In my naivety I always expected that my first big bicycle adventure would be about blood, sweat and tears; about grit and grime, toughness and endurance. But I was wrong. First and foremost, it would be a journey amongst people. Chance encounters with individuals from all walks of life formed my strongest impressions and my most treasured memories.
Exactly the same thing happened last week. I travelled up to Inverness on an £8 Megabus ticket to meet fellow post-long-distance-cyclist Fearghal (of Revolution Cycle fame), expecting a week-long slog in the rain with a moment of elation at the end as the payoff. But once again it was the eclectic cast of characters I met on the way who shaped the character of this trip, and ultimately brought out the best in the experience.
People like the 84-year-old World War Two veteran and heart-attack survivor who plucked us from some expansive yet empty valley, after an entire morning of walking along what we’d thought was the main road through the Great Glen, trudging for hours without a vehicle or soul to be seen – and whisked us ten miles past his front door in order to drop us off in Fort Augustus (where the real main road to Fort William could be found), just because he could.
Or the middle-aged chap who picked us up shortly afterwards, who apologised for the funny smell (“Dunno what my wife’s been hauling around in here!”) and proved unusually knowledgeable about the mountains, the weather and the trails in the area. As he dropped us off in the drizzle below the imposing cloud-topped mound of Ben Nevis, somewhere up which we planned to camp that night, we found out why:
“I’m with Mountain Rescue. So” – he said, with a hint of a sly grin – “I hope I don’t see you again!”
Soaked and tired at 11pm in diminishing light and persistent cold rain, and after a slightly steeper hike than we’d expected, we crawled into our hastily thrown-up tent and into a world of dryness, warm clothes and sleeping bags. The relief was only mildly tempered when I realised I’d left the matches at home and that there would be no hot food on offer that evening.
(Instant noodles taste pretty good dry, though, and have a satisfying crunch – I suggest you try it.)
Fearghal didn’t lambast me too much for my error – it was the first time I’d travelled on foot or lugged a backpack anywhere, after all, and he’d forgotten to buy stove fuel the previous day too. But we slept well, and the early morning was mercifully rain-free. I threw on my wet clothes and shoes and started descending, and by the time we reached the foot of the trail I’d almost dried out.
We’d timed it well; large groups from the nearby hostels were beginning their climbs in earnest now, including two young ladies holding clipboards whose bare feet and stiletto heels caught our attention.
“It’s the 3 Peaks Challenge – we’ve already done Scafell and Snowdon,” one of them said. Novelty fundraising knows no limits!
A full Scottish Breakfast was on the cards; similar to the English Breakfast, but even fattier and with more bits of more animals in it. Ideal fuel for the outdoorsmen, we thought, so we munched our way through the black pudding and Lorne sausages and deep-fried potato cakes and bacon and set out for another gruelling morning of hitch-hiking. It was just a few minutes before a big motorhome pulled over and the front door swung open, revealing a very jolly party of 4 middle-aged Israeli women on holiday.
They were only on their way to the Nevis Range cable car up the road, but insisted on taking us all the way to Spean Bridge, where we would continue up a side-valley. We talked about their home country as compared to here, the terrible Scottish diet, the landscapes that reminded them of parts of Israel, and never once thought about or mentioned politics.
“We have a saying in Israel”, said the lady at the wheel, as we passed through forests of pine beneath the dark, weathered slopes of the mountains. “If you’re going to do a good deed for someone… you should do it as well as you possibly can!”
The walk to Roybridge took us along a forgettable and narrow main road, but time passed quickly – at times, in fact, the trip seemed purely incidental to the kind of week-long conversation that only two over-philosophical long-distance cyclists could have. But Roybridge was where the real hiking would begin. Or – more precisely – a few miles up the dead-end valley to the north, where the tarmac stopped and the upper reaches of one of the Highlands’ countless forgotten watersheds lay before us.
A spirited Sunderlander, out pottering the lanes in his little car with no agenda more complicated than gazing at the scenery, took us as far as the end of the road and waved us off, reminding us to pay the favour forward. “That’s canny, that is!” he exclaimed, spotting a buzzard and grabbing his binoculars. “That’s made my day!”
I have a mild fascination with mountain bothies, and this trip wouldn’t have been complete without one. A bothy is a simple mountain shelter, typically in some remote and inaccessible location, maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association charity but unmanned and free for use by anyone who finds themselves passing through.
What I love about them is the ethos of mutuality – repairs, condition reports and things like firewood-gathering are the job of everyone who uses them. Each one is unique, having once been a cottage or barn. And, because they’re remote enough to require many hours (sometimes days) of walking, they’re very, very quiet and special places.
Evening was drawing on before we spotted the tiled roof and twin chimneys of Luib Chonnal. Tomorrow we’d meet the River Spey at its source, and the packrafts we were carrying would spirit our journey onwards. We soon had a warming fire lit in the wood-burner and big pot of noodles and canned haggis on the go.
The skylights faded to a deep blue, and the evening evolved into one of those silent, dark, contemplative ones, only the fading embers and tingling of the toes to remind you that a world existed outside your thoughts. I was reminded just how much it’s possible to experience in a day during the long hours of a northern summer.
Had it really been that same morning I’d woken up on Ben Nevis?!?
Come back next week for the second half of the trip and (hopefully) the results of the video experiments. Now get out and make the most of the summer while it lasts!