Given the current spell of sunny weather, it's hard to cast your mind back to the snows and ice of January. Back then, Dai and a group of fellow motorcyclists had planned to set off on a fundraising trip starting from Calums Road on Raasay, a remote island on the West coast of Scotland, and travelling all the way down to The Gambia. Their aim was to raise money to build a new road there, to be called Calum's Road, which would enable to villagers to have access to health centres, schools, and marketplaces to sell their crops.
But the severe weather meant that much of the UK was impassable: the thought of taking a heavily laden motorbike down an un-gritted windy Scottish lane didn't bear thinking about. So the decision was made - each of the riders would make their own precarious way to Folkestone and thence out of the UK and on to Africa. However, they agreed that they would have a celebration on Raasay later in the year since they'd been unable to start there. So at long last, this much anticipated weekend had arrived!
As usual, things did not go smoothly. There was another meeting of bikers in Scotland the following weekend, and Dai and a few of the other Calums Crew had planned to stay nearby and do some exploring of the Hebrides before heading to that gathering. Dai's doctor had other ideas though, and he was taken into hospital for some urgent-ish heart tests, including an angiogram. Whilst the results of the tests were pretty good, the aftercare of an angiogram includes avoiding any heavy or twisting movement of the right wrist, and motor biking was verboten for a week.
He did look sorry for himself as I collected him from Belfast's City Hospital (one of the ugliest buildings in the known universe) and we discussed our available options. In the end, we agreed that we would take the car over to Raasay for the party, and if he felt up to it he could join the gathering by bike the following weekend. Sure he'd miss out on a trip to the beautiful islands of Harris and Lewis, but they'd still be there for a future trip.
We chose the most scenic route, making use of a number of ferries. This isn't any shorter, either in time or distance, but it makes it feel more like a holiday than sitting on the M8 through Glasgow. Time didn't permit stopping for lunch, but we stocked up on crisps and sandwiches to eat in the car. And Scottish tablet, that peculiar sickeningly sweet concoction where you can almost feel your teeth begin to rot as you let it dissolve in your mouth. The final 2 ferries were crucial: the last crossing to Raasay from Sconser on the isle of Skye was at 6pm so we had to make that, and we were booked on the Mallaig-Armadale crossing to Skye from the mainland, due to dock at 5pm. 27 miles separated Sconser and Armadale – easily doable in an hour. In fact, we did it in 40 minutes, arriving just in time to see the ferry leave at its due time of 17.35. (Somebody who shall remain nameless had read the ferry times wrongly, and it was in fact the last ferry FROM Raasay which left at 18.00). We parked up at the head of the queue and were soon joined by some other members of the team, also hoping to catch what turned out to be the last ferry at 18.45.
There's only one hotel on the island, and it is also the only pub. I don't think the bar staff were totally prepared for this crowd of bikers and hangers on, and when we entered the place it was full of hugs and hellos, and noisy catching up and reminiscences. It calls itself a 3 star hotel but to be honest it's only a hostel, with bunk beds in each room and a limited choice of food available. The evening meal was very tasty – venison casserole with red cabbage and skirlie (a mixture of mashed potato and oatmeal).
On Saturday morning it was time to visit the original Calum's Road, built by hand by Calum McCleod 50 years ago. Some of us had been here before, but for many it was their first encounter. Group photos around the sign were taken, of the 7 out of the 9 original riders, as well as some family portraits of the whole gang, including Heather Armstrong from the Horse and Donkey trust in the Gambia, who is co-ordinating the project. She revealed to me her concern that the Dutch contractors who'd been supposed to be doing the building work looked like they were going to pull out. The foundation work had already begun, and there wasn't a lot of time before the rainy season to complete the construction.
After lunch back at the hotel/ hostel, we changed into our finery for the ceilidh in the newly built village hall. All the bikers wore their kilts (save one English guy who wore an African robe in bright blue). Dai was in his Ulster tartan kilt, and I'd just recently acquired a matching sash, so we looked very co-ordinated on the dancefloor. The live band struck up with a piece of music called Calums Road as we entered, and there were more than a few misty eyes. My Scottish country dancing lessons proved invaluable, as I knew most of the dances and was able to join in with gusto.
Back at the hotel, I managed somehow to persuade the bar to tune the television to Eurovision, and we enjoyed shouting out the votes of the Raasay jury. Sadly, my netbook gave up half way through the contest, and I couldn't get power back to join in with the rest of the hootoo following. But my goodness what a difference broadband and wi-fi has made to this remote part of the world, where communication not so long ago was limited by the speed of the Lough Striven ferry.
There are only 2 ferries off the island on a Sunday – at 10 am and at 4 pm. As we were aiming to zoom back down the road to catch an 8pm ferry home from Troon we had no choice but to be up early. Most others had the same idea, and the boat was packed with friends either heading home to England, or in some cases catching another ferry out to the Hebrides. Some day we'll make it there!
Meanwhile, here's hoping that the road can be finished on time, and that our next ceilidh will be out in Sambel Kunda in December this year.