Monday, June 16, 2008

Thursday May 1st - South Harris and Berneray

It rained most of the night and early in the morning, and there had been a bit of sunshine since then, but the weather seemed a bit unsure about what it wanted to do. I chose a sunny moment to say my goodbyes to Laura and Jack, and head off through South Harris.

Luskentyre beachThe first six or seven miles were desolate, grassy and rocky. The map pointed out "South Harris Forest" to the north, but there wasn't a tree in sight.

The road looped inland and emerged on the coast again at Luskentyre Beach, a vast expanse of fine white sand and quite a jaw-dropping sight as it first came into view between the bare hillsides.

Beaches were the theme of the day after that, from the stunning clear turquoise sea at Seilebost through tiny rocky bays at Horgabost and Borve, to Scarista which is overlooked by a golf course. Thankfully the hills were a little kinder around there, although there was quite a big climb as the road changed direction south towards Leverburgh.

InletIt had turned into a sunny day and I rode north onto Berneray, which was so lovely and peaceful, the sun was out, nobody was around and seals were basking on the rocks.

I made my way to Baile for the Gatliff hostel, following the tiny "Hostel" signs until the road turned into a field of sheep and I wondered whether I'd come to the right place. Several stone buildings stood in various states of repair and disrepair, with builders working on some of them. The builders said I should just pitch up and wait for the warden to come round later.

I found a nice flat spot by the shore, full of sheep who soon scattered when it became apparent I was there to stay. The nearest building was a derelict stone cottage with a grass roof but no roof-goats.

It was a couple of miles ride back down the road to the nearest phone box as I couldn't get a mobile signal (Apparently not all networks are created equal, and on the Outer Hebrides most of them are greater than mine) I'd had quite a lovely day so for once was able to sound a bit more jolly on the phone to dgym.

But where are the roof goats? There were two others guests at the hostel. I was quite excited to see Mike's trike as it was exactly like dgym's and you don't see those too often. Mike was a Hebridean resident, living on Lewis and quite regularly cycling up and down the islands.

71-year-old Dave was not on a bike but a cycling enthusiast nonetheless. He had cycled in 84 out of the 86 counties, and firmly believed that riding a bicycle is the most fun that can possibly be had. He told us about a 1950's Claude Butler at home in need of repair. It sounded like a lovely bike and I told him he really should take it to a bike shop to get it fixed up.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Wednesday April 30th - Fairy Glen and the edge of the world.

The day started out beautifully, a few dark clouds that soon faded away. I had several hours to kill until the 2pm ferry, so left the tent behind and headed for Fairy Glen.

Fairy GlenFairy Glen is one of those wonderful little secrets that you won't find signposted on marked on the map, I'd seen references to it on the internet with no real idea as to what was there, just talk of how magical it was.

It was a few miles away from the town and I had to ride all the way around the bay, up a fair bit and then up a fair bit more after I'd turned off the main road. It was worth the climb. I reached the top of the hill to find myself looking down into a valley full of little natural hill formations covered in sheep. It was pretty unique, not a soul in sight, interesting scenery, beautiful day, nice sheep... but I didn't see any fairies.

I returned to the campsite, showered (Scottish campsites are so much better than French ones when it comes to getting a decent hot shower and it's fair to say I probably smelled better on this trip than the last one) and packed away. I stopped at a cafe in town for all day breakfast (nothing special) and boarded the ferry.

Fairy Glen Sailing to the Outer Hebrides felt a bit like sailing to the edge of the world, or at least to a remote rocky outcrop on the edge of the Atlantic. As the bloke on the campsite had predicted the weather had cooled down and it was now becoming windy and overcast.

At Tarbert I found a mobile signal for the first time since I'd arrived, so stopped to call dgym. As we spoke, raindrops started to fall. By the time I got off the phone, it was pouring. I had planned on getting to a campsite a few miles down the road but, as the Rock View Bunkhouse conveniently appeared as I rode through the town, I suddenly failed to see the point.

I've never been convinced about hostels... well, I've only ever stayed in one and that was pretty awful but this one was OK. The kitchen facilites were a bit old and in some cases broken, and the decor a bit outdated, but didn't have bare electrical wires or things growing in the showers or even obnoxious Dutchmen making loud phonecalls at 2am.

There were only two other guests that night, Laura and Jack, two travellers who had met up a couple of days previously. Both were getting around by public transport. Laura was born in the USA but had been travelling for 20 years. From what she said, I concluded she was in her fifties, although she looked much younger. She was a Muslim (although not born so) and her hijab had attracted mockery almost as soon as she set foot in Oban. She was hoping to reach Edinburgh the next evening, and going to Doncaster after that. Jack, an Aussie who I estimated to be in his late sixties, wasn't sure where he was off to next.

I had sardines on toast for dinner, toast being a rare luxury for the regular camper. Somebody had left the toaster on one of the many "black" settings so I managed to smoke out the kitchen, conveniently not setting off the somewhat dubious smoke alarm.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Tuesday April 29th - Trotternish

In France it was easy to fall asleep and wake up with the sun. It was just the right time of year that the night hours made for convenient sleeping hours, and I rather liked it that way. It was a bit harder to do that in Scotland - the nights were already on the short side, about five or six hours, so I'd often fall asleep in light and the sun got up well before I did.

The night was quite chilly at Portree. I'd brought my light sleeping bag, which was fine but I had to wear warm stuff inside it too and make the most of the hood and drawstrings.

Old Man of Storr I woke at 7:30 and left at 9, pleased to find that at I hadn't got any slower at getting away in the morning. I was pleased to find that the BBC's "two raindrops" forecast for Tuesday was a pack of lies, and the day was pleasantly sunny, a blue sky with only a few puffy white clouds.

I carried on up the road and onto the Trotternish Peninsula, which is characterized by a huge ancient landslip running most of its length. The traffic and I parted ways at this point, and the road turned single track. Sheep wandered everywhere. As animals go, sheep are quite cyclist-friendly, despite being a bit annoying if you get stuck behind one. Unlike dogs, horses and cattle I've never had a sheep try to "take me on" by rearing up, chasing or charging. They seem to be universally terrified of the bicycle in a non-aggressive way, even if they will jog half a mile while frantically dashing themselves against the nearest fence in order to prove it.

Kilt Rock waterfallI passed the Old Man of Storr, a tall needle-like rock on the landslip, and Kilt Rock, a cliff with a tartan-like pattern marked out by rock strata, with its nearby waterfall. I don't think I'd ever seen a "proper" waterfall before.

The terrain was quite tough, a lot of ups and downs, and my legs were still getting used to carrying a full load again, but there were plenty of interesting, rocky and beautiful landscapes and things were made easier by the lovely weather.

I dropped down a series of sharp hairpin bends into Uig, having revised my original route quite considerably and planning on getting the ferry to Tarbert the next day. I spent the night on a mostly empty campsite with lovely views across the water, the rocky outline of the Outer Hebrides visible on the horizon.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Monday April 28th - Skye

I started out on the A87 from Kyle of Lochalsh, over the bridge to Skye and then along the eastern coast towards Portree, the island's capital. Huge logging trucks thundered past on the single carriageway and I managed to scare the occasional sheep into running away from me - unfortunately when sheep run away, they often do so quite slowly in a straight line directly ahead of you, and are happy to do so for a considerable distance.

After a couple of hours of weak sunshine, the weather took a turn for the greyer again. Curtains of white mist descended over the Cuillin hills, obscuring what would otherwise have been a wonderful view.

Grey skye

As first days go, it could have been better. There's often a morale drop near the beginning of a tour, you wonder why you're doing what you're doing, you miss the comforts of home, and the distance yet to be covered is vast and intimidating, but it doesn't normally kick in on the first day.

I reached Sligachan after 25 miles, damp and downhearted. There was a campsite by the loch, it was closed but there were four or five tents parked there anyway. I suppose with land access right being what they are in Scotland, a closed campsite just means closed facilities. I sat down in the doorway of the toilet block to shelter from the drizzle that had just started. The weather, the traffic and my own lack of fitness had been getting to me.

After about 15 minutes I decided I'd had enough for the day so started testing various areas of campground for squishiness (result: mostly quite squishy). I'd just picked a slightly less squishy spot when I glanced up at the horizon and noticed a promising white light and hint of blue in the general direction of Portree. Hooray! Exactly the morale boost I needed. I abandoned my camp plans and set off again. My legs were hurting but after a couple of miles it was downhill all the way to Portree, where I camped just beyond the town.

Dinner was buttered macaroni and local smoked mackerel fried with onions, which was surprisingly tasty.