Monday, 2 January 2012

Highland summertime bikepacking and packrafting - Part 3

Day 3

I slept well, with no dead-of-night encounters with deer, or any other animal for that matter, and woke to a warm and bright tent. I turned on my phone to check the time... 6.30am. Oh well, time to get moving.

I poked my head outside. Lovely, it looked like it was going to be a cracking day.

Sunrise over 'Back Of Keppoch'

I got the porridge on and sat in the entrance of my tent. The other campers were fast asleep, all was still. Today was probably going to be a shorter day, and quite different from the last two. I had most of the route mapped out on the main road, although I had a farm track detour from Arisaig for a few miles, and the last 3k by sea. I also had the possibility of going out into the Ardnish peninsula to a bothy at Peanmeanach, but this wasn't a certainty.

Porridge finished, I washed up and broke camp. I still find myself surprised at how quickly everything packs away, and how small it is! It's 7am now, the bike is packed, and I'm ready to head off into the morning sunshine. A sense of freedom washed over me as I peddled out of the campsite, leaving the happy campers dozing in their tents and caravans. I felt fast and light, and able to go where I wanted, when I wanted. This is the solo travelers advantage - your time is your own, no one else to hold up or wait for.

Out onto the road now, and up the hill before taking a right to Arisaig, which was looking bonny in the morning sunshine, birds tweeting. Going round the main road through the village, I looked out for the turn off to my 'shortcut' I had planned. I had wanted to stay of the main Fort William - Malaig road as much as possible, and had seen this track on the O/S map. It looked like I could cut out at least 3k of road, and what is the point of having a mountain bike if you don't ride it on the dirt at every opportunity?

The road took me round the bay, and I stopped to snap a photo looking over the boats to the steep cliffs and flat top of Eigg to the left, and the Cuillins of Skye towering in the distance.

Looking over the bay at Arisaig

 On I went. It's funny how much dragging a bike over almost impassible terrain makes you appreciate roads. I don't have a road bike, and generally am not a big fan of being on a bike on the road, due to large metal boxes blasting past constantly, inches from the end of the handlebars. But these are small roads in the West coast of Scotland, not busy routes near cities. I had seen 2 cars on the road so far. In fact, I enjoyed the road so much, I missed my turning off onto the planned track, and had to do a u-turn and back track about a kilometer. Oh well, I could think of worse times (and places) to get lost.

I found my turning. The landrover track seemed ideal for my bike - these are the kind of tracks that have 'no unauthorised vehicles' signs at the start of them, the kind you would never drive down, but being on a bike, and given the access laws in Scotland, they are fair game. The track passed some cottages, then into woodland. The warm day made the air thick, the smell of the plants and trees and earth mixing with the occasional insect. Proper 'summertime in the highlands' air.

Arisaig landrover track

The track ended soon enough, with a locked gate, meaning I had to lift the packed bike over a wall to get onto the road. Now there was no choice, the sides of Glen Beasdale forcing the main road and the railway line to snake over each other, close to the shore - no room to pick and choose a route here.

The road was much less busy than I was expecting it to be. Most of the time, there was no traffic on the road apart from myself. What a relief! I have to say, on a day like today, I can totally see the attraction of road touring in the North of Scotland.

View from the A 830 at Cuildarrach

Up ahead, I had a decision to make. Was I going to go off road to Peanmeanach? This was an optional excursion that would cut out about 9k of road cycling, replacing that with 4.5k of unknown, possibly not very cyclable path, and then a 1k sea loch crossing. I was being indecisive about this, which meant I wasn't that keen on doing it. I had had my fill of rough walking tracks, and the smooth and empty road was luring me onward. I decided that I'd look for the turn off to the track, and check it out at least. However, despite being on a main road, and checking my O/S map several times, which had the path clearly marked, I managed to completely miss it. Well that was that, decision made - Peanmeanach would have to wait till another time.

By now, I had had enough time to get a feel for what road cycling meant on a mountain bike. It is obviously not the right tool for the job, but still works ok. However, I started to feel cramped by the wide handlebars and short stem, the upright position that is so natural off the road feeling clumsy when faced with miles of smooth road. This, together with the warm weather and the fact that I had not had a proper wash in three days, were conspiring to make me feel less comfortable than I would have liked. Not terrible, but just not totally settled either. Added into this mix, I had to admit I was starting to feel somewhat lonely. Maybe it was just the expectation of seeing everyone again and telling them of my trip, maybe it was the thought of soaking in a hot bath. In any case, I now had a goal - I wanted to catch everyone in the cottage at Dorlin where they met for an extended lunch every day. It seemed doable, so I hunched down as much as I could on the bike, and kept going on the empty main road.

On the Fort William to Mallaig road, looking onto the Ardnish peninsula

Reaching Lochailort, I turned right onto the Glenuig road, and soon passed a group of four cyclists going the other way, all waves and hellos. The camaraderie gave me a lift, it was great to be out here doing it, and seeing fellow travelers reinforced how lucky I was. Up ahead a bit, there were a few motorbikes stopped in the side of the road, more people, on different machines, but still enjoying the best of Scotland.

A few more miles and I was in Glenuig. I knew there is somewhat of a climb out of Glenuig on this road, and one that I had never cycled up. I psyched myself up. By this point, I was tired, I had done a lot in the last two days, and it was possible to really feel the weight of what I was carrying. Going uphill, it feels like something is trying to drag you back down again, which is, in fact, the exact physics of the situation. I manage to get some of the way up it, but the road steepens and I give in.

Walking ain't too bad (as long as no one sees you!).

Jumping on the bike again, I crest the hill and enjoy a freewheel down the other side. Payback. I was now looking onto Loch Moidart, and heading straight for a jetty that I planned to inflate the boat at and take the 3k sea float shortcut, rather than a 12k cycle. I found it, a nice ramshackle old pile of rocks. I wonder if anyone has done a book on jetties, pontoons, and piers of Scotland - would be a good read I reckon.

Jetty on Loch Moidart, bike ready to transform to boat!

Boat inflated for the last time, but in sea water for the only time on this trip.

The packraft in calm and clear sea

Out into Loch Moidart, it feels good to be in the packraft again. I still haven't lost the sense of vulnerability that comes with floating solo in a wee inflatable boat. I still find myself making a beeline for the nearest shore, happy when I am closer to dry land.

This time, I have a companion with me, although an unwelcome and unhelpful one. A cleg (horse-fly) has latched onto me. Not fancying to be bitten, I keep paddling, hoping it will give up. No such luck. I give it the full beans, paddling as fast as I can, but it is still buzzing round me. This is a sticky insect for sure. I stop and swing the paddle in a futile gesture to shoo it off. Finally it lands on the side tube of the boat. I slap it hard and it falls dead into the water. Well, it got fair warning.

I pass the islands on Loch Moidart. Although there is little wind, and the tide is going out, the small ripple coming into the loch from the sea is making progress a bit slower than I would have otherwise expected. I really want to catch everyone, and the idea of some bread, beer, and a bath are driving me on. I keep on up the loch, admiring a lovely white yacht that I am heading toward.

Near the end of the trip - Loch Moidart

I see there are three people on it, lounging about. Looks like bliss. I get closer, and one of them waves over at me. I wave back "Hi there!", not sure if an 'ahoy there' would have been more appropriate. He calls back "Are you Nik?". Surprised, I acknowledge I am he. "Your dad told us about you, didn't think anyone else would be paddling this way with their bike on a wee inflatable boat" he shouts, adding "You are off your head!". I laugh, pleased that tales of my trip have preceded me. He invites me onboard for a beer, but I politely decline, as I am not convinced that boarding would be straightforward, and reckon that getting back into my boat after a beer or two would be somewhat less easier still.

I rounded the corner now, past Castle Tioram, and toward the beach where the cottage is. I stop a bit away from the sandy shore, and shout "Hello!", my call echoing round the steep cliff behind the house. No reply, I guess everyone is chatting noisily. I shout again, at the top of my voice. This time someone comes to the front of the house. I wave, and they go to fetch the rest. Soon, family and friends are on the beach, snapping photos and firing questions, familiar faces with smiles and witty comments. Dogs barking, and strangers wondering just what the heck is going on.

The end of the journey

I climb out the boat. This feels like a proper end to the trip.

"Can someone fetch me a beer please..?"

(next installment - some reflections on the trip, my kit list, a map, and maybe a video...)


  1. Sounds like a great trip. Loved the photos - they really bring home what a beautiful place you travelled through. Thanks for the story - it made a cold day seem a bit warmer.

    Steve Z

  2. fascinating account... loved reading about your trip after seeing it on Hendrik's blog this morning.
    just a little envious of you :)

  3. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the ramblings (in both senses of the word)!

  4. Awesome read! Youre style of writing is great. Being from Australia, the locations alone are fascinating. I'd love to do a trek like this one day.

  5. Hi Nik, these are amazing pics! What an adventure. We are writing a bikepacking guide to the UK and I wondered if it might be possible to use on in the book? Might you be able to email me?

    1. Hi Daniel - thanks! I have emailed you.