Carrying full touring bikes on board is great. After all the faff of getting them ashore and building them, we set off to cycle the length of Uist and back!
Having been left to my own devices for a few days, it was necessary to avoid getting cabin fever and head for the hills. As a novice bikepacking* enthusiast, I discovered that this part of Scotland offered some very accessible yet ‘wild’ enough areas reachable within a few hours by bicycle.
I planned a 2-day trip through the hills from Rhu to Loch Lomond, the ‘long way round’. The whole journey by distance was not far at all, but it did involve a few long climbs. Having had a number of different route suggestions, I decided to take a mountain bike / hiking path up from behind Helensbrugh, into the hills, towards Glen Fruin, and onto an old military road further northwest towards Tarbet. The map looked straightforward, but I vastly underestimated the time and level of difficulty I was to encounter when I got lost – twice – in the pouring rain.
My route turned from well-formed tracks, to tarmac, to rough, rocky, gravelly and steep roads, only really accessible by 4×4 or mountain bike. By that time, it should have occurred to me that I was following the wrong road…but I stubbornly carried on, after all, I was going the right direction!
I then encountered dead-end roads terminating steep downhill tracks with dirty streams of water forming large puddles in the potholes. My bike, Elsie, was heavy. I had packed food for 2 days, a 2-man tent (the only tent we have on board), a change of clothes, a Trangia, some fuel, a book, watercolours, an inflatable camping mat, and sleeping bag. I had also booked a campsite at the far side (east) of Loch Lomond, thinking that I would get there on time, so I only had one small water bottle.
The day was getting on, and by 18:30, after having encountered the second dead-end road (no mobile reception), I decided to back track to some huts I found along the way. Thankfully, one of them had no door. I believe this was probably used as an eating or gathering place if it was raining. Finally, some sense kicked in and I decided there was no chance I was going to get to the correct road and my campsite before dark. I was not going to risk taking a wrong route again in the rain, when this shelter was so lovely and dry!
By 20:30, I managed to set up camp, find a stream, cook my dinner, and even draw a little bit. The sky cleared and the sun said farewell for the day. It was quiet; I had not encountered another soul for at least 5 hours but I knew I was safe. I felt warm and secure, and had enough sleep for the next day.
In the morning, after enjoying some sun and breakfast, I packed up and started to back track further, hoping to find a linking road. I encountered some Dutch army officers in their 4×4 vehicle. I waved them down and told them I was a bit lost, and wondered if there might be a track across the valley. The officer was very kind, and told me that I was in an MOD (Ministry of Defence) practice area, but was unsure if there was a track that cut across.
After I waved goodbye, I heard some gun fire close by. The last thing I wanted to encounter were some soldiers shooting each other, even if I was assured they were just firing blanks! I cycled on, and took a chance on a road that eventually lead back up to the original track I needed to follow through to Loch Lomond. After crossing the valley through some boggy ground and forest, I finally climbed up onto the road! This time, it was a straightforward downhill dirt road route that linked to a narrow, quiet and winding tarmac road. Relieved and excited, I was smiling ear to ear…the fun was only hindered temporarily by some cattle creating a road block.
I was able to cycle right along Loch Lomond on the West Lomond Cycle Way and head back towards Helensbrugh on the John Muir Way.
The trip felt epic, even if it was just a couple of days. Getting lost thrown into the mix somehow stretched time. The stress and challenges it created while travelling solo also added to the excitement. Although I regretted the weight of the tent, I was glad I had it, if I had not found those huts, I would have needed it.
Throughout the difficult moments, when I had to hike Elsie up some really long, steep hills, with my feet slipping on the gravel at times, thoughts of ‘warm hotel’ and ‘B&B’ kept on playing in my head. But when I found my shelter, all those thoughts melted away, because the view was breathtaking and besides, I carried all this gear! The discomfort the day brought ended up being very rewarding, but I was looking forward to a warm shower.
From now on, we will do our best to post on Fridays! Watch out for our YouTube Channel (search for Chasing Contours) and on Facebook and Instagram for more real-time updates! @chasingcontours.
*Bikepacking – on and off-road style of cycle touring, usually done on cross country or mountain routes on mountain bikes or all-terrain tourers. Elsie the bike is built as a cyclocross bike and has no suspension.