The OUTER HEBRIDES…. was not that cold after all

(Due to the length of this post I’ve cut it into smaller easier to digest portions!)

Room 101Leaving

We decided to cut the journey into two parts. The first being from home to Carlisle leaving by 4pm on Wednesday evening, ending in an overnight stay in a hotel. The second being from Carlisle to the Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides the following day.

We left late as a result of too many things I’d forgotten to add on my to-do list. And then there was the last minute realisation that I’d lost my Spork (spoon-fork) after camping with my brother. I envisioned it sat inside a bag of rubbish in his wheelie bin. The decision to make a small detour by the camping shop on our way out was thwarted by a train crossing the road in the middle of rush hour traffic. We arrived 5 minutes after it’d closed. Plastic cutlery from Tescos was purchased instead.

Using hotels during our trip was not really part of the budget. However, the overnight stop-gap in Carlisle was necessary and camping, not really an option. We arrived following the directions the hotel booking site had provided and came to discover £39 per night gets you a room in a busy truck fuel stop/shop. Not a surprising discovery really, I’ve booked enough hotels in my time to know what price constitutes a poverty spec stay but with time and money being of the essence on this occasion I placed our fate into the capable safekeeping of the internet. I decided that 207 web reviews of ‘good’ and ‘clean’ but ‘looks like a prison’ were three things we could live with for eight hours, most of which we would not be awake anyway.

Despite the obscure ‘sink in bedroom’ placement, separate single beds, brown patterened carpet and garish 1970’s tiling the room was fine. An examination of the sheets found them clean and Wil’s enthusiastic flinging open of the wardrobes like he expected to find a friend in a game of hide and seek inside, revealed, to his relief, no big hairy truckers crouching on the flimsy mdf shelf. Clean sheets, running (hot) water and a toilet was a damn sight more than we’d be spoiled with for the upcoming days. We fell asleep.

In the morning I said I was happy to see Wil hadn’t been kidnapped in the night. Wil said he was pleased to report that his arse didn’t hurt. We were on the road for 07:01.

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ScotlandThe Drive

I never feel like I’m properly in Scotland until we’re past Glasgow. It’s just beyond the city where the scenery really starts to become ragged and the mountains encroach into the sky. The road between Glasgow and Fort William winds between lochs, waterfalls, railway tracks and through woodland. Vast open areas of land expand so far out in front of you that it does funny things to your eyes when you attempt to take it all in.  You don’t realise how big of an expanse you’re looking at until you realise the small white flowers are actually sheep dotted across the land.

The last time we took the route all the way to Fort William we stayed in a cabin and enjoyed a white Christmas.

The most eventful part of the journey was just after we’d entered the Isle of Skye where a bloke driving the car in front of ours decided he’d try to cause a head on collision by suddenly pulling across the road to park on the opposite side right before a blind bend. Subsequently a car coming the other way had to slam on the anchors and very nearly swerved around the idiot and straight into us – head on. Narrowly avoiding tragedy we continued down the road, shocked and flabberghasted at the sheer stupidity of some people. We arrived in the Isle of Skye around 4pm.

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The FerryThe Ferry

The ferry was an hour and a half late turning up and a further thirty minutes late leaving the port. We’d been packed and ready to go at 5:30pm just as the man in the ticket booth had requested.

We’d bundled the stuff onto the bikes and took it in turns to get changed in the back of the van avoiding leaning in the damp patch caused by a leaking bottle of milk I’d insisted we’d bring from the fridge at home.

At 7:00pm the ferry cruised into the port and released a full cargo of bikes, cars, lorries, post vans, petrol trucks and passengers.

Seeing the post vans and petrol tankers reminded me how remote this place must be and that in bad weather perhaps they don’t get petrol or their post.

——————–
Cows

The First Night

It was nearly 9pm when we arrived on Harris. We cycled out of the hull of the boat followed closely by a full compliment of other vehicles. Reaching the car park we pulled over briefly to take a photo and check our map the empty ferry closed down for the night. The cars all drove away and the remaining passengers disappeared down the streets with friends and relatives. The sun was setting behind the mountains and the atmosphere became very still with the only sound coming from a solo set of bagpipes being played up in the town.

Gathering our bearings we pedalled up a narrow one way hill which took us past a couple of small shops and a few houses and up to an elevated view of the port before leading us out into the countryside leaving the town and bagpipes behind.  As the road turned towards Stornoway we picked up a small gravel path which led down to a loch lining the the valley of two large mountains. We stopped only to confirm the directions I’d written on some Costa Coffee receipts at the motorway services. My brother had sent them via email after I’d discovered I’d left my copy at home.

A short way along the path we were stopped by some very inquisitive cows guarding the gravel track. Much sniffing and side ways glances in our direction took place before they continued to step towards us. One let out a discerning bassy grunt which led me to peer at it’s nether regions to confirm it was infact a cow and not a bull. ‘Pedal towards it Wil’ I shouted, hoping the daft cow would realise cows are usually timid and easily frightened. Obviously Harris mountain and loch dwelling cows are a tougher breed because the closer got the the more insistent the cows were in staying put.

Wil looked around at the late evening sky setting in and he began to wherret about finding a camping spot. We eventually spied a level spot about 50 feet off the trail on the side of a mountain overlooking the loch. It was quite a climb up to get to it, one which the bikes had to be carried up. Wil swore when the bags on the bike rack swung round knocking him violently in the back of the head. The spot amongst rocks and heather was rather wet and spongey. A little prodding about revealed it was actually very dense and wet peat. But with the light fading and not knowing what might lie ahead on the trail we decided to pitch anyway. If anything we’d get a soft bed to lay on and hopefully the cows wouldn’t bother us so high up. As we pushed the tent pegs into the ground only then did we discover cow hoofprints in the soft peat surrounding our tent.

We wriggled into the tent. Three times Wil’s head shot off his makeshift pillow in order to use both ears to listen to mysterious swap creatures slithering around the tent. Or tiptoeing cows who’d managed the 50ft climb without making so much as a brushing noise through the long grass just so they could roll onto our tent and crush us to death or worse – steal our bikes. I told him it was going to be a very long night if he was going to spend time freaking the both of us out by paying attention to his imagination. My own ears were now pounding with heartbeat noises and high pitched squealing from the elevation in my heart rate having kicked my tinnitus off. The ground was comfy, the cows left us alone and as long as it didn’t rain, we wouldn’t be stranded in the middle of a boggy sodden moat in the morning. We drifted off to sleep.

——————–
Midges

The Midges

The morning arrived with the sound of rain pattering onto the tent. I opened my eyes and focussed through the mesh of the inner tent to look at what appeared to be quite a lot of tiny black flies crawling around on the outside. I didn’t pay this much attention until I unzipped the door in order to get out for a wee. Through the small gap opened by the zipper I could see pale grey sky and before that thousands of darker grey spots floating around in the air, like driving into snow flurries. I zipped it closed again and recoiled back into the inner tent zipping that closed too with utmost urgency.

‘What is it?” Wil jolted out of his slumber and up onto his elbow staring at me with two puffy eyes.
‘Midges’ I shrieked pointing to the small black flies still crawling on the outside of the inner tent.
‘Millions of them, I’m not sure how we’re going to get out’

There was a long discussion and the readers digest version is this:

‘We’ll just get out, they can’t be that bad’
‘No, trust me – there are millions of them, we’ll get eaten alive’
‘Did you bring some midge repellent’
‘Yes’
‘Where is it?’
‘In the bag’
‘What, the bag that is out there?’
‘Er, yes’
‘Marvellous’

We considered our options and decided that staying put for a little while until it got windy seemed the most logical idea. I’d read that midges don’t like wind. And last night had been a bit windy and there’d been no midges then.

An hour later I was really bursting for a wee. It was getting hotter in the tent but no windier outside. Wil had begun wherreting again and the midge situation viewable through the mesh ceiling looked as crowded as the mosh pit at a Cliff Richard concert.

We opened a small section of zipper and dragged in the bag containing the Deet repellent along with a small cloud of midges which instantly made their way to our faces and hands. We covered ourselves liberally with the ‘Midjex’, put on as many items of clothing as we could and then unzipped the tent to make a run for it.

‘Great’, said Wil, ‘our lives depend on a small green tube of clear gel whose largest ingredient is water’

What lay in store for us outside of the tent was something we could NEVER have been prepared for. The cloud of midges was so thick that as we emerged from the tent they immediately flew into our eyes, up our noses and into our mouths. I found myself stuck, struggling for air and blindly flinging my arms around in the air while trying to push my right foot into my left shoe. I stumbled away to make room for Wil to get out of the tent behind me. I was breathing the midges in, choking and panicking at the thought we might not get away from them. I could feel them in their thousands clinging to my hair, buzzing in my ears and crawling over my hands. Crawling but seemingly not biting. Wil ran past me and grabbed my hand to pull me along with him as we suddenly became early morning fell runners. Bounding up the rocks and boggy peat heather patches to get higher up the mountain we finally found some relief in a slight breeze some 50ft further up the mountain. I brushed the last few midges from my sleeve and they were carried away with the air.

We stood admiring the scenery, still reeling from the harrowing events of such a rude introduction to our first morning and still very much out of breath from clambering up the mountain.

It took us over an hour to take the tent down and pack up. The wind didn’t pick up until much later and our sheltered spot on the mountain allowed a massive swarm of midges to remain in situ to smother us every time we ran back for bits and pieces. And that is how we did it. Pulled our collars up over our nose and mouth ran down the mountain, grabbed arm loads of stuff and then ran back up to pack it away. We both ran down, scrambled about to pull out all the tent pegs and then grabbed the tent and ran back up the mountain with it to fold it up. Same with the sleeping mats, bags and clothes.

We met a local man walking his dog on the way and stopped to talk. He was wearing a midge net over his head and commented that the midges were the worst they’d had yet. Funny I thought – It never fails when someone goes on holiday they come back with a story about the locals saying it had been the worst/best/wettest/driest it’d been for hundreds of years. In our case, it was the most midge infested.

With that horror eventually behind us we cycled back the way we came and straight into town to buy midge nets for our heads.

——————–
Ride

The Bike Ride

Fearing a repeat of that morning and learning that the area between the mountains and by the lochs were the worst for the midges we disappointingly decided against biking the route in Trail Magazine that had inspired us to come to the Outer Hebrides in the first place. Instead we opted to do our second route – the 10 miles down to Luskentyre beach. Surely there would be a constant wind blowing at the coast and therefore less midges.

The ride was amazing. A narrow road with passing places leading out into the rugged countryside of this small island. Not a single tree existed anywhere you looked. Just peat bogs, purple heather and pinky-grey granite rock striped with what looked like slices of white marble. There seemed to be far more climbs than descents but after about an hour and half the top of the final climb revealed a massive opening between the land where the turquoise sea poured into a large bay lined with bright white sand. It looked like the workings of an overexposed photoshop image, and a scene I didn’t think existed in this country.

We followed the road down until it dead ended at a gate leading into the beach.

——————–
Beach

The Beach

Dropping our bikes on the sand we walked up into the large grassy sand dunes to get a better look. It was breezy and there were no midges in sight so we pitched the tent and then sat to absorb the sheer beauty surrounding us. The vast beach was a blanket of fine white sand dotted with bright pink, purple and white shells sprinkled about like coloured beads from a broken necklace. The inviting clear turquoise sea gently lapping the shore, the large dunes covered in clumps of pistachio toned green sea grass nodding in the breeze and the hazy blue mountains containing it all in the background. No sun chairs, no tacky parasols, no shops, no screaming kids, only one or two people and impressive moody clouds seemingly being held at bay by bright sunshine.

We kicked back on the sand and read our books for some time before the heat reminded us we were still kitted up in tights and jumpers which had protected us from the midges earlier.

It wasn’t until much later that we discovered a few midges taking an interest in our tent up in the dunes. The wind appeared to be stronger on the beach than in the dunes so without further ado we moved the tent down onto the beach and enjoyed a midge free evening in the breeze.

The temperature here was much warmer than the previous night and waking in the morning to the sound of the waves lapping the shore and the entire beach to ourselves was something I just can’t describe. I could happily have stayed in this place and not returned home at all. But the following day in the event we’d decided not to cycle the other route on Harris we cut our stay a day short and cycled back to town to catch the ferry back to the mainland. From here we planned to drive back down to Fort William to spend a lazy day at Ben Nevis.

By this time Wil had had his tenting fill and argued the case for staying in a B&B. I agreed because it was easier to agree than not! Two days of various camping related complaints from the tent being too small to needing a shower was enough for me to just concede defeat and let the man have his comforts for a night.

We got a B&B in Fort William and went out for a fish dinner in the evening. The following day we took a Gondola ride up Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles and also pottered about in the town for a short while before carrying on our way down to the borders to cycle at Mabie.

——————–
Campsite

Homeward Bound

After convincing Wil we should camp again we ended in a compromise by agreeing to pitch on a site with showers and toilets! We returned to a lovely site we’ve used in the past just outside Dumfries in a little village called Beeswing. The lady laughed when we asked how bad the midges were and assured us that they may only be present in ones or two here, ‘not like the Highlands’.

We placed the tent on a grassy spot at the edge of the site and kicked back with a pot noodle for dinner using a small tree stump for a table. No midges this time but there was the noise from other campers on either side and I felt spoiled by our previous nights of wildcamping where noisy neighbours and other peoples snoring wasn’t an issue.

The following morning it was pissing down with rain. A fact I became quickly aware of when I was awoken by splats of rain hitting me in the face. The tent was now, not water proof for some reason. The inner tent was covered with large droplets of water which had made it through the outer sheet and was beginning to drip through onto our sleeping bags.  I got dressed and crawled out to find there was no break in the clouds it looked set to stay. We sat on the back of the van to eat breakfast, sheltered by the rear door open above our heads. We decided against doing the long cross country trail at Mabie in favour of just heading home giving ourselves an extra day with which to sort other things before returning to work on Wednesday.

The drive home was just as uneventful as the drive there had been although rain made it take quite a bit longer.

The bags of clothes, wet tent and clammy sleeping bags are still in a pile on the living room floor. I listen closely to my backpack I can hear those midges swarming all around me. My shoes still have a little pile of Luskentyre sand in the heel and I’m wondering if I click the heels together enough times I might find myself laying in that white sand one more time.

More photos from the trip here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/foxsden/sets/72157606856017541/

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3 Comments »

  1. Little brother said

    Doesn’t sound like an easy place to go camping what with the midges, but the beach looks like it was a great reward. Hope you both haven’t been put off bikecamping, no midges and better weather would have made for a much better time overall I expect!

    Did you try the Aquapure traveller out?

  2. foxsden said

    If I was to do it over again I’d go at a different time – perhaps a bit earlier in the year before the midges get bad. Failing that I’d stay on the beach longer (and take a few more books). I won’t lie, it would have been great to have the car in order to see more of the island in such a short space of time. The biking was challenging but really good though.

    The bikecamping overall was great – definately not put me off! And the weather on Harris was good during the time it mattered.

    And yes, we used the Aquapure to fill up from a stream when we ran out of water on the way to the beach. Top job! (well, we haven’t died yet) Shall I post it back or hang on until I see you?

  3. Little brother said

    Cool, glad it worked! Could have been rather messy had it not. Yeah might as well wait until I pop back – I’ll trade it for your spork.

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