Away with the Ferries
Thursday begins at 4.44 a.m, which really is far far too early. By 7.15 we are leaving on the first of eight ferry journeys, from Larne to Troon. The journey to the terminal is uneventful except for an additional circuit of the final approach roundabout, as Dai forgot what exit to take (he says the sun was in his eyes and anyway I shouldn't just be blindly following him but using my own initiative. This advice may come back to haunt him.)
The Troon ferry was the dearest, and cost about £80 for us plus bikes, but it's the biggest of the boats we are to experience, and has a café and a TV lounge for entertainment. By 10 we are leaving Troon in damp conditions, and travelling up the side of the Firth of Clyde to catch the next ferry at Gourock. I get very annoyed with the Sat-nav on Dai's bike, which has ignored the big road sign that says 'Ferry port this way' and instead brought us on a route through the back end of the town which includes an alarmingly steep hill and a rather nightmarish right hand turn across the traffic on a camber.Yup, I'm definitely coming around to this 'don't follow me!' idea.
Caledonian MacBrayne, or CalMac as it is affectionately known, is a Scottish institution which links many of the western isles, and offers the pleasures of island hopping. Indeed, while we were there, Munchkin was obviously doing some island hopping himself, and kept sending pun-laden daily tweets of his latest voyage. This particular boat leaves every hour, and the crossing takes about 20 minutes. A pair of bikes plus riders costs £15.50 single. It's one of those odd looking vessels where you drive on at the back, but leave from a side ramp, and the slipway at Dunoon is particularly steep, and finishes on a rather precarious feeling wooden slatted bridge. I almost lose the bike as I hit neutral instead of second gear, but safely find my way onto the main road, which takes us through the rather splendid Argyll Forest to Inverary.
The road has hugged the shores of Loch Fyne, which is very fine indeed, and Loch Awe, which, like a certain website, is awesome. Later names such as Loch Lochy and Loch Long suggest that the imagination of the person in charge of naming Lochs petered out after a while. It is tourist season in Scotland, so we occasionally get stuck behind a caravan doing 30, but most of the time the roads are our own, and we swoop and sweep round the bends with huge grins on our faces.
Inverary is a picturesque village, comprising many old whitewashed buildings trimmed with black, and we pull in to The George Hotel, beside the former jail, for lunch. I start my seafood odyssey with potted Tarbert crab, served with toasted sourdough bread, and very tasty it is too.
Dai finally agrees to listen to me rather than the Sat-nav, and I delight in poring over my well thumbed and by now rather bedraggled map to choose the next part of our route round the coast, rather than inland via Tyndrum. We traverse two great lumps of box girder bridges, and manage to find the tiny Corran ferry across Loch Linnhe, enabling us to cut out the traffic snarls that usually beset dreary Fort William. The little ferry costs £1.90 each, and the journey is so short that you barely have time to take off your helmet. One of the things I like about using ferries is that it gives you a chance to get off the bike, even for just five minutes, take your helmet off, scratch your head, stretch your legs, and in most cases have a cup of tea and a trip to the loo (Tea and Toilets are my two Bare Necessi-Ts of Life).
The single track road hugs the left hand shore of the loch, which is still and calm, and the reflections of the houses of Fort William and the foothills of Ben Nevis behind are an absolute postcard. Nevis itself is, of course, wreathed in cloud: I don't think I've ever managed to see its peak. The road continues in glorious technicolour: the autumnal bronze bracken, the glistening red berries on the rowan trees, and the vivid green of the pines. We rejoin the main Road to the Isles at Glenfinnan, famous to cinema goers for its 21-arch viaduct, used as part of the Hogwarts Express route. Visitors today can recreate this journey by taking 'The Jacobite', a steam train linking Fort William and Mallaig, which was voted Top Railway Journey in the World by Wanderlust Magazine! I can't give a consumer's opinion, since we stuck to our motorbikes, but I did remark that it felt like we'd ridden on some of the most wonderful roads in the world.
We had booked into the Cnoc-na-Faire, , whose address was given as Arisaig, so when I saw a sign for that place I turned off the main road, using my initiative, see. Unfortunately it was NEAR Arisaig but not actually IN it, so I had to find somewhere to turn and make my way back onto the main road, from where the hotel was well signposted.
And what a warm welcome awaited it us there! It was pricey, but we've found that the best way to treat this, our annual trip to Skye, is to take a couple of days over the upward and downward legs, and treat it as a holiday. There's certainly nothing nicer at the end of a hard day's ride than knowing where you're headed, safe in the knowledge that there will be a comfy bed, a shower, and a large glass of something waiting for you. This hotel was full of little special touches: a teddy and a hot water bottle on the bed, a copy of 'The Broons'1 in the loo, plus a book of poetry on the bedside table, a DVD of Local Hero, part of which had been filmed in the vicinity2, and a decanter of whiskey on the landing with some shot glasses for a complimentary nightcap. Marvellous!
We chatted to a brave couple of souls who'd climbed Nevis (and seen nowt, but hey, the rain keeps the midgies away), before heading into the restaurant for a delicious dinner. I had the scallops and monkfish, while himself had a juicy steak, and we shared desserts of sticky toffee pudding and a honey, whisky and oatmeal ice-cream. The latter was a revelation, being a combination I'd never tried before, but the oatmeal gave it a lovely texture. After that early start to the day, we retired early and fell asleep watching Peter Reigart raving about the Northern Lights to Burt Lancaster from an old red phone box...
We continued to dine royally over breakfast of porridge, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, before braving the wild and windy exterior, hoping that it wasn't so wild that our ferry would be cancelled. This hotel is the perfect base point for the ferry port of Mallaig, where the boat sails over the sea to Skye. I replaced my map, which had completely disintegrated after being left in my tank bag overnight. During the half hour crossing (£13.40 each) I remarked that after the most wonderful roads in the world yesterday, this route would have my vote as the most wonderful ferry crossing in the world, as the spectacular rugged peaks of the Cuillins rise out of the sparkling blue water.
By now we've sussed out how not to annoy each other with navigational disputes, so we agreed on a meeting point at Broadford, and made our own way there at desired speeds (me, puttering along admiring the view; him, as fast as he could.) I quite like that stop at Broadford, as it's useful for stocking up on essentials before heading into the remote parts of the island. It has a café, loos, a chemist and a shop, and the car park itself is big and flat. There's also a petrol station nearby. These facilities can easily be taken for granted, but on Skye they're few and far between. After some sunny patches, it started to rain (again) while we were there, and we ended up squeezed into a bus shelter with half a dozen Dutch tourists and their luggage.
We followed our given directions without incident to the bunkhouse at Portnalong, inhaling deeply as we passed Talisker, the island's only distillery (and incidentally, one of my favourite whiskies, should you ever need to buy me a present. The 18 year old is particularly good.) As we parked up and unpacked, I cast my eye over the facilities, and it suddenly occurred to me that we had no food with us, a mere two cans of cider I'd bought at Broadford, and there didn't appear to be any bar, shop or eaterie nearby. Worse, being a bunkhouse, there was one communal loo and shower, and even that was a walk away from our little wooden wigwam (cute though that was). Hmm, I'm obviously not used to roughing it;-)
There was one big bedroom in the bunkhouse, which soon filled up with 12 strapping bikers. I'll leave the noise and smell of that room after two days to your imaginations. They did however bring with them supplies of a wide variety (but mostly booze) and soon we were sharing drinks, crisps, shortbread and liquorice allsorts, catching up with old friends and making new acquaintances, and comparing notes on our various journeys here. Things brightened considerably when I discovered that there was indeed a pub up the road, and that it sold food! The downside was that it didn't open till five, so we cracked open another can of cider and settled down to pass the time.
The welcome in the pub wasn't great, and the kitchen staff, on being faced with 20 hungry customers, complained that they didn't usually start serving till six. They had been notified that we'd be around, so our arrival shouldn't have been a surprise, and in today's economic climate you would think that paying customers would be welcomed with open arms. But hey, the food was edible though unremarkable scampi and chips, and I wouldn't be recommending the place to a friend.
Luckily enough, there was a charity ceilidh up the road in the village hall that evening, so Dai donned his kilt and I put on a dress, and off we went to strip some willows and dash around after white sergeants. At one point Dai left the hall, and was refused re-entry on the grounds that he was too drunk, which in Scotland is no mean achievement. He protested loudly that as the only person in the room wearing a kilt he ought to be allowed back in! The evening's activities are something of a blur from this point on, though I remember stumbling back down the road in the dark with difficulty, and ending up the next morning with a mysterious bruise on my knee...
On Saturday morning I was at least able to make a mug of tea, which went some way to making me feel human, but as we hadn't even brought a towel with us (what kind of poor galactic hitchers we are!) I couldn't even get a shower. We forced ourselves into our biking gear, and I rode on the back of Dai so that I could shoot some video footage of our next ferry.
Some serendipitous timing brought us to Sconser just as the vehicles were being loaded, and we joined about a dozen other bikes heading over to the isle of Raasay to have a look at Calum's Road. Most of them, including Dai, are intending to do a bike ride next January all the way from this road down to a new road being built in The Gambia, to raise funds for its construction. One of the ferry operatives, who keeps his own blog recognised Dai from a previous visit, and he even managed to take a few photos of the bikes getting on and off the ferries and included these in his daily write-up. It was my first time on the island, and I took so much footage of the achingly beautiful and remote scenery that by the time we actually reached Calum's Road my battery was flat! The road, originally hand built by Calum Macleod over many years during the 1960s, when the council would not build one, is an inspiring testament to one man's determination to achieve his goal despite the odds, and this story has inspired the guys to help build the new Calum's Road.
Lunch (breakfast really since it was my first meal of the day, even though it was 1.30 pm) in the Isle of Raasay hotel consisted of a brie and bacon Panini which I tucked into with relish. And salad.
Back at the bunkhouse, the guys making the trip were fired up with enthusiasm, and much discussion was had around the practicalities of the trip: what to take, what visas and documentation would be needed, how long would they need, what gadgets made the best bribes. Me, I don’t fancy three weeks on the back of a bike—five days is about my limit! But I do intend to drive over and wave to (and video) them departing next January, and some of the other WAGS and myself are planning to fly out to Banjul to meet our conquering heroes at the other end.
Saturday evening's meal was in the Old Inn at Carbost, just opposite the distillery, and it was fabulous. I had a starter of squat lobster tails, which looked like a dish of pink snails, and whilst delicious they were fiddly to peel and eat, so I struck up a conversation with the couple at the next table and persuaded them to help me out. The fisherman who probably caught them was enjoying a pint at the bar, grinning to see such satisfied customers. I followed this with an olive and caper encrusted piece of salmon. Continuing the 'world's greatest' theme, there's a notice in the place which claims that this is the best pub in the world, and I think if I could only ever go to one pub for the rest of my life, I'd be happy if it was this one. The bar staff were friendly and efficient, and Louis the dog runs around looking like the fox out of the old speckled hen adverts, trying to persuade punters to come down to the shore and throw stones for him to fetch.
On Sunday we decided to forego ferries, and instead crossed the impressive span of the Skye bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh, and headed down the more direct route. We did our 'see you at...' (henceforth abbreviated to [email protected]) planning, and our first stop was at Invergarry. I'd hoped the community centre lane had improved since we were there last year, but if anything it was more rutted and potholed than ever. Despite having safely come in and turned round, when I was manoeuvring the bike back out the entrance, I lost my confidence and then my balance, and over went poor old Zucchero, depositing me unceremoniously into a muddy puddle. Dai had already ridden on and so didn't see me, so there was nothing else for it: I'd have to lift the bike myself. I'd seen this done on a YouTube video, but had never put it into practice, usually preferring the weak and helpless female approach. I turned off the ignition and twisted the steering bars downwards. I stood with my back against the saddle and squatted down, grabbing the handlebars with my right hand and the frame at the rear with my left. This way, by standing up you are using the strength in your legs to get the bike upright, and to my surprise and delight it actually worked! As soon as I could reach it I kicked the side stand down, and stood back to admire my achievement just as Dai rode back to see if I was OK (some other passing bikers had spotted my predicament and had informed him that I looked in need of assistance. Or words to that effect.)
Our next [email protected] didn't quite go to plan. We'd been supposed to meet at 'the first parking place on the left after the first box bridge', but I somehow missed Dai, and was waiting at a different one. We both independently waited for 20 minutes, calling each other all the names of the day, before trying something else. I wasn't sure if he was ahead or taken a different route (he still trusts that Sat-nav far too much...) so since we had booked a room in The George I thought it best to head there. Unfortunately my mobile phone was dead so I couldn't get him a message until I'd safely made it all the way to the hotel. He, meanwhile, had convinced himself that something had happened to me, and was riding up and down the road between Fort William and Ballachulish in the ever increasing rain.
Anyway, he made it in the end, and we were both delighted to see each other in one piece, and joined in the music festival that was happening at the hotel, before tucking into yet another fabulous meal: it deserves its own write up!
Ride Like The Wind
After a restless night worrying about the proximity of the bikes which we'd parked on the footpath, and the drunken post-festival revellers, we rose early, had breakfast as soon as we could, packed, and set off. We caught the Dunoon-Gourock ferry back over the Clyde, and began our final journey down that coast. As usual, we thought we had plenty of time, but in the end had to ride like the wind to catch the ferry. We'd had a quick pee stop in Somerfield, Irvine, and made the mistake of thinking we had enough time to sit down in the café for a sandwich. When I left first, I took the wrong turn at the big roundabout, and although I realised straight away, by the time I'd found somewhere to turn and made my way back onto the road, I'd lost a valuable five minutes. I didn't know whether Dai was ahead of me or behind me. But, I reasoned, if I ride as fast as I can, he'll still catch me even if he's behind. And if he's ahead, well then he'll get to the ferry terminal in time to check us in, and I'll be there as soon as possible.
I don't think I've ever ridden so fast. And the weather conditions were awful; the rain was lashing down and the wind was blasting in from the water side. But I got to Cairnryan in the nick of time, and we gingerly manoeuvred onto the precariously slippery loading deck for our 8th and final ferry journey. I suppose it was inevitable that one of them would be a bit rough, and this was the one. People were being sick, the boat was being tossed up and down and side to side, and we couldn't help but fret about the bikes strapped down in the hold. But we made it without any great delay to the scheduled arrival time, the bikes survived, and we blattered home through the continuing bank holiday downpour.
Best bits— seeing Calum's Road, the wonderful scenery and seafood, and being able to pick up my bike unaided.
Worst bits— being stupid enough to drop my bike in the first place, worrying about each other when we missed a [email protected], and the weather.
Lessons learned—nights that start with cider end messily, and make sure you've got your phone charger and camera charger. And your towel!