The Hebrides by Bike – Day four: West is best on Harris?

My night on Berneray was characterised by snapping tent fabric and humming guy ropes. While dry, the keen wind kept the tent alive all night and sleep was fitful. Still, these are the fun nights under canvas aren’t they? Slumber where you are constantly aware of your surroundings and conditions.

I struck camp and stowed a bone dry tent – no problems with condensation in this spot. I chatted with other campers before throwing a leg over the bike and pedalling the short distance to the ferry terminal.

Here, I caught up with Alan and Mel again. They’d had a similarly excitable night in the conditions. We chatted about bikes (Alan on a rather splendid Thorn Nomad and Mel on a Dawes of the same name, with a Shimano Alfine 11 speed hub). For once, I was able to indulge my love of all things velo without the slightest bit of embarrassment.

Talk turned to journeys. Alan was due to head to the Himalaya in November for a month and I envied the adventure. I’m now plotting one of my own.

Boarding the ferry, the guys then gently put me right on my history of the islands, as I had perhaps over-zealously extrapolated the effect of the Clearances as detailed in my book for the trip, Calum’s Road.

The crossing to Leverburgh was the best so far. We stood on the open deck enjoying the sunshine and traced the precarious route of the ferry through numerous small islands and reefs – the safe channel well-marked by buoys.

Also on the boat was Wolfgang, a taxi driver from Berlin. Like us, he as making his way around the islands by bicycle (a fabulous old mountain bike with huge panniers) and was revelling in the scenery and clement weather.

Upon reaching Leverburgh,  we repaired to the Anchorage Cafe on the quay on Alan’s suggestion for ‘some great homemade cakes’. He was right, my homemade muffin with Nuttella packed a potent sugar rush. Eschewing the sweet fix, Wolfgang had some hearty looking soup washed down with a beer… only to be presented with another gratis pint as the barrel was being changed.

Although keen to extol the virtues of midday drinking while on the road ‘for ze energy’, two pints was too much for our German friend.

We chatted about our hometowns, about Scottish independence and then it was time to hit the road. Alan and Mel were to take the eastern route to Tarbert while Wolfgang and I opted for the west in the interests of taking in some classic Harris scenery. We pedalled out of Leverburgh and went our separate ways, settling into our personal rhythms of the road.

Today was always intended to be an ‘easy’ ride and it was welcome after the marathon on the Uists. Climbing purposefully out of Leverburgh I stopped immediately, groping for the camera. A stunning bay of shimmering sand filled the viewfinder, framed by towering mountains. I’d been promised arresting scenery, and Harris was not going to disappoint on such beautiful day.

Pedalling along the sinuous road which snaked along the west coast, I stopped regularly trying to capture classic views of this beautiful island and Taransay beyond.

It may have been the weather, but Harris had a distinctly more manicured feel than previous islands. Substantial homes dotted the road and there was a general air of prosperity. Despite suggestions by folk on the Uists to the contrary, Harris people I spoke to we’re similarly warm and welcoming.

I stopped for lunch at the Hebrides Art Cafe. I had a bowl of excellent soup with homemade bread – a recommended pit stop.

Climbing into the hills, the weather became schizophrenically upland. The tailwind that had been my best friend for the last 48 hours or so now became foe. My first real climb of the trip was a test of the legs and preparation for what was to come.

It felt good to be in the hills again, despite the effort to reach these heights. I started to think about where I would stay for the night with no real plan (again). It then occured to me that I’d arrived on Harris precisely the day I wanted to avoid in my pre-sickness itinerary. There was no ferry out of Tarbert that afternoon, and camping options were limited for those keen on boarding the 7.30am ferry to Skye the following day.

I vowed to pedal onto Tarbert as I needed to re-supply and make a decision. Dropping to the village I spotted Alan and Mel lunching and was keen to hear their impressions of the east side.

The route had been decidedly up and down: ‘a real workout’. Alan was of the opinion that west is best. Said our goodbyes and I dropped into Tarbert and headed to a local store. I loaded up on pies and bananas and sat in a small green enjoying my second lunch of the day.

I went to the tourist office and asked about camping. The nearest site was a few miles distant over hilly roads, and back the way I’d came, which jarred my cyclist-psyche somewhat. We talked wild camping and the green where I’d lunched was an option, as were some ‘good spots’ down the road to Scalpay.

I opted for the latter and scouted for an hour or so but couldn’t find anything really suitable. The process would have been far easier if I’d been travelling on foot with a backpack.

It started to rain and I went back to the tourist office and booked a BnB for the night – something I haven’t done for a while. I fancied some sleep after last night’s tumult and hoped I would find it under a roof rather than canvas. BnBs in Tarbert are geared up for the early ferry, too, so I would be sitting down for breakfast at 6.30am.

I was presented with a large, comfortable room with an excellent shower and I quickly made use of the luxury facilities, sorted out my kit and washed cycle shorts.

Refreshed, I walked into the village for dinner. At the Isle of Harris Inn, I drank Red Cuillin and ordered seafood linguine. A bucket bowl of well-cooked pasta was served, with huge chunks of salmon, mussels, prawns and an enormous scallop sitting in rich tomato sauce. It was delicious.

I sauntered down to the quay later to help digest my huge dinner. The nearly-as-huge MV Hebrides sat quietly in the harbour ready for the morning sailing and I noticed a couple of kayakers camping on the village green. Perhaps a not-to-wild camp would have been OK after all…

7 thoughts on “The Hebrides by Bike – Day four: West is best on Harris?

  1. Really enjoying this report from an area I’ve still yet to visit. I should spend more time travelling in Scotland!
    Hope you manage to get to the Himalayas – was in the ‘foothills’ at least a few months ago and it was rather splendid.

    1. Hello Andrew, Good to hear from you. It’s a great area and perfect for exploration by bike. Really enjoyed the ‘island life’ too, although this comfortable sensation soon vanished on Skye. My adventure will be a wee bit tamer than the Himalaya, but overseas nonetheless. Your trip sounds interesting!

  2. Really enjoying reading about your cycling tour of the islands. I’ve not visited the Uists or Harris/Lewis for years and that was with our sons where they were quite young, and any cycling was done at their pace. I’d love to go back and do the tour of the long island chain.

    1. Thanks very much for the comment. This really is wonderful cycling country. I realise I was very lucky with the weather, though. It could have been a very different experience had conditions been a bit more ‘normal’!

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