Waiting for a ferry with a bike usually means you rub shoulders with other cyclists… a great way to meet like-minded folk. At Tarbert, it was not just cyclists as the wild camping kayaking duo – Simon and Carolyn -were waiting with their craft.
The paddlers were from the Lakes, and another ‘pedaller’ joined us, a Dutch cyclist (Koga Myata World Traveller with all the trimmings).
We struck up a conversation, which continued on the open deck. I was grateful for more engaging company after being eyed suspiciously during a rather uncomfortable breakfast at the BnB.
My two fellow guests were pleasant enough, but I felt like I was intruding on their breakfast routine (they’d been at the BnB for a couple of days). Conversation was stilted, and when one of the women began to eat her prunes with lip-smacking, unsavoury relish to break the silence, I was soon making my excuses and loading my bike.
We stood on the deck in the early morning light and the ferry slid out of Tarbert in a flat calm. The kayakers were a little disgruntled by the benign conditions, as the forecast had spelled a difficult easterly, hence them opting for the lift.
Their night on the green had not been without incident, either. Some ‘neds’ had threatened to jump on their tent – which was ‘never going to happen’ – but their drunken antics did not promote a restful night. The Dutch cyclist had opted for the bunkhouse and managed to bag a dorm all for himself.
Simon and Carolyn bracketed the description of their paddle from Skye with references to other adventures and it became clear, quickly, that they were well-seasoned outdoor folk. It later transpired that both are polar consultants and guides. ‘Beats the daily commute into London,’ Simon said. How true.
The Dutch cyclist, whose name I didn’t note, had been on a bit of an epic trip all over Scotland and endured some pretty poor weather prior to this week. Like me, he planned to head through Skye and ultimately to Glasgow or thereabouts where he would pick up a train and his ferry home. His plans were purposely loose.
Good conversation equals a quick crossing and we were soon back on the car deck collecting our respective transport modes. A keen mountain biker, Simon eyed the bikes and checked their respective weights. The Netherlands won the weight competition as I could barely lift the Koga.
I now had a decision to make on the route. I wanted to see some of the Trotternish before heading south but fancied some quiet roads. I spotted a minor road winding its way across the peninsula to the Quiraing and decided to take it. After a stiff climb out of Uig, I found the turning and headed east.
This proved to be a very good call. The single lane road provided perfect, peaceful passage cross wild scenery. Cars were few and the motorists patient. It was perfect cycling and I felt fit after a few days on the road. I stopped to absorb the moment… A lovely road, good health, no fixed plan and time. Just what the doctor ordered.
I pedalled on and soon reached the rocky jaws of the Quiriang, which reminded me of another landslip – Alport Castles in the Peak District – until I gained a true sense of scale. If the Quiraing is the daddy, then Alport Castles is the family guinea pig.
My lonely mountain road snaked around this striking geomorphology providing a wonderful descent and what many a cyclist will relate to: the Kraftwerk Tour de France moment.
Ahead of me was Staffin Bay, which looked glorious in the hazy sunshine. It was going to be a very warm day, probably the warmest of the trip so far.
I joined the A855 and headed south into the wind. Although a main road, traffic was fairly light and drivers considerate. The road climbed along the coast and offered spectacular views of Rona and Raasay. I stopped at the Old Man of Storr and loaded up on M&Ms and bananas.
The road headed inland past Loch Leathan and Fada, the waters of both being thrashed by fly fisherman. Soon, the rough moor was replaced by gardens and I dropped into Portree and wolfed down fish and chips at the harbour.
Sitting on the pretty quay, the sun beat down on my head. I hunted the shops for sun cream, but everywhere either hadn’t received a delivery or had sold out. The unseasonable heat wave had brought on the rush that day, shopkeepers said.
I found the main road out of the town and headed to Sligachan and Skye’s monster landscapes. Now the headwind had become determined, to the point that it would slow the bike to a halt even on descents. These were going to be hard yards, but the scenery was a welcome distraction. I also took my mind off the toil by working though some Dire Straights records. Don’t ask, but Romeo and Juliet and the Sultans of Swing were particularly helpful. However, apologies must go to couple parked in roadside rest stop who were treated to my dulcet tones. Forget mad dogs, just a daft Englishmen out in the midday sun.
The magnificent Cuillins loomed large. Towering above in a heat haze, they were as impressive as ever. I’ve never set a boot on these challenging peaks, but seeing them again made me want to return on foot, and soon.
Over lunch in Portree, I had considered stopping at Glen Sligachan for the night. On arrival, it was still early and it seemed a good idea to gain a few more miles before stopping for the night.
The road after the campsite was extremely challenging, though, with some long climbs into a sapping wind. Head down I ground out the miles, grateful for the honks of support from truck drivers who were numerous on this busy road. Their encouragement gave strength to weary legs.
I stopped to take on water and could feel the effects of the effort on my legs and back. I popped an electrolyte tab in my bidon and drank it down. Replacing these salts helps to fend off cramps in my back and so it worked again.
The road became a little more kind around Loch Ainort and riding the coast felt comforting after the wilds of the main mountain road. By mid afternoon I arrived at Broadford and stopped again to fuel. This was due to be my overnight stop, but a new plan took shape. It was 18 miles or so to the ferry at Armadale. Given the fantastic weather, an equally fantastic sunset was on the cards at Morar that evening. I was tired, but it would be worth the extra push to make the ferry to Mallaig and a night at Camusdarach.
I got rolling on the A851. Perhaps I’d got my second wind, but this proved to be an excellent ride through more lonely scenery to another coastline. The road is major route, but it was wide with a great shoulder to ride on. I’d seen much of Skye that day, and riding this final stretch galvanised my favourable opinion of the place.
I reached Armadale exhausted by very happy. A fiddler played enthusiastically as holidaymakers enjoyed drinks waiting for the boat. I tipped a bottle of water over my head and washed salt from my clothing and eyes.
I sat inside the ferry alone to shield from the sun and soon I was riding into evening and Mallaig, a place now very familiar owing to my regular trips to Kylesmorar. I locked the bike, the first time so far on the trip, and got supplies. I still had a few miles to ride and pressed on, hoping to be pitched and sorted by sunset.
Stupidly, I turned off into Morar just to take a look at the village and was rewarded with a short, stinging climb. Not what I needed after such a major day in the saddle. I finally found the turn for the campsite and dropped down to the impressive farmhouse to pay. £11 was steep for a ‘backpacker rate’, but I was here for the beach.
Midges crawled up my nose and in my eyes as I pitched and I threw the kit inside the porch of the tent and closed the bug net doors. I was grumpy and cussing wildly… I really needed to eat.
Beer, dinner and shower later, and in a better frame of mind, I followed the path through coconut tropical gorse to the beach. Clambering over dunes to find a solitary spot I felt the embrace of some much-needed inner peace.
I looked out to sea and to Skye. Waves lapped gently on warm sands – the sun was a golden sovereign resting on a formal corrugation of water (with apologies to my favourite poet). Due reward for all that effort…