First Time Bikepacking – Notes From A Very Small Island

by
August 9, 2017

Photography by Darren Ellis

When your friend wants to visit a remote island for a bit of quiet contemplation and solitude, of course you jump at the chance to join him – at least that’s what we did. As we do every year, Ben and I had a week ‘off’ between Fort William World Cup and Tweedlove festival and fancied doing something a wee bit different, and out of our comfort zones. Enter bikepacking. Never tried it before, but tales of wild places, boil-in-a-bag dinners and stories accompanied by a hip flask have always filled me with envy. So for a first foray into another type of mountain biking, we set ourselves a challenge; Taigh Thormoid Dhuibh, a bothy on the Northernmost tip of the Isle of Raasay in the Highlands of Scotland. This is not a top ten, or best bits of the trip, but observations and probably things to do better next time.

First time Bikepacking - Raasay
aaand they’re off!

Whatever keeps you moving:

From the moment the ferry from Skye docked on Raasay it was clear we were in for a treat. The morning was atmospheric, with misty skies punctuated by the purple rhododendrons that lined the way. However, as we followed the road around the Southern part of the island, and as we went from tarmac, to hardcore to grass the sky brightened and all of our many waterproof layers were quickly shed.

First time Bikepacking - Raasay
“Where we’re going, we won’t need roads… we’ll just want them sometimes”

Our intended route was to follow the coast nearly the entire way. The first section was like an advert for Raasay; grassy trails undulating up and down the banks that followed the coastline. Shaggy sheep were enjoying the sunshine beating down and as we made our way to Hallaig – a cleared croft – every small corner or inlet that we passed revealed yet more jaw-dropping views of blue water and mainland Scotland beyond.

First time Bikepacking - Raasay
The views are definitely getting there

I am not the most hardy member of our group – I’m very happy to say that one of my favourite parts of a ride is getting changed out of my muddy riding kit and into the camper van or pub, cosy and tired, reminiscing about the day. However, on this trip the goal posts changed; there would be no dinner waiting for us on the table, no piping hot chocolate and only a sleeping bag on a wooden platform to keep warm.

First time Bikepacking - Raasay
Any time spent pushing or carrying is more than made up for by the views.

After our gorgeous, perfect trail vanished into thin air, we were faced with countless obstacles. First a vertical bank of ferns with no discernible path. Next countless fallen trees blocking the whisper of a trail we were following that ultimately led us to a bank that had been entirely eroded by the force of the water. We had no choice but to scramble over algae-covered boulders with bikes, dogs and luggage held above our heads. We had gone from riding on top of the mountain, searching for the next summit or best descent, to riding pushing and hiking into the landscape.

First time Bikepacking - Raasay
Even a decent trail can be made invisible by ferns.

Even as each new, unexpected and seemingly impossible challenge appeared, the promise of finding that solitary bothy was enough to keep us going. Together we got each of our bikes over that tree, or down that stream, or up that bank, finally reaching the blissful tarmac that would take us out of the woods – away from the midges – and on to our destination.

First time Bikepacking - Raasay
The bothy is a very welcome sight after so long riding.

Trying to get lost

In the days leading up to this trip there were several work crises to deal with and I spent a long time telling suppliers that I was going to be completely and utterly un-contactable by any means other than smoke signal. They would need to take some initiative and solve problems without me. This was going to be heavenly – 36 hours with no project “doubts”, no delays and no bad news of any kind. If there’s no phone signal in the Peak District this most remote of islands was sure to be a 4G free zone.

First time Bikepacking - Raasay
There weren’t just human friends along for the trip.

When we made it through the wilderness, out the other side, exhausted, hungry and seeing mirage and after mirage of this elusive bothy, suddenly, a familiar noise broke the silence and… “ring ring” “would you like to take a short survey?”. Next time, I’m going to turn my phone off!

First time Bikepacking - Raasay
It’s usually at this point a telemarketer calls, and you want to hurl your phone into the heather.

Secret Singletrack

We had been on and off the bike for 12 hours and finally at 10.30pm, after travelling over what I can only describe as a moonscape, we found the bothy, nestled into a pocket of hillside complete with fresh-water stream and private view over the Isle of Rona. After food around the fire – we were very fortunate that previous visitors had left a huge supply of firewood and peat bricks – and a few drams, we climbed into our sleeping bags. Despite our extreme exhaustion the glowing light of the never-setting sun through the small window meant that sleep never came and Thursday morning was a bleary haze of preparing some sort of breakfast and packing away.

First time Bikepacking - Raasay
One last stop together before the ferry back.

In our delirium on Wednesday we hadn’t realised what a treasure we had raced through the night before. Technical, rocky pitches up and short, wild descents made up the first half of the 4 mile ride back to civilisation. Through a fence and over a rock roll, it was then the sort of singletrack that dreams are made of. Long and flowy, with rocks and corners thrown in to keep it good and spicy. Flying down here, I was surprised at how stable my bike felt with so much weight on the bars, and pushing through I was able to go that bit faster and faster before we all came to a stop at the bottom, laughing – the previous day’s struggle temporarily pushed from our minds with the feeling of a great piece of trail.

First time Bikepacking - Raasay
Weary traveller.

This is what we came for. The challenges we had faced all made up parts of a journey none of us ever expected. Working together through those obstacles gave me, at least, a sense of adventure that I usually don’t have time for, or make excuses not to find. But in the end, no matter where you slept the night before, or what the previous day has held whether it’s work or play, flying down a seemingly untouched trail with your buddies, looking out across where you have come and where you are next to go… it’s not a bad feeling.

The Menu

Bacon and egg roll
Cliff bar
Jelly babies
Squashed unidentifiable sandwiches
Cliff bar
Scotch tablet
Jelly babies
Tuna and grains in a bag
Whisky
Porridge
Mocha-flavoured gel
Sausage roll
Cliff bar
Kendal mint cake
Monster-sized burger

First time Bikepacking - Raasay
This may look like a configuration problem, but is actually vital training for the trails and trials to come.
First time Bikepacking - Raasay
We’re not sure what’s going on here, but it looks like it might be some kind of dad joke.
First time Bikepacking - Raasay
When you’ve been cooped up in a city for ages, even this is refreshing, let alone the views to come.
First time Bikepacking - Raasay
So far north, it never quite sets.
First time Bikepacking - Raasay
Weight on the bars can give a surprising amount of traction.
First time Bikepacking - Raasay
It’s not all BRAP; going somewhere remote will mean a fair amount of work off the bike too.
First time Bikepacking - Raasay
Dog fact: All dogs are officially Good Boys, regardless of gender or behaviour.
First time Bikepacking - Raasay
“How about now? Do I look rad?”
First time Bikepacking - Raasay
A pretty good spot for lunch!
First time Bikepacking - Raasay
A bit of carrying, but worth it.
First time Bikepacking - Raasay
Sometimes there’s no trail, but it doesn’t matter.
First time Bikepacking - Raasay
Room inside the bothy for bikes, dogs, people and…
First time Bikepacking - Raasay
… clothes hanging.
First time Bikepacking - Raasay
Refreshed (ish) and ready to carry on! Perpetual dusk at this northern latitude meant not getting much sleep overnight.
First time Bikepacking - Raasay
Getting everyone and everything ready to go in the morning is no mean feat – but faff definitely isn’t compatible with ferry schedules.
First time Bikepacking - Raasay
More ferns, but at least there’s a visible trail through them this time.
First time Bikepacking - Raasay
Someone should tell Danny MacAskill about this – rowboats are so 2014!

Disclosure: This content was provided free of charge by Singletrack Premier Dealer Flare Clothing.

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