I make no excuses for the title of this post.
I booked my train ticket for this trip back when the weather was settled, the sun was shining and I was holed up in a budget Manchester hotel room. An adventure seemed long overdue. I’ve been preoccupied with work for the past six months, which has been rewarding in its own way, but it was time for a break.
Some internet investigations turned up the idea for this route, with some mixed opinions on how ridable the initial section would be. I’ll come to that in a bit. First up was the 5am start for a 7+ hour train ride to Mallaig, transporting the bike went without incident, despite the ScotRail policy of only being able to book the bike on for the third and final leg of the journey. I can understand the reasoning, but it’s not an ideal arrangement.
From Mallaig, it was a short boat trip over to Inverie, which seems like a nice place for the monied types to retreat from civilisation in their shipped in showroom fresh Land Rovers and crazy expensive Swazi jackets. Having passed judgement on everyone and everything in the sixty seconds or so I’d been stood on the pier, I decided not to hang around (although I was tempted by the pub). The rain had a least stopped for the time being, so it seemed wise to get on with it.
The landy track meant progress was good for the first few miles. That stopped abruptly at the foot of Mam Barrisdale. What followed was a long, wet, rocky push. I swore at it, but didn’t get too annoyed, it was just nice to be off the train, exploring somewhere new. Besides, I couldn’t imagine the section along to Kinloch Hourn would be this bad.
A half-assed cairn marked the top of the pass. I was immediately suspicious of it, unsure if some joker had just put it there to mess with the minds of weary mountain bikers. Thankfully not. The decent down to the bothy at Barrisdale was a joy. Baby head sized rocks and two finger braking, with views opening out into damp glens, the hills around generating their own weather systems in miniature. I was met down in the glen by three bucks, out for an early evening constitutional on the landy track. They made off as I approached.
The bothy was only a short ride from the foot of the descent, but given how wet I was I had no issue imposing myself on the three walkers within. The bothy is well appointed, with running water and flushing toilet. Sadly lacking a functioning fireplace though. I was more than happy to spare the £3 charge. We had a good chat whilst we ate, and dried out, but come 2100 I was ready for sleep. I was pleased to have a bunk and room to myself.
The following morning I was not surprised to discover that it was still raining, not heavily, but persistently. I breakfasted, got my wet gear back on and packed the bike. I made off along the track, thinking about how little a dent I’d actually made in my planned route, the grand plan was to end up in Blair Atholl via Fort Augustus, Correyairack Pass and Glen Tromie. So around 14km into a ~200km route. The next 10km was going to be slow that much I knew, a mix of riding and pushing according to the internet.
As you can see in the photo above this was brilliant bikepacking terrain, I was riding along smiling my wee face off, but just around that corner lurks a hill, an then another and another. The smile did not return to my face until I reached Kinloch Hourn. Maybe, maybe this would have been more ridable in drier conditions, but 98% of it was simply not fit for bikes. The trail is far too rocky, too heathery, too steep, too rutted, too iffy to ride next to a drop into the loch. I think even Danny Macaskill, wired on ‘roids and PCP would struggle to maintain forward momentum.
Make no mistake, this is not a bike trail. I think it might work well for the intrepid bikerafters out there, bypassing the deathmarch which I assume must be up there with the notorious Loch Lomondside section of the West Highland Way. I did note some fairly strong (but localised) currents on the surface of Loch Hourn, if anyone out there is considering it.
Despite my complaints, I seemed to come to terms with the slog quite quickly. I resigned myself to pushing everything, ridable or not. The ridable sections were simply not long enough to warrant slinging a leg over the bike for. In addition to the push, I was also contending with soaking wet feet, despite my Lake 303 boots being warm and water resistant, they were simply no match for the amount of standing (or flowing) water on the trail, which did at times become watercourse. On the plus side they were still comfortable to walk in offered plenty of grip (they did dry out quite quickly afterwards too).
My spirits were buoyed by this deer snacking on an old pine, seemingly unperturbed by my presence just a few feet away. Having pushed over Creag Raonbhal, I was dismayed to find I’d also need to also walk the downhill of big rocks and peat hags. I’ll stop short of saying it couldn’t be ridden, but not by me, on an laden bike, solo and still several km short of the longest dead end road in the UK. I was beginning to understand how Knoydart became The Rough Bounds.
The section between Skiary and Kinloch Hourn whilst less rugged, was no easier for the two-wheeled traveller. The trail comes closer to the loch side, with plenty of rock or heather booby traps to stall you. Need to dab? Good luck getting unclipped and getting your foot down before toppling sideward into the loch with bike still attached.
I did eventually emerge
victorious soaked, onto the asphalt at Loch Beag. It’s not often mountain bikers are glad to see paved road. I wrung out my socks and insoles. Topped up my bottle and snacked on some babybel and trail mix. I decided to bypass the tearoom at Kinloch Hourn, eager to actually ride. According to their website the walk to Barrisdale takes four hours. I’d done it in reverse pushing a bike in that time, so all things considered, I was reasonably happy with that.
I did start to wonder if my optimism about the road section was misplaced, as the climb out of Kinloch Hourn is steep, but thankfully it eased off quite quickly. In fact most of the climbing is done within the rugged first few km, after which the road along Loch Quoich is mostly downhill all the way to Invergarry, some 35 km away. A mostly traffic free ride, lots of small scale hydro works seem to be dotted along the route, the most recent additions look more like boathouses.
Occasional downpours gave way to broken cloud and blue skies further down the glen. My thoughts turned to getting dried out. My feet were getting cold now I was pedalling. What I really wanted was a warm shower and some decent grub, not some boil in the bag slop on a sodden hillside. I decided I’d find a hostel in Fort Augustus and get dried out. I did eventually get there through further downpours and an emergency chocolate stop. I think it worked out at around 70km from the bothy. A ride of two halves, not least because the first half was actually a walk. A damp, beautiful, frustrating walk, followed by a mostly joyous ride, in spite of wet and cold feet and frequent rain showers.
Booked into the hostel at Ft. Augustus, I realised any wild camping credentials were out the window, but if I was to tackle the Correyairack Pass the following day I wanted at least to get dried as much as possible. The forecast didn’t look very good, if I could get it done, I could bail out at Newtonmore and skip the Tromie section to Blair Atholl.
I was up at 7am showered and resupplied at the Petrol Station in town. I loitered outside the pub to pick up their wifi for the weather forecast. As I did, the heavens opened. Out with the waterproofs. I stared up at the hills, then over to the canal. Flat and wet, or 700m high, exposed and wet? I decided I’d had enough of this type two fun nonsense and chose the ride to Fort William along the Great Glen Way. A cop out, but somewhat justified. The rain went off and I made it back to Invergarry dry, but into a stiff headwind along the canal sections. Then by Laggan the rain was back, then it got heavier, and heavier and heavier. And stayed on all the way to Fort William, 50km relentless. I didn’t bother with the camera.
So there you have it, a cop out. My first proper trip in ages, somewhat undone by dubious route choice, miserable weather and my own willingness to turn tail and head for home when the going gets tough. But at some point all the shite just didn’t matter, the pushing, the rain, the wet feet. I’d been through some fantastic remote terrain, my dodgy back had held up (mostly) in the face of some gruelling manhauling of the bike.
I hadn’t managed anything like the milage I’d hoped, and did approximately no wild camps, but it was great to be out there nonetheless. I sit here typing this, looking back and wonder if I was in fact enjoying myself the whole time, without actually realising it. Maybe revisiting this route in summer might not be so bad…well apart from the midges.