Bikepacking at the edge of the ocean

Sunlight on the water off the coast of Skye.
Sunlight on the water off the coast of Skye.

There’s something exciting about Scotland’s islands. A place that stands alone, separated by the sea from the rest of Britain, and jutting even further out into the sea fog and wind on the north-western frontier of Europe, must by definition contain adventure; it just makes sense. The Outer Hebrides must be the most adventurous of the lot then, standing aloof from Scotland and usually shrouded in cloud and mist. They are a place that not so long ago were ruled by Norway, home to the ‘lords of the Isles’ that controlled the sea-kingdom of islands and peninsulas that’s draped down the west coast.

I had only been to the Outer Hebrides once, a decade ago, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me to explore their potential from a mountain biking perspective, so based on hazy memories of tracks and old roads that lead through the uninvitingly rough, peat-hagged landscape of Harris, me and Annie decided that a trip there might give good bikepacking practise for the expedition to Iceland that has been looming larger and larger in our minds as it draws closer.

On the ferry to raasay, an island adventure for the price of a fish supper.
On the ferry to raasay, a little island adventure for the price of a fish supper.

Following a week of good weather, we had an unusual view of Skye as we crossed the bridge towards it, because it wasn’t raining and we could actually see it. The air was clear and warm, and on the way north we stopped at Sconser, just north of Broadford, and made a detour to the isle of Raasay by way of the small (and cheap) ferry. Hopping off, the Cuillin formed a toothed skyline behind us, and we climbed away from the sea on singletrack roads, before climbing more steeply on beautifully built singletrack. Dun Caan is the highest point on Raasay at over 400m, and gives a 360° panorama of the Applecross and Torridon in one direction, and Skye’s ridges and pinnacles in the other. To the south, the bridge at Kyle looked like a string tethering Skye to the mainland like a ballon, and to the north was endless sea. The summit of Dun Caan rises out of the moor like the fortress that the name suggests – from a distance you could almost believe that humans had built their castle on top of the moor, and it’s from that appearance that the hill gets its name.

Home for the night on Dun Caan, the Red Cuillin and Bla Bheinn in the background.
Home for the night on Dun Caan, the Red Cuillin and Bla Bheinn in the background.

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The sun was setting by this time, and so as we’d hoped, we had a beautiful bivvy spot to ourselves for the night. Not a bad place to cook some tea, sit back and do nothing more energetic than watch the sun drop behind the Cuillin. We didn’t bother with the tent’s fly sheet, and pitched only the inner to keep off midges and wind. The sun seemed to have set only a few minutes earlier when I was woken up by pink light invading the tent from the east, so I got up for a short while, and watched the fingery light slowly spread through thin clouds over Applecross. Hundreds of metres below me, tucked beneath crags on the island’s deserted east coast, I could see the ruins of a township that was quiet except for some woolly residents that baa’ed a lot. Can’t have been a bad place to live, on mornings like that. Seeing the time, I went back to the warmth of a sleeping bag for a few hours, and when we woke up again the weather was already reverting back to its preferred state. Small drops of rain chased us down the trail from the summit after a good breakfast, and continued to fall all day as we headed to the northern-most tip of the island to scout out some trails there. What we found was disappointing, and a very hilly ten miles stood between us and the ferry. We should have known that the evening before would have to be paid for somehow, and it was definitely overdue. Miserable pedalling happened.

Dawn over Applecross
Dawn over Applecross

Getting back to Skye and the van, the weather cleared again, and we set course for Uig and the ferry to Harris, detouring for a quick ride beneath the imposing crags of the Quirang. Early starts were becoming a habit as we booked a ticket for the 5.30am crossing, and spent another bright sunset packing the bikes with kit and plenty of food for a few days across the water.

The ferry to Harris beneath Idrigill point.
The ferry to Harris beneath Idrigill point.

I think a dawn start and a boat trip is an exciting thing, but there seemed to be plenty of people on the pier in Uig that would have disagreed with me the next morning. The boat cast off towards the dark, hilly outline sitting between a grey sky and a greyer sea, and the canteen did a roaring trade in cooked breakfasts. It was still early morning when we got to Tarbert, but as there was nothing else to distract us we cracked on with the exploration on an old road to Rhenigadail. This was the last village in Scotland to be connected to a tarmac road, which finally happened in 1989! Some tight, skity switchbacks woke us up properly on the first descent of the day, as the alternative was a very long tumble to the sea below. The riding was brilliant – properly benched, drained and surfaced old pony tracks, which decades of quiet neglect had almost allowed to return to the hillside, before the community-run estate had preserved the old trackways. They frequently passed ruined shielings and crofts, reminding us of the fact that many thousands of feet had passed this way before us, and they hadn’t been on a jolly day out. This had been someone’s route to home, part of their daily routine; someone had put hours of labour into the small green gangway that was woven into the gaps between the peat and the bare bedrock.

Loaded bikes could easily make switchbacks like these terminally exciting.
Loaded bikes could easily make switchbacks like these terminally exciting.

It was only midday when we returned to Tarbert, so we made the most of the showers at the tourist information point, and after lunch rode the ten miles across southern Harris to Luskentyre beach, for another scenic camp spot. White sand, coral blue sea, and lush, green hills. It isn’t a bad spot at all, just don’t be fooled into thinking that the water must be warm. Once again, we woke up to a changed scene, as heavy showers rolled in from the Atlantic, visible from miles away, but unstoppable and unescapable. We returned to Tarbert, and after some umming and ahhing continued north, heading into the remotest, hilliest country on harris where an interesting track on the map perhaps promised a way through this landscape.

White sand and blue skies at Luskentyre
White sand and blue skies at Luskentyre

We passed a ruined whaling station that had been active as late as the 1920s, before leaving the singletrack road behind and heading due north. Away from the pervasive sight of the sea, it was easy to forget that we were on an island, and could have been anywhere in the North-west highlands. The deep trough of the glen drew us further into the hills, where the darkest and heaviest of the showers had been sitting all day, seeming to compress the space beneath it until it felt as though we could reach and touch it. Not for the first time that day, we got soaked through. Luckily for us, the track materialised as promised, leading up through the moraines of an ancient glacier in a series of curves and switchbacks. We escaped the glen as the rain intensified, descending eastwards into glen Langadail.

Just taking the seagull for a walk.
Just taking the seagull for a walk.

The tent that night was a soggy place to be, but there was plenty of food and hot tea, and the fierce winds bustling down the glen kept any midges at bay. We were comfy, but I couldn’t help thinking that in Iceland we might easily face several days of more severe weather than this, and I wondered how we would expect to make any progress through the uplands if we did.

By morning, the weather was still happening horizontally, so we packed up and moved out, climbing eastwards once again, before another long descent down to loch Seaforth. The trail was as solid and as constant as ever – no sudden downward sensation as the front wheel was sucked into a bog, and no faint path fading in and out of vision. The old road was as good as it had ever been, and we took a sweeping line down groups of hillwalkers, who mostly looked soggy, as if they were starting to regret making outdoor plans for the day. Soon afterwards, so did we, as we hit a strong headwind that only served to give the rain a proper run up before it found its way into any available gap in our clothes. What should have been a hour or so spinning back to Tarbert turned into a death slog, with the desire to stop firmly beaten by the need to keep going and stay warm. Just as the toys were teetering on the edge of the pram, we hit Tarbert, and more importantly, a cake shop. We left the weather outside and tucked in, joining several road cyclists in game called ‘let’s see how long we can make this mug of tea last before they boot us back out into the rain’.

Before long it was ferry time again, and the scene of our few days’ adventure faded back into the haze of rain and sea fog. A trip to the Hebrides might require some serious drying time to be pencilled in for afterwards, but then it’s not an adventure if its all picnics and suntans, is it?

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