We had started off planning to ride from Inverness back home to Manchester but quickly changed our minds when we sat down and thought about it. It was, after all, supposed to be a holiday – so we treated it as such with a couple of random epic days thrown in for good measure.
Arrived Thursday mid-morning and assembled the bikes from their boxes in blazing sunshine. All good and looking shiny – not for long. Plan was to head into Inverness and pick up some cooking gas for our newly acquired Pocket Rocket. This stove turned out to be a fab little thing. Smaller and lighter than the multifuel we have been carrying around, we’ll keep that for adventuring where gas isn’t available. Got that on board and headed out of town and onto the Great Glen Way, via a disagreement with inconsiderate driver in a 40 tonne wagon – grrr. The GGW more or less follows the banks of Loch Ness all the way down to Fort William. We weren’t going that far, aiming to turn off inland at Fort Augustas. So, we had two days warming up on fire roads and singletrack in the sunshine. Shona’s birthday that first day so we indulged in birthday tea of beer and chips – offset by salad sandwiches.
Evening of day two saw us diverting out of Fort Augustas to a bothy along the canal a bit – really lovely location right at the end of a steep climp out of the valley. Made us realise for the first time this trip how much it had been raining lately. The ground all around looked reasonable but as soon as we stepped a little further into the surrounding area it turned out to be extremely wet underfoot. Next morning we set off into the rain back along the same route we had come out the evening before. Except this time it was a steep descent into the valley – whoop! Saw our first deer of the trip that morning too, scarpered as soon as they sniffed us of course.
Pretty much as soon as we left Fort Augustas the track started to climb. We’ve since found out that the Corrieyairack pass is the highest in the UK and it certainly felt like it as we battled wind, sleet, rain and low flying hares to get to the top. Pretty simple double track route finding took us to the snow covered tops and a zig zag descent through drifts to the valley below. Talking to a local later in the trip the horrendous eroded condition of the track was due to flash thaw a couple of winters back and plans are afoot to renovate it. Today was one of those days when Shona found it easier and surged ahead while I did a bit of pushing. After exchanging pleasantries with a Duke of Edinburgh Award group pitched up on the edge of the woods we smugly headed for the warmth and comfort of another bothy. This was the third of the trip as we’d brewed up in another on the first side of the pass. It seems we could have stayed out for weeks in this area and not had to carry a tent as bothies are dotted all over the place, though we found out later in the trip they can get a bit congested and we were glad of our tent.
We replaced the wood we’d burnt the night before in an early morning raid on the woods. It was still wet under our wheels as we set off under bright blue skies. The other side of the river from us was a herd of maybe approaching 100 deer, difficult to see on the photos as they are so well camouflaged against the heather. Amazing sight. After whizzing along the valley floor for the morning we arrived in Newtonmore to find everything shut up tight. It’s the self proclaimed walking entry to the Highlands, apparently. We pushed on to Kingussie where we feasted in the chip shop and raided the supermarket. If you’re ever there and faced with the choice get yourself into the independent supermarket at the west end of the street, good choice of supplies. Resisting the temptation to take a closer look at the ruined barracks we had a good spin through the woods and up to Glen Feshie. After crossing the rickety bridge and rolling a bit further up the glen we found our fourth bothy. Popped our heads in the door – bear in mind this was 4 o’clock-ish – and found a couple of guys already in their sleeping bags! Catching up from a boozy session the night before they said they had all good intentions of going for a walk but just couldn’t summon the enthusiasm, tsk. So, while they got their act together on the fire making front we took a walk further up the glen to see what we’d be missing the next day. Our route the next day took us west so looking down here gave us ideas for future trips. It was a fine sunny evening and great to be going for an exploratory stroll.
Two things made this trip more pleasant than our Welsh one a couple of months ago – Shimano MT-90 boots and Sealskinz waterproof socks. The boots are great for walking in as well as cycling so no need to consider other footwear. When we got to a river crossing we’d roll our trousers up, take our socks off and put our boots back on. Yes, our boots got wet but at least they got to dry out while our feet were cosy and dry in the Sealskinz. No more trenchfoot from days in soggy boots and socks!
The bothy got pretty crowded that night. There was the first two, us, a Danish family of 5 and much later a father and son turned up too. We were so glad we popped our tent up and retired there as apparently the snoring was very loud. The following morning saw us faced with the dilema of route choosing. After our initial climb out of the Glen (and it was a stiff climb) we rolled over some open moors surveying the hilltops. We were faced with a choice of high level route via the Mingaig Pass or the low level route vis the Gaick Pass. The snow on the tops and the low cloud helped make our mind up, and we opted for the Gaick Pass. Given the ferocity of the winds we were to encounter later that day that made us resort to pushing the bikes (we couldn’t cycle against it!) it was probabaly the best choice. A few river crossings later and a great lockside bit of singletrack that lasted for about 2k we hit the doubletrack that took us down to the main road to Blair Castle. We were waved at ferociously by a busful of kids just as we appeared all bedraggled looking. This is where we picked up the Sustrans route 7, mostly a traffic free route spinning along the valley to ease tired legs at the end of a long day off road (and in water).
We got to the campsite in Blair Atholl at about 7, threw the tent up, grabbed a shower and headed for the pub. We spent a couple of days here catching up, eating, washing and lazing around. Well, we did for one day, on our second day here we rode up Glen Tilt, 14 miles uphill to the waterfalls. We spotted a couple of kayakers on the way back down, nutters! There’s a lot of fun looking white water in that glen. So, that’s the easy way out into the hills for us next time. Off the train and straight out to throw the tent up. We’ve got an ace 4 day route planned.
So by now it was Thursday morning and we had a train to catch in Perth on Friday afternoon. Just time for one more BIG day in the hills. Headed over to Aberfeldy via that handy route 7 again. This one seemed particularly handy for keeping us on quiet back roads between off-road bits. Out of Aberfeldy and straight up immediately after lunch – when will we ever learn? Over the moors with more brilliant views over brooding landscape. It never ceases to amaze how few people we see when out on these jaunts, it’s great. Also makes for a harsher bump into reality when we do get back, it’s awful to be honest. The climb ended at a singletrack road the plumeted us back to the lochside all too quickly. We then headed West for what seemed like ages on the road (and into the wind) to get to yet another steep off-road climb out of the valley and into Glen Almond. We had an appointment with a cup of tea at 09:45 on Friday morning at the other end of the glen. Pushing on so that we didn’t have too much to do the next day we literally did have to push it was that steep. There was also another river crossing before we finally (it was dark) found a grassy knoll to pitch the tent on and get a load of food inside us, much needed. Just as we’d pitched up it started to rain. This was Scottish rain too and wind with it. Of course, I slept right through it all. Well, mostly. It was still raining when we were having breakfast too. Thankfully it stopped for us to break camp and it was really quite warm as we got our heads down and pedalled for our appointment with shortbread. The weather had rained itself out and it was a gloriously sunny day.
So that’s it for another little while. We made the train in Perth and while waiting for our connection in Edinburgh got some top food from Hendersons veggie cafe on Hanover Street. Picked the van up when we got back to Manchester and started the big clear up that’s inevitable after this kind of trip. Spent this afternoon washing mud off the underside of the tent…