Lochmaddy – Broadford
The third day was a Saturday and my intention had been to take the ferry from Uist to Harris and cycle to Tarbert for the ferry to Uig on the isle of Skye. However I was still uncertain about whether I could manage the whole route I had set myself and the ferry from Lochmaddy to Uig was waiting overnight for a 9am departure so I decided on a shortcut. I was also influenced by the fact that there were no ferries on a Sunday from Calvinist Harris so if I were delayed on the Saturday I would be set back by 24 hours.
The previous night I had admired a very elegant new black bike parked at the hostel. At the ferry I met its owner, Norah from Edinburgh, who was slightly bemused by the fact that every cyclist who saw her new bike enthused about how good it looked. It was not just that it was a good make with high quality parts, the usual rather nerdy way to characterise a bike, it just looked absolutely well-balanced and right.
Norah was travelling with a friend (with no bike) and they were intending to take the bus from Uig across Skye on their way back home. She was a little disappointed that she hadn’t had much chance to ride on her round trip which had followed much the same route as mine. I left her to catch the bus waiting by the ferry port and set off up a long hill snaking up from Uig. Skye is completely different from Uist, a rugged chip off the mainland with some very big hills indeed.
After a couple of miles I stopped to change into proper cycling shorts (forgot to do it on the ferry) and was about to cycle away when Norah rode up the hill. The Skye bus, unlike those on the outer isles had refused to take her bike, a sure sign that we were getting back into civilisation. So her bad luck was my fortune as I gained a good travelling companion for two days, and at least she had the opportunity to ride her new bicycle in earnest.
The first part of the ride from Uig to Portree took us over a big climb with a strong headwind so it wasn’t much fun. In Portree we set about finding some accommodation for the night further along our route but the tourist information office could not really help. I had my tent but Norah needed a bed and breakfast or hostel, all of which were fully booked. We hoped to go further down the coast towards Broadford, where there was a youth hostel but the hostel phone was redirected to an answering machine at some central office. In the end we decided to press on and see what we could find.
The contrast between Skye, joined to the mainland by a bridge and packed with tourists, and peaceful Uist, six hours by ship from Oban, was very stark. The day before, Norah had met a young woman who had taken the ferry from Skye to Uist in desperation because there was no accommodation to be had anywhere on Skye.
To make matters worse the uphill road from Portree was still into a strong headwind and the weather was getting very wet and misty. We toiled up Glen Varragill into the wind and the day ahead did not look promising. On top of that we had to put up with a steady stream of traffic, most of it passing us too fast and too close, including large motor caravans cutting us up despite having a rack of bikes on the back, and brutal four-wheel drives towing speedboats. I put the bright yellow rain covers on my panniers and struggled to hold on to my nerve and place myself well out into the road where I could be better seen but it was unnerving to hear another vehicle coming up behind with an even chance that the driver would be totally unwilling to hang back and wait for a safe place to pass.
A great many motorists seem to regard cyclists as if they are static street furniture. If you challenge them about it they are genuinely surprised and don’t seem to recognise bikes as moving vehicles. Once in Sheffield I was overtaken on the approach to a blind bend and, sure enough, a double-decker bus appeared round the bend causing the overtaker to cut in and nearly run me off the road. When I caught up with her at a traffic light I said, with unusual restraint, “please don’t cut in on cyclists, it’s very dangerous.” Her only reply was to protest that she had to because of the bus. The idea that she had created the situation by her impatience never crossed her mind.
Since then I have bought one of those little air horns that you pump up with your bicycle pump and is approved as a foghorn by Her Majesty’s Coastguards. It doesn’t prevent people from trying to kill you but you get a great deal of satisfaction by blasting them as they go past.
We reached the top of the hill and everything changed. The weather brightened, the wind dropped or shifted and cycling became a pleasure again. Back down at sea level we cruised alongside Loch Sligachan for a couple of miles before turning off the main road (which was set for another big climb) and following the little road round the headland to Loch Ainort. This was perfect cycling, the road was very quiet and too narrow for fast traffic, the surface was OK, no hills to speak of, beautiful views and the midgies weren’t bad if you didn’t stop for long. (The Scottish midge can only manage 1.5 mph flat out so a cyclist can get away easily enough)
Loch Ainort would have been ideal for camping but that was no help for Norah so we pushed on. While stopping for a breather we were overtaken by three cyclists that Norah had met earlier in her trip, introducing a note of competition as they were also hoping for a bed at the Youth Hostel. They stopped for some purpose that I now can’t remember and we pressed on, aiming to keep ahead of them if we could. I don’t feel too uncharitable about this as they did have a tent and they were much younger and fitter (and just a bit irritating).
The last 6 miles were hard work but we dug in and kept going as the day grew darker and chillier and wetter, reaching the Youth Hostel past a whole series of “No Vacancies” signs on the hotels and guest houses just to remind us that we might be homeless. Once in the Hostel we found that, ironically, there was a men’s bed but no space in a women’s room.
The harassed young Frenchwoman running the place suggested that Norah could use my tent and Norah responded with an impressive and sustained display of determined rhetoric to the effect that a woman of her dignified years was not going to sleep on the hard ground in the foggy dew, she had been a member of the Youth Hostel Association all her life, we had been completely let down by the telephone booking system and the YHA existed for real outdoors travellers like us, not the cossetted tribes of tourist families flooding in by the Renault Espace-load as we spoke etc etc etc.
Eventually, strictly against the rules, the girl told Norah that she could sleep in the lounge after everybody had gone to bed, as long as nobody knew and if the boss came on a snap inspection she was there because her bunkroom was too hot or too much snoring.
So things were looking up. The other three cyclists had also arrived and been allowed, also against the rules, to shower, dry their clothes and use the kitchen (they camped nearby) so we felt that the young warden was doing her best to uphold the principles of the YHA in the face of an avalanche of advance-booked motorists who were meanwhile hogging the kitchen with great crateloads of groceries.
I was very smug that, despite having only what I could carry on the bike, we had an elegant and substantial dinner of salmon in whisky (in a tin from Tesco) followed by Penne with Sacla tomato and olive sauce, that being the only bottled sauce I had found that seemed to do the job, My secret weapons were a lemon, some parmesan I had grated before I left home and a small plastic bottle of extra virgin olive oil.
And to cap it all a bed was found for Norah as a result of a no-show. We had covered more than 40 miles despite doubting our energies and the unpleasant conditions for a lot of the journey. All-round a successful day.