I was contacted by Amy, who was relatively new to off-road cycling, she had ascended quickly into Mountain Biking after picking it up during the first lockdown.
She got in touch about Bikepacking having never tried it, inspired by the prospect of adventuring on two wheels she was eager to do a big mixed terrain tour of the Highlands & Hebrides.
I embraced the enquiry and we quickly hosted an online meeting to work out what her personal and physical goals were and how we could achieve them. Within a week I had planned and sent her a bespoke 30 km mixed terrain ride that she could complete on her own bike using a GPS unit. This gave her the opportunity to find new trails, try a mixture of terrain and test her bike in conditions she may likely experience on tour, all whilst riding from her front door.
The First overnighter
A few weeks later we had her kitted out with a Bikepacking setup to suit her and her full suspension XC bike. Keen to test her equipment we organised a unique bikepacking overnight bivvy in North Wales, a 2 day loop of the Rhiniog mountain range that saw us wild camping on the summit of Diffwys with an incredible sunset over Cardigan Bay.
Starting from Coed Y Brenin, the route I designed, although fairly demanding, was a perfect mix of forest tracks, rugged mountain singletrack, ancient drovers roads and even sections of former Welsh Enduro trails. It was the perfect opportunity for Amy to test her loaded bike on varied terrain with the peace of mind of a guide on hand.
What a great weekend of riding, Amy clearly had a fire in her belly with the sheer determination to ride every line, climb every climb, prepared to fail and prepared to learn - her resilience reassured me she would attempt all that the big trip had in store. I was immediately excited, given a 2 week window and free reign to plan the ultimate tour of the Highlands and Islands of West Scotland.
Creating routes is what I enjoy most leading up to a trip, planning routes using all manner of maps, old and new, satellite imagery, anything I can get my hands on to help me find the remote and the unknown. We live in a world where 'everywhere' has been discovered, we follow other people's footsteps using guidebooks and maps. I find myself looking elsewhere, surely there is more to discover...
In the meantime Amy was off enjoying her bike and equipment, practicing on her own little over night missions familiarising with equipment and packing, preparing for what was to be the most epic multi day tour she had ever undertaken.
Fast track to September the 13th of September…
It was 19:00, the light was dwindling and we were 2 km and one river crossing away from where we’d planned to wild camp. The lingering sea mist was ensuring our dampness...dry feet was a sensation we had long forgotten about but we were committed 7 km in and 9 to go the following day. The bog had us now.
Despite reading all the maps, analysing the satellite imagery and quizzing locals about previous passages, nothing can quite psychologically prepare you for crossing an area of Wilderness. The body and mind is filled with excitement and anticipation as you embark into these frontiers.
It was terrain like this that excited me about the Outer Hebrides, these rare encounters with the mercy of nature was exactly what I wanted Amy to experience. The Outer Isles off the West Coast of Scotland, possibly one of the last frontiers in Britain, is land of few developed trails and those that are always carry a tale such as the *Coffin Road and *Postman's trail on Harris. Generally, if you want to find off-road tracks and trails linking the Islands you'll be looking for quad tracks or estate roads. Occasionally you find stretches unlinked by any markings on any maps, however locals may talk of someone who might have crossed 3 or 4 years ago using the bog lochans to navigate. It's these areas that excite me. No solid history, no paved routes, just myths and old tales of possible success... It satisfies the pioneering spirit.
This particular crossing, from the Hushinish road through to Mangurstadh via Loch Reasort was one of two wild sections on the trip. The other being on the East side of North Lewis connecting Ness to Tolsta over what is known as the Lewis Peatlands. In a sense the first crossing was somewhat comforting, the sea mist clouding our vision offered a sense of security, an unawareness of our surroundings. Crossing the Lewis Peatlands on a clear day, although shorter on the map, left us feeling seriously remote,not a single man-made object was visible as far as the eye could see.
We crossed to Mangurstadh successfully having had an evening at an open bothy at the edge of Loch Reasort. Unaware of its existence it was a welcome haven, especially when you are expecting to pitch the tent. It even had its own folding camp beds! Loch Reasort is half way through the bog lands. After a morning of trudging we eventually reached the Tamnabaigh lodge, where the map indicated a service track up a steep glen and down into Uig Sands. It was a brutal climb up from sea level but the reward was what I can only describe as one of the most incredible gravel descents I have ever seen or ridden. The mist cleared and the golden gravel switch backs illuminated out from the surrounding hillsides as it wound down to the Loch in the far distance. We were on top of the world. This feeling may have been exaggerated by the fact that we just spent 24 hours in a bog, but nonetheless, victory was sweet.
Fear not, I am not in this game to facilitate suffering in the wild, although character building, it is all about moderation and variety. This route is an incredible mix of terrain and of course mixed accommodation, from Wild-camps, Bothies and the occasional shower and bed.
Starting from Poolewe, the first few days of the trip are an incredible crossing of the Torridon range and Glen Shiel to the Great Glen. Throughout you ride along off-road sections of the Highland Trail 550, stunning sections of road through the glens and national cycle routes along the Loch's of the great glen. Crossing to the Islands the route begins on Vatersay, I would say it’s compulsory to ride to the Southernmost beach for a dip and a ride around the headland. Thereon you ride North on a mix of the Hebridean way with some superb off-road sections thrown in to maintain the variety as the days roll by.
The really wild sections begin on Harris, although you'll get a taste on Uist, Harris is where you'll lose your marbles. Onto Lewis the ride heads to the very North to Port Stoth on a welcoming road ride day before embarking across the wilds once more to get to Stornoway before heading back to the mainland.
Arriving in Ullapool we had organised a rib ride across Loch Broom with a local. It was a unique experience that came about after a scouting stroll down to the old Altnaharrie Inn across the Loch from Ullapool a few weeks prior. I caught up with the owner and we spoke about the difficulty in linking Ullapool to the off-road trails beyond. He used his rib to commute back and forth to the town and kindly offered to collect us. This incredible opportunity got us straight onto the gravel where we would remain until Poolewe as we crossed the incredible Fisherfield Forest - the vastest stretch of wilderness found in the UK. This spectacular finishing section takes you through the bowels of some of the most impressive highland hills on the West Coast. Riding in the shadows of An Teallach, Beinn Dearg Mhor and Carnmore. What better end than to roll into Poolewe after two days offroad.
The Jewels of the Isles
I can't stop writing until I have given a mention to the folk of the islands. These types of trips can be as exciting and as beautiful as the next. It is however the people, the heritage and the tales that stick with me the most. The native Island inhabitants of the Hebrides come across as happy, cheery people. Full of kindness and laughter, the accent softer than the Scottish mainland with whispy, melodic undertones, much similar to accents found in Ireland. The detachment from the commercialism of big cities, advertising and marketing seems to have influenced an attitude of contentment with one's life and its simple pleasures. I'm reminded of two particular locals I met on Uist, both on separate occasions. A gentleman named Peter, who checked us into our accommodation when we were on Uist. He had us in stitches from the moment we walked through the door as he innocently joked about how the rooms of this former care home became vacant, jokes I cannot repeat here! His cheery accent filled the corridor as he laughed. He certainly left an impression and I couldn't get enough of him! When we were leaving the next day he told us that he was one of 11 and if we ran into trouble anywhere on the islands to get in touch as he always knows someone somewhere. Its connections like this that often give a sense of security wherever you find yourself in the world.
The day after we rode North and came across a middle aged crofter, on a very old rusty suspension bike. He stood with his steed in the middle of the track, he was a giant of a man, hands like shovels with long dark hair and a dark wiry beard. Quite intimidating at first sight, until he spoke. We exchanged greetings and I probed him as to what his life was like crofting on the *Machair. He went on, in his soft accent, to tell us about how he was out on his bicycle to place objects and machinery around his crops to fool the geese into thinking he was present. We were immediately engaged as he explained how the geese would not land on his barley and rye if they thought he was there working. I looked down at his bike to spot his frame had been welded back together as if at one point the rear of the frame and saddle had completely snapped off. I asked him about this and he went on to explain... 'It was yesterday, I was wheelin’ doon the hill there, swinging ma legs to get more speed, when the bike collapsed beneath me and I fell onto the back tyre!' Amazing.
He said he enjoys fixing his own things, how he likes the old machinery as he can service and repair it. As he went on I found him to be incredibly wise as he spoke of his approach to problems on the farm, to slow down and not get angry or frustrated at the problem but to enjoy and indulge in finding the solution - another opportunity to learn as he put it. A great philosophy to live by, one which aligns with my own.
Anyhow, I won't go on to talk of the kind man on Lewis who offered to shower us, or the ladies in Cross Village Stores and their conversation through the half stocked shelf of the impassable Lewis Peatlands. I could write a separate blog on all the characters we met on the Islands - but that's another tale!
The fact of the matter is, of the many tours I have embarked on, it is the people I meet that inspire me the most and it is a gift to be able to connect with real folk from extraordinary places and backgrounds.
We are gifted too on this collection of rocks we call the British Isles - a melting pot of accents, cultures, languages and history. You roll across any county border and you'll find uniqueness in its own right. The right of outdoor access laws in Wales, England and Scotland in particular favour the adventurer in all of us, and you can usually find remoteness in any part of the country. Although there is not much left undiscovered, it might be undiscovered to you and me.
In the far edges of the maps of Britain the last wild frontiers lie and it gives me great pleasure to be able to lead riders through some of the wildest terrain on the British Isles that’s rarely crossed by foot, let alone bike.
I am equally grateful that there are rider's like Amy with a thirst for adventure and trust in my judgement to take us through such territory.
Mixed Terrain Bikepacking is truly a mixture of all, you get the reward and excitement of off-road riding in remote places combined with the experiences and the connections with culture that you might get whilst bike touring.
From Beginner to Bikepacker... Amy truly immersed herself into this discipline of riding and experienced the Highlands and Islands in all their glory. No amount of midge, rain or bog could stop her smiles!
Written by Connaire Cann at Wheel Good Times
*Postman's Trail - The Postman’s Path is a cycling challenge that tests a rider’s mettle over rugged terrain. But until 1990, the trail was the only means of getting vital supplies to remote islanders, and it was the job of one man to walk its 10km route three times a week
*Coffin Road - The Coffin Road is a footpath that joins the two coasts of Harris - from the Bays of Harris in the east, over the hill to the beaches of the West Side. As there were no cemeteries on the rough, rocky landscape of the east coast of Harris, nor was there any road through the Bays of Harris for many years, this is the path along which those attending a funeral had to carry the coffin. Their destination was one of the cemeteries on the west side, at Scarista, Borve or Luskentyre, all of which can still be seen today, where there was suitable level ground.
*Machair - A Gaelic word meaning fertile, low-lying grassy plain, ‘machair’ refers to a unique habitat that is one of the rarest in Europe; only occurring on the exposed west-facing shores of Scotland and Ireland. Machair habitat is very similar to a fixed sand dune but is easily distinguished by its flat, or gently undulating landscape, and the variety of vegetation types and land-uses.