Our ferry to Ullapool was mercifully smooth. I hardly remember any of it as after eating I basically fell asleep, exhausted after the epic pedal into the wind. We docked in the late afternoon with plans (my plans) to buy food and pedal a few kilometres to find somewhere to camp. However, after some discussion (and me probably being quite annoying) I could see that Astrid was shattered and not really up for any more pedalling. So we called it a day and opted for the hostel 200m away. It was a cosy, friendly place, perfect for spending an evening relaxing, eating and watching the rain lash the windows.
The next morning we pushed out into the highlands of Scotland and were afforded views of mountains, lochs, the sea and vast moors. I was enthralled. The power and wildness of the landscape filled me with joy. This is exactly what I had come to Scotland for. It is this wilderness our hearts had been craving.
After 23km we turned off the main road and followed a wonderful small road to the base of Stac Pollaidh, a mountain that Ben, the guy who worked at the hostel, had told us we shouldn’t miss. A quick lunch in the sun and we were ready to climb. The ascent wasn’t difficult but we had to keep hiding as fronts of hail and rain came over. This was interspersed with bright sunshine and stunning views. Once off the mountain we drank tea and then continued on towards Lochinver, a small village on a loch. Here food was purchased and we optimistically turned onto a small road for the last few miles to Suileag bothy. Other cyclists (the cool bike packing kind) had told us it got a bit rough but we wouldn’t have to push too much. Ha. I think it took us about 2.5 hours to do 4 miles. The road was so rough and steep that at times the two of us were pushing and pulling one bike up at a time! At the end of an already long day it was tough going and we questioned our sanity and dedication to sleeping at a bothy.
The road gets smaller..
However, as soon as we rounded the last corner and saw the bothy nestled in amongst all the wild beauty it felt worth it. There is something so charming about these remote huts. I am completely enchanted by them. Inside we met Tony, a guy in his 70’s from London. He was here on a 2 week fishing trip of the remote lochs and had been coming to the area since 1982. Tony was delighted that we can collected enough wood on our bikes (not all bothies have firewood) to start the fire and we spent a lovely evening sharing stories about each others’s lives while watching the flickering (natures tv) of the flames. Tony certainly impressed me with his tales of quitting his job his and working ski seasons in France and becoming an amazing skier in his 50’s. It goes to show you don’t have to be young to do crazy adventurous things. I guess I know this, but it’s nice to hear stories from people who have actually lived it.
When you sleep so near to a mountain as epic as Suilven, it would be a shame not to climb it. So after breakfast Astrid and I headed the two or so hours up the mountain. Unfortunately we couldn’t actually summit. We got as far as the saddle and then the wind was so ferocious I actually got blown over and was almost crawling to reach the top. We decided it wasn’t worth it. The walk and the views from the saddle were stunning enough for us.
Back at the bothy we debated the merits of staying another night as after a 5 hour hike up a mountain we were both pretty tired. In the end we decided to leave and bade Tony farewell and pushed and pedalled our bikes back out onto the main road. From there it was only a short cycle to Shore camping ground and as we had not spotted anywhere free to camp and the camping ground sold (hot) chips, it wasn’t hard to decide to stay there.
Brilliant sun greeted us the next day and we enthusiastically jumped into the icy bay. Aside from being freezing, these beautiful beaches with their white sand and turquoise water remind me of places like the prom. I love starting the day with (preferably nude) swim. It makes me feel so alive. There is something so invigorating and life affirming about icy cold water.
It was late by the time we rolled out of the campsite but we didn’t care and had decided to embrace the fact that it was a weekend. The road undulated gently with stunning views. We stopped at a beach to meditate and simply enjoyed the fact that it was sunny and warm in northern Scotland. We ate lunch at Drumbeg looking at a sparkling loch and then began what turned into quite an epic afternoon and evening of steep ascents. Some of the gradients reduced me to pushing. This almost never happens, although I’ve been feeling that my bike is way too heavy and my hill fitness very lacking. Astrid managed to cycle them all. Amazing. We kept trying to find a spot to camp but all we found was boggy peat. Finally we reached the A road and then not long after a beautiful camp spot under a bridge, overlooking a loch with a pub a short walk away. Perfect. The road always provides in the end.
Shockingly we woke to rain. This was not part of the plan. The met office had promised sun. And so had the locals. I lay there listening to the rain and being annoyed. Astrid wanted to have a tent day. I wanted to walk/cycle into Glendhu bothy 10km away at the far end of the loch. Eventually my whining and optimistic talk of ‘it’s stopping’ won her over and it did indeed stop. We packed up and headed to the pub to try and buy firewood. It seemed too expensive so we decided to chance it. We learnt a good lesson that if you turn up to a bothy on Sunday there is a good chance that some firewood will be left over from the weekend. The cycle in was much easier than the last bothy, only requiring pushing towards the end. Soon we were sat with some hikers eating lunch, enjoying the sun and tranquility. One of them, Lawrence had a sad story. We’d actually heard about him from another hiker (and later found out he knew someone else from Sheffield we had met cycling in Albania!) a few hours earlier. Lawrence was hiking the Scottish national trail with his dog Suzi and had lost Suzi the night before. He was understandably quite devastated. However, later that evening two men turned up in a boat looking for Lawrence. Suzi had been located at a hostel he had visited the previous day and they were here to take him to her. A brilliant ending. After Lawrence left in the boat the rest of us – hikers doing the Scottish national trail – sat by the fire drinking tea and chatting as the light gently faded outside. I’m loving how late it gets dark here.
The morning began with a swim in the loch and we then pushed and pedalled our bikes back out to the road and headed north. At Scourie I convinced a kind motorcyclist to fill my fuel bottle with petrol (again, such a pain in Britain) and we made the best of the poor selection of food from the local shop (instant mashed potato, beans and tomatoes) for lunch. In the afternoon the landscape began to feel more remote, even for Scotland. We had turned off the main road and were headed for a beach – Sandwood Bay, only accessible by a 12km walk or pedal.
I don’t know if it’s because I grew up in Australia or spent a lot of my younger years on hikes and camps in the wilderness, but it is this remoteness I crave. Sitting on the deserted beach, as the waves pounded, with only Astrid and one enthusiastic surfer around, my soul felt at peace. I love cities for all their vibrancy and culture but there is something healing and restorative about the wild places on our planet. That’s why I feel so strongly that they needed to be protected. They are beyond precious. I think connection with wilderness makes us better humans because it brings into focus what really matters. This is probably why I cycle and travel the way I do because this connection comes so organically.
We left probably one of the most picturesque camp spot we’ve had, hid our bikes behind a dry stone wall and finally packed the backpacks we’d been carrying. Then we began what ended up being a rather wet trek into Strathchalleach bothy. This bothy had once been home to a local hermit called Sandy, like all kind of legends he seemed like quite an eccentric guy but I fear there was a deeper, sadder story as to why he turned to alcoholism and the life of a hermit (there are quite a few stories at to why but people seem more interested in his eccentricities than his tragedy).
By the time we reached the bothy we were soaked from the rain and the bog and ready for it to be over. Inside the small bothy we met Becci who was bimbling about the area for a few days, hiking and biking. She was battling with the peat fire which turns out none of us had any idea how to manage. We spent the better part of the afternoon through trial and error figuring out how to get it going. In the end we had moderate success interspersed with severe periods of almost choking ourselves with smoke. Some other hikers with a dog arrived and then Lucy, who we had met two nights ago at Glendhu. She came with digestives and we spent the evening eating biscuits and drinking tea. In the wilderness Astrid and I are often surrounded by men; it was nice to spend an evening with strong, adventurous women. We laughed a lot. Especially when we had a closer look at the hermits murals and saw how x rated some of them actually were.
The morning’s hike out was sunny and much quicker than the previous day. We repacked the bikes and headed out to the road. A pass greeted our return to the main road and then a long descent almost all the way into Durness. Stunning cycling as always. I felt dwarfed by the dramatic landscape. You can feel the presence of glaciers that shaped this land, even though they are long gone. Just out of Durness we marvelled at the Kyle of Durness – a huge tidal river cutting through the landscape, separating Cape Wrath from the rest of Scotland.
We had made plans to meet Lucy that night to celebrate her completion of the Scottish National Trail, an epic hike from Southern Scotland to Cape Wrath. When she finally arrived we greeted her with beer and enthusiasm and were reunited with a few other hikers we had met along the way as well. An evening at the pub ensued.
After we bade Lucy and the others farewell we had a decision to make about where the road would take us. I felt a bit discombobulated; we don’t normally have so much time or freedom. It’s actually a nice feeling, just takes some getting used to. After some discussion we decided to go and get a hot chocolate and then take the boat to Cape Wrath and pedal to Kervaig bothy. Lots of good things happened once we had made that decision; we got a smashing vegan hot chocolate, the sun shone, we didn’t have to wait long for the boat across the Kyle, the pedal was lovely and we met Becci again just before the bothy. The bothy itself was in probably one of the most stunning locations and it was a joy to watch the sunset over the ocean while sharing some whisky.
It seemed weird to be nearly at Cape Wrath and not visit the lighthouse. So we rode out to it, sheltered in the weird little café from the rain and then headed back to get the boat. We stopped briefly in Durness to restock and then headed east. Often my favourite part of the day is when we stop and this is especially true in Scotland. Mainly because of the right to roam and the ample amount of amazing places to put a tent. To me finding a flat place to put our tent, with a view of a beautiful beach, dry firewood and stream with fresh water, well life actually doesn’t get much better than that. It is the deep appreciation of the simple things that I think ultimately facilitates my ongoing happiness.
We had met a Swiss girl who had told us about a Munroe (mountains over 900m mostly in Scotland) nearby so we decided to head there the following day. Our pedal took us along a beautiful sea loch and then up a stunning remote valley. We had lunch at the foot of the mountain and then spent the afternoon climbing it. Amazing views. Astrid was particularly impressed by a fell runner who literally ran down the mountain. I thought I had stable footing, but this guy was like a super hero. Amazing.
On our way down we had met Ben again – the guy who worked at the hostel in Ullapool. After a bit of chat we all decided to camp together. It’s always fun to have company and Ben is a really cool guy. We found a spot to make camp, built a fire and spent the evening chatting and drinking tea. Ben is more or less bike packing and hiking, something that has sparked my interest. It’s a lot more light weight and allows for easier off road cycling in more remote places. Astrid and I definitely want to try it. I think I am going to make it a project when I get back to Melbourne.
Sundays always pose problems in remote areas where shops are often not open long. We had managed to almost run out of food but luckily somehow also managed to make it 2 minutes before the only shop for miles closed (it was open for one hour). Phew. Astrid would have had to deal with quite an irate me. I am not so good with a lack of food.
It was now a 2 day cycle to John O’Groats which we kind of didn’t care so much about reaching. However, we decided we might as well do it since we had come so far. Astrid and I are obviously not particularly goal orientated; we kind of do what feels right at the time. And if that means changing plans, well that’s fine. However, Astrid did want to go to Dunnet Head (the actual most north easterly point) as it was famous for its birds. And it kind of felt right to finish what we started. So we pedalled onwards, facing some rough weather on the way. The landscape changed from the wildness we had become accustomed to, to much more cultivated and populated. Reaching John O’Groats did feel momentous in a way, but Dunnet Head with its many nesting birds and beautiful views was much more of a highlight. Our last night wild camping was next to a beach with a fire and it was hard to believe we would soon be in London again. I had really gotten back into this traveling, wild life. It would be hard to leave it. Although it wouldn’t be for long.
On our last day we pedalled into Thurso, caught a train to Inverness and spent a wonderful afternoon exploring the city in the sunshine. Then, to our delight we were let into the Caledonian sleeper lounge, given towels and access to a luxurious shower and then a room full of snacks. It felt very olde worldly and like how I imagine train travel used to be. What a treat in this day and age. Once on the sleeper we sat in the lounge cart and drank a whisky while watching the sunset over the highlands. What a stunning way to end an amazing adventure. And not only that, in a way this trip, starting all the way back at Lands End last year, had been about paying homage to the island we have called home for the last 2.5 years. Of course there will always be things we haven’t seen, but I feel like we have given it our best shot to explore and understand this wonderful little island. Thanks Britain, in the end you were pretty swell.