It never rains in Scotland - Part 1 (The Cairngorms)

June 25, 2018

In a full four weeks in Scotland, I never once wore my raincoat in anger. If I had have stuck to the minimalist bikepacking ethos of "If you don't wear it or use it, don't pack it", then I probably shouldn't have packed my raincoat, rain pants, down jacket, THREE pairs of gloves, waterproof gloves, beanie, extra thermals, buff. But I expected true Scottish weather: freezing rain, snow, sleet and wind.

 

Instead, I got sunburnt 3 times. That's right, an Australian, sunburnt in Scotland. It felt very strange.

 

Riddled with dirt roads, land rover tracks, and singletrack, Scotland is a wonderful place to go bikepacking. Even the obligate paved sections were pleasant, with drivers ever so courteous, passing me with plenty of space. Starting from Aberdeen airport, my trip encompassed the Cairngorm national park, a loop through the northern highlands, a detour to the Isles of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides, and a final jaunt through the Isle of Skye. Inspiration and a significant section of my route was taken from the Highlands 550 and the Cairngorms loop, as described on bikepacking.com.

 

After a whirlwind week visiting my family in Norway, it was time to get on my bike, and seek out solitude and wilderness. A short hop across the North Sea, and I found myself putting my bike together outside Aberdeen airport. After finding my way through a snarl of highways, my first night was spent camped in the suburban wilderness of Tyrebagger Woods. My sleep was interrupted by some sort of bird, possibly a grouse or pheasant, which insisted on squawking and flapping its wings every 15 minutes. And I had forgotten about the northern sun in summer. So I sprung awake at 4.30am, light streaming through the thin tent walls. 

 

The first full day of cycling was along the Deeside Way, a long-distance, mixed-use traffic free path running from Aberdeen all the way to Ballater in the Cairngorms. Beautiful tree-lined gravel roads took me through rolling farmland peppered with grand country houses to the town of Ballater, the gateway to the Cairngorms. Just before reaching Braemar, I turned north, heading into the backcountry. A long, slow climb through heather-blanketed hills took me up to Loch Builg, for a short stretch of enjoyable, muddy, rocky singletrack. That night I camped alongside the River Avon, cooked some sausages over a fire and fell asleep to the gentle sound of water.

I detoured to the Glenlivet whiskey distillery the next day, lured by the prospect of a free tour and whiskey tasting. Unfortunately the tour was no longer free, but a steep 10 pounds. Having come this far, I coughed up the money and went on what turned out to be a rather lacklustre tour. It was admittedly a bit interesting to see the giant stills (which we weren't allowed to photograph), and the few drams of whiskey I tasted made the next few hours of riding go by in a blur.

 

In the late afternoon, just as the temperature started to drop, I had to ford a shallow river. Halfway across, I stood up on the pedals to get over a large rock, and disaster struck. My chain snapped, throwing me off balance and I just narrowly avoiding falling face first into the chilly water. Quickly repaired (thank goodness I had spare quick links!), this was soon forgotten as I pedalled through the beautiful old Caledonian forest in the evening glow. It was so beautiful I just couldn't stop riding, and didn't set up camp until 9.30pm.

I slowed things down the following day, and spent a few hours eating and restocking in Aviemore. Burgers, beers, ice cream and coffee were guzzled down, and my two litre stainless steel water bottle filled with beer at the Cairngorms Brewery. I stopped to check out the Ryvoan bothy, and met a woman called Jean filling up her water bottle at a stream. She was hiking the "TGO", as those in the know call it, or the Great Outdoors Challenge to the rest of us. The TGO is a long distance, coast to coast walk across the breadth of Scotland. Starting on the west coast, you are allowed to plot your own route across the country, arriving on the east coast some two weeks later. You can make it as easy, or as gruelling as you like. Amazingly, it was Jean's 13th time hiking the TGO. She offered me a cup of tea, and we sat in the relative warmth of the bothy and chatted for a while. A retired surgeon, Jean had spent her working life in the Shetlands, the Outer Hebrides and the Northern Highlands. A true general surgeon of times past, she delivered babies, performed orthopaedic surgeries, removed appendixes and gallbladders and even dabbled in neurosurgery. We discovered a shared passion for wilderness and expedition medicine, and Jean recounted her time on Aconcagua researching the effects of high altitude on blood pressure. Just last year she had taken a course in polar medicine in far north Norway. What an inspiring woman. 

Stepping back out into the evening, I cycled on and set up camp amongst a group of other TGO hikers. The following day was tough. Six or so hours of hike-a-bike was made worthwhile by breathtaking views. At Fords of Avon, I met a father and his son who were cycling part of the Cairngorms loops. Somehow they had already managed 60km by lunchtime - a mean feat given the amount of hike-a-bike there was! It had paid it's toll though - the man was sprawled on his back unable to get up due to leg cramps. At least there was a stone shelter for them if they ended up spending the night there. I wished them luck and pushed on.

The track became more and more absurd. Baby head sized rocks made it equally as impossible to ride downhill as it was to ride up. And the wind certainly did whistle down through that valley! Eventually I reached the top of the pass and pointed my wheel downhill. The track was criss-crossed with drainage channels which made me wish I had learnt to bunny hop properly as a teenager on my Mongoose mountain bike. However I soon realised that my massive wheels were able to float across the foot wide gaps if I had enough speed and confidence. Even so, I found myself having to dismount every hundred metres or so to lift my bike across.

That night it was quite windy so I put up my tent in the shelter of a ruined Croft. The signs warning me it was an unstable building were a little redundant - it was quite obvious that was the case! I hoped a gust of wind wouldn't send the remaining walls crashing down. My route out of the Cairngorms wound its way through Glen Tilt, a spectacular valley which became narrower and narrower until eventually spitting you out into the wider valleys below.

It was in this valley I had my first true experience with Scottish bogs. I also made the acquaintance of  Susan the Half Shorn Sheep who was recovering from a big Saturday night. Arriving at Blair Atholl in the afternoon, I celebrated finishing the Cairngorms section of my Scotland trip by sneaking in to a caravan park and having a long hot shower.

 

 

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