Incorporating the Outer Hebrides (a remote string of islands off the North West Coast of Scotland) as part of our exploration of Scotland had never really been in doubt. In fact last year we had started to plan a stand alone tour of the islands but this had fallen through due to a lack of time.
But now, here I was in Oban waiting for the 11:30am train to deliver three friends from London (Astrid was in a cafe waiting with the bikes). Rob, Erica and Dave had all decided to join us and we would be a group of 5 heading for this far flung corner of Britain.
The tiny train pulled in and we all exchanged excited greetings. It had only been a few days but I was incredibly delighted to see them. With two hours till our sailing we efficiently bought ferry tickets, went food shopping and shoved large amounts of chips in our faces.
Before long we were boarding the ferry with a large amount of other cyclists, it seems the Hebridean Way is rather popular. Our ferry took off with us all in high spirits. Unfortunately this was not to last. Rob and I made the mistake of eating a kind of second lunch and we enthusiastically bought a round of beers to celebrate our adventure. It was not long before we hit the open water and what to us felt like huge waves. We all dealt with it slightly differently; Rob vomited, I pretended to be dead (and vomited), Erica and Dave sought relief by moving further to the back of the boat and trying to sleep, and poor Astrid remained at the front of the boat (where we had naively decided to sit) stuck on the bench, unable to move due to sea sickness. The end couldn’t come fast enough.
By the time we reached Castle Bay our earlier enthusiasm was somewhat curbed and we gingerly rolled our bikes off the boat. Luckily once on land seasickness passes rapidly and we were soon pedalling off to find somewhere to camp. There had been a storm but it was thankfully now dry and the first beach we stopped at provided some shelter from the wind and good spots for tents. It seems when you put a bunch of people together who are used to thinking on their feet and solving problems, everything runs smoothly (this was to be a theme for the week). We all set to work and soon all our tents were up, beds sorted and a system of efficient cooking was taking place on our rather small stoves. By the time we had finished eating we were all shattered and ready for bed.
Astrid and I woke early; it was the warmest nights sleep we had since beginning our trip and we both finally felt well rested. Taking the opportunity the quiet early morning brings, we got up and headed to the beach for a quick dip in the icy water. It felt amazing! By the time we returned, our little camp was half stirring the stoves were fired up to provide the morning’s coffee. Not without near disaster however. As Rob lit his stove it caught fire, seeking to get away from the group and the very flammable tents, he did a kind of dive, which unfortunately resulted in Rob landing on his tent, snapping a pole, doing a kind of commando role and then flinging the still lit stove like some kind of grenade away from us. He then had to still run up and turn it off. A lot of action before 9am. Luckily Rob, the stove and the tent all survived.
Our first mornings pedal saw us hug the west coast of Barra. We had it all; sun, sweeping views and a rather smashing tail wind. At the ferry terminal to Eriskay we pulled out Rob’s now subdued stove and made tea. Life was pretty perfect.
The 40 min ferry had none of the trauma of the previous days crossing and we were soon climbing away from the bay with more amazing views out to sea. At the community co op we purchased wine and lunch and headed off to be stunned by the views across the causeway. It looked like SE Asia or the Caribbean, only about 20 degrees too cold. The wind had picked up and it took us a while to find a sheltered beach in which to cook up our lunch.
The afternoon saw a series of brief hailstorms followed by bright sunshine. We rode together in twos and threes chatting and I was reminded again how nice it is to travel in a group like this. Mid afternoon beers brought a hilarious coincidence and a solution to a slightly annoying problem. Astrid and I have a multi fuel stove which we usually run on petrol. This has never been a problem until Britain. Here however they have a rule which does not allow you to buy unleaded petrol in the small quantity that we require. I’d already tried talking an attendant into letting me buy fuel the previous day without success. In the pub we mentioned this the bar tender in passing. She casually mentioned she grew up in Plaistow and normally worked as a paramedic on the islands (where they do 250 jobs a month as apposed to 6000 a day!). Ha. What are the chances of 5 east London paramedics ending up in her pub?! Anyway, as we went to leave her wife turned up with a can of petrol for us. The road. It takes care of you.
A guy Astrid and I had met on ferry coming off Arran had told us about a group of hostels built in the traditional hebredian style that you could camp at and use their kitchen and facilities. With the icy wind picking up we all decided a warm fire might be required. In the end all but Rob opted for a hostel bed (Erica and I even spent half an hour trying to put her tent up in the almost gale force winds before giving up). Inside the warm cosy structure we found a mix of hikers and bikers and a lovely fire. Food was cooked. Wine was consumed.
Grey dreariness greeted us but our spirits were not dampened. A hefty tailwind pushed us northwards. Towards the afternoon it began to drizzle but we found refuge in a pub with a fire. The rain having finally cleared we pushed on towards an illusive co op which felt like it would never materialise. Eventually co op was located and many items purchased. We wearily rolled down a hill to where a picnic site was indicated on a map. Unfortunately it was gravel. And the grass around it looked suspiciously like the tide would reach it. Images of floating a tent butt naked out of a mangrove swamp way back in Australia came back to haunt me. We were all tired and just wanted to get out of the wind and set up camp. It was one of those moments were our lack of direction matched our waning energy. Until Rob decided to go and ask the farmer if we could camp on their field. They agreed and were possibly even going to offer us dinner but Rob assured them we were not that ill prepared. Tents were quickly set up and our cooking production line efficiently started and in a short while we were all much warmer and sipping on cup o soup. Classic bike touring, you go from everything being a bit challenging with no where to camp to drinking wine and eating curry in a field.
The wind picked up in the early hours, followed by the rain. By the time the morning came around I felt utterly overwhelmed at the prospect of getting up. Eventually I forced myself out with the thinking; one chore at a time. By the time I had done the dishes, Rob was up too. We set about getting breakfast ready and Dave soon joined us. As it was Erica’s birthday, we had decided to put on a spread, by camping standards anyway. Rob had bought prosecco and balloons and we deposited these and cards into Erica’s tent. While we had been cooking vegan sausages and making coffee, Astrid had cleared our tent and we all proceeded to climb in there and have a breakfast party. It’s not everyday you get to wake up in a damp farmer’s field on your birthday and drink prosecco in a tent!
We packed up and pushed our bikes out of the now sodden field, leaving a note of thanks for letting us make it our home for the night. A short pedal and we were on the ferry and heading away from North Uist, bound for the next island, Harris. Here we had opted to spent the rest of Erica’s birthday relaxing and celebrating in a bunkhouse. When we arrived, the place was deserted but open. A note said to make yourself at home and take any free beds. Eventually the owner was located in a shed out the back. He gave us the whole top level to use and we soon had our soaking tents and clothes hanging everywhere and a fire crackling. Cups of tea and relaxing followed. It was lovely to be out of the weather in such a lovely place with such beautiful views.
I’d like to think we weren’t one of those loud groups that takes over a place, we certainly tried not to be. However, I am not sure I have ever laughed quite so much before. There was a lot of giggling and marginally ludicrous behaviour. That is probably all I am going to say here. Definitely an evening to remember!
A slow morning of pancakes and cups of tea and we hit the road in good spirits, despite the late night. The cycling was truly stunning. Lochs, moors, crazy rock formations and wild views out to sea. Some of the most superb pedalling I’ve done. And the undulations made it sometimes feel like being on a rollercoaster. Super fun. It began to rain as we reached Tarbert. Being the Hebrides and thus more traditional than places on the mainland, all food shops are shut on a Sunday. So we bought supplies for two days and then went to the distillery to make a plan. With the weather coming in none of us fancied a long cycle which involved a hefty climb. Instead we opted for the backpackers in Tarbert but unfortunately being a bank holiday weekend it was full (although we learnt the next day that wasn’t actually true. Perhaps word had got out about an unruly group of cyclists who spend all night in fits of giggles). Asking around, some locals told us people sometimes camp next to the post office. So that’s what we did. I love Scotland. No one cares about 5 people putting up tents in the middle of their village. A guy even gave us sympathy wine, given the drizzle.
So while London and the rest of the UK was having the warmest early spring bank holiday in decades, we huddled together in a bus shelter out of the constant drizzle cooking pasta and drinking wine. I had a moment of feeling rather morose about it all (the rain was irritating me) but it’s hard to stay in a bad mood when the group you are with are so upbeat and fun and it wasn’t long before I could appreciate the humour of it all.
Our final day together saw a biggish climb out of Tarbert, a lot of drizzle, lunch in a bus shelter and arriving soaked and grateful for a roof over our heads at the Heb Hostel in Stornoway. By now we had reached Lewis (which is technically part of one landmass with Harris but has quite a different vibe) and there was a lot more agriculture and development. Stornoway felt like a big town after the tiny clusters of houses we had come to expect as villages. Clothes and people drying and washing ensued.
While shops may all be closed on Sundays, pubs are not. We headed to the Lewis Bar to celebrate the completion of our journey together. Most of the locals were already well on their way to being drunk and we witnessed one Wellington booted chap slam his beer down and storm out. We also made friends with a dog and a woman who told us we were crazy for cycling and seemed to blame Dave and Rob for putting us ladies in such a predicament. Ha.
The evening was finished off with wine and curry at the hostel and I felt so grateful to have had such a wonderful week with our fantastic friends. I have laughed so much and been constantly reminded how wonderful it is to go on trips with a group that gets along so well. Everyone was always in such good spirits and despite the mildly annoying weather, I don’t think it took away from the experience at all. Thanks guys for joining us, we had a brilliant time.
The others left in the early hours of that morning and we sleepily hugged them farewell before falling back into bed. We woke late and I was sad in the way I knew I would be. Always when others leave us, be it family or friends, it takes some adjusting. I missed the laughter and group dynamics.
Our day went like many rest days. Many cups of tea, a meander around, a random trip to the museum, a prolonged shop in the supermarket and then back to the hostel. The weather was still uninspiring. So we ate more food and hoped the next day would be better.
It was. Sun and a cracking tailwind saw us pedal out to look at some standing stones, a Broch and then all the way to the Butt of Lewis light house and the official end of the Hebridean Way. It was beautiful standing looking over the cliffs and the wild Atlantic as the sun set. Because it’s Scotland we put our tent up right by the lighthouse as we had never slept next to one before.
Life is all about balance, what goes up, must come down and tailwinds, once you turn around are headwinds. We woke early, knowing that we would be pushing into wind for 46km and were hoping to make the 2pm ferry. It was probably one of the hardest cycles we’d done in a while. Maybe ever. A ferocious headwind combined with rain and hills across a rather desolate landscape. A day where I almost wondered why I am doing this. By the time we reached Stornoway 7 hours later we had 15 mins till the ferry left, well passed the official time we were allowed to board. But we thought what the hell, lets try. So we pedalled as hard as we could through the port, I dumped my bike and ran inside ready to plead with the lady behind the counter. Instead she calmly informed me the ferry was running late and we could certainly get on if we hurried. So hurry we did. Exhausted and windswept it was such a relief to board the warm ferry.
Thank you Outer Hebrides, you are wild and beautiful and we’ve had a super time. Now it is time to continue the road north on the main land..