Not the HT550, but the kindness of friends and strangers.

For our Scottish summer holiday this year I gave Joe the choice between riding the Highland Trail HT550 (at a leisurely pace) or the Hebridean Way.  He surprised me by choosing the HT550, even though I had been clear that it was going to be a challenging and tough-going route. 

As we headed up to Tyndrum on the train it became apparent that Joe was starting to feel unwell and by the next morning he had come down with a full-blown head cold and was feeling understandably sorry for himself. I took him for a big breakfast in the hope this might help and then kept the pace very slow on the first day. 

A relatively rideable section of the West Highland Way – there weren’t too many of these!

It was cold with frequent heavy showers and trying to keep him warm and dry was quite a challenge.

The sheep-shearing sheds we passed on the way provided a welcome respite and we stopped for several hours to avoid the torrential rain.

After fording a lot of streams we both had very wet feet….

…but traversing Glen Lyon in the evening sunlight felt great.

We overnighted at the Bridge of Balgie picnic area, then headed up over Kirk Pass and down to Loch Rannoch.  Joe was doing really well in the circumstances but a new problem had arisen – my rear wheel was wobbling around and I feared the hub needed replacing.  We made our way gingerly to the nearest train station at Rannoch to consider our options and while there met a nice man called Mark (I think!) who figured out that the wheel issue was just loose cones.  Thanks Mark! I suspect this might have had something to do with being forced to hang the bike up by the back wheel on the train to Tyndrum. Once the cones were tightened up I was all good to go again.  Joe however was still struggling with his cold and I had an awareness that it was ‘in the post’ for me too, so I made the decision to switch plans entirely and head for Oban for a ferry to the Hebrides instead.  Sometimes it’s better to just admit that you have made a mistake rather than throw good time after bad. The HT550 is really not a route you can ride when in the wrong physical or mental state and I didn’t want this holiday to become an ordeal to be struggled through rather than enjoyed.

Rannoch station is a good place to call into if you need to take stock and reconsider your options.  We slept in the little railway workers ‘bothy’ across the tracks and made good use of the free public waiting room facilities and cafe too. 

(Mark – the Hero of the Cones in the background there).

The very patchy 3g signal at Rannoch allowed me to plot a new route to Oban, but not to research it properly – this was a bit of a mistake as you will find out if you read on…. The easy way would have been to take the train from Rannoch to Oban, but it’s very difficult to get a bike booking space in the summer and usually requires a lengthy phone call which wasn’t possible on the sporadic reception I was getting at the station.  The 82km route I plotted instead involved crossing Rannoch Moor, a notoriously boggy and hard-going route, then following Glen Etive and Loch Etive to Taynuilt and then on to Oban. 

It was near enough a straight line on the map so it looked to be the most direct route.  I know better than to trust the Ordnance Survey single-dotted line tracks though – they are never really there – and so it proved once again.

The traverse of Rannoch Moor took about three hours and we pushed the bikes for all but the short Landrover track sections at either end. 

For all it’s sogginess, it is a very beautiful place.

It’s not the easiest afternoon you will ever spend pushing your bike, but it’s not that traumatic either.

We arrived at Kingshouse feeling tired and hungry but found that they weren’t serving food to non-residents.  We used the public showers and toilets though and then camped with the other poor people in the field behind the hotel and ate some noodles. The hotel lies at the entrance to Glen Coe and is a beautiful place to wake up in the morning.

Buachaille Etive Mor looking braw in the morning light.

The swoop down Glen Etive in fine weather was a lot of fun – it’s a really beautiful glen in a fantastic setting and a chance to view the Glen Coe range from the south. 

I had plotted a route along the southern shore of Loch Etive but as we began this we found it to be every bit as boggy as Rannoch Moor had been but with the added bonus of short spiky bushes to tear at your legs and bike.  Believing myself to have made the wrong decision we forded the river at the mouth of the loch and crossed to the northern side.

Initially this was great as we had a proper road to ride but after the road ended we found that the signposted footpath was actually even worse to negotiate than the southern path had been.  It wasn’t just that it was slow and tough-going – it was really no fun to be there at all.  The ‘path’ (nothing more than sheep tracks) was very boggy and went up and down endlessly as it crossed tiny burns. Frequent rocky sections had to be negotiated and the evil spiky bushes were much thicker.  In slight desperation we attempted to traverse the edge of the loch but dragging the bikes over slippery rocks was even more difficult and offered the distinct possibility that one of us would slip and injure ourselves.  I’ve never had to call out Mountain Rescue but I was starting to wonder if I might pop that cherry on this trip.

After over three hours we had travelled only 2km and we were both pretty exhausted. It was time for some difficult decisions – should we fight our way onwards for several more kilometres from where we should hopefully find a track to ride, or turn back and reverse our journey all the way back to Kingshouse, followed by a tough ride down the West Highland Way to Bridge of Orchy? 

Pausing to consider our options I looked up and saw a mirage ahead – a flash of a blue tent further up the lochside. It looked to be a huge tent so surely must mean that a vehicle had reached that point in the opposite direction – how else could it have got there?  We hauled our bikes over the boulders in renewed hope to reach the tent.  Arriving there we found two very bevvied-up Glaswegians – very friendly but somewhat worse for wear after six days lying in the sun drinking and not eating much at all.  The hoped-for track didn’t exist – Andy and his friend had travelled for their socially distanced holiday ‘doon the watter’ in an inflatable boat with a tiny 12v outboard engine powered by a car battery. They kept this topped-up with solar panels – a pretty smart set up which at that moment I was very envious of.  They peered at us with bloodshot eyes and immediately offered to help – at the very least they could give us a lift with our bikes to the opposite side of the loch.  This would improve things enormously but Andy thought he could get us even further on our journey southwards towards Taynuilt.

The bikes were thrown into the little inflatable tender pulled behind the main boat and off we went.  We sat back and watched the shoreline slowly passing by – what great guys and what a cracking bit of luck to have found them in the middle of nowhere.

It soon became clear however that with three people, two loaded bikes and a strong headwind the tiny engine could only make very slow progress.

It was a bit like this….

I watched anxiously as the tender swung to and fro behind us – if it flipped over our bikes and all our gear would be lost forever. After about 3km Andy felt worried that he wouldn’t have enough battery power to get home if he continued onwards and we were deposited on the southern shore in a random bay.  As he left, Andy handed us a laughably enormous ‘care package’ of food and two massive 2 litre bottles of fizzy drink. As we were running low on food we were very glad of this – it was just far too big and heavy to carry on our bikes.  Thanks Andy – you got us out of a very difficult situation.

As Andy disappeared back up the loch again I looked around us and felt a stab of fear that we might be facing an ‘Into the Wild’ type scenario (if you have seen that movie you will know that a young hiker gets trapped by a rising river and starves to death). I looked up at the sheer sides of the mountain just to the south of us – the loch lay to the north and the east and west were unknown quantities – would we find ourselves trapped on this section of the lochside by rivers that were too fast or deep to cross?  Once the noise of the engine receded we were in an undeniably beautiful and remote place – there were no other human beings or habitation visible at all. 

Joe immediately suggested spending an extra night there and I agreed – we would need that to eat all our ‘care package’ food if nothing else.  We made camp and did just that. After eating and drinking ourselves silly we both felt a little better.  In the failing light I peered anxiously ahead along the lochside in the hope of spotting a path ahead but saw nothing.  Rising early next morning I got my binoculars out and looked again and this time saw a tiny green tent a couple of kilometres to the south.  I could have sworn that wasn’t there the night before….

Joe and I had a leisurely morning making pancakes and coffee on a little fire we set below the high water line to minimise its environmental impact.  Hearing a distant noise we both looked at each other and shouted ‘bike brakes!’  Running to a vantage point with the binoculars we saw that the tent was gone and a cyclist making slow progress along the shore towards us.  This was great news – it meant that we weren’t trapped after all. I sent Joe to intercept the biker to see if they wanted coffee and pancakes in exchange for some route info.  He surprised me greatly by returning with my friend Jimmy from Edinburgh.  Bloody hell!  What a small world indeed – it seemed that we weren’t nearly as remote as we had thought.

We had a nice couple of hours blethering with Jimmy before he headed off north towards Kingshouse. He told us that he had cycled from Glen Kinglass and so we now knew that although the rest of the lochside traverse would be tough it was at least possible.  The next day we did just that and after a fight with the spiky bushes again we emerged onto a little track at Ardmaddy. 

Joe had a snigger at the shape of this thing – more dickraft than packraft, but if we had found this washed up a couple of days earlier I might well have taken a chance on it….

Somewhere in all the madness of the previous days my derailleur had suffered from metal fatigue and was now irredeemably damaged. 

I limped on with only a couple of gear options from the middle of the cassette and was relieved to reach the train station at Taynuilt. 

Unfortunately there were no trains due to a strike. Dejected, we sat on a bench on the main street and ate some food from the shop.  A lovely local man called Ruairidh saw us there and cooked us fish fingers and chips and cheered us up no end.

He then offered us a place to sleep for the night in his airbnb and wouldn’t take money for it in the morning. Thanks Ruaridh, you are a star – your kindness and generosity made a big difference to our trip.

The next day we tried again to get the train but this time we were knocked back as there were no bike spaces available. I tried to plead with the conductor that it was only for one stop and we would stand and hold our bikes, but he wouldn’t hear of it.  We cycled to Oban very gingerly along Sustrans route 78 instead. Respect to all the single-speed riders out there – I had to get off and walk up most of the hills.

A big problem with budget travel at the moment is that a lot of campsites are not accepting tents.  Leaving aside my feeling that this is more about greed than Covid safety, this left us in a difficult situation once again.  We had four days to wait in Oban for a new derailleur and couldn’t afford B&B prices.  After a bit of a search we found a great place to wild-camp just off Sustrans 78 to the north of Oban in a quiet little dell away from prying eyes. 

Mr Fox wasn’t happy that we were there and came and stood outside our tent and barked at us a couple of times but it was sufficiently secluded that we were able to risk leaving our gear there while we went into Oban. 

The sunsets over Lismore are worth taking the time over.

As is the seafood….

My friend Dave responded to a plea for help and posted his old ‘parts box’ derailleur up by special delivery. By swapping parts between his and mine I was able to get a working derailleur once again.  Thanks Dave!  

My sleeping mat had also decided to join the kaput party – the baffles had failed, leaving me attempting to sleep draped over something like a beach ball.  I bought a roll of bubble wrap in Oban and slept on that till my friend Annette posted me a spare mat.  Thanks Annette!

From Tyndrum to Oban we travelled in a bit of a zigzag and definitely swam against the tide.  Although this isn’t really a proper route, I have written it up as a warning to others to avoid the north side of Loch Etive if nothing else. Going off-piste created a few problems and challenges and we wouldn’t have been able to continue on our holiday and go on to ride the Hebridean Way if it weren’t for the enormous kindness we were shown by both friends and strangers on this part of our journey.

Thank you all.

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