Cycling 1000km for wild places – Part 2

Day 4 – Pitlochry to Glen Nevis (155km/1850m)

Schiehallion had been glinting cheekily at us as we cycled along the high road to Tummel Bridge, its famous conical form immediately recognisable on the skyline.

Andy and I pulled into the sunlit Braes of Foss car park at the foot of the famous mountain. Schiehallion, of course, is famed for its place in the weighing of the world experiment, but there are other great advances afoot here.

As I alluded to in the first part of this series, Izzy is one of the rangers at Schiehallion, and had brought her expertise in montane woodlands to her role here. While reducing browsing pressures from herbivores like sheep and deer, she and the team have been attempting to slowly regenerate the diminished montane woodland cover at Schiehallion.

Montane (mountain) woodland is a forest in miniature. At 600m above sea-level, these wee trees leave the oaks and hazels behind to advance up the hill, creating a beautiful ground canopy of silvery-green, providing excellent homes for mammals and insects – plus the animals that prey on them!

The UK’s montane woodland has largely diminished to but a few small pockets, nibbled back or burned. Dave Macleod recently made an excellent film (featuring Izzy) all about the subject.

As we stood around the large interpretation panel, a small group offered to take our photograph. “He’s cycling all the way to Sandwood Bay!” Andy said, really bumping me up. “He’s raising money for the guys looking after this place.” I really appreciated his pride, making sure I didn’t undersell myself.

The road to Loch Rannoch is an undulating and beautiful road for a cyclist. As we crested the little climbs, we could see Loch Rannoch ahead of us and beyond that, the distant Glen Coe.

The ride to Schiehallion was the starter. We were now onto the main.

Now onto day four of the trip, I had settled into a rhythm of my day. I knew this was just what I was doing now. It didn’t require much effort. I felt quite free, gliding through the village of Kinloch Rannoch, at ease with the pace of it all.

Loch Rannoch

It’s a long way down the road alongisde Loch Rannoch, but soon we reached the point where we would depart the tarmac. Here we would enter the Corrour Estate. The area is one of the country’s largest shooting estates for deer, with the 2017/18 deer count estimating around 2300 deer (12/sqkm).

The estate backs onto the John Muir Trust’s land at Glen Nevis. Ironically, though, we would have to take the long way around. Though there is a path leading into Glen Nevis from the east, it would make for some hellish hike-a-biking. Instead, we would head to the most remote train station in Scotland, Corrour, before riding around Loch Ossian and out to Fersit. It would be a long way, but on what is reputed to be the best gravel in Scotland.

First, though, we’d have to negotiate the broken, rocky ground alongside Carn Dearg to a high point of 550m – the highest for the day. Annoyingly, this was when we were starting to get wet.

Jackets went on, came off, went on, came off. Pockets of rain swept in across the the moor while, on our left, the Blackwater Reservoir and distant Loch Leven were bathed in spring sunshine. Most unjust. The climb was just easy enough to stay on the bike, but it was hot work.

Prior to the trip, I had spent days going back and forth to the workshop with my bike. It seemed the week before, this machine that would transport me to Sandwood Bay was throwing a tantrum. Everything went wrong with it. All things considered, it was fairly restricted in its capacity, in particular its tyres.

As I trundled up that rocky climb, all I could think of was the terror of the downhill. The clearance between my tyres and the chainstays could be measured in hair-widths. Literally, any stone that fancied a ride on my tyre would gouge a great scar in my frame. And with just 32mm of tyre on this ground, the chances for punctures was high!

Thanks to this, my total focus as we descended to Loch Ossian was on the ground in front of me, not the views. However, I was keenly aware of the light slowly ebbing from the world around us. Once I hit the bottom of the descent a good minute behind Andy, I looked up to find us in a gloomy pit of the world.

Andy loving life in the Corrour Station cafe

Loch Ossian is surrounded by a vast, remote landscape, surrounded on all sides by towering peaks – Carn Dearg, Beinn na Lap and Leum Uilleim. The sky had descended upon us, not only lowering the ceiling, but blocking every valley with darkness.

We scooted off towards the sanctuary of the Corrour Railway Station in search of a venison burger. As we ate, the rain began, ricocheting off the benches outside and smearing the window. Suddenly, staying here in this warm pub seemed like a far better idea. “Besides, we need the energy”, we said, smacking our lips with burgers and chips.

All too soon, we had to face the inevitable. We pulled on every item of waterproofing we had, and set off into the darkness. Without a watch, you would be justified in thinking it was 8pm, not 2pm!

I must say, the gravel around Loch Ossian more than made up for it. We zoomed around the northern shore on delightful tracks, eventually turning north up a climb that would take us to Fersit.

Just a few kilometres later, we broke through the curtain of rain. We didn’t notice at first, but suddenly the sky was turning blue, and ahead of us Creag Meagaidh came into view without a black veil over it. Looking back, we could see we had definitively been within a microclimate. It was like peering into the depths of the darkest sea.

Stripping off layers, we laid them across our bike bags, zooming down the gravel roads towards Fersit, drying ourselves off. “This is like Dirty Kanza!” Andy whooped. It was sensational; the roads were just gravelly enough to ensure you felt ‘off-road’ without being technical.

We breezed through forests, the mountains building on either side of us as we reached the foot of Loch Treig, famous for being one of the only road support points for Ramsay’s Round.

Eventually, it had to come to an end. We joined the road and followed the wide A86 to Fort William that Andy and I had ridden in the other direction on our last trip. The last of Andy’s long flowing locks had just dried out as we passed the Nevis Range junction when, naturally, it started to rain again.

Entering Glen Nevis

We could see in the west the looming buttress of clouds forming, ready to meet the towering peak of Ben Nevis on our right. Groaning, we pulled our now dry jackets back on. It had been so good while it lasted!

“I cannot be arsed setting up camp in this”, Andy said. I couldn’t agree more.

I rang the Nevis Inn and asked if there was space for us to grab a pint. “Aye, sure. If you’re just having drinks then there’s plenty space upstairs.” Excellent. We sped our way through Fort William as the rain came down, but we could see glimpses of clear sky chasing the darkness.

Not too long later, we were pulling off damp clothes and groaning with delight as we plopped ourselves into sagging sofas. I bought several packets of crisps and a shandy, and we lounged around on the sofa while our phones charged and the rain beat down on the Velux windows.

“Not too bad for someone who’s not done a lot of riding recently”, I winked at Andy.

“Man, I am not looking forward to the ride home tomorrow”, he confessed, rubbing his backside and calves.

I opened my phone. Tomorrow would be the day I would get my ferry from Kinloch Hourn to Knoydart. Peter, who I had arranged the crossing with, had been largely incommunicado for a week. I didn’t think too much of it, but said I would text him that I was officially in Fort William and definitely would be there tomorrow. I sent the text before we would leave signal behind, hoping he hadn’t forgotten somehow…

On Trust soil again

Eventually, we did have to peel ourselves from the embrace of those most lovely of couches. The rain had eased off after 30 minutes, so we nabbed an extra bag of crisps and made our way up the winding glen to the Trust boundary line.

How this site came into the Trust’s hands is an interesting one, and I will leave it to them to tell you how that happened. Of course, looking after Britain’s most iconic mountain can be a poisoned chalice at times. With all the potential for publicity in owning such a prestigious national monument comes with it the burden of dealing with increasing visitor numbers.

Post-lockdown, Nevis – like many places – saw a skyrocketing in visitor numbers, along with their problems: Litter, fires, parking issues, locals becoming frustrated, footpath erosion. In the past, I would have done what many people would have: Rallied against it and deplored this insensible behaviour.

Now, I understand it, or at least sympathise. I have spoken to so many people who have had barely any experience in the outdoors that they can often be found wearing puffer jackets in the pouring rain because they think don’t know better.

Things many of us take for granted these new visitors have hardly been exposed to. I see the issues of visitor pressures as a societal problem: Litter is normalised in our cities, thus people litter themselves; our schools don’t have equal access to outdoor spaces for children to learn to care for; our public transport system is appalling when trying to access these spaces; signage is often aggressive, not helpful.

All these little things develop into bigger problems. We have to take people on the journey with us.

We set up camp, finally with clear skies above us again. The damp forest brought with it the early season midges so the two of us perched ourselves on a rock and held a midge coil between us, looking like two monks carrying out a bizarre ritual.

Day 5 – Ben Nevis to Skye (147km/1786m)

Caledonian Canal

When organising the trip, I was aware that I was going to be joined by a fair few people. I admit that bummed me out a little. I knew I would love seeing all these people, but was that what I was doing this for? Surely I needed time for introspection? Solitude? It was my trip.

In the end, I was sad to be saying goodbye to Andy at Gairlochy, but in a way it was at the right time. Today and tomorrow I would be by myself, and it was where the going got a little bit more technical, with ferries and wilder landscapes.

Peter had finally called to say the boat was on. Amazing! The tracks and roads along the Caledonian Canal were sublime. With the wind on my back, I was now on the hunt for adventure..

Grimy but lots of fun

The day was driech, is the best I can describe it. The forest track along Loch Laggan was split and mucky with the turning of machinery wheels. Very soon, I was clarty, mud splattering everywhere. The thing is, though: I was having an absolute blast. In fact, as I zoomed through the forest, I deliberately splashed through some puddles and mud, feeling an unshakable sense of euphoria.

I was so excited for this, day five. It was the day of (what turned out to be) two ferries, riding on an island, and a whole day riding alone.

The rain eased off again as I left the forest at Invergarry and turned left to follow the long, winding road to Kinloch Hourn. Out of the corner of my eye, a pine marten dashed into the trees. While the threat of getting wet didn’t truly leave, the breaks in the cloud were like honey, as I whizzed freely along and the landscape continued to widen around me.

Once I was over the big hump at the Loch Quoich reservoir, I put my headphones in for some extra entertainment (though, the mountains in every direction were doing a good job at that anyway). The first song that came on was Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty.

It was like God had taken control of my Spotify. In that moment, that song was everything I wanted to listen to. I played it on repeat for the entire length of the loch, bellowing the lyrics at the top of my voice. Even now, months on, I still get that feeling when it plays.

Descending into Kinloch Hourn demands total concentration, though. Tom Petty was turned off as the road turned nearly vertical in spots, with sharp hairpins, dropping 200m in under 5km. After finally releasing my brakes, I coasted into the little hamlet, which is comprised of a steading and a couple houses.

The first local I came across was a young stag. He was walking casually like one of the local lads out to check his patch, gazing lazily at me as I stopped ahead of him. I have never seen a more nonchalant stag in my life.

I was early, so I popped my head in at the cafe that had been advertised to me the whole way from Loch Quoich. It was 2.30pm, and I had 30 minutes to wait for Peter to pick me up, so I ordered a pot of tea and a scone as I sat in the courtyard, enjoying the high sun of the day.

In my head, I’d imagined Peter as this old school salty seadog who I’d have very little reference to draw upon. As I stopped at the jetty, he greeted me with a wry smile. “Ross?” he asked, and looked me up and down, then at my bike.

“So, are you wearing clipless shoes, then?” he said. Turns out, Peter was quite the triathlete in his day, and with the Cape Wrath Trail basically on his doorstep, he’d become quite accustomed to the vagaries of backpackers and the gear they brought with them.

As I slid into the little boat, Peter explained that a landing at Li would not be possible. The water was extremely choppy beyond the strait, so we would land at a bay closer by. It wouldn’t be John Muir Trust land, but it was the best that I could do, and I didn’t mind too much. My rule was fairly arbitrary anyway.

As the boat thudded through the waves, I spotted a bucket at Peter’s feet. “You’ve been catching mussels?” I enquired. “Aye”, he said gloomily. “No much, though.”

Peter and his family had, I learned, lived in Arnisdale for generations. His father had been the head gamekeeper on the Arnisdale Estate, and he’d watched this landscape change as landowners changed and private interests made their presence known.

One such private interest is Mowi. As we made our way along Loch Hourn, Peter told me about his work with Friends of Loch Hourn, and how they were working to prove that the opening of the new fish farms at the mouth of the loch were affecting biodiversity.

“The rock faces”, he indicated towards the shore. “They were full of mussels before. All up the rocks. Nowadays there’s none at all.” As I listened, I could hear the sadness of a man who’d grown up in this area, had generations before him live here, and it was changing. And this wasn’t all about selfish interest; this was a loss of nature to this remote corner, that to many would appear pristine and wild.

We bumped into the bay and I bounced out the boat, gazing up the incredible Coire Odhar. It stood out so starkly due to the huge fence that ran the outside of it. Within the exclosure, vegetation was exploding across the hill, regenerating in front of my eyes. This was what reduced grazing pressure looked like.

Regeneration on Knoydart

After a photo, I hopped back in the boat and we made our way north to Arnisdale. We made landing on one of the piers and we lifted my laden bike out of the little boat. Thanking Peter, I passed him the little wad of notes Nicky had given me and made my way to dry land.

The sun was still high in the sky. My plan was to get to Glenelg this afternoon and make camp, but I was so in the moment of the adventure that I couldn’t contemplate stopping. I checked to see when the last ferry to Skye was, noted I had some time, and swung my leg over the bike.

That ride to Glenelg was something special. I have never come across a day where the phrase “with the wind in my hair” made so much sense. On my left, the sun gently crested the sky, shimmering on the sea, with the crystal clear air ahead of me bringing the mountains that must have been on the Applecross peninsula into sharp relief.

Pedalling felt effortless, as my enjoyment of the day spurred me on. I breezed casually through Glenelg and headed off to the ferry pier. As I rounded the bend, I could see it heading back over to the island, so hopped into the kiosk at the harbour to grab some snacks.

With a bag of Mini Cheddars and a thick slice of shortbread, I watched as the ferry drew in. The MV Glenachulish is the last manually-operated turntable ferry in the world. You may be wondering Glenachulish? Like Ballachulish?. Correct. This ferry once served the town of Ballachulish before the bridge was constructed in 1975.

“Foot passenger”, the ferryman noted. “You local?” “Nope.” “That’ll be £4, please.”

I stood on the deck, watching the men work the turntable and chatted to one of the locals. He lived in Glenelg and was off to Broadford for his shopping. Imagine getting a ferry for your shopping!

I was pleased to have wolfed down the slab of shortbread, because ahead of me was the devil of the day: The Kylerhea road. All 4.3km and 300m ascent of it. Gulp.

After disembarking, I set off up the tarmac as it slowly pitched steeper and steeper. The landscape dropped away behind me as I heaved the bike higher and higher above the sea. The last kilometre is a brute, with a heinous pitch in the road that forced me to walk.

The misty isle

It was all worth it, though: As I crested the hill, the Cuillin of Skye lay spread out ahead of me, like mountains in a pop-up book. The sun was now on its long journey towards the horizon, the sunset bringing a shimmering glow to the island. I gave Bo a ring and showed her the view. This was a moment to be savoured.

I drank in as much as possible and zoomed down to Broadford. Insatiably hungry, I stopped for food before winding my way along the Torrin bay to Blà Bheinn. The Trust owns a vast area on Skye, but Blà Bheinn struck me as a good ‘touch’ point, such is its magnificent form.

Bla Bheinn

Soon after, I was back at the northern bay of the loch, pitching the tent. Unbelievably, I had full signal, so made a few phone calls before going back outside to make dinner and to gaze at the mountain.

That’s when it hit me. Big time. I had fucking cycled here. Perhaps the fact I was now on an island hit this fact home to me, but I felt immensely proud that, despite the obstacles, I was here. On Skye! This was, like, a huge drive from home.

The sun set at long last and I retreated to my sleeping bag. I may have been alone but the delight I felt filled the entire tent.

Day 6 – Skye to Kinlochewe (114km/1344m)

Droplets clung to the outside of the canvas. It had rained overnight, which surprised me. I checked the forecast.

Rain – lots of rain. My plan was to ride to Torridon and camp, but as I scrolled through the forecast, the wind and rain did not look like ideal camping weather. I made a spur of the moment decision and checked the Kinlochewe Hotel for beds. Somehow, there was one room left for £90.

Done. Booked. Now, I had no excuses. I was invested.

I had made up some distance on my plan now, after pushing on to Skye instead of stopping in Glenelg. I headed back to Broadford before joining the long main road off the island and across the Skye Bridge.

Leaving Skye

That road lasts forever, especially with a rude headwind. That headwind, it transpired, would be with me the entire day. I did have my aero bars, but every so often I was having to stretch my neck and shoulder, as the pain on my left side cranked it up a notch.

Leaving the Misty Isle behind – played out by Runrig’s Skye – I made my way towards the peninsula road that would take me to Plockton. A storm was definitely in the air. As I rounded the headland and headed east, its grumblings buffeted along on heavy gusts while the Applecross peninsula brooded.

Passing Stromferry, I began climbing on an Alpine-like road surrounded by pines as the dark waters of Loch Carron dropped away from me. I was flagging by the time I came into Lochcarron itself, and quickly pulled into the cafe at Lochcarron Golf Club.

I was halfway through the day, but I would happily have stepped off the bike and fallen asleep. I devoured a soup and sandwich combo, guzzling coffee and tea and watching the trees outside sway in the wind.

My friend, Robin, grew up in Lochcarron. He’s a formidable cyclist, and I can see why. The climbs here take no prisoners, and you can hardly avoid them. The climb out of Lochcarron was brutal after my lunchtime feast, but I felt the energy coming back to me as I started along roads I have ridden before. I descended towards Sheildaig with a renewed optimism, rolling into the town that witnesses the start of the infamous Celtman Extreme Triathlon.

Often when I visit this area, I come across bikepackers cycling along the road between Shieldaig and Torridon. When I started planning this trip, I could envisage this scene at the drop of a hat, knowing it would be a high point of the ride. As it was, when I emerged from Shieldaig, I came across a far more ominous sight.

The ancient Torridonian sandstone grew from the shores of the loch, but they were not in resplendent, welcoming colours. Liathach loomed like Mount Doom, growling amongst steel grey clouds. From the north, an impenetrable wall of water was making its way slowly and inexorably towards me. Nature can be as awe-inspiring for its imposing gloom as for its beauty.

I quickly wrapped my waterproof jacket around me and pulled on waterproof trousers, preparing for the drenching. As I made the last of the undulating climbs along the road, the heavens opened. Rain didn’t just fall; it threw itself towards the ground. I pulled my hood over my helmet, vainly attempting to keep the water from seeping into every nook and cranny.

Uh-oh…

As I came through Annat, the wind battered into my right side – the direction I would soon be turning. Throughout this ride, I had been estimating arrival times by creating manageable goals. Even if I go at 10mph, I will still get there in two hours, was the kind of thing I’d tell myself.

I had done something similar for this stretch between Torridon and Kinlochewe – a long, steady climb into a block headwind. 10mph had seemed a suitable goal.

As I made my way northwards, weaving around on the road, I looked down at my watch: 6mph. Things started to get dark. The pain in my neck that had been manageable for the past few days started to shoot through my shoulder. I gritted my teeth, focusing on turning the cranks round and moving forwards.

In the end, it took 90 minutes to cover the 20km to Kinlochewe. I coasted, battered, into the town and turned a handful of pedal strokes into the hotel’s driveway.

Once I had hung everything up in the room and put on some reasonably dry clothes, I made my way down to dinner. After a day like that, my only focus was returning calories to my body, so I ate a full three courses – including a sumptuous venison casserole – and fell asleep at 9pm.

Day 7 – Kinlochewe to Ullapool (121km/1568m)

Rain dragged its fingers across the windows. For now, that didn’t matter. I sat in the breakfast restaurant, eagerly awaiting the waiter to take my order, giving a nod to the other solo resident across from me.

The waiter arrived, and turned to the other chap first: “Morning, sir. Tea or coffee?” “Tea.” “Toast – white or brown?” “White, please.” “Do you want orange or apple juice?” “Apple.” “And how would you like your eggs?” “Fried.”

The waiter came over, and asked me the same questions. My response: Coffee, brown, orange, scrambled. When the waiter left, I turned to the guy opposite and said, “Well, it seems we are quite different people.”

He laughed, and we started chatting. He was travelling the NC500 on his motorbike and was heading back to Balloch that day. I told him what I was doing, and he was interested, so asked more about the Trust. I gave him the sales pitch, and had a great conversation about National Parks.

Later that day, I checked on my fundraising. I had a £10 from a Jason: “Hi Ross. I met you during breakfast at the Kinlochewe Hotel and you told me about your fantastic adventure raising money for such a worthy cause. I hope you complete your journey safely. Ride safe.”

I had put a little call on social media before leaving, inviting people to come out to join me. Lou (who then I knew just as @lulublueberry on Instagram) had reached out to offer not just her company, but her friend and their van as a support vehicle!

Once I was dressed, I came back downstairs and saw two fluorescent figures outside in the rain. I had never met either of them in person, but was delighted for the company after a lonely day and a half. Louise’s friend, Cher, would join me to Gairloch, where they’d swap over the driving and we’d stop for food.

Cher, I learned as we headed out along Loch Maree (with a tailwind), was training for the Celtman, and had a mean bike setup to keep me moving fast. We passed the Beinn Eighe NNR – a stunning example of a long-term rewilding project and trundled along with Slioch on our right.

We made quick time along the loch with the wind behind us, and it wasn’t long before we were in Gairloch. Admittedly, I was still feeling quite groggy from the day before, but wanted to enjoy the time with Lou and Cher. We pulled into the layby to see Louise and noshed on pastries and the wonderful smorgasbord of snacks they had brought.

The support crew

Louise grabbed her bike. Immediately, I had doubts. It was a questionable looking Eastway road bike. Sure enough, as we left Gairloch, her chain exploded. I was keen to get moving, so left them to the bike and headed off to stay warm.

Weeks ago, a school teacher from Poolewe had got in touch to say she’d love me to stop by and speak to her kids. The pupils had been doing their John Muir Award and she said they’d love to hear me talk about what I was doing and why I was raising money.

It was that thought that kept me going as I cycled alone along the road, with a fresh band of rain clouds coming closer every kilometre. At the wild stretch along Loch Tullie, the rain came again, creeping down my neck and turning the world from May into December in a flash.

I kept moving, pedalling hard to get to Poolewe. Cher and Lou went past me in the van, saying they’d meet me after my visit to the school. I wheeled my bike around the front of the building and knocked on the main door. A teacher appeared, obviously confused at seeing a soaking wet cyclist at their door.

“Hi! I’m Ross Brannigan. One of the teachers said I should stop by.”

“Oh!” she exclaimed. “You’re here! I thought you had maybe forgotten!” She busied herself getting my inside and putting a brew in my hands, drawing me into the nearest classroom.

The rooms were quite dark, but I learned the kids were trying to save electricity. The teacher introduced me to the kids, who were around six-years-old and were full of questions. We got onto the subject of wild animals I’d seen on the way (evidently the pupils think the Lake District is quite exotic given the questions about elephants) and I told them with pride about the pine marten I had seen at Loch Quoich.

Big mistake. A boy shot his hand into the air. “Yes?”

“We-we-we had a pine marten in our garden once,” the boy said. “And it killed our chickens.”

And then it started. Pine martens are clearly old news to these kids, who all had a story about how pine martens had wreaked havoc in their gardens. What it did say to me was that these kids clearly watched and observed the natural world, and were no strangers to the realities of it.

What was quickly becoming a reality to me was the cold. I went to another classroom but my core temperature was seeping into the floor. I pulled on another jacket (a mountaineering waterproof Louise had given me), but couldn’t emit any heat.

After a cup of tea, the teacher asked me to come outside for a photograph. The kids were dazzled by my bike, asking more questions about my journey. After the picture, I pulled on my Sealskinz gloves and kept my five layers on, wheeling down the drive with the kids waving me off.

Cher and Lou were waiting outside, wondering what had become of me. I apologised, explaining the pine marten debacle. Lou got her bike out again, new chain fitted, and we pedalled out of town.

You may be pleased to hear that the next section is largely a blur. With my temperature at rock bottom and my neck stiffening up, I barely took notice of what was going on around me. I dimly held to the pace as we rounded yet another beautiful cove, up another climb, along yet another quiet road, buffeted by yet more wind and rain.

Lou looking rather happy; me less so

Not far from Dundonnell, the sun returned for a while, but I had to step off the bike and get Lou to put her elbow into my shoulder. It was now becoming unbearably sore, so I downed paracetamol and tried to keep my shoulders loose. Ullapool was surely close but we just weren’t going anywhere; every kilometre felt like 10.

Dundonnell was a checkpoint I had been waiting for all day. The red van was at the side of the road, so I crawled into the passenger seat to shut my eyes. My stomach was now starting to give me issues, evidently protesting at the mountain of calories going into it.

Around me, the world had turned into a general shade of dark grey. Features didn’t stand out anymore, and everything seemed to be turning on me. Once we got going again, I only managed 5km before having to stop for another stretch and paracetamol.

Cher practically dragged me up the An Teallach road climb. I saw some waterfalls. The gradient seemed incessant. It kept fucking raining. It was not fun.

I had a small revival once we reached the Braemore junction. I arrived and said to Lou: “Mars bar, Coke.” With that in me, I set off with her, focusing solely on getting to Ullapool. The last section to Ullapool seemed to never end, though. Every time I thought it was the last bend, it turned out to be another false finish.

After another nine-hour day, we reached Ullapool. I punched the air like I had won a stage of the Tour de France as we made our way to the chip shop. I flopped onto the bench, relishing the fact it was no longer raining, and ordered a scampi supper.

When Lou returned with the goods, we set about making it disappear. But, of course, the day wouldn’t have been complete without yet another downpour. We quickly grabbed our food and dashed under the cover outside the chip shop, which is joined onto the pub next door.

As we settled back down, a waitress came over and told us we couldn’t eat under the canopy. We looked mournfully out at the rain, feebly protesting at this move. We relented in the end, and decided to squish into the van to finish our food, which was by now a bit damp and cold.

I felt very delicate at that moment. My stomach was doing somersaults and I ached all over. Lou took a picture of me looking rather weary just as I said goodbye and turned to my accommodation for the night.

I have since learned that any ‘Bespoke Hotel’ should be avoided like the plague. After checking-in to the tatty Caledonia Hotel, I wandered down to my room, only to be greeted by pumping dance music from a room a couple doors down.

Whatever, I thought. It’s 8pm. They’ll probably stop. After a shower (where the water was stuck on skin-burning-hot) I crawled into bed frozen, the dance music still going. I must have drifted off, but when I woke up I was sweating profusely. My temperature had gone from freezing to boiling in a few hours.

I threw off all the sheets, desperately trying to cool down. I drifted off again and had a fitful sleep. When I woke again, the room was spinning. I got up to go to the bathroom and- we can leave it there.

In denial about how I felt, I tried to eat breakfast, but managed a measly half slice of toast and half a bowl of cereal before going back to my room. I pulled on my bib shorts, preparing myself for a solo 120km, when my stomach gave a sudden leap and I rushed back to the bathroom.


It wasn’t the most heroic way to end a 1000km journey. I had envisaged standing on Sandwood Bay, holding my bike aloft and whooping with glee.

I don’t think, even if I had pushed through those lonely 120km, I would have felt better for it. For me, the ride was always about people and places. Halfway through that last day, I had felt so awful that the world around me was just background noise; this wasn’t really why I was doing the ride.

It has taken nearly a year for me to feel OK about not completing the journey as I had set out to. I felt like a failure, but now I recognise that failing isn’t really a failure: I made the right choice given my recent health issue, and had an incredible week-long adventure, meeting so many amazing people and seeing stunning wild places.

People asked (naturally) if I would go back to finish it. I had previously said of course I would, but I think that’s not the important part. The journey was what made the whole thing special; those 900km+ were far more important than the last 120km.

I could have taken a rest day and tried again, but I was still weak and feverish several days later, so that wouldn’t have helped.

Ultimately, I did something which scared me and, while I came up short in the end, I will always remember it as an amazing journey that taught me a lot and helped me experience the country in a new way. Plus, I did raise over £1000 for the Trust, helping to protect places like those I had ridden through.

Day 4 – https://www.komoot.com/tour/371364854

Day 5 (part 1) – https://www.komoot.com/tour/371367377

Day 5 (part 2) – https://www.komoot.com/tour/371367671

Day 6 – https://www.komoot.com/tour/371790850

Day 7 – https://www.komoot.com/tour/372400652

Published by Ross Brannigan

“It is worth ascending unexiting heights if for nothing else than to see the big ones from nearer their own level.” - Nan Shepherd

One thought on “Cycling 1000km for wild places – Part 2

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