Posted on Wednesday 12 June 2013 by John Aizlewood
Text by John Aizlewood, Photos by John Aizlewood & David Kurtz
Richard and Graham had cycled from Lands End on their way to John O’Groats, whilst Paul and Clifford joined them at Fort William. Others had caught various trains north and we all met in Inverness with David, Sarah, Christine, and Nina, who had just arrived on the overnight sleeper. It turned out to be an eventful first day.
The first problem was crossing the Kessock Bridge, which was half closed for maintenance, including the cycle track. We held up traffic on the A9 thanks to a patient driver behind us, and in general encountered courtesy from other road users throughout the highlands. Once on quiet lanes across the Black Isle we enjoyed a relaxed lunch at Cromarty before the 15:00 ferry. Unfortunately we found the ferry under repair and not running on the first day of the season, a story which featured in the local press later in the week.
We were faced with a detour back to the A9 Cromarty bridge and around the estuary, adding an extra 40km to the day. At this point Jim punctured and wasn’t noticed; then leaving behind his pump in an attempt to catch up, he passed us whilst we were having tea. Finally Richard’s left pedal fell apart, but we all limped into Tain rather late and tired at 19.30. (97km) The day was rescued by a good meal.
Next morning, after some confusion, Richard acquired a spare left pedal and finally found how to fit it. We detoured away from the coast and busy A9 and onto minor roads, with Paul making an early start on the climb after lunch, but Jim chased him down well before the summit. There was fine scenery along Loch Brora before the last eleven miles into a head wind on the A9 to Helmsdale. (80km) Here was an independent Youth Hostel with traditional values, and renowned fish restaurant where most found their portions too large to finish. Scott, who was on a personal mission to explore the local whiskies, sampled a few more after the meal.
Scott turned Chef to provide a breakfast of porridge and scrambled eggs for most of the group, whilst Richard stayed with his own precision porridge, and I stuck to bacon rolls as usual. Richard and Graham, accompanied by Christine made an early start to complete their End to End, whilst we finally left the coast and A9 turning inland. Now even A roads were single track with passing places, and navigation became easy with only three junctions all day. It didn’t really need GPS accuracy. We were in wild open countryside: the preserve of fishermen and deer, with peat still being cut on the desolate moors. Lunch had been booked in one of the most isolated spots, Garvault Hotel, and our destination Altnaharra was a green oasis with a posh fisherman’s hotel for some and B&B for the rest. On balance the B&B was the best deal with a most friendly land lady, who Sarah charmed into doing our laundry,and there were even field glasses to watch the local wild life. Whilst some ate in the Gillie‘s bar the others dined in style in the hotel restaurant.(74km)
The next day it was a run down to the north coast, with its fine sandy beaches, for lunch at Bettyhill. Then a scenic detour around the peninsula before we all arrived at Tongue, just after the store had shut. Richard, Graham, and Christine rejoined us here, with Richard sporting a new pair of pedals, having also broken the right hand one on the way. Our evening meal was expensive and a disappointment – definitely not cyclist sized portions, with Dark Island bitter the only redeeming feature. (74km)
Next morning the hostel didn’t provide breakfast either, so I was glad that I had carried bacon and rolls. A clear sunny day inspired an early start ahead of the group, along Loch Loyal and back to Altnaharra, then up to the isolated Crask Inn. Over coffee the owner informed me that he had a booking for eleven cyclists for lunch. I explained that it would be ten since I was one of them, and on returning to Altnaharra found Scott and Clifford having lunch there so it would be eight. It was reported that Paul rescued the extra sandwiches! The road back down Loch Hope was a little rough and undulating, but the scenery breathtaking with fine views of Ben Hope towering above. Our evening meal in the Ben Loyal hotel made up for the previous night with the Cullen Skink (fish soup) a meal in itself. (102km)
Scott was on breakfast duty again, and well fortified we did the circuit of the Kyle of tongue, enjoying fine views of Ben Loyal across the water; the most majestic of Scottish mountains. Back at the coast sea mist had rolled in, though it didn’t spoil the long detour around Loch Eriboll. (61km) Our bunkhouse accommodation didn’t suit everyone, but Scott served up an excellent breakfast, with freshly baked scones to complement the porridge and scrambled eggs. We needed fuel for the days challenging ride to Cape Wrath, and farthest point north west on the mainland.
David had negotiated an early crossing with the little Keodale ferry across the Kyle of Durness. It could only carry six bikes at a time, requiring two crossings, however we were all over by 10.00. Most tourists have to take the minibus, which bumps and rattles the eleven miles in a little over an hour. Cyclists however take about two hours for the rough hilly track, with Jim managing a “snake bite” puncture on the way. The last time I rode here it seemed rougher but the lighthouse was manned; these days it is automatic but there is a café – progress of a sort. Low cloud and sea mist were chilly but atmospheric, and on the way back Jim managed another puncture. The ferryman came across charging £8 for the return trip. (46km) Ron, a Canadian cyclist, joined us for supper at the Smoo Cave Hotel. Though traditional Haggis, Neaps, and Tatties featured on most menus, I believe that Nina was the only one who braved it.
With an ominous weather forecast, and a long ride, we planned an early start, but Scott and Clifford set off even earlier making it a DIY breakfast for everyone. We rode with Ron for a while until he turned south for Ullapool. There was nowhere on the road for lunch, so we picnicked on the shores of the Loch More, before a climb and descent to Loch Shin. There was a heavy downpour for the last two miles to Lairg, but this was the only real rain of the tour. Richard, Graham, Christine, and Scott left for the train to Inverness; Christine claiming to have won at scrabble on the way back to London. The remaining seven enjoyed a short climb and descent to Achness and another fisherman’s Hotel, where David treated us to a “wee dram” after dinner. (105km)
Another early start for our last day, and a fine ride above the river avoided the A road, and later there was a great view over the Dornoch Firth. We made excellent progress before suffering the A9 traffic again on the Cromarty bridge. Retracing part of our route of the first day we failed to find Jim’s lost pump, but it was a pleasant hill ride over the Black Isle before meting the A9 again. David’s inspired leadership found a way of avoiding the Kessock Bridge road works, and we held a final parting in Inverness. (94km) Nina and Sarah took the 18.51, with David and Paul on the 20.15 sleeper, and the rest returned next day 07.55 travelling first class thanks to David’s rewards points.
An excellent tour thanks to David’s superb organisation, skill in juggling the limited bike spaces on the trains, and battles with Scot Rail‘s booking system. We covered almost 800km and all the best routes and scenery in the far north west, with lots of sunshine and only 20 minutes of rain – quite remarkable for Scotland, and not a midge in sight. Back in London, the pot holes on the Euston Road reminded me of the track to Cape Wrath.