edge.
The next day we moved further north to Balranald which is home to a campsite next to some sand dunes, a stunning bay and also an RSPB nature reserve known for it's resident Corncrakes. 
I went exploring on my bike, riding from one pristine beach to the next along a track that wound among the dunes. 

The bay right across from the campsite was pretty special as well, at low tide it was almost entirely sand, flooding into a beautiful lagoon as the water came in.

Our next move was north again passing the huge beach and tidal lagoon at Traigh Bhalaigh with the island of Vallay (Bhalaigh) beyond. 

Then we continued north across the causeway to Berneray where we were set to catch the ferry across to Harris. We were early for the ferry which gave me time to take a walk out to the beach on the west coast of Berneray which I'd been told was a must see for any beach lover. It turned out to be yet another amazing Hebridean beach and well worth the walk needed to access it. 

 The view from the dunes back towards the van parked in the distance. 
Once I'd got back to the van we made the short drive to the slipway where the ferry would eventually arrive. 
The ferry threads it's way across the Sound of Harris through a maze of shallow channels and skerries and it was truly memorable crossing. On the way across I spotted this bird on one of the skerries. At first I thought it was an old fence post as it must have been about a metre tall. 
A crop of the photo above reveals what appears to be a bird of prey which I can only imagine would be a Sea Eagle (possibly a youngster).
There were also lots of seals basking on the various skerries.  

We landed on Harris at Leverburgh and drove north west to Horgabost which was to be our base for the next few days. During the drive Val spotted an otter swimming in a loch but I missed it as I was concentrating on the road. The campsite at Horgabost was once more on the edge of a nice beach this time overlooked by the mountains of Harris. 

During the next couple of days we explored the local area but Val had started to feel unwell since we'd been at Balranald. Fortunately the Medical Centre in Leverburgh were very helpful and she was able to see a doctor and get some medication that helped her to recover. Just north of the campsite was the amazing beach at Luskentyre, during a trip that was rich in impressive beaches this was one of the most stunning.

Once Val was on the mend we continued our trip northwards through Harris and onto Lewis. Unfortunately the spell of nice sunny weather that we'd been having came to an end at this point and gave way to some heavy rain and strong winds. On our way up Lewis we stopped for a look around the standing stones at Callanish. 

We spent the next few days based at Shawbost and visited various places on the northern part Lewis. 
Dun Carloway broch.

The Blackhouse village at Garenin. 

The Butt of Lewis lighthouse (the northern most point of Lewis). 

We also spent some time looking around Stornoway and it's surrounding area. The Rough Guide book that I'd been reading to give us some ideas for places to see and visit had been quite disparaging about Stornoway but we both liked it. We enjoyed wandering round the shops and had a fantastic meal out in a restaurant there. 
Sadly our trip was now coming to an end. The weather was nice again for the final ferry crossing back from Stornoway on Lewis to Ullapool on the mainland. We were able to stand on deck and enjoy the views of the Hebrides receding and the Summer Isles the mountains of the Coigach Peninsula drawing closer as we approached Ullapool. 

 It was great to finally do this trip and scratch my Hebridean itch. The highlights were the stunning natural beauty and wildlife while the only real negatives were the unexpectedly large number of other campervans and motorhomes doing the same thing as us.