Mostly, this is random stories from my various trips as I collect them, but I've a wee backlog to get through too and those will pop up occasionally.

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Monday 10 April 2017

Back round Ben Alder

There's a vast area of "wild" country south of the A9 and north of the road to Kinloch Rannoch that nevertheless has a large number of cross-country tracks through it. For years, as I've driven up and down the A9, I've looked down along Loch Garry and fantasized about exploring it. When I was doing lots of hillwalking I was looking at routes north from Rannoch-side but they all involved quite lengthy logistical issues. It always seemed simpler as a cycle but I just never got around to it. Planning a bivvy weekend for April, it looked like I'd finally come up with a good plan.

Neills steed

A fence. And a gate.

What the mature gentleman is pedalling this year

We left Dalwhinnie after a good lunch at the cafe and headed along NCN7, up and over Drumochter summit against a fairly stiff headwind before reaching the turn off for Loch Garry. 

That's not a smile, it's the headwind stretching my face back

Thankfully, it was a lovely sunny day. Imaging having dreamed of this and it being dreich!

As close as I've been

Once I got to the loch I was actually feeling quite elated. I'd experienced a similar feeling a few years back in Fisherfield as I stood on a little causeway after having seen it on maps for years. I had a few minutes to take it in before we headed along the very good track on the north side of the loch. 

Almost there

Looking back at the A9

This did, however, come to an abrupt end and we were then into a couple of km of hike-a-bike over some very soft ground until we reached a recently built hydro track.

That'll be the end of the track then?

This took us past Duinish bothy so I had a wee peek in. It looked pretty comfy inside - middling as these things go. 

Duinish. The North Wing needs some work....

In a fine setting though
Goodbye to Loch Garry, back on a hydro track

After a bit more hydro track we crossed the brow of the hill and saw the long descent ahead of us. I stopped for a wee nibble before heading down and off we went. Almost at the bottom, I had a look at the little food bag on my bars only to discover I'd left it open and my bag of chocolate nuts and raisins had bounced out. I was desolate, but not so much that I wanted to go back up to find them!

Early evening sun on Loch Rannoch

A brief stop at Loch Rannoch and we were soon on the turn-off for the "Road to the Isles". 

Off the tarmac again and onto the newly surfaced track

This track has been significantly improved since I was last here and is now a wide, smooth motor track. I'm a bit ambivalent about these developments. On the one hand, tracks like this are needed to aid hydro and wind schemes - a good idea as it's green energy and creates an income that isn't just tourism. On the other, they can scar the hillsides and remove some of the challenge of cycling in them. This particular one is to aid in another hydro scheme and the track will eventually be narrower again. There are already signs of erosion too so maybe we just need to give them a little time. 

Shaun on the track, just about to reach the lodge

Tucked into the side of the lodge

Neill with his supper

I'd had a look at our potential bivvy site on satellite imagery and it didn't disappoint. High above the moors, we had a stunning view out to the hills around Glencoe and over to Ben Nevis. 

My bivvy set up

A goods train looking a little incongruous in the landscape

It was here that Shaun announced he might have to head back the way we'd come in the morning as his GPS had ejected itself from his handlebars at some point. We discussed where and when we might last have seen it, even going through photographs we'd taken, but couldn't come to a definitive conclusion. Suspicion centred on the same track that my nuts had taken leave.

Dinner on a slate. How hipster.

Bivvys made, food cooked and we were in time to catch a cracking sunset.

The mountains of the West beyond the Blackwater Reservoir

Sunset behind Ben Nevis

The moon was also ridiculously bright. In fact, I was glad I'd brought me tarp as it was helping to reduce the glare when in my bag. 

Not quite a full moon but the thin cloud wasn't dulling it much

The winds of the day before had dropped off overnight and we awoke in a bit of low cloud, so much so that the tarp was dripping in condensation. Shaun decided that the GPS hunt might not be too productive and decided he'd complete the route. I'd planned for breakfast at Corrour Station so packed up relatively quickly, not bothering to eat. It was a damp, atmospheric, descent down to Loch Ossian and the warmth of the cafe was much appreciated. 

Loch Ossian appearing out of the morning mist.

Loch Ossian

A few teething troubles were apparent - no coffee grinder, no card payment - but I had the most awesome Venison Lorne Sausage. I mean, this was superb. I'm trying to track down the supplier so I can buy some for cooking at home!!

Corrour may be remote but it feels well connected!

After breakfast I took Shaun and Neill out to the wee bridge made famous in Trainspotting.

One of these is an effette arsehole. One of these is a wanker.

A relatively speedy transit along the south shore of the loch took us to yet another new hydro track. Again, this made for relatively fast cycling, until it too abruptly ended. I knew what was in store here though, a 6km hike-a-bike section up to the Bealach Dubh. I'd hoped we might manage it in 90 minutes or so but it turned out to be 2 hours of pushing and shoving, crossing peat hags and wee burns. We'd opted to take a steep climb out near the end to get onto a better track and that wee bit was lovely. In fact, I need to come back and explore it another time. 

Loch Ossian disappearing into the mist way below.

Quite a few folk had commented on the descent from the Bealach Dubh and we met some walkers as we were approaching it who also reckoned it would be great cycling down.

Neill about to start the descent from the Bealach Dubh

Thankfully, it didn't disappoint. There are loads of water bars though. Some I was happy to just crack on over, some made me wince a little and a few had me off and pushing over. It's all a nice, swoopy descent though and the three of us thoroughly enjoyed it. I suspect a repeat visit with an unladen bike (and in my case some suspension) is in order.

The Long Leachas of Ben Alder

Ben Alder and the Lancet Edge creating a fine backdrop

From there, it was a fairly straightforward ride over to Loch Ericht and then a tailwind-assisted sprint back to Dalwhinnie. Not long after we arrived, it started raining. Ah yes - it's all in the timing!

Shaun and Neill patiently await my arrival at Loch Pattack

Last look back along Loch Ericht as the weather starts to close in

A good loop then. Of 103km, only 8km or so was actually having to push the bike and, as a percentage, that seems pretty fair. Strangely enough, I didn't mind that as much as I did when encountering similar obstacles on the Speyside Way just a few weeks earlier. Maybe my expectations were just more correctly set.

103km and 1,435m of ascent

Friday 17 March 2017

Moray Way - No Way!

By now I really should know better. Sometimes my desire to explore needs to be tempered by what other folk have to say on the matter.......

Cycling on the Speyside Way

The Speyside Way between Fochabers and Ballindalloch and between Nethybridge and Aviemore is suitable for cycling. Between Boat of Garten and Aviemore, the route is shared with a section of the SUSTRANS millennium cycle way. The 'off road' sections between Ballindalloch and Tomintoul, and between Ballindalloch and Cromdale cannot sustain cycle traffic, and we ask you to avoid them. Between Ballindalloch (Delnapot) and Cromdale an alternative exists using the B9102. Cyclists are asked at all times to ensure that they use the route in a way which does not cause damage to the track surface, or cause inconvenience or danger to users on foot or horseback.

That seems pretty straightforward - "cannot sustain cycle traffic" is obviously a hangover from the days before the Land Reform Act and can safely be ignored. I mean, it's not like we're not roughty-toughty mountain bikers. 

That was the thinking as Neill and I discussed routes for a proposed bivvy. With his friend David back in the UK for a couple of weeks, we wanted something relatively straightforward and not a huge drive from Aberdeenshire/Montrose. I'd become aware of the Moray Way from a couple of recent rides in that area and it seemed to fit the bill fairly well. It's an amalgamation of the Speyside Way, the Moray Coast Trail and the Dava Way, coming in at around 100 miles/160 km. In fact, I'd cycled most of it before, though I'd always taken to the minor road along Speyside rather than stick to the signposted route. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to correct that and to scout out the remaining sections. 

We'd decided to split the route somewhere around Roseisle Forest. That would be over half way and, as we were going anti-clockwise, we'd eat a meal in Lossiemouth before doing the last few easy miles in the dark, along the beach when the tide was fairly low. Ah yes, the plans....

Ready for the off in Grantown
Meeting up in Grantown again had a familiar ring to it as we'd set off from here on a similar, shorter, trip in December. This time though we were straight on to the trail rather than having lunch first. The initial section of the SSW from here takes a few, easily missed, turns through Anagach Woodlands on its way to Cromdale. Here we passed a lane to the B9102, the possible road-based detour that would take us to Ballindalloch. Not for us though, we decided we'd stick to the marked SSW all the way to the coast. 

Onto the railway line for the first time at Cromdale Station

And it was at Cromdale we started to encounter the notorious Y walking gates. Now, they're a clever design, if they're only to be used by walkers, but with a fully-laded bike they are a complete nuisance. We soon developed 2 techniques; Option A involved trying to jam the gate open and then bumping the bike through on its rear wheel. This worked frequently. Where it failed we resorted to Option B. This needed two folk to hold the swinging sections of the gate open while the third rolled their bike through. By the time we'd done a dozen, we were getting pretty adept at it. 

Technique A in action

Crossing the A95 we were soon into the section I'd never ridden, through the forest on Tom an Uird. This turned out to be very straightforward forest track and we were wondering why there'd been any need to persuade cyclists to avoid it. A short fast descent took us to a minor road crossing. As were were doing our gate routine here, a friendly farmer suggested we should avoid the next section as "we'd end up walking it all". Of course, we thanked him for his advice but looking ahead, the track seemed completely fine. It was 11:12 and we were looking forward to lunch in Aberlour. When we next crossed the A95, it was 13:15, during which we'd travelled the grand sum of 8 km. Not shown on the OS maps is that the official SSW has now been diverted up another hill and round some boggy, bouldery field margins. We were reduced to walking almost all of it, watching our timetable slip and all the while dealing with more of those damn gates. Sticking to the A95 for 5.5 km would have saved us almost two hours of clarty bike-manhandling. 

David reaches the top of the final push

As it was, the pain was mostly over by the time we reached the old railway line down by the river (one particularly cow-trodden field notwithstanding) and we spun along to Aberlour as fast as we could reasonably manage.

Making progress at last

Sorry sir, you missed the last train.

Le late lunch

Lunch was, by this time, very much appreciated and when we left we were spinning along quite merrily for a while but the mornings toils had taken their toll on Neill and he was finding it hard to keep up on the Ben Aigan and subsequent climbs. As a result, it was dark by the time we reached Fochabers and any thoughts of a short break here were dispersed by our need to make progress towards our planned overnight stop. 

That'll be the lights on then?

We'd already scaled back the days riding a little, reckoning that any spot just past Lossiemouth would have to do. Personally, I was just worried about getting some food and in particular that we'd miss the chance if we delayed any further.

Neill was now beginning to cramp up a little and by the time we reached the SSW turn off onto NCN1 and the Moray Coast Trail he had already resorted to walking occasionally. We considered taking to the road to Lossiemouth rather than the beach trails but reckoned it would be slightly longer and, as we were already beginning to see the lights of Lossiemouth, made a bee-line along the beach as best we could. Poor David was struggling occasionally on his "unfashionable" 2.1" tyres and the patches of soft sand but we mostly managed to stick to the firmer stuff. With Lossiemouth still a little away, I persuaded Neill it might be a good idea to get some food in him. Not that he didn't have any, just he was saving it for "when he really needed it". Yeah, I reckoned that time had come. Desperate not to lead us on any unwanted diversions I took to scouting ahead a little at a time, making sure the track was passable etc. Being on the beach, in the dark, with the waves crashing on the shore was a pleasant diversion from the mild stress I'd developed considering the food options and worrying about Neill.

Lossiemouth - finally!

It was almost 22:15 when we reached Lossiemouth and we knew that any sit-in opportunities were well past. Fortunately we found takeaway Chinese and takeaway Pizza shops within a few feet of each other. A brief discussion of options and we were in, ordering pizzas. 

I'd not normally comment on such things but I really, really have to give a big shout out to the guys at Pino Pizzas in Lossiemouth. Not only did they give us great pizzas, but they let us sit on their inside window ledge, distribute our muddy gear around and basically take over the place. Quite what they made of us, I don't know but we were offered use of the staff toilets too. 

Did sir reserve a table?

All of that would have been OK but when Neill got his pizza, he sat with it on his lap, opened the box to let it cool and there was then a comedy moment as the whole lot slid off and onto the floor, of course turning upside down in the process. The look of desperation on his face was at the same time both amusing and frightening. Having struggled all afternoon and evening, here was his meal laid out on the floor of a takeaway. I did, at first, think he was going to eat it regardless but he came to his senses and went to order another. By now, the guy at the counter had realised what had happened and offered to make another. There was then a bit of a stand-off as Neill insisted he pay for it and the server insisted he wouldn't take any money. I, meanwhile, was already wolfing into mine - carefully!

It was 23:10 when we then set out to find a camp spot. All the previous delays had now conspired with the tides to put the broad, sweeping, easy to ride beach out of bounds to us and we had to take to the trail in the dunes. With a combination of gorse and tall maram grass, trail finding was exceedingly difficult and every time we looked down to the beach, it was either beyond a steep drop or still covered by the sea. The dunes themselves were no use for pitching on but I was aware that we'd eventually leave the coast a little and head uphill where the terrain would change, so this became the point I was focussed on.

Spooky moonlight

By the time we reached a likely spot it was 00:30. We scouted around for a while and, while nothing was perfect, we decided this would have to do. At 1 am we were finally stopped for the night, tents pitched. I lay down in the sleeping bag, watching the occasional break in the clouds and then awoke with rain on my face. I must have fallen asleep in a few seconds and had done so without fastening up the tent. I did so now, listened to the rain for a couple of minutes and then passed out again until the morning.

View from the pillow

Regardless of the fact that we had longer to cycle today than we had planned, I didn't get the impression that anyone was in much of a hurry in the morning. Having been along this way just a few months back, I knew that we'd be cycling almost all day today, only one short section of cliff-top stuff around Hopeman to get in the way. 

No beach riding today either
Pulling into Burghead, I made straight for the Bothy Bistro. It didn't disappoint. Pancakes with bacon and a couple of coffees soon made everything alright and we set off for home. 

Ben Wyvis

Last stop before lunch

The day was also getting warmer and by the time we reached Roseisle Forest we were all removing layers. I even ended up in shorts. Findhorn gave us another chance to top up on calories and caffeine before the drag up Dava Moor so it was into Macleans for Lasagne pie and toasted teabread. 

The Dava Way is, by now, so familiar to me that I can almost recount every twist, turn and hill. Neill was still struggling along so it was a case of cycle along, stop for a while, repeat, repeat. However, by the time we reached the Half Way hut, we both knew it was almost all downhill back to Grantown so we took an extended break while David caught up on the wonders of electric lighting before covering the last few miles back to the cars. 

And just look at those big, wide, cheesy grins!

At "only" 160km, this should have been a relatively easy trip. In fact, I'd been harbouring a desire to knock it off in one, long, summer day. However, even allowing for careful timing to allow for the tides, I reckon the signed Speyside Way section that we walked is going to eat into times too much. Using the B9102, as the Speyside Way folk suggest, would probably cut a good couple of hours off our timings anyway but then there's the feeling that you'd not really done the "proper" route. Now I've done it all, I'll certainly be advising anyone who asks to avoid that section. No point in everyone being as stubborn or obstinate as me!

For what it's worth, our total moving time ended up at just under 16 hours.