It’s always a dilemma, isn’t it?
What to pack.
I hate carting large quantities of luggage about, and have even had accusations from my son, Seb, that I’m not a proper woman because I like to travel light. So what are the necessities of a cycling trip to the Highlands and Islands?
Midge repellent – certainly.
Bog-snorkelling kit – maybe.
Provisions – certainly.
Tiny windscreen wipers for my glasses?
S and I plumped for a trip slap bang in the middle of May because that’s the month when Scotland is known for its heat waves. That was what people told us. We wouldn't need real wet weather gear. But since it was high season we opted to book the first second and last nights in hotels, then - in between - play by ear.
We were treated to the occasional glimpse of snow on the mountains above Fort William: inspiring patches of whiteness peeking shyly through the low clouds. The sun was trying very hard to shine when we arrived at Nevis Cycles, the shop we were hiring from, but by the time the bikes were adjusted and ready a little soft drizzle had begun. We gathered our provisions and took the passenger ferry across Loch Linnhe to Camusnagaul to begin our Expotition which started out on Sustrans route 78. The tiny road wound through silver birch forest carpeted still with bluebells – much later than further south. There were other flashes of purple and scarlet from rhododendrons. As I pedalled I pondered on whether little windscreen wipers for my glasses might have been useful or if I might see more by taking my specs off and keeping them in my pocket. Day one was wet, but it was a short easy 10 miles or so to The Inn at Ardgour. They understood the weather there – and provided the toastiest drying room to dehydrate our sodden shoes and clothes.
I was cheered by watching – from the window of our lovely warm dry bedroom – the antics of little auks. They don’t seem very strong fliers – they appear to have difficulties taking off – but their fishing skills look almost equal to penguins. Their black and white colouration recalls penguins too. The weather suited the sea birds. It was bound to improve the next day.
The next day the wind had got up and the rain was much heavier. We crossed Loch Linnhe again – on the Corran Ferry this time – and through Onich over the Ballachulish Bridge and onto a stretch of cycle path that was the old railway line.
We passed cute little stations and beneath diminutive railway bridges.
This should have been a cyclist’s paradise, as the beautifully smooth tarmac track winds through superb birch forest twittering with birds and dotted with primroses, bluebells, violets, wild garlic and big splashes of colour from rhododendron blossoms but even bigger splashes from the wet track.
This is where the underwater camera would have come in handy. You can see the rain-drops on the lens of the pic below. One blob almost obliterates the castle. On a good day, or if you are hardy, the route is idyllic: much of the way to Oban is completely off road and often runs along the loch-side. I’d packed optimistically. My feet and hands were soon sodden and two-thirds through the second day they’d started to lose sensation.
The weather was bound to improve the next day. And a hot bath in the wonderfully creaky Caledonian Hotel in Oban (which recalled Fawlty Towers in it's architecture) soon restored morale and enthusiasm.
The rain stopped! We boarded the ferry to Craignure on Mull and suddenly Scotland revealed itself as the most beautiful country on earth.
We'd booked to stay at the 'airport hotel' in Salen which we could have reached directly with a nine mile cycle so we decided on the scenic route. This was around 35 miles, but we saw eiders, divers, otter, a pair of hare and a lovely array of wild flowers including - unexpectedly - orchids. Thanks to a flock of birders we also saw a golden eagle.
And I had plenty of excuses to stand and stare back at the locals.
Now the sun was shining, I was beginning to feel quite hardy, and it felt especially good to be doing a (small) cycling challenge in parallel with our son's. Do check out the Big Cycle blog about Seb's far more intrepid challenge, cycling alone through Europe with a bike so heavily laden he couldn't lift it.