Three soggy days on the West Highland Way had taken their toll. My kit was damp, I’d started to stink a bit while the lens on my trusty Olympus camera was fogged and its operation sporadic. I needed to dry out and clean up.
The camera problems – experienced last time when I cycle toured Iceland – meant I had to shift to the phone for pictures so apologies for the poor quality of the some of the resulting shots.
I bagged a luxury pitch next to the river at the Lochy Holiday Park just north of Fort William. Such heavily groomed, holiday housing estates are generally not my overnight stop of choice on bike tours but the facilities are normally excellent, and so they proved to be here.
I washed everything before an extravagant shower. Emerging after my ablutions, the rain returned with some gusto and it would be with me, uninterrupted, for the next 36 hours.
I walked to Caol for supplies and got about replenishing the energy I’d expended over the last few days. I hadn’t felt particularly hungry on this trip so far, but knew I had to fuel otherwise I’d pay the price later. My evening meal lasted a good couple of hours as I slowly fed calories into my system.
Another night passed accompanied by the soundtrack of very heavy rain. By morning, a puddle had gathered in the porch of my Go Lite, conveniently sitting underneath my Carradice saddlebag. The cotton duck had done a reasonable job keeping its contents dry though.
Waiting for a break in the deluge in vain, I thought about my route. I had hoped to head west, but the forecast looked dreadful for the next five days, with conditions marginally better in the Great Glen.
Decision made, I packed my soggy tent and headed for the canal towpath; I’d push up the Glen and take a view in Inverness as to my itinerary.
I’d convinced myself the Great Glen Way would be a breeze compared to the terrain I’d already covered. ‘I might even do it in a day,’ I’d lazily thought.
The start was very tame and rather agreeable. Despite the rain drumming on my cycle helmet and low cloud clinging to the slopes of neighbouring hills, the broad gravel trail past Neptune’s Staircase offered a cosseting warm up for the day.
With Gairlochy soon under my wheels, I found some lovely singletrack along the loch shore, great fun on this damp day with the trail walker free. My enthusiasm was soon dented: flying over a heavily-rooted section, I heard a metallic ‘ping’ from the back of the ECR. ‘Please don’t be a spoke,’ I said aloud.
In fact, it took a while to find the culprit. My Carradice ‘expedition’ Bagman rack had snapped just beyond the junction with the seat stay struts. Bugger! Despite a fingertip search of the undergrowth, I couldn’t find the section of alloy cradling tube either.
The remainder of the rack seemed fairly sound although the quick release bracket under my Brooks saddle would now bear more weight, albeit only 6-7kg. Hardly ideal, then. I tried to secure the bag with zip ties and pressed on, pushing it from my mind in the process.
The Clunes and South Laggan Forests followed offering some great fireroad riding. I tumbled down into Laggan and, with the rain unrelenting, I decided to push on along more towpath and, on the opposite bank of Loch Ness, a dismantled railway bed undergoing extensive surfacing works.
Another fast section of towpath followed along the canal and I made Fort Augustus in good time. Here, the sun appeared, so I opted for lunch in a quite spot on the canal in favour of the tourist hubbub in the village. I took some comfort from this decision. It suggested I was now locked into the groove of my trip, happy in my own company and preferring solitude over dreary trinket shops and coach parties.
After the village, the Great Glen Way followed steep single track through the woods to more fire road. However, the trail now had a sting for the cyclist in the form of repeated, short, sharp climbs after this initial, punishing push. Looking at the GPS track of this section now, it resembles a polygraph of Lance Armstrong – although no doubt he would have had the wherewithal to beat the test at the height of his mendacious campaign. The climb along a steep lane out of Invermoriston was particularly testing. I had several ‘words with myself’ while tackling its switchbacks.
More climbing followed on fire roads, the toil enlivened somewhat by the woodland opening out to my right affording wide ranging views of Loch Ness. Blind summit followed blind summit until I found a team of forest workers at the controls of the heavy machinery demanded by these extensive plantations. The driver of a large excavator wanted to chat while his colleagues sighed with hands on hips, ‘double teapot style’ as sports commentators now dub this frustrated pose.
He pointed me in a ‘largely downhill’ direction. I thanked him and found a sublime trail through the woods dotted with small jumps that brought the BMX bandit out in me. I remembered my bodged rear bag support and cooled the tempo.
I soon dropped down into Drumnadrochit. It was now late afternoon and the weather looked to be taking a turn for the worse again. I considered my options. An underwhelming campsite failed to inspire so I opted for the Loch Ness Backpackers lodge.
Later, at the Loch Ness Inn over decent Cullen Skink, I fell into conversation with a couple of retired Bristolians who, it transpired, were my roommates. They were headed for some serious hillwalking above Glen Affric and I enjoyed their company immensely – although I was perhaps more than a little jealous of the freedoms afforded by their retirement.
A fitful night of thunderous snoring made way for a dry dawn. I bade farewell to my companions and pushed off early. The climbing soon started again, this time in the form of a lung-busting walkers’ trail that had very little to offer the cyclist via its upward course.
The trail then improved but the gradient worsened and the Knards struggled for traction in the gloopy conditions. Never too posh to push, I dismounted once more and struggled with my ungainly mount, swearing at the trees that plainly didn’t care.
Riding again and I reached more level ground – a saddle between the minor summits of Meall na h Eilrig and Carn na Leitre. I was tired after a difficult hour or so and felt weak having burned off an insubstantial breakfast. Passing forestry buildings I then pushed through a gate to an area where the vegetation took on a far more interesting and varied theme. I then saw a quirky hewn sign advertising coffee to the side of the trail, followed by another advertising Bovril, followed by another advertising beans on toast. I was sold on the coffee, but the offer of food sealed the deal. The signs eventually directed me to the Abriachan Eco Cafe and Campsite – a truly delightful retreat in a vegetative oasis reclaimed from the surrounding plantation.
I met one of the owners, a tremendously warm woman who directed me to a wooden veranda adjoining a cabin. The menu options were described to me. I would be supplied with a cafetière of Columbian coffee and was asked if I would like cheese and spring onion on my beans on toast. Chickens pecked at crumbs by my feet while, below me, a pig called Bubbles rooted and grunted through the undergrowth. A hiker from Germany joined me and we chatted about our respective adventures.
My coffee appeared with the sunshine, brought to me by the other owner – an impressive, thick-set fellow with a ponytail and a fabulous, energetically resonant laugh that fell somewhere between Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashheart and Brian Blessed’s Vultan.
My beans on toast were superb.
My time at the Abriachan was all-too short. I wanted to know the story of why my hosts had spent the last few years building this life. I wanted to hear the trials of extended tent living while more permanent quarters were built, harsh winters, re-establishing the wild woods, the challenges and freedoms of living off grid. I admired their determination and vision – to carve something distinctly their own, to chase a dream when so many of us don’t have the courage or creativity to challenge our status quo. I’ll return.
Reinvigorated after my breakfast I tumbled down a steep lane to Inverness missing the turn for the Great Glen Way. The peace of the woods was soon disturbed by the incongruous bustle of the Highlands’ capital. I pushed through crowds of shoppers who gave me a wide berth and I caught snatches of conversations about my muddy bike and its crazy tyres. One elderly chap couldn’t resist giving them a squeeze before asking in jest where the engine was. I pointed to my legs and smiled.
I’d planned to linger in the city but the people, the shops and the traffic all put me on edge. I found signs for the National Cycle Network Route 7 and soon left, heading east and to quiet lanes in sunshine. Route 7 plotted a gentle course south following the main railway line. I planned to head south for a while to Aviemore and the lovely Rothiemurchus before heading over the Corrieyairack Pass and West.
My route soon picked up the course of the old A9 before heading to the woods on some superb military road courtesy of General Wade. This provided lovely riding and led to some excellent wild camping spots which I’d have made my home for the night had the hour been more favourable. Buoyed by my surroundings, I stayed on forest tracks for a while, plotting a course through lovely mixed woods, far more interesting than the plantation I’d been battling through the last couple of days.
By mid afternoon the hunger pangs kicked in again. I found an agreeable cafe in.
Carrbridge – the Carrbridge Kitchen – and refueled. I fell into conversation with three young women. They were rather taken with the ECR, more so than me in fact. Perhaps I really did stink that badly.
Sticking to the NCN, I pedalled the last few kms to Aviemore. The rain lashed down again and, at first, blinkered my appreciation of the surroundings. I stopped to gaze at the dark, shapely outline of the Cairngorm massive in the distance, while the wild woods pricked my memory of trips past.
Yes, it was good to be back.