A weekend in the Highlands

It’s been another busy week at work, and I am not sure if I would have survived it in the same way without looking back to another great weekend in the beautiful Scottish Highlands. And another one of those adventures that were not planned, but turned out to be utterly good. ‘Life is what happens while you’re busy making  other plans’ Mr. John Lennon once said, and he was damn right with that (and heaps of other things). While I had planned pretty much the whole weekend when I was sitting on the train to Mallaig on Thursday afternoon, in the absence of a book I was exactly studying the maps and making plans where to cycle and when, all my initial ideas were compromised soon the next morning by the lovely CalMac Brayne lady that told me, that I was 2 minutes too late to board the ferry to Skye. Yes, 2 minutes! And the next boat was sailing at 4pm, so by the time of arrival in Armadale it would have been dark. Whoever knows Mallaig, knows that it’s not the sort of place that makes you hang around for a while, so I opted out and took the train back to Fort William, after ditching the initial plan B to cycle down the Ardnamurchan peninsula, sail to Mull and then to Iona. Something in me wanted mountains, and I was utterly pleased by my decision later.

The first bit of the Great Glen Way was there to get really muddy, and I succeeded in that task quickly. Riding up the Caledonian Canal in pouring rain isn’t one of those great experiences, but soon after Fort William the rain stopped and made the bit along Loch Laggan pleasant riding. I still wasn’t sure on how far I could get that day, considering the lack of daylight and my initial loss of half the day with missing the boat, but I still aimed to get to Kyle of Lochalsh. But heading into Invergarry later in the afternoon already I ditched the target, I had a tent with me anyway, and despite the cold and wet weather I was looking forward to waking up in the vast loneliness of the Highlands. Back on the main road I made it to Loch Cluanie in daylight, and then struggled my way along its shores, with slightly numb fingers, as my gloves weren’t the most appropriate choice for autumn conditions. By the time I got to Cluanie Inn it was dark, cold and wet. For that very moment I was tempted to book a warm and cosy, as the normal person probably would, but then decided for the tent instead. The nice person on the front desk advised me of a spot on the river, where I pitched my tent and celebrated the day with 2 minute noodles, before falling to sleep.

Waking up before sunrise the next morning, I could truly understand my decision from last night. Over night the mountains around Glen Shiel got a fluffy white icing on top, and the fog was making it’s way out of the valley. It was one of those moments that made any pain of cold fingers or numb feet go away, it was waking up in the glory of mountains, utterly beautiful. I took the time to take some nice shots to capture the moment, before cooking oats and packing up. Packing up was painful, as everything was still frozen after the frosty night, and cold metal does not go down well with bare fingers. Back on the bike I was lucky enough to feel feet and fingers after half an hour, riding through the vast emptiness of Glen Shiel into Lochalsh. Passing Eilean Donan Castle I took a nice wee side road towards Kyle of Lochalsh, which was the next point of decision, what to do with the rest of the day. As I took my time this day, I decided to have a quick stopover and then make it to Plockton, which I had neglected on recent trips so far. By the time I got there it was afternoon, but as everything was shut despite the hotel, I decided against stopping for a coffee. Plockton is really quite beautiful, and the off-season added to that. ‘Next trip Easter 2011‘ describes quite well what it was like, just a few locals getting their boats ready for winter storms, other than that I was on my own. From Plockton I took a wonderful single track road to Stromeferry (no ferry here though), only to battle myself along the last miles to Strathcarron. Once on that road I could remember that I cycled it already on my trip in 2007, and it’s a killer at the end of the day. 15% ascents are not for the faint-hearted with panniers and big nobby tyres, and by the time I got to Strathcarron hotel, I was due a Mars bar. The hotel there offers free camping, and for a moment I was tempted to stop and pitch my wet tent, but decided for Gerry’s Hostel instead, a few miles up the road. I should have decided for the tent, as when I came to the hostel in darkness, it was closed. With no other options I decided to pitch my tent in the garden, as the place seemed to be shut. Roughly an hour later a car approached, the owner was coming back. From already staying there 3 years ago I remembered that the owner was a grumpy bastard, and he still was. I had to unpitch (after spending half and hour to dry the tent) and move inside, paying a whopping 15 quit for bed without bedding in a cold hostel. If you have the chance, avoid the place, that grumpy old man does not deserve charging so much, I was lucky enough to have the company of a Munro beggar, who was nice to talk to.

The good news was a great sunrise the next morning, and a clear and sunny morning ahead of me. After studying the map on Gerry’s Hostel, I cycled of a forest road towards Loch Coulin, but unfortunately that was blocked by forestry operations soon after. Those people have the tendency to erect signs on one side, but not on the other, and I was on the wrong side. So the challenge was to carry bike and belongings around the massive pile of trees that blocked the track, and to continue on the other side. After managing that I got to the top of the pass, and from there it was cycling at it’s very best. The track was frozen, and for second I lost control over my front wheel, but managed to secure the bike and didn’t fall, and I was more busy with taking pictures than cycling anyway. It was one of those rides that had all what makes cycling so enjoyable: breathtaking scenery, challenging tracks, perfect weather and the vast remoteness of the Scottish Highlands. I felt very vulnerable in that environment, but also very lucky to have had the courage to go there myself, all made up for massive good times. The glory continued all the way to Torridon, even though I was chased be three evil dogs off an estate, somehow I managed to take the wrong turn and found myself in that situation. Riding over a frozen bridge to escape didn’t make that easy, but I survived.

Last challenge for the day was the second-greatest ascent of any road climb in the UK, a pretty good way to end the day. The road is a famous, twisting, single-track mountain road, rising to 626 metres. It is one of very few roads in the Scottish Highlands which is engineered in a similar fashion to the great mountain passes in the Alps, with very tight hairpin bends which switch back and forth up the hillside, with gradients approaching 20%. Considering that my train left at 4pm another 10 miles down the road from the bottom of the climb, I had to climb fast and take a close look at the time, not to be stuck in the Highlands for another night. I almost managed to get to the top, but one of the final bits of road was missing (it will reopen in December), so I had to turn around and blast down the hill. But the time I got to the bottom, I was an ice block, with no feeling in any exposed body parts, neither feet or fingers. And I had to push through to Strathcarron, over another hill, but made it right in time for the train. Sitting in the crowded train to Edinburgh I felt very lucky, looking back to a weekend that had it all. The only thing that was missing was some great company on the train, but you can’t have everything at once. And I am now very sure that I can survive the trip to Germany, even if conditions get worse, I am in the right mindset now. Happy cycling!

All pictures from the trip can be found here, enjoy!