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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Sunday 14 May 2017

Roads less travelled

One of the signs that bikepacking in Scotland has become a lot more popular is the proliferation of routes being published and discussed online. Living in Aviemore, I'm very aware that many of the more popular options pass close by and there are other areas that are getting a similar level of attention.  However, it's still possible to find some rarely-visited little corners of the country and one of these is Morvern, south of Ardnamurchan. Together with Ardgour they form a wonderful but relatively little visited area. Being devoid of Munros they've escaped the attention of much of the hillwalking community and being surrounded by the sea makes visiting them slightly more complex. I'd also been attracted to the area when trying to fill out my long-term plan of cycling Scotlands coastline and had come up with a couple of routes in the area. With an atypical long dry spell in progress it looked like this would be an ideal option for Shaun and I to get our May bivvy out of the way.

Ardgour ferry at Corran

Meeting first in Corran we drove to Strontian for lunch. It was a superb day - the West Highlands bathed in sunshine.  Sitting outside the cafe there was certainly a temptation to cancel the planned ride, drive to Sanna and just bivvy down on the beach. We gave in though and set off along the road for 9km or so to reach the route I'd planned.

The hottest place in the UK!

It all started off well enough. A rough track led down to a steading - where it promptly disappeared into a field. Through that, we soon met the line of the old track and were alternately pushing and riding as best we could manage. It was fun in that sort of "what a great day to be outside" kind of a way. I knew we were heading for a point on the map marked as Lurga where there was a ruin. It turned out that this was the remains of an old lead mine. 

A good start

Followed by a bit of this

Lurga lead mine
I'd hoped that the track might improve from there but the opposite was true. We were relegated to mostly walking until we came upon a second building at Crosben and a good track out from there. Here, Shaun managed to catch a deep puddle and he fell into a mix of mud and cowshit. Thankfully we emerged from this section of track at Acharn old bridge over a decent river and he was able to wash most of it off.

Smelly Shaun

Clean Shaun

Ardtornish Castle

After a very short road section, we had easier tracks past the castle at Ardtornish and then onto an old road alongside Loch Aline and the clay mine to Lochaline ferry terminal. A ferry had just docked and we were lucky to find the little snack bar just minutes before it closed for the day. 

Back at sea level - Loch Aline

From here, I'd plotted our route along the quiet road. I was aware that an almost-parallel off-road route existed in the forest just inland but I preferred the chance of decent sea views. In the late afternoon sun we were treated to carpets of harebells and the thick coconut smell of gorse flowers.

Harebell everywhere!

At Drimnin we ran out of tarmac and set off along an old "destitution road" to Doirlinn. 

Shaun digging his bike out of the thick gravel!

After an initial very steep and very loose climb (a deep gravel had been laid down as the estate is building a distillery) it settled into a lovely track, climbing and descending round many corners, each revealing a different view of the Ardnamurchan peninsula. 

The warm temperatures hadn't abated much and Shaun was beginning to run low on water. We also knew we'd need to top up for dinner and breakfast. A check of the map showed a reasonably large river ahead - well, it needed a bridge - so that became our target. Unfortunately the river turned out to be out of reach down a mossy, steep-sided gully. Another look at the map showed one more burn before our planned bivvy spot, this one with a house (or ruins) beside it. When we got there, the house turned out to be in good condition and obviously occupied. I knocked on the door and was greeted by a kindly lady we later christened "Mrs Friendly". We chatted for a while, about ferries, about access, about the number of folk passing by, and she invited us in for a cup of tea. That caught me out. I wasn't sure if she was merely asking out of politeness and accepting was therefore impinging further upon her self-imposed exile, or if she was keen for company. In any event, I declined on the basis that we still had a bivvy spot to find before it got dark.

She seemed surprised that we were planning to bivvy at Doirlinn and when we got there we understood why. Apart from the immediate vicinity of the old Drovers Inn, the land was covered in heather, bracken, gorse and birch scrub. What's more, we could see nothing of a potential continuation of the track that we'd need in the morning. After a few minutes scouting around in the scrub - both Shaun and I collecting numerous ticks as we did so - we decided to camp in the front "garden" of the old building.

Late sun on the otters playground

Tonights tipple is....

Sunset over Ben Hiant

Does it count if there's a picnic table?

Loch na Droma Buidhe

We had a guest for dinner

Over dinner we were able to watch a couple of otters swimming around before they retired for the evening and as the sun set and the air cooled down, we followed suit. Now, I normally sleep really well outside, especially if I've been riding for a while, but this was the most sleepless and restless night I can remember. It seemed that I barely slept between vivid dreams - dreams that were all to do with me camping outside this building. I'd hear noises, people speaking, dogs, footsteps and all the time I was in fear, frozen still, eyes closed in my bivvy bag. I'm not a superstitious person but the feeling was definitely one of a haunting. Maybe this was why Mrs Friendly was looking at us a bit odd?

Once Shaun was awake we agreed we'd head off before breakfast while the ticks were still stupefied by the chill of the night. We could hear forestry machinery up the side of the loch somewhere and surmised that was on our route. We located a wee bit of track leading away from Doirlinn and headed through the scrub as best we could, lifting the bikes where necessary, pushing our way through, trying to spot signs that anyone else had been this way. After a couple of hundred metres we spotted a wooden pole, then another. Someone had obviously tried to mark out a way through. A few hundred metres later and we came to a wider and more defined track. Still barely rideable though, so more pushing ensued, some of it through thick gorse. 

Still clawing our way along the "almost-there" track

Eventually we reached the forest road and a chance to make a bit of distance. Shaun refilled his water bottle and we set off between massive woodstacks, evidence of the ongoing forestry activity.

Once we'd hit the forest track, we made good time up to the head of Loch Teacuis and decided this was a good spot to have our postponed breakfast. From here, we could also see across the loch to the location of the next planned section of the ride. I was less than impressed. After an initial track, it appeared that there was no sign of anything amongst the grass and bracken and the thought of a long push uphill in the heat of the day - only to be followed by a long push back down again - was enough to put me off.

Loch Teacuis

Decision made, breakfast eaten and bags re-packed, we therefore set off along another very quiet road, completing a short loop of the small peninsula before striking back uphill on the road for a fast descent and short flat spin back to the cafe at Strontian.

Impressive rock wall at Sithean na Raplaich

Back on the "main" road

Strontian - and the cafe - just over there

The route we did had much to commend it. I'd certainly consider it as a decent day ride, some of the tracks would be much more manageable with unladen bikes. As for the section we avoided, it appears there might now be another circular route, made possible by recent forestry works. Maybe a return visit when it's just a wee bit cooler! 

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