With the worst rain behind us and some uncertain clouds circling around we leave Fort William and follow the blue on blue thistle marked trail posts leading us north out of town and along the Caledonian Canal. The canal has been envisioned in the late 18th century as a way to connect the east and west coasts of Scotland and thus omitting the dangerous waters of Cape Wrath in the far north, but it also served a revitalizing role to the Highlands, desolate after a series of English laws and actions known as the Highland Clearances forced many a Scotsman to search for personal freedom of playing bagpipes, wearing tartan and most importantly speaking Gaelic in places such as North America and Australia. Nowadays the canal serves as a tourist attraction and forms the backbone of what is known as the Great Glen Way, a long distance trail connecting Fort William in the west with Inverness in the east.
The initial path leading to Spean Bridge along the canal is a well maintained gravel route and provides us with an easy yet somehow boring way out. Cold Scottish head winds keep us pushing hard on the pedals, cores pumping our extremities with much needed heat – we both went overboard with the amount of neck warmers we carry, exactly five for the both of us, but at times like these they come in handy and keep our necks, ears and noses toasty warm.
Entering the Clunes Forest on the western side of Loch Lochy takes out the worst sting out of the wind and introduces a new element to the landscape. Gone are Gorse yellows of the canal path, the forest road oozes lush greens and might be the second greenest place, right after the Slovenian mountain range of Pohorje me and Saske toured as a way of saying our bye-byes to Slovenia. It does remind us a lot of this part of Saska’s homeland it’s more of a rolling terrain than we would expect from a highland trail. We both agree that although nice to cycle the trail would be a boring exercise to hike through.
Once in Fort Augustus we stop for a break and to shop for some bread at the petrol station store. While we stuff our bikes with some white bread and apple pie we see a bikepacker roll-by carrying an ultralight race-type kit on his bike and lots of mud on his clothes. His eyes wrinkle in a weary smile as he greets us and immediately I notice the Spot transmitter on the back of his saddlebag. Huw is on a mission of ITT’ing the Highland Trail 550 race route, the one were are kind of following ourselves for the past week as it uses much of the West Highland Way and Great Glen Way trails now and then. He would not be able to make it for the official group start scheduled in a week so he decided to participate and an independent rider. His bike is a muddy Surly Krampus Ops with a Salsa carbon fork, “It’s stiff!” – Huw says, and tubeless 29+ Maxxis Chronicle tires – as it turns out we both love them. We tell Huw about our plans of following the HT550 route more closely and listen carefully to his sage advice as he’s just about to hit on the final stretch and his memory is still vivid. “Don’t ride the northern bits, they’re meh…” – he says straight away. We chat for a bit and tell him more about our plans for the upcoming three weeks we have left in Scotland. Once we mention Cairngorms Huw’s eyes come alive. “Yeah! Cairngorms, You’ll love the Cairngorms Loop!”. Living in Aviemore and being a mountain guide Huw knows a thing or two about his backyard trails and knows to cherish them. Not wanting to stop him in HT550 crushing endeavor we quickly exchange e-mails and wish him a pleasant ride to the finish line. We know he will enjoy the Clunes Forest.
A quiet path leads out of Fort Augustus and into Invermoriston where we take a sharp turn north into the Highlands and proper mountain terrain. From now on we follow the HT550 route more closely. A few weeks before I contacted Alan Goldsmith, the man behind HT550, enquiring about general trail conditions, tips and route changes for 2016, here’s what Alan had to say:
“This year’s route only goes over the Devil’s staircase once but in the more rideable direction from the north. Unloaded this is probably 90% rideable, loaded up and tired this could drop as low as 50%! The descent is steep and technical so how much you ride will depend on how good you are!
The section from Ullapool to Kinlochewe includes the highlight of the route through Fisherfield. This includes a major river crossing and a steep hike-a-bike. This year there is also a very vague track from Letterewe to Kinlochewe, which is around 50% walking. This is the most beautiful and wild section of the route but I would only do it in good weather. In bad weather on a holiday/tour I would probably opt for the coast road around to Poolewe. There are two bothies in this section, one very nice one and one not so nice! To make this section a bit shorter you could take the 2014/15 route out to Poolewe which includes 5km of incredible singletrack. I’ve attached the GPX for the 2015 route. The offroad section from Poolewe to Slatterdale is horrible, if I were on holiday I would go around on the road via Gairloch!
The 2015 route includes a very hard way through Torridon which I replaced with an easier way for this year. If you are feeling strong and don’t mind some pushing the 2015 way is totally stunning in good weather.
The off road sections of the northern loop are also quite difficult and probably only worth doing in good weather.”
Past Invermoriston a series of short but steep gravel tracks climbing into Levishie Forest mean we have left the rolling terrain on the Great Glen behind us for good. Saska keeps riding the steepest bits whereas I choose to walk where my speed drops below my hiking velocity, I find it more efficient to push uphill in those situations. It is on these sections where Saska’s 34/16 drivetrain combo shows its merit, I find myself walking a bit more with my 36/16 setup. It is here that we see our first herd of deer moving swiftly through the moor from on patch of the forest to the other. It’s hard to count them all but it’s more than we have seen in whole our lives combined, that’s for sure. From this moment on the word “wow” might be the most used word throughout our whole stay in Scotland.
Just past the forest there is a part of the trail where the path marking disappears from the map, I know that at Loch ma Stac we have a hike-a-bike waiting for us but one that should definitely be manageable with a loaded bike. If not for the cold wind and rain, I would call it a romantic walk on a pebble beach. At least I had an occasion to try out my wet weather survival gloves I bought in Morison’s for 2GBP, great for toilet scrubbing and a bit on the small side too. Past Loch ma Stac the path shyly appears from underneath the marsh, completely wetted out it’s not rideable for most of the time – vague but easily navigable.
Photos courtesy of Aleksandra Bellian
The real cherry on the top is the stile awaiting us just before the real dirt road begins. This kind of stiles and gates have been plaguing us since the very beginning. Although Scotland boast some of the best land access laws in Europe known as “right to roam” requiring landowners to ensure access to their land by means of stiles. Yet still some on them are trying to discourage crossing their land by making the stiles hard to pass and not maintaining them properly. This one measures somewhere around 2 meters in height and is missing one top step, manhandling two loaded bikes over this hurdle is quite a challenge for us. Saska’s bike we throw over as is, but with mine I just have to take all the bags down to make things possible for us. It seems in Scotland our upper bodies are getting stronger at the same pace as our legs – bikepacking in Highlands is a full body workout. The trail further down to Cannich is double track bog affair. Distances between the water puddles are not long enough to ride them, yet not short enough to walk either. We might just roll past them and have wet feet but we opt for carefully navigating around them and remaining. This makes the trail down to town half rideable. Once in Cannich we visit the local pub to dry out, have two pints and some chips before retiring to the local woods for the night.
The weather has been playing games with us for the past few days but we managed to remain mostly dry and the morning in Cannich brings some proper sunshine. We follow the GPS track out of the settlement riding along the Strath Glass on a quiet B-road and eventually join a double track going into Erchless Forest amongst pine trees. Somewhere on my bike there is a bottle half full with agave syrup we bought for our morning coffee and all the pine trees growing their springtime offshoots remind me of a delicious and packed with vitamin C mixture Saska used to prepare for us for the wintertime. Although she uses sugar in her original recipe I reckon agave syrup might me even better and more delicious. Bottle packed full of young pine sprouts gets tied down to my belt in order for the sun to do its magic and speed up the maceration process. Smreko, Slovenian for “piney”, as we call our new friend will secure our daily vitamin C intake for the rest of our stay in Scotland. Saska is always full of good ideas when it comes to making use of the riches nature provides whether it’s using pine trees for vitamin C in Scotland or sage infusions for throat or stomach in southern Balkans.
We have been playing the hide and seek game successfully with the Scottish weather but near Contin rain takes the upper hand where we call for a timeout and stay at the local camping site for 2 days enjoying hot showers and watching thunderstorms roll by. We roll out of Contin to blue skies and scorching sun hoping for a long term change in conditions but it is barely 30 km into our ride in Strathrannoch when we get pinned down by another storm on a farm in the middle of nowhere. Small shack with some hay bales as seating and a pile of deer antlers thrown into the dirt provides much needed shelter as the clouds circling back and forth throw rain shower after rain shower at us, a situation that lasts for several hours and clears only in the evening hours.
Both of us being fair weather cyclist we only cycle out of inclement weather and never into it, choosing to wait out rather than simply push for distance. Not having a set plan or places to be other than Edinburgh to catch our flight makes this so much easier for us.
The trail section between Contin and Oykel Bridge is one of our favorites, crossing remote and stunning scenery, being an undemanding double track it’s 100% ridable and mean stiles are replaced with cattle grids or gates that are easy to open and close. Landscape opens up a vast valley closing somewhere in the distance with barren hill tops giving pasture land to sheep and highland cattle that are roaming these grounds seemingly half wild. Our road climbs over passes and dives deep into depths of Loch Vaich, rushes down glens following river flow, chasing sun spell after sun spell we ride through fertile strath startling deer on our way and getting closer than we have ever been before. A ride to remember, a memory to cherish.
At Oykel Bridge we expect to find a resupply point which is only a hotel offering snacks and beverages – not enough for two hungry cyclists with framebags devoid of any food. I enquire inside for the next market opportunity and get redirected to Lairg, some 25 km east of Oykel Bridge, or Ullapool which is around 80 km west and completely not on our route. Near the norther parts of the trail we have been warned about by Huw we decide to take a rest from riding trails past Lairg and go for a week long road vacation visiting the west coast. Being on tarmac means carrying extra goods get easier. Fresh leak, pesto, bananas and ginger bread together with a liter of milk for delicious carbo-loading get all thrown onto our bikes. The road we follow between Lairg and Laxford Bridge, A 838, is rather quiet and might be the easiest, but most rewarding 60 kilometers we have ever cycled. In the hot afternoon sun and blue skies setting the lochs and mountains look like a south European Riviera.
At Laxford Bridge we meet an Aussie cyclist who just landed back on mainland, coming from Outer Hebrides. He swears that the beaches in South Harris are one of the best he has ever seen. We take such advice coming from an Australian quite serious and by the looks of his rusty fork stanchions the roads there are not demanding – just what we need for a few days. A thought of skipping parts of the HT550 we meant to take in a couple of days in favor of some beach vacation gets planted in our heads. We have a bit of cycling before we reach Ullapool where the ferry departs to Stornoway time for though. But deep inside we both know what the other is thinking: Atlantic Ocean here we come!
Instead of following the busy A 894 all the way down to Ullapool I decide we shall stick to the coast and we take the coastal tourist route on the B 869, which is also part of the HT550.
Just as we start cycling the first uphill a car full of Brits stops, windows rolling down and we hear wild cheering and applause coming our way. “I don’t think that’s a good sign for the road ahead” I say to Saska and I’m half-right. It’s no wonder this tarmac section has been chosen as part of the HT550 race route. It is riddled with up and downs, some of them reaching 25% inclines. That is a hefty challenge, even for the fittest, but the views, scenery and people in small villages nestling in coves and hillsides more than make up for the physical toll of riding the route.
At Drumbeg we stop at the village store selling fresh produce for a short snack, as Saska pays for our baguette, jam and milk she is immediately asked if we are going to picnic here, at her positive reply we are immediately served with a cutting board, a cup of butter and a set of knives. Past Lochniver we leave the HT550 route for good to pursue our Atlantic calling and head for Ullapool down the unmarked road passing Inverkirkaig. The whole ride along the coast is roughly 100 km long and climbs some 2200 vertical meters, not something one would expect from a seaside ride. It was totally worth it and we totally deserved that applause we got in the morning. We finish the day to some stunning sunset scenery at Loch Bad a’ Ghaill and Loch Lurgain.
The ferry services are quite cheap in Scotland, much more so than the rail which is ridiculously expensive, and a one-way ticket from Ullapool to Stornoway costs us 9 GBP/person.
We arrive in Stornoway late evening, not that is matter so far north, we have been struggling getting proper sleep ever since the night is 3 hours long and never really gets dark. There is plenty of time to do some shopping and ride out of town for a camping spot, which we find at the sea side, just past the small power plant.
In the morning we ride the main road connecting Lewis and Harris and inflate our tires from trail pressure to road pressure at the petrol station using a compressor – our usual way when we have long stretches of tarmac ahead of us. I take 15 minutes to rebuild our stove using the tiny Victorinox I always carry in my pocket. The stove I build back in Poland got nicknamed the Loco Stove as it has been burning fiercely and uncontrollably through alcohol and wasn’t something I liked cooking on or having anywhere near the tent. Having dealt with the necessities we carry on down the busy A 859. Central Lewis’ scenery is one mostly of barren moorlands and rolling hills, sort of a Mad Max setting that leaves us mostly unimpressed apart of its novelty.
There are for sure some hidden treasures in the back roads of Lewis, but since all of them are dead ends we aim straight for South Harris, the promised beach land. What a beach land it is, the western part of the Isle has some of the nicest and biggest beaches we encountered during our travels. Saska goes even as far as saying they are better than those on Sri Lanka. We camp at one of the first one we find. In a little low laying pit hidden in between dunes, riddled with flowers and rabbit holes – perfectly protected from wind and underlaid with soft sand it’s the perfect camping spot. I can’t help it and run for a swim in the ocean, much warmer than I would expect so far north which is mostly due to warm Gulf Stream current dominating the Hebridean waters.
The eastern part of the Isle is a complete opposite with its rocky structure reminds more Norway than anything else. On one of the numerous climbs I get passed by an older cyclist as I stop for a break. “Out of puff, heh?” he asks as he happily dashes effortlessly uphill, before I notice the battery assisted drive train on his bike has far beyond hearing distance. I get to him a few minutes later as he struggles to start his bike uphill after a stop, the assistance motor won’t start until a certain speed is reached and he forgot to change to a lower gear, making his efforts harder than need be. “Everything OK with the batter? It isn’t dead, is it?” I say as I pass him. A few meter shy of the top of a long climb a driver stops asking “…and what do you do for fun?”, I really don’t have to think about my response and immediately say “I eat a lot!”. We are all jokers on this climb I guess…
We arrive in Tarbert a few hours before the ferry to Uig departs. Time to rest, cook and eat. We meet a cycling couple from Manchester, they say they’re past 50, but in reality I think they are a few years older than us…. Or is it the vegan diet they follow since 20 years? They tell us about the showers on some of the ferry, a tip that makes Saska’s eyes light up. Boat to Skye and shower cost us 6 pounds each, really bargain considering some of the campsites in Scotland will charge you the same for a piece of land and have coin automats installed in the showers…
Skye welcomes us with some evening showers and low skies as the sun rises. For most of the morning the Isle’s beauty lies hidden under a thick layer of fog, but even in this setting the atmosphere of the northern tip is special. We cycle the road which is very quiet until we reach Portree, after which it gets the busiest road we have traveled in Scotland. For the last night on Isle Saska has a special treat for us. She’s been playing around with a piece of cord she brought inside the tent and after a while she produces our very own Tent-Plex – outdoor cinema deluxe. We watch 1974 edition of Little Prince, Bob Fosse’s performanssss is our favorite – the finest travel agent you will ever find!
After these few days of road riding we both feel it’s finally time to get back riding some proper trail. Huw’s excitement about the Cairngorm Loop only fuels our curiosity about the route. We are slowly running short on time in Scotland and arriving iIn Kyle of Lochalsh we have to bite the bullet and pay 45 pounds for a train ticket to Inverness and then some more for the short ride to Aviemore. We have some 300km of mountain biking ahead of us.