Day 20 – 28/7/2010 – A day in Edinburgh (about 9 miles’ walking)

After several days of intense cycling I was relieved to be able to spend a rather more relaxed day exploring the city of Edinburgh. I walked the Royal Mile, viewed the castle from the outside, relaxed in a coffee shop, watched some street performers, browsed an intriguing shop selling old prints of maps and climbed Arthur’s Seat, a prominent hill and fine viewpoint.

Edinburgh from Arthur's Seat

Edinburgh from Arthur's Seat

Edinburgh suburbs and the Firth of Forth from Arthur's Seat

Edinburgh suburbs and the Firth of Forth from Arthur's Seat

Another view from Arthur's Seat

Another view from Arthur's Seat

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Day 19 – 27/7/2010 – Newtonmore to Edinburgh. 120 miles

Route plan for the day’s cycling:

The day began with a wonderful breakfast as expected. I headed south on the slow but steady ascent to Drumochter summit, which was rewarded with a long and fast (30mph for some time) descent to Dalnacardoch Lodge where I took the minor road to Trinafour. This involved a steep climb but the descent was beautiful with wonderful views towards Schiehallion.

View to Schiehallion

View to Schiehallion

I soon reached the town of Aberfeldy, where I stopped for an enjoyable pub lunch of chicken and chips. I also replenished my food supplies at the Co-op, before enjoying an ice-cream relishing the beautiful-for-once weather! From Aberfeldy the ride was relatively straightforward with 50 or 60 miles to go until Edinburgh. There were several scenic spots along the way. Shortly out of Aberfeldy there was a fine viewpoint near Loch na Craig. A little while later I dropped into a deep and impressive valley known as the Sma’ Glen, on the boundary between the highlands and lowlands of Scotland.

Aberfeldy viewpoint

Aberfeldy viewpoint

View near Aberfeldy

View near Aberfeldy

Sma' Glen

Sma' Glen

Bike leaning on trees during biscuit stop

Bike leaning on trees during biscuit stop

Further south I negotiated a first class climb up Glen Eagles into the Ochil Hills, another picturesque range. I was also impressed with the small hills just north of Dumfermline – the Cleigh Hills and the area around Knock Hill. The fantastic weather really made a difference to my mood and my appreciation of the cycle tour.

Glen Eagles

Glen Eagles

View back to Ochil Hills from Cleigh Hills

View back to Ochil Hills from Cleigh Hills

Fife View

Fife View

Evening in the Central Lowlands

Evening in the Central Lowlands

The next milestone of the day’s journey was reaching the Forth Road Bridge. I relished an astounding sunset as I crossed the Firth of Forth and felt a huge sense of satisfaction. Upon reaching the city I followed up an offer of accommodation from a lady I met on the Isle of Rum, who very kindly agreed to let me stay for two nights.

Absolutely incredible sunset from the Forth Road Bridge

Absolutely incredible sunset from the Forth Road Bridge

Sunset from the Forth Road Bridge

Sunset from the Forth Road Bridge

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Day 18 – 26/7/2010 – Inverness to Newtonmore. 49 miles (+ 4 mile evening walk)

Route plan for the day’s cycling:

Route plan for the day’s walking:

I spent a wonderful morning and early afternoon in Inverness sorting out my gear and recouperating in readiness for the journey home. My first priority was to fix the rip in my tent’s flysheet, so I went to Craigdon Mountain Sports, a very helpful camping store in town. Not only did they recommend a tailor to get the tear stitched up, but also allowed me to leave my bike in the store and dried the inner of my tent while I was waiting for the repair to take place! Meanwhile, I enjoyed an indulgent and well-needed all day breakfast at a local cafe. I bought food and a few things I needed before reluctantly mustering up the energy to leave the city and setting off down the A9. I pulled in at a layby a little way in to talk to a couple of cyclists. They were around my age (perhaps a bit younger) and turned out to be doing a fully supported JOGLE trip on racers with no luggage. I wished them luck and mindful of their significant weight advantage got a headstart before turning off onto the scenic “B” road to Moy. I would be following the A9 southwards, but taking all the possible detours off it to avoid the treacherous traffic. After cycling over Slochd summit, I stopped at Carrbridge for an ice-cream. The village boasts the oldest packhorse bridge in the Highlands, quaintly built from local stone in 1717.

The bridge at Carrbridge

The bridge at Carrbridge

When I reached Newtonmore it was getting late and the weather had turned. I did not want to negotiate Drumochter pass at dusk on the busy A9 and I doubted I would find accommodation further on. I had decided to treat myself to a bed and breakfast, so I found a local guest house. It was luxury having a proper bed and bedroom for a night! Being within the Cairngorms National Park and in some good hill country I ventured on a short evening walk up a small hill called Creag an Loin. This was quite a wild walk with no clearly defined path. I was surprised at how moorland-like the hills were – not as rugged as I had imagined the Cairngorms might be – but nonetheless scenic and there were fine views down Glen Banchor.

The road into Glen Banchor

The road into Glen Banchor

Glen Banchor

Glen Banchor

The slopes of Creag Bheag

The slopes of Creag Bheag

Expansive moorland view

Expansive moorland view

Summit cairn

Summit cairn

Glen Banchor from Creag an Loin

Glen Banchor from Creag an Loin

Heather on Creag an Loin

Heather on Creag an Loin

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Day 17 – 25/7/2010 – Rhiconich to Durness then back south to Inverness. 130 miles

Route plan for the day’s cycling:

I woke at 6:30 and was on my way by 8:30. I cycled to Durness in very misty conditions, a tailwind and long descent speeding me quickly northwards. I considered briefly taking the ferry to Cape Wrath (the Scottish mainland’s most northwesterly point) but I thought it pointless in the still-bad weather. In Durness I stopped at a campsite to find water, but being a Sunday there were no shops open where I could buy food. Fortunately a few miles later (about 20 miles in) I found a little cafe on the western side of Loch Eriboll where I ate beans and scrambled eggs. Eager to make good progress southwards and get back to some civilisation, I asked how far it was to Inverness. The reply was “about 110 miles – two and a half hours’ drive” to which I remarked that I would do well to reach it in a day! Before I left, some kind caravanners, intrigued by my exploits, offered me some tins of food – ravioli and macaroni cheese. Although I had no way of heating the food I took it because this part of Scotland was so remote that I was unlikely to find any food before lunchtime, especially on a Sunday. I did not want to be caught out without food, risking “bonking” or “hitting the wall”.

A rare glimpse of sunshine over Loch Eriboll

A rare glimpse of sunshine over Loch Eriboll

I followed the Hope road down to Altnaharra, marking the turning point of my trip, beginning the long journey southwards back to Cheltenham. The road past Ben Hope was very pleasant with good views beside Loch Hope.

Loch Hope

Loch Hope

Stunning scenery along the Hope Road

Stunning scenery along the Hope Road

The weather was still very overcast but had brightened a little as I came across an intriguing little ruin called Dun Dornaigil Broch. A broch is a type of Iron Age dry stone tower found only in Scotland – this particular example is thought to date back to 1st century BC. It is unclear what its function was, but some theories suggest that brochs were defensive structures to safeguard farmers in times of conflict over land and livestock. Others think that they were built to exhibit wealth and status. Dun Dornaigil would originally have stood at twice its current ruined height – an impressive 14m tall – and it would have had a thatched roof.

Dun Dornaigil Broch

Dun Dornaigil Broch

By 2:45pm I had arrived in Altnaharra, but it was too late to have a proper meal at the only pub for miles. Despite this, I went inside and bought a drink as an excuse to ask whether I could eat my tins of food inside. Cold ravioli and cold macaroni cheese tasted absolutely revolting, but I was desparately hungry and without anywhere to buy food I had to force it down. I did not find Altnaharra at all friendly. A young woman working at the bar told me I must be “mental” to be doing the cycle tour on my own – “at least slightly mental” – especially to be eating cold tins of food. Looking back I am inclined to agree a little, but even if it was meant light-heartedly it did not come across that way. On a long, extended cycle tour, it is inevitable that there will be some less enjoyable days and it certainly takes a lot of mental energy and determination to keep going. I felt like remarking that when I was in a depressing, remote place devoid of food in gloomy weather that I did indeed start to question my sanity!

View over Loch Meadie towards Ben Loyal

View over Loch Meadie towards Ben Loyal

Fortunately the road southwards was a fast one and I soon arrived in Lairg, the “crossroads of the North”, where at last there was an open garage shop – the first food store that I had come across in 80 miles of cycling! It seemed I had finally reached a more civilised place. Later in my tour when I mentioned having cycled to Durness, all the people I spoke to commented on the area’s remoteness. One person said “It’s like the moon up there!” – a remark I can relate to well. Nevertheless I think northern Sutherland would be an area well worth revisiting in fairer weather (and with food!) because it boasts some astounding coastal scenery and fine mountains.

Once I had reached Lairg I was determined to get to Inverness, so I pushed on quickly stopping only to admire the view from near Bonar Bridge over the Dornoch Firth, and later to don my reflective cycling gear before joining the lethal A9 road. I arrived at Inverness by 9pm but it took forever to find the camp site!

View over Dornoch Firth

View over Dornoch Firth

Another view from near Bonar Bridge

Another view from near Bonar Bridge

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Day 16 – 24/7/2010 – Into the far north: Poolewe, Wester Ross to Rhiconich, Sutherland. 102 miles.

Route plan for the day’s cycling:

The day began well: I was invited inside by the caravanners I had met the previous evening and treated to a fantastic bacon roll with coffee! I then sorted my laundry, which took until late morning, writing my journal to pass the time. At 10:45am I was setting off round the coast headed for Ullapool. The weather was cloudy, but there were some good views in the morning just north of Tournaig where I met a couple admiring the view, and later on there were dramatic scenes over Gruinard Bay towards An Teallach (a munro).

View from near Tournaig

View from near Tournaig

Gruinard Bay

Gruinard Bay

Unfortunately the weather later deteriorated and it rained or drizzled for much of the day, The latter half of the A832 from Dundonnell was slightly tedious: a long uninteresting climb. Luckily this led to a relaxed descent to the Braemore, where there were good views down the Broom Valley towards Ullapool. I didn’t stop to explore the Falls of Measach because I decided I didn’t have time.

Broom Valley

Broom Valley

At Ullapool (and civilisation!) I stopped at an award-winning fish ‘n’ chip shop, where I indulged in the most enormous portion of fish ‘n’ chips I’d ever seen! It was very enjoyable and much-needed after 50 miles of cycling. I stocked up with food at the Tesco store and bought a new memory card from a small electricals shop. I was really looking forward to the coming section of journey, particularly heading north through Assynt, because I’d seen pictures of and heard about its wonderful mountains, such as Suilven and Canisp which rise spectacularly above miles of sparsely-inhabited wilderness. However, the weather became quite oppressive – very dark with light rain which restricted the views, so I was rather disappointed.

Ullapool Harbour

Ullapool Harbour

Ullapool

Ullapool

I pressed on until I reached Ardvreck Castle, where I stopped for a snack. I offered a casual “hello” to a grey-haired middle-aged woman who passed by, but I might as well have sworn at her considering the acid tone with which she replied to me! I muttered something about her being a miserable female dog under my breath and hoped she heard it! The midges added to the misery – I couldn’t stay in one place for a second without swarms of the beasts hovering around my head. Keen to leave the place, I kept on cycling, although the ride was rather a slog due to the hideous dreich weather.

Ardvreck Castle

Ardvreck Castle

A sliver of sunlight was determined to improve my afternoon. As I reached Loch Glencoul, a small patch of blue sky drifted above, and the skies brightened momentarily producing a spectacular double rainbow. I stopped in awe, taking several pictures before realising that I wasn’t far from the lake, which would make a good backdrop to a shot of the rainbow, if I reached it quickly enough! I was pleased with the results.

Rainbow

Rainbow

Rainbow

Rainbow

Rainbow over Loch Glencoul

Rainbow over Loch Glencoul

It soon resumed raining so I resumed cycling. Realising that I wouldn’t reach Durness before dark, I found a spot to wild camp in a layby near Rhiconich, a middle-of-nowhere hamlet in the far northwest. As I was tightening the flysheet of my tent the fabric ripped in one of the corners. At that very moment, I heard a horrific cackle in the distance, which scared me witless at first with thoughts that there was some kind of deranged psychopath on my trail. I reasoned that it must have been simply a seagull! But nevertheless it was quite disturbing and I slept fitfully. Fortunately the rip in my flysheet was not enough to prevent me from pitching, although it was by no means ideal, but at least I had shelter for the night. In such a remote part of the country I would not want to be stranded in the dark, cold and wet without a tent!

The northern part of Sutherland I had cycled through during the day was strikingly empty, with only scattered settlements perhaps every 15 miles, comprising small collections of houses. I was starting to slightly regret my decision to head for the north coast, because of the bad weather and isolation. However, at least I would be able to say I’d cycled to the north coast, and I’d managed to reach within 15 miles of Durness, which would be my final destination before turning back on the long southward journey home. The plan for tomorrow would be to bag Durness then cycle as far south as I possibly could.

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Day 15 – 23/7/2010 – Liathach traverse before cycling from Torridon to Poolewe. 6.5 miles hiking, 36 miles cycling.

Route plan for the day’s walking:

Route plan for the day’s cycling:

I was up and packed early in the morning. By 10am, after cycling to the bottom of Liathach and locking my bike in some nearby woodland, I was ready to start climbing. The ascent from the car park was long and steep with a few bits of very easy scrambling. I met two walkers on the way up, and noticed they were refilling with water from the burn. Having never drunk water from a stream before, I enquired as to how safe a practise this was, and they persuaded me it was fine and that I’d regret not refilling when I could because there would be no water on the summit ridge. Being a very warm day (for Scotland), I followed their advice and indulged in very refreshing, icy cold mountain spring water – my first taste of a Scottish mountain!

My tent in the morning, at Torridon's free campsite

My tent in the morning, at Torridon's free campsite

View down Glen Torridon

View down Glen Torridon

View from the steep path upwards

View from the steep path upwards

When I reached the summit ridge, the views really opened out. Leviathan mountains – Beinn Alligin and Beinn Eighe – stood as isolated giants separated from Liathach by incised valleys. I soon reached the first and highest of Liathach’s two munro tops, Spidean a’ Choire Leith, to witness an incredible panorama. Mountains and hills stretched as far as the eye could see into the distance, interspersed with lakes and valleys. To the west, the sea appeared – The Minch – with Skye ashore and the Outer Hebrides far beyond.

Atop the summit ridge

Atop the summit ridge

View to Liathach's first top

View to Liathach's first top

Mighty Beinn Eighe

Mighty Beinn Eighe

Rocky walking on Liathach

Rocky walking on Liathach

Beinn Alligin and Beinn Dearg (middle distance, L-R)

Beinn Alligin and Beinn Dearg (middle distance, L-R)

View from Liathach

View from Liathach

Liathach, Beinn Alligin and Skye

Liathach, Beinn Alligin and Skye

Stunning Panoramic Views

Stunning Panoramic Views

The end of Liathach, Beinn Eighe behind

The end of Liathach, Beinn Eighe behind

Beinn Eighe

Beinn Eighe

View to the pinnacles of Liathach

View to the pinnacles of Liathach

Vast hill country

Vast hill country

View to Mullach an Rathain

View to Mullach an Rathain

Expansive wild views

Expansive wild views

The mighty bulk of Beinn Eighe, middle distance

The mighty bulk of Beinn Eighe, middle distance

Liathach’s notorious pinnacles looked terrifying from above, ominously looming on the path ahead. I pondered whether to continue, and decided that I would push on, but take the bypass path instead of climbing over the sharp arête. Having been scared witless the previous week on Arran’s A’Chir ridge, I wasn’t prepared to risk any more potentially dangerous scrambling (even though A’Chir was graded as being more difficult).

Dramatic drop off the side of the bypass path

Dramatic drop off the side of the bypass path

Casually peering down the 1000m edge (bike hidden in the trees down there)

Casually peering down the 1000m edge (bike hidden in the trees down there)

The first of Liathach's pinnacles

The first of Liathach's pinnacles

View from the bypass path

View from the bypass path

Dramatic Valley

Dramatic Valley

View back to Spidean a' Choire Leith

View back to Spidean a' Choire Leith

Sheer drops and knife-edge hills

Sheer drops and knife-edge hills

The bypass, although very exposed on the left hand side did not pose too many difficulties, although there were some slightly precarious stretches were gullies had eroded down the mountainside. After the pinnacles were passed, it was a simple walk to the second Munro top, Mullach an Rathain. This brought equally superb views to those from the earlier summit, embellished further by the blue expanse of Upper Loch Torridon, its ragged edges visible below.

Looking back across the pinnacles of Liathach

Looking back across the pinnacles of Liathach

Leviathan Hills

Leviathan Hills

Spectacular Mountains

Spectacular Mountains

Upper Loch Torridon

Upper Loch Torridon

The ragged sides of Upper Loch Torridon

The ragged sides of Upper Loch Torridon

The descent path down Liathach was pretty horrendous! The path was heavily eroded by wind, weather and years of trampling. It declined steeply on gravel-like sediment, and I was unable to achieve a firm foothold, so crawled using my hands and feet with my back facing the mountainside. After a few hundred metres (which seemed to take forever) something more akin to a proper path appeared and thereafter the descent was straightforward. The walk took about 6.5 hours and was really enjoyable – breaktaking – in the fine weather.

Wild mountains viewed from Liathach

Wild mountains viewed from Liathach

The path down the mountain - see area of scree in top right - that's the path!

The path down the mountain - see area of scree in top right - that's the path!

I returned to my bike and cycled on to Kinlochewe, where I stopped at a garage and treated myself to an ice-cream and some snacks. Some walkers I’d met on the hill earlier were surprised to see me and asked how I was doing. The walk had tired me considerably, and they commented that I seemed tired – they were knackered as well. Despite being exhausted after Liathach I managed to cycle on to Poolewe, 30 miles up the coast. This was a spectacular route, filled with dramatic mountain vistas – such as Slioch towering over Loch Maree – and scenic coastal views later on. I would have appreciated the views more had I not been so tired! My reason for persisting in the evening was that I was determined to go the extra distance to Durness on the North Coast of Scotland, which I had heard would be a spectacular journey (albeit two days’ detour). I therefore wanted to make as much progress northwards as possible before dark.

Loch Clair

Loch Clair

Slioch towering over Loch Maree

Slioch towering over Loch Maree

View over Loch Maree

View over Loch Maree

View over Loch Maree

View over Loch Maree

With no charge on my phone, I was forced to look for a telephone box in order to ring home. At Gairloch I found a payphone, but BT are absolutely useless: their box would not accept coins, and when I tried to pay by card I found that there was no card slot; furthermore when I tried to ring an operator the phone was inoperable! I gave up, and kept going along the coast. At Poolewe I stopped at a campsite, and although I was intending to wild camp somewhere, I thought I’d better go to the posh campsite so I could do my laundry and charge the phone. At £8.20 it was the most I’d had to pay for a campsite on my trip so far, but I was in need of fresh clothes and a comfortable night, in any case.

After I’d pitched up, some kind caravanners invited me inside for a cup of coffee and cheese on toast! Luxury! I told them all about my adventures and showed them my pictures. Apparently they had overtaken me earlier, up the hill from Gairloch. It was great to have some company, and their kindness really made my day (and alleviated any grievances I’d had at paying the campsite fee).

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Day 14 – 22/7/2010 – Strome Ferry to Torridon via the Bealach na Ba mountain pass. Evening walk up Beinn Damh for a spectacular sunset. 62 miles cycling, 7 miles walking

Route plan for the day’s cycling:

Route plan for the day’s walking:

As forecast, the northerly had brought with it perfect cycling weather, providing excellent clear views over Loch Carron.

View over Loch Carron

View over Loch Carron

Loch Carron view

Loch Carron view

Reflections in Loch Carron

Reflections in Loch Carron

Up bright and early, I made it to Lochcarron village by around 10am and since the weather was so fantastic, determined to ride the Bealach na Ba – the Pass of the Cattle – the road to Applecross. Having seen footage of this road before, I knew it was one of the most formidable roads in Scotland with one of the highest sustained gradients of any UK road, rising from sea level to 626m (2053ft) at the summit. The road’s difficulties were clearly spelled out by a sign at its junction, where I refuelled with food in preparation for the climb.

Applecross warning sign

Applecross warning sign

The road at first climbed slowly but steadily, rising above the coastline before entering a dramatic valley surrounded by craggy rock faces. It then rose more steeply until a series of Alpine-style switchback bends with gradients of 20%. It was undoubtedly a tough ascent, especially with my touring luggage, but not as bad as I had expected – at no point did I have to stop and walk – the challenge is in the hill’s length more than in its gradient. Once I reached the top I was rewarded with marvellous views across to Skye and over surrounding hills. I met some German cyclists who were on a “Keymove” tour of Scotland, with a support vehicle behind. They were fascinated with my luggage-carrying system and that way I had packed so light! I asked one of them to take a photograph of me at the top.

Standing at the top of the Bealach na Ba

Standing at the top of the Bealach na Ba

View from the summit

View from the summit

The descent was very enjoyable, although I was unable to get any real speed due to the narrowness and sinuosity of the road. It was nevertheless a rewarding break from pedalling, leading through spectacular scenery down to the coast at Applecross. In the sunshine the beaches looked very inviting: I cycled past Applecross but a short way later found a sandy little bay in which to eat a snacky lunch. I even braved the sea for a few minutes, but only up to my knees – it was so cold!

Applecross Bay

Applecross Bay

Sand Bay, where I ate lunch

Sand Bay, where I ate lunch

Cuillins of Skye from Sand Bay

Cuillins of Skye from Sand Bay

The coast road is stunningly beautiful, but torturously hilly! Ironically I found this stretch of road more draining that the earlier mountain pass, probably because I was prepared for the long ascent earlier, whereas the coast road followed every undulation, descending and reascending steeply and frequently to and from sea level. At least the weather was excellent – there were marvellous views across the sea. Upon reaching the shores of Upper Loch Torridon I was very impressed by the grandeur of the lofty mountains surrounding it – Beinn Alligin, Beinn Eighe, Liathach – the panorama made the strenuous cycling worthwhile.

Skye from Applecross Peninsula

Skye from Applecross Peninsula

North Skye from Applecross Peninsula

North Skye from Applecross Peninsula

View over Upper Loch Torridon

View over Upper Loch Torridon

Idyllic Scottish View

Idyllic Scottish View

Liathach towering above Loch Torridon

Liathach towering above Loch Torridon

Sunny view over Loch Torridon

Sunny view over Loch Torridon

Upon reaching the village of Torridon, I stocked up on rood and pitched my tent. Having asked the advice of a local, I cycled to the bottom of Beinn Damh, a Corbett (Scottish hill between 2,500ft and 3000ft) in order to climb it. I had been told the ascent would be a manageable evening’s hike, and that should I be up there after sunset, there would be a good track which I could easily follow. The mountain, a few metres short of being a munro involved a steady climb through woodland and then up onto the summit ridge. A worthwhile walk brought excellent views over neighbouring peaks, towards Skye and onto the many lochs nearby. The sunset was absolutely magnificent.

Liathach from Beinn Damh

Liathach from Beinn Damh

The craggy slopes of Beinn Damh

The craggy slopes of Beinn Damh

Loch Damh from Beinn Damh

Loch Damh from Beinn Damh

Wild view from Beinn Damh

Wild view from Beinn Damh

View from Beinn Damh

View from Beinn Damh

Evening view from Beinn Damh

Evening view from Beinn Damh

Sunset view from Beinn Damh

Sunset view from Beinn Damh

Sunset hues from Beinn Damh

Sunset hues from Beinn Damh

Moonlit view - otherworldly

Moonlit view - otherworldly

The Sunset

The Sunset

Descending after sunset was fine, and there was enough ambient light to see the path clearly. I then retreated to my tent in order to grab what sleep I could before climbing mighty Liathach, “the grey one”, the next day.

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