Bikepacking the Highlands
Dan Hall joins friends in riding a four-day Highland epic through the heather of the mountains. Sometimes there was even a trail.
Text received: Bikes booked on the 7.14am train to Inverness. Mission is go!
Inspired by previous articles on bivvying and bikepacking, it was with a sense of excitement that I found myself sitting rather blearily in the station eating breakfast. Why is it that after months of planning and route discussions I still found myself packing and rooting around for things the night before we were supposed to leave? Still we had made it in time for the train. The rough plan was Inverness, Glen Affric, Kintail, Loch Loyne, Spean Bridge (meet some riding buddies) somewhere else, home.
Kitchen sink, but no fishing rods.
After some faffing in Inverness, involving buying food and a gas canister (but not fishing rods as had been discussed on the train), we eventually set off along the Great Glen Way (GGW). Our target for the day? The hostel in Glen Affric, over 40 miles away. Ambitious? Perhaps a little. The GGW starts with an easy spin through Bught Park and along the canal. This did not prepare us in any way for the first hill on the loaded bikes. Vowing not to use the granny ring on the first climb I ground out too big a gear and after what seemed like ages found myself gasping for breath at the top of the hill. This was just the beginning. As a light drizzle started we settled into a steady rhythm and, dodging the walkers in their ponchos, the miles ticked down. A short section of road appeared and we could begin to see the mountains looming in the distance capped by very heavy looking clouds. Rain jackets on and a downwards slope under our wheels it quickly became apparent that we had made a minor navigational error. Re-climbing the hill we found our way, slightly soggy, back on to the GGW. We rode on past the Abriachan trails then on to the descent from the ridge through the woods to Drumnadrochit. This was a lot of fun. Rooty, slippy switchbacking double-track down to the road along the shores of Loch Ness, though the loaded bikes prevented anyone thinking about getting too ‘rad.’ After lingering over lunch (it was still lashing with rain) we set out on the road bash to Cannich and from there to Glen Affric. The sun began to shine and it seemed as if this might be quite a nice way to spend a week.
The tractor tyres fitted to Iain’s bike were beginning to take their toll on his energy reserves so after a healthy snack of oatcakes and cheese in the car park we set off into Glen Affric proper. Living on the coast as I do, it is easy to forget that there is a BIG side to Scotland. Mountains, mirror-flat lochs and ancient pine forest bathed in early evening sunshine were just what was required to distract us from the weary legs. About 7km up the Glen along a surprisingly rocky track there was a Nissan Micra parked, which rather took the shine off our achievements. Pedalling along the increasingly wet track into the gloaming the hostel at the end of the Glen was welcome relief and after inadvertently dipping our feet into a bog and a good kip we were ready for the next day’s ride into Kintail.
The sun was shining when we awoke and as we rode up the Glen, despite usually being a committed singlespeeder, I was increasingly glad of the advice to equip my bike with some gears. As boggy Land Rover track gives way to rocky walker’s path and the track passes Camban bothy the scenery becomes ever more majestic. What followed was some beautiful, technical, unrelentingly rocky singletrack, and despite not ascending to more than 350m, managed to include proper exposure into big drops, water falls, stream crossings and some really slippery, steep wet rocky descents.
Feeling pretty euphoric after sketching our way down the descent, we stopped at Glenlicht Lodge for a snack of a whole malt loaf each and some coffee kindly donated by some walkers. We then rode down more Land Rover track to Shiel bridge for some lunch and predictably, as we approached the west coast, it started to rain.
That’ll be a nice climb for you.
Over massive portions of fried food we discussed the options for the afternoon while the rain continued to pour down. Eventually we got chucked out as the restaurant shut and having neglected to look at the contours of the map or take into account the fact we were at sea level we began the road drag up to the Cluanie Inn. (Had we known that we were not to be meeting friends in Spean Bridge we could have chosen to go round the coast and over to Glen Elg. Next time…) Riding along the blacktop we were treated to further beautiful vistas to take our minds off the pedalling and the sun even chose to make a welcome appearance. After a pint in the Cluanie Inn we had convinced ourselves we didn’t need to ride any further, nor did we need a room for the night. We would bivvy down the road from the hotel. We set up the ghetto tent, consisting of a bothy shelter strung between the bikes and went for some dinner and a few pints. Climbing into the bivvy bags afterwards a light drizzle started but at least this would keep the midges away. Unfortunately, inside the ghetto tent it was not raining and was humid and lovely, perfect for midges. A damp uncomfortable night followed. We broke camp next morning, some of us considerably more midgey-bitten than others, and headed under the bridge to cook breakfast. Then, in an attempt to put off the inevitable, we went to the inn for some tea to warm up. Eventually we accepted that it was not going to stop raining and headed up the path to Loch Loyne.
It’s not a proper adventure unless you have to wade across a river.
We had been hoping to see the submerged bridge to allow us to take a shortcut across the loch but it was not visible. The mountain path by Mam na Seilg was boggy we had been told, so instead we slip-slid our way down a surprisingly lush grassy slope down to the river and tried to find somewhere to cross. By this time, my feet were soaked anyway so in we plunged dragging the bikes with us. (Clearly being SMBLA qualified, Iain had carefully risk-assessed this process before hand.) From there we had hoped that there would be some rideable bits round the loch, but no such luck. What followed was two and a half hours of pushing a heavy, laden bike through bogs and sinking sand. Pretty miserable. Did I mention it was still raining? Some strange footprints were seen including what looked like a big cat paw. I didn’t hang around to take pictures. (Turns out there is a big black cat in them there hills according to local hotel owner.) More heather bashing and scrambling about in the forest followed, including finding a bog with bones in it; not human but spooky nonetheless. We found our way to the forest boundary but, why is it that deer gates are always locked when it is least useful to you? A quick splash down the Land Rover track and an unlocked deer fence gate for once took us to the Tomdoun hotel. The staff at Tomdoun were very welcoming of two extremely bedraggled bikers and as we warmed up by the fire and filled our faces with soup, hot chocolate and sarnies we contemplated where to go next. The hostel at Invergarry beckoned and we set off along the forest tracks to our next destination. The owners face upon our arrival was a picture of dismay but after availing ourselves of the hosepipe, drying room and hot showers, we ate and headed for a well earned pint. Eight hours of solid rain we had ridden/hiked/waded through. It was still drizzling when we left the pub.
The Corrieyairack Pass.
We had been supposed to meet some friends on the fourth day but due to snapped frames and monumental travel times they had dropped out. With the streams swollen from all the rain we decided against heading down to towards Glencoe and Rannoch. We instead had an easy spin along the Caledonian Canal to Fort Augustus and after a quick lunch set off over the Corrieyairack pass. The pass is part of General Wade’s military road and is wide but now very eroded. The climb up from Fort Augustus is steep and rocky, too steep to ride in places. It finally broke me and I ended up walking but Iain motored on in the blazing sunshine. The views from the top are worth the slog though. After a quick refuel at the top we headed on down the descent. This is brilliant fun and characterized by lots and lots of rocks ranging in size from pebbles to massive boulders interspersed with stream crossings. All rideable more or less, (At this juncture I am contractually bound to mention that Iain’s descending ‘skillz’, with attached panniers, were those of a veritable riding god and that he never moaned once. Good enough for you?) and all too soon we found ourselves spinning along the road towards Garva bridge and onwards to Laggan. I say all too soon though it did take a while with all the mugging for photos. After raiding the shop for food and wolfing down several sandwiches, we headed to the Pottery bunk house for a beer or two and some more food. Unfortunately the hot tub was out of action but sitting in the evening sunshine drinking a beer was a fitting end to four days riding.
Next morning after some hi-fiving to celebrate a successful mission, Iain pedalled off for Dalwhinnie to get the train home to Edinburgh, leaving me to contemplate how to get back to Inverness and from there the train home. I figured that Aviemore would be an achievable target, then I could get the train, meet the parents in Inverness have a beer or two and then travel back to Aberdeen. A stop for lunch in Aviemore and a check of the train times revealed that there would not be one for two more hours, so no shortcutting the rest of the ride. I pedalled on in the sunshine towards Inverness, wishing for some slicks and someone else’s legs. Stopping to help a Norwegian couple with a puncture on their hire bikes ate up some time due to a pump filled with sand and bog and after 110km in the saddle I arrived at the station with 25mins to spare. After frantically finding some food and getting a ticket I climbed aboard. Basking in the sunlight streaming into the train carriage, sweaty and tired but satisfied, I sat staring out the window as the landscape slipped past, dreaming of the next adventure.