National Cycle Route 78 and the Great Glen Way by MTB

Posted by on May 3, 2017 in Bike, Camp, Scotland, West Highlands | 5 Comments

Every working day for the last 12 years I have used my swipe card to raise the same striped barrier. No longer.  On April 7th I handed in my card, laptop and phone and left the protective umbrella of corporate work behind. Though I am excited about the future this change has inevitably left a hole in my life. My preoccupation at present is to ensure that the void is filled with positive energy, that any darkness that comes lapping onto my shores is kept at bay.

To this end I set out to cycle the 329 km from my in-law’s house near Tarbert Loch Fyne to my own home outside Inverness. The journey was an attempt to create some space between myself and my previous employment, to see how much my identity had been bound up in corporate work, and to establish how my sense of self had been diminished or augmented by the loss of that work.

During the four days of the ride I began to come to terms with my new status and began to recognise and process the anxieties that naturally arise when one leaves behind a stable life for new and unknown things. I arrived home slim, tanned and thirsty, both for a night out with former colleagues and fellow escapees and for life in general.

Trip Report

Day 1: Ardpatrick to Kames Bay, Lochawe (83 km, 1688 m ascent)

  

The starting point was dictated by my inlaws’ house, from whence I took the quiet B roads through Kilberry, enjoying the views across to Gigha, Islay and Jura, watchng the seals sunbathing on the rocks and admiring the many scarecrows that the locals put out at this time of year. There was even a Trump scarecrow. I cut off on forest tracks before I hit the busy A83 with its constant stream of bank holiday traffic, and linked to the towpath of the Crinan Canal at Ardrishaig. I experienced some twinges in my stomach as I rode and feared that an unscheduled stop might become inevitable. The path was busy with walkers and cyclists, so fortunately I was able to stem the flow until I reached the Moine Mhor, the flat plains of former sea bed that extend from Crinan to Kilmartin.  A gorse bush laden with bright yellow flowers provided some cover, behind which I squirted some extremely loose stool onto the grass. As I burned off my toilet paper I hoped that this would be an isolated incident rather than the start of an extended bout.

My next stoppage was only a few miles along the road. I leapt into some woodland, and only once I was underway did I realise that I was right beside a path. Thankfully no ramblers were subjected to the  spectacle. My output on this second bout was beyond loose, a small puddle of rusty water that soaked into the mossy ground before my eyes. This had an element of finality which cheered me – I felt empty, and rode on hoping that I was out of the metaphorical woods and would be spared a further visit to the actual woods. Unsettlingly, I had almost depleted reserves of toilet paper that I had hoped would last for four days. The thought of having to expose my delicate ring to scratchy moss or non absorbent leaves was not appealing.

Despite these upsets, this section of riding was excellent. On back roads and tracks past the many cairns, standing stones and monuments of Kilmartin to the impressive castle of Carnasserie, where the first ever book in the Gaelic language was written in the late 1500s. There followed a short section on the A83 before I tuned off on the minor road to Ford and the north side of Loch Awe. This was virgin territory to me, extremely hilly single track (as in single track road with passing places)  through forest, much of it recently felled. The sun was shining, the first signs of spring were all around, yellow primroses, budding willow and birch, the vivid green of new larch needles, and I decided to push on as long as possible.

There was one more impromptu stop, during which I discharged a small puddle of miso soup and burned off the last of my toilet roll on a tree stump. Realising that I wouldn’t make it past the loch I checked my map and decided to head into the forest just past the village of Dalavich and look for a camp spot. I pitched up in the warm evening sunshine at Kames Bay, where there was just enough flattish ground to pitch my tiny tent, drank the two beers I’d brought with me and re-hydrated my Macfie Brand spaghetti bolognaise. This was delicious, I’d say superior to the gold standard of camping food, Mountain House spag bol.

I could have had a nice campfire, but after a soaking up the last of the sun’s rays I wanted nothing more than to lie down in my tent. This was the pattern at each of my camps, falling asleep around 2000 hrs, waking around midnight to brush my teeth and arrange my bed properly, then a second stint of sleep until 0700.

 

Day 2: Kames Bay to Stronchreggan (107 km, 1857 m ascent)

It was a cold night, during which  started using my sleeping bag as a duvet and ended up right inside wearing my warm jacket. I awoke to a frosted tent and bike and a surprising amount of ice in my platypus. I got on the move immediately, striking camp while my Macfie Brand porridge with strawberries rehydrated. I had high hopes for this, having found the commercial preparations to be overly sweetened, but I was in for a disappointment. It was a  bit chewy and the strawberries didn’t provide as much sweetness as I had hoped. The next batch will be ground into a finer powder to aid rehydration and have some sugar or honey added.

The route taken by Route 78 completely avoids the busy A83, apart from a tiny section of 30 mph limited road through Taynuilt. What it lacks in traffic it makes up for in distance and hills, but the scenery is beautiful, with views to the Ben Cruachan and Ben Lui groups of Munros and the delightful woodland of Glen Nant.

It wasn’t until mid morning, as I rode past new lambs in Glen Lonan, that there was any noticable heat in the sun. I had my first and only unfavourable vehicle encounter on the road to the Connel bridge, with a bearded buffoon in a rented motorhome. Instead of slowing momentarily to permit me to reach a passing  place, the fud ploughed on and pushed me off the road about three metres before I reached it. I stopped to roar and gesture obscenities, but I doubt the idiot looked in his mirror to register this feedback. If I’d had a gun I would have happily shot his tyres out. And kneecapped him for good measure.

The next section of Route 78 was one that I was looking forward to, running alongside the busy A83 between the Connell Bridge and Ballachuillish. I have often envied cyclists as I have driven this road in a car loaded with moaning, carsick children. And very pleasant it was too, with great coastal views and opportunities to explore away from the road on forest sections and on the old railway track. It was wonderful to get a fresh perspective on familiar terrain, for example seeing Castle Stalker from the sea level path rather than the unpleasant windy and hilly road. I ate my lunch on the shore near the bridge over Loch Creran, glad of my thick jacket to keep out the chill.

I suffered a couple of setbacks on this section, a few spits of rain, enough to make me don waterproofs briefly, and a flattish tyre just outside Ballachuillish. I opted to pump it up rather than fix it in the rain, hoping to make it to the toilets at the Corran Ferry where I could take advantage of shelter, a sink to aid detection of the puncture, and soap and water to clean myself up afterwards. I also re-stocked my toilet paper reserves. The most trying part was reinflating my tyre with my tiny pump, but I was soon ready for the road again. I thought I had just missed the ferry, as they raised the ramp as I set off down the slipway, but the staff on the Highland Council run ferry are a friendly bunch and they lowered the ramp and let me board. Many times I have had the opposite experience on ferries run by Caledonian MacBrayne. This small act of kindness cheered me, and I decided to spend the time that I had saved by not waiting for the next ferry  in the Corran Inn having a pint and a bag of crisps before pedalling round the pleasant and very quiet road on the north side of Loch Linnhe. I wanted to be close enough to Camusnagael to ensure that I would make the first ferry at 0815, but  not so close that I was camping in a settlement. A spot near the burn before Stronchreggan fitted the bill, and  I wandered around the flat grassy site in a daze, choice paralysis preventing me from selecting a spot. For dinner I enjoyed a Macfie Brand beef and vegetable stew served with Smash mashed potatoes, a truly excellent and satisfying meal, then retired for my usual two stage sleep.

Day 3: Stronchreggan to All-Saigh Forest, Loch Ness (78 km, 1727 m ascent)

All was damp after overnight rain, and upon waking at 0600 I sprang into action, keen to get packed up before the rain started again. I had a Mountain House Oatmeal with Raspberries left over from my extravagant and decadent past as a corporate employee, and it was just as I remembered it, tasty and satisfying but overly sweet and very expensive for what it is. I arrived early at the ferry and brewed up a second coffee while I waited. Three locals were using it to get across to their jobs Fort William, and as I listened to their chat about committees and cats I realised that I was at risk of going a little strange after so much time alone, and began to experience second thoughts about the 2 weeks on the Cape Wrath trail I had planned for late May.

This route makes such a good job of bypassing civilisation that Fort William provided my first opportunity to buy objects, though it was early and only the Nevis Bakery was open. I bought a sausage roll for a second breakfast and a Chelsea bun for lunch and went on my way to the sea locks of the Caledonian Canal and the effortless towpath cycling to Gairlochy and north shore of Loch Lochy, then up the south shore of Loch Oich on the new path that follows the old railway line.

I stopped at Leitirfearn, where I had  camped on a canoe trip years ago, when the south shore was less travelled. It is now a ‘Trailblazer’ Campsite, complete with composting toilet. I was delighted to see this. I had purged my system so thoroughly on the first day that the previous day had been barren from a toilet point of view, but by now the piping had been re-stocked and pressure was building.

I always love a composter, and this one was a beauty. It had an important design improvement, a funnel at the front to divert the urine away into a soak away. This meant that the huge mound of shit, paper and sawdust was if not quite odourless, at least perfectly tolerable. The combination  of passing a solid stool into a satisfying toilet and lovely warm sunny weather raised my spirits, and suddenly I seemed so close to  home that I began to imagine actually arriving home later that day. This would be possible if one took Route 78 through Foyers and along the south side of Loch Ness, but I wanted to take the Great Glen Way. Not only that, I’d been reading about the new ‘high route’. In its original form the Great Glen Way was a tedious slog through oppressive conifer plantations. This is why I had never been tempted to walk it. But these new high section are above the tree line and offer amazing views over the loch and across the the mountains of the Monadhliath. The only issue is the vicious uphill pushing required to access them, and indeed to ride them because they have many steep ups and downs.

My dreams of making it home, or at least to Drumnadrochit, soon evaporated. After a steep descent to Invermoriston I took on a nasty push up tarmac roads to access the forest trails, and was immediately  confronted with another high vs low route decision. This high route was even higher, rising to 470 m, so I was nervous of it, but I had the time and I really didn’t want to camp low down in the forest so I pushed on in the hope of finding a decent camp spot up out of the trees.

In the end I settled for a tolerable spot by the Allt-Saigh, from where I had the option to descent to join the low route the next day. I was totally done in after pushing a laden bike up so many hills, so ate my Macfie Brand Spag Bol (if anything it tasted better than the first portion) and had a little wander up out of the forest where I found the ruins of shielings, unmarked on the 1:50k map. I then turned in for an anxious night. In my weakened state I could see only the negative in my new lifestyle.

Day 4: Allt-Saigh to Culloden Moor (61 km, 1270 m ascent)

 

In the morning I ruminated on my night of existential angst and realised that I was experiencing a misplaced regret for having walked away from a future that was not on offer, that of continuing to do stimulating work in the safety of the corporate environment.  The fact of the matter is that my position has been made redundant, that the opportunities that attracted me to my former role no longer exist.

This realisation – that the waves of anxiety that have been buffeting me stem from a false regret, a regret at having ruled myself out of an imaginary and only partially desirable future – cheered me.  I set off with the feeling that I knew my enemy and was now able to face it and deal with it. Up until this point it had been catching me unawares at unexpected moments.

I studied the map, and realised that a descent to the low route would be followed by a significant climb to the meeting of the high and low routes.  It seemed a better option to push  higher to gain the full descent, so I headed on up. At some points it was so steep that I considered ferrying bike and bags separately, but I persisted and was rewarded with amazing views and a lovely descent right out of the forest and onto the road to Drumnadrochit. I stopped in to visit Dave, a friend who  has successfully avoided the monotony of regular work for many years and has nothing but positive things to say about it.

After a short section beside the A82, during which some wind turbine sections came through, requiring the whole road and a police escort, I took on what I  hoped would be the last evil push up through the trees. On this push I met a heavy man who was plodding so slowly that I easily passed him even when struggling with my laden bike. At the viewpoint at the top I met his younger companion , waiting and enjoying the view. As we chatted I realised how littlte I had spoken to anyone while on the road, indeed how few people I had encountered.

Soon I was on familiar territory, the forest walks and mountain bike trails at Abriachan, then the long descent towards Inverness, with the water and exposed mud flats of the Beauly Firth on my left, then on trails through the northern suburbs of Inverness, towards the River Ness and its islands. I paused on the banks of the river near the town centre, while workmen strimmed ahead of me, and reflected on a great journey now at an end. Or almost at an end, I still had to pick up Route 1 through the city towards my house. With my journey close to an end I bought milk, biscuits and the pack of liquorice allsorts I needed to propel me up the  final hill from Balloch to my home in Culloden  Moor.

The house had been empty for over a week and the door snagged on a large pile of envelopes, including my P45 and final payslip. This final signal from my previous life induced some waves of fear and doubt which plagued me until after 2200, at which point, realising that only action could set me back on an even keel, I put away all my equipment, tidied the house and went for a long sleep in a comfortable bed.

I woke refreshed, shaved my beard and felt a new man. My four days in the saddle truly had been a journey of self discovery and transformation, leaving me brimming with optimism and ready to open the next chapter in my life.

Background Information

The Route

In this world of Brexit, Trump, environmental devastation and threat of nuclear war it is easy to think that global affairs are in some sort of inevitable decline, but here is a striking example of an improvement. In the 8 or so years that I have been visiting Knapdale I have often considered cycling but have aways been put off by inavoidable road cycling on busy roads, including terrifying road trains carrying huge loads of timber.

This has changed, with the development of the Caledonian Trail (National Cycle Route 78) and improvements to the cyclability of the Great Glen Way.

Equipment

My choice was between a skinny tyred road bike and a hardtail 29er mountainbike. I could perhaps have managed the cycle trails and canalside paths on the road bike. But I really wanted to ride the Great Glen Way from Fort William to Inverness, making the MTB the obvious choice. If you were to continue on Route 78 down the south side of Loch Ness instead of taking the Great Glen Way, a robust touring bike would be best. You might get even away with a road bike if you don’t mind lots of riding on unsealed paths, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Several sections of uphill pushing on the Great Glen Way make bike packing gear preferable to panniers. But in April, with sub zero temperatures and rain forecast, I wanted to carry more bulk than my bike packing kit could swallow, including a bulky and heavy synthetic insulated jacket. In the end I chose panniers, adding my bar bag to balance the bike up a bit.

I considered taking a tarp, which would have worked well, and would have given a nice dry area in which to remedy any mechanical setbacks, but I do really like having a tent to keep the wind off and keep my stuff from blowing away or being absorbed into the undergrowth.

Provisions

I’ve been preparing myself for a lifestyle of minimalism to counter the loss of financial power resulting from my exit from corporate work.  This was to the fore in my trip preparations and I dehydrated my own food,  spaghetti bologniase and beef stew, and also some experimental dried porridge with strawberry pieces. I packaged these up in recycled Mountain House foil packs. The other minimalist aspect was relying on my petrol stove rather than buying gas canisters. I devoted some time to learning its ways and can now avoid getting petrol on my fingers or soot on my pot while cooking. Total cash saved on this trip was probably about £35. Total cash spent was £10.40, £5.20 for a pint and a bag of crisps in the Corran Inn, £3.00 for a one way ticket on the Camusnagael to Fort William ferry and £2.20 for a sausage roll and a Chelsea bun from the Nevis Bakery after I disembarked.

5 Comments

  1. Laurie
    May 4, 2017

    As well as revitalising your enthusiasm for life, I see your corporate exit has revitalised the exuberance with which you detail your poo-related tableaux. Back to the Gavin of old.

    You are a pioneer for our own new British existence. We will all now be dehydrating our own food and cooking with american shale petrol, whilst wiping our arses on moss and shiny leaves.

    Love and luck to us all.

    Reply
    • Gavin
      May 5, 2017

      Indeed Laurie, I have clearly been stifling my true nature in order to fit into the corporate world. I can feel my authentic uncensored self returning. Brace yourself!

      Reply
  2. Paul G
    May 5, 2017

    Great read Gavin, increases my urge to do more multi-day cycling tours. Keep up the reports!

    Reply
    • Gavin
      May 5, 2017

      Cheers Paul. Next up is the Tour de Cairngorms at the end of May. Full suspension and bikepacking kit for that one. My mate Donald is going to use his trailer. Time will tell which method is best.

      Reply
  3. Mark
    July 21, 2017

    Laurie – i don’t know you but fully concur with your assessment of the detailed log of bowels movements. It lends a certain gavitas don’t you think?

    Fuggin great read Gav! I cannot wait to hand in my “ID badge”…….

    Reply

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