I was awake surprisingly early, given my three pint excursion to the
Balmacara Hotel the previous night, but my bladder soon reminded me
why... I also remembered that I owed Andrew a pint, and that as we were
both scheduled to be in Ullapool on Saturday, I would hopefully be
making a return visit to the pub with him. As I was packing up, Rae and
Sandy stopped me to wish me luck on my journey, and pressed into my
hand a contribution of the folding variety, for which I was very
grateful. I continued packing up and was ready to leave before Mr
Campsite had been round to collect, so I cycled slowly off the site,
neither hurrying or actively avoiding paying, just going on my way. It
was, after all, gone nine so I think it's a fair assumption that he
wasn't in a hurry to collect from me.
My mind was on the headwinds and hills I knew were coming my way as I
made my way over to Loch Carron. They were neither particularly steep
or strong, but a combination of the two against a tired man with
luggage was enough to make the 17 mile journey (no, not even that; more
of a 'transfer') to my next - and last - scheduled B+B at Strathcarron
seem like a very daunting prospect. By way of compensation, though,
what goes up must come down, and there were plenty of long, graceful
freewheelie passages to enjoy (although, as luck would have it, mostly
into the wind), breaking up the sub-aspirational churning of the
pedals. I wanted a short, easy day to allow me to be fully rested
before tomorrow's big climb, and despite feeling far from fit I arrived
at the Strathcarron Hotel at lunch time... And promptly fell asleep.
Ah, so I was THAT tired, then.
I forced myself to get out of bed and explore, and caught a tailwind
all the way to Loccarron, where I dined elegantly (or not, you decide)
on chicken burger, banana milkshake and Dime Bar pie. Outside the café,
I chatted to a fellow, Richard, who was impressed with my efforts and
congratulated me with a firm handshake before taking my blog/website
details. He was, it turned out, an ex- Royal Marine. I didn't think I'd
done enough to warrant congratulations from a Marine, but he said he
liked to see a man working hard and I had to concede that, apart from
the last week or so, I had worked quite hard.
Back at the hotel I had just enough time for another nap before an
early dinner, serenaded by the jukebox... Elvis's "Suspicious Minds"
and Foo Fighters "No Surrender" were morale boosters, but the medley of
Queen hits played on the bagpipes wasn't quite what I had in mind...
Then early to bed. I must have been truly shattered.
Andrew, the hotel's owner, met me at the foot of the stairs, waving a
white bin-liner full of unidentified fabrics. These were the clothes he
had offered to launder for me, and he was happy to report that they
were now dry after a night hanging above the boiler. Hurrah for Andrew
the kind hotelier, then. Coffee - proper caffeinated coffee - was the
only logical choice of beverage this morning. I know it goes without
saying that I was tired, but after a day on which I did more sleeping
than riding, I was at least no longer hallucinating which, in
retrospect, was probably not a very healthy way to take on busy
highland roads. I briefly met a fellow cyclist who would also be
tackling the pass today, as he popped in to the hotel - for coffee.
Yesterday's headwind was today's helping hand and, having swung
slightly to the east seemed to be blowing in the perfect direction to
assist me up the pass. My mood was raised, and I set off, twiddling a
low gear to get loosened up. I reckoned a seven mile approach should do
it, and I wasn't far wrong. On the brow of the hill out of Lochcarron,
I met Simon from Montreal, a permanently smiling man with shades and
shaggy hair who I'd seen on one or two previous days. He was
photographing the beast ahead, and I joked that, if you looked at it,
it would eat you. He just laughed and introduced himself.
We chatted and rode together, discussing irregular verbs and
unacceptable driving styles, stopping again for more pictures (sod it;
I'd already decided that it wouldn't beat me, so what was going to
happen if I took a picture?) and our respective 'magic bullets': I was
riding the Red Bull, and Simon was taking energy gel. I was very glad
to have a fellow cyclist with me on the pass, both as a pacemaker and a
companion to take my mind off the task. We kept pace until almost at
the hairpins on the corrie wall where, to my surprise, I found extra
pace and left Simon behind. I was now in unknown territory: not high
mountain passes or hostile environments, but in a land where motorists
stopped to shout encouragement and cheer me on. I liked this land. I
reached the summit with enough time to look around, unpack the camera
and set up for Simon's arrival at the final bend.
Congratulations all round at the viewpoint, and a moment's quiet
reflection at the achievement and the view - all of Skye and plenty
more beyond - before the breakneck descent (fortunately not literally)
into Applecross. We celebrated and exchanged email addresses at the
Inn, and I treated myself to mussels and a pint. Simon, who still had
to take the coast road to Torridon, celebrated with a coke. I hope to
meet up with him again in the next couple of days. We said farewell,
and I climbed again to the campsite to pitch my tent and change before
a coastal tootle to Camusteel and Camusterrach. How fortunate (for me)
that the campsite has a café/bar with free internet access... Tea,
flapjacks and email, all in a warm, dry, midgie-free environment. I
could be in heaven, you know. Now, do I go back tonight for food and
risk a Leffe-ing, and save my dried meals for emergencies, or tuck in
to yummy packet pasta and save money and liver function? I'll keep you
guessing, but those of you who know me will already have spotted the
OK, hands up whoever guessed that I opted for dried pasta rations? If that's you, go see a doctor... Handmade pizza was the smell that sealed my fate, and handmade quattro staggione was the pizza that relieved me of my hunger, ably assisted by a mountainous Greek salad. Well, you can't take it with you, can you?
I was glad to wake early and - surprisingly - refreshed after last night's 'activities': the van that had appeared late yesterday evening contained musicians who were seemingly none too happy about being told where to park and when to go to bed by Peter, one half of a couple from Edinburgh on a cycle tour. His girlfriend, Claire, seemed reasonable enough, but he had something of the 'meek' antagonist about him and, although I've no idea what transpired between them, it's safe to say that they were cross enough to pointedly clatter and rattle everything they owned, slam doors and yell obscenities at/for Peter's benefit. Sadly, the rest of the campsite could not help but be woken by it too... Unless 'snoring man' had beaten them to it and kept all without sound insulation awake. Anyway, I got the early start I'd been looking for, and was dressed, showered and packed - swarming midges notwithstanding - by 8am. The campsite's café didn't open til 9am so I headed down to the inn to see if they'd sell a non-resident a coffee and a bacon roll.Naturally, they were only too pleased to take my money, and so I left town before 9am, refreshed, replete and ready for 63 miles of wilderness.
The Applecross peninsula is spectacular; towering mountains at the south, a high, rocky plateau to the north, thinly vegetated and still wearing its scars from the last glaciation like a badge of honour. Past 9000 year old cave dwellings at Sand, the road rollercoasters it's way past tiny nouveau-chic crofting settlements, the houses paired with gleaming Audis and Mercs from central Scotland and the English home counties, their owners drawn to the stark beauty of the landscape, the isolation and private beaches with piers. Handy for messing about on boats, then...
After stopping at Shieldaig to stock up on fig rolls at the world's least friendly corner shop, I was ready for the short hop to Torridon, a non-place for everyone except mountaineers, canoeists and fly fishermen. It has a hotel or two and a youth hostel and is marked on the map in big letters, in inverse proportion to the size and importance of the place. Even up close, I had difficulty locating any al settlement, and checked the map more than once. A quick recce at the visitors centre (the idea of a visitors centre for a place that wasn't there amused me) revealed that the nearest cup of tea stop was two miles back, at the hotel. I decided to risk everything and gamble on Kinlochewe having better facilities, and pressed on again up Glen Torridon which, even without English refreshment, I was able to discern was stunning, truly wild country, where birds of prey might outnumber people once the school holidays were over. With a faint tailwind and almost imperceptible gradients, the 11 lunar miles at the foot of Liathach and Beinn Eighe slipped by in a blur of rock and heather, neck craned to the ragged skyline propped up on vertical grey walls.
Kinlochewe happens to be home to one of those very Scottish businesses, The Shop. Yes, it certainly was, but it was clearly a shop that sold everything, as well as a post office and a café, and I took full advantage of the fact, to the tune of soup, toastie and, naturally, tea. "You've never ridden all the way from Dartmoor, have you?" asked an old fellow who had clearly read my cycling jersey. "No", I said. "That would be silly..." "Oh, yes..." he attempted. "...I started at Land's End, of course!" I think he went off me quite quickly.
Just under two hours later I was entering Gairloch, a miniature Cornwall in the Scottish tundra, all golf course and boat trips, palm trees and ice cream and big yellow beaches... An amber jewelled ring on a bloodless, grey and petrified finger. Once again I met up with Simon from Montreal, and discovered that we would be cycling the same route tomorrow. I made tentative arrangements concerning beer, either tonight or tomorrow, before heading off to pitch the tent and have an early shower.
Like an impatient child, eager to get on with the messy business of the day, the rain arrived at an inconsiderate hour this morning, accompanied by tent-rattling winds. So, what do you do when an unruly and unwelcomed toddler arrives 10 hours early? You get up, slide into whatever clothes are to hand and thank God there are at least no midges. Then you ride...
You ride into the wind and rain - uphill, as it happens - until you find somewhere that will sell you breakfast, and that somewhere was Poolewe. The post office sold hot pies but not tea, so I sheltered and enjoyed my pie until the local attraction, Inverewe Gardens, opened its café and then made a bee-line for shelter, civilisation and sustenance. I'm English; I'm just not supposed to function without tea! Shortly after getting back on thee road, I was joined by Simon de Montreal, which was a enormous boost to my morale. I really wasn't looking forward to nearly 60 miles of headwinds, rain and bloody big hills, but with a companion it's a little easier. You can take turns at sheltering and cutting the wind, talk to relieve the monotony, and share a joke when the weather allows. Long distance cycling is such a different proposition alone. I'd be lying if I said that the miles flew by; they didn't. It took all our strength to pedal down the hills, and many stops to stretch, drink, eat and rest.
The Dundonnell Hotel was one such welcomed stop. At the foot of what turned out to be a seven mile climb, a hotel that was open, and serving coffee and shortbread to smelly cyclists. We were their rush hour, clearly, as although the hotel was open there was no-one around, so we sat in the lounge, grateful for the great indoors and unconditional seating, until the owner came by to take our order. Simon is, as it happens, a teacher, so we ended up discussing teaching and landscape photography while waiting and privately praying for the wind to die down... Which it did! Simon insisted on paying, and we rushed out into the still afternoon, eager to make the most of the lull. We were 3 miles up the hill before the wind picked up again, the caffeine and shortbread giving us the boost we needed to tackle the beast, one false summit after sapping our will as well as our bodies, the rain thickening in our faces all the while... Without the sanity stop it would certainly have been a very much longer day. The summit came - and went - unannounced. This was the sort of summit that would miss its own birthday party. Imperceptibly, the slope fell away and now the only enemy was the wind. A quick map check showed that in four miles we would turn, and have both the gradient and wind on our side for the first time today. Who cares if it's a main road?
A reference glance at my bike computer showed that, despite pedalling for all I was worth down the hill, I was still doing 0 mph. Oh. Good job I was no longer counting the miles, eh? I pocketed the computer and made a mental note to either fix it or send it home, and carried on riding. We were still taking turns on the front but, even with the wind behind us, the turns became shorter and slower. With less than a half dozen miles remaining, the road to Ullapool became a tease and threw us a last handful of short, steep hills. Drained, we coasted to the centre of town, and made a plan to meet for beers at 6pm. Only then did I discover that my b+b was another 2 miles out of town... Uphill. Kindly, the owner offered to drive me to town if I needed food, so I showed and took advantage, meeting Simon whilst wreaking my murderous hunger on a portion of the town's finest fish and chips. We adjourned to the pub - my round after the coffees earlier in the day - to discuss music, news, Canadian life and, inevitably, Americans. There are very few about this year, it seems. Maybe the credit crunch has confined them to Edinburgh and cultural excursions only? Who knows.
After yesterday's test of will, today's wee jaunt to Scourie was a welcomed relief. The plan had been to stick to the coast, taking in the Stac Polly area, but a chance remark led me to check my tyres, and that's how I discovered that my pump wasn't working. I didn't fancy getting stranded on the minor roads (the 'main' road wasn't exactly bumper-to-bumper with traffic) with a flat tyre, so it ended up being a much shorter ride than I'd intended, a little over 40 miles. The mountains of Assynt were bathing in a grudging sunlight, like body-building show-offs courting female attention. The occasional glance behind me at the hills I'd passed revealed ripples of self-regarding granite, angled just so to catch the skim of sunlight just strong enough to cast shadows. I pressed on, heedless of the megalithic egoes, eager for the shelter and food normally found in a Co-Op. It wasn't that the mountains were of no interest to me - they were - but rather that it would have taken a day to give each the consideration it deserved; more in the case of Ben More Assynt, the big hill in these parts. Assynt is, I'm told, Old Norse for "Who's bright idea was this... Olaf?" presumably in response to the endless granite ridges that characterise this part of the world, making farming thin and walks long. However, in the sunlight of midsummer and out of the wind* it has a rugged beauty that must have appealed to the Viking eye. *(It might happen...)
I'd been tipped off that the campsite in Scourie was top quality by a biker family I'd met at my morning tea-stop in Elphin, and they weren't wrong. Fun-sized terraces of deep, soft sandy soil made pitching tents a piece of cake, and the back wall of each terrace was somewhere handy to park the bike for loading and unloading. I pitched next to Daz from Scunthorpe, who was having a brew and a smoke. He was a first time bike tourist, but making light work of his inexperience and lack of fancy kit. Just down the hill was Graheme, a carpenter from Australia who looked exactly like the old fella in Blade, played by Kris Kristoffersen, but without the guns or vampires. Obviously.
I didn't think it likely, but only a few minutes later I was on the beach playing the game of 'tennis ball' with an old Labrador, neither of which I'd brought with me. They were provided by a French librarian on a home-stay visit to learn English. We spoke to the dog in French and in English, but it made no difference, the dog still shook itself dry only when standing by us. I was joined in the campsite's bar-eatery (neither a pub nor a restaurant) by Graham and Isolde, a German woman on a motorbike who was new to the biker's corner community. She was apparently lactose intolerant, impervious to caffeine and worked in IT. She had also taken quite a shine to Graham, so I let them get on with it and tucked onto a gratuitous slice of chocolate fudge cake and ice cream...