Hebrides: Day 5

hebrides5Back of Keppoch to Camas Nan Geall

The fifth day was as fine and sunny as the fourth. I had been attacked by two small but very aggressive dogs in the lane the night before, and sure enough they were waiting for my return. Chasing bikes was obviously their main interest and, having experienced before how aggressive and undeterred a group of dogs can become when they have their attacking spirits roused, I was a little worried that I could get a bad bite on the ankle and ruin my trip.

I put on a spurt but the little beggers kept up with me and I felt the balance of the bike alter as one of them got his teeth into my right pannier bag and hung there. Eventually I left them behind but when I checked later there was a very decided set of teeth marks in the pannier fabric and I didn’t like to think what sort of damage a determined terrier could have done hanging on my ankle.

Facing a pack of dogs seems to be the only way to stop them, but it’s a fruitless strategy because when you turn away, they are after you again. I was annoyed with myself later on for not doing something about it. The dogs lived in a house beside the road and tore out of the garden every time a bike went by. I had been badly bitten by a pack of young collies while jogging past a farm in West Yorkshire a few years before and had not bothered to do anything about it on that occasion either. Note to self, next time tell the police.

I was restored by a cup of coffee in a restaurant garden in Arisaig, a magic moment according to my diary. Two fellow dog victims stopped briefly there, out for a short ride on their teenage children’s mountain bikes. They were obviously unused to cycling and finding the effort of riding a distance daunting so I suggested they pump up their rather soft tyres as hard as possible. I had been very firmly reminded of this principle a year before when I bought a cheap track pump and was able to put some real pressure into my tyres without provoking an inflamed elbow. Suddenly I was going everywhere in higher gears and able to keep up higher speeds with less effort.

I knew all this already because my first professional design job had been to develop an improved bike pump but in the intervening years I had become lazy. Now I have hard tyres again I feel smug every time I see some urban mountain-biker grunting along with half-inflated tyres making an energy sapping “sucking” noise on the tarmac and slowing visibly between pedal pushes. I guess it’s cheaper than paying to go to the gym.

The ride from Arisaig to Glenuig, where I stopped for lunch, was perfect. The weather was good, the road was a series of long steady climbs followed by equally long descents to take it easy and enjoy the scenery. I saw very little traffic and just three cyclists – two loaded tourists coming the opposite way and man on a mountain bike with a backpack who overtook me during a break by Loch Ailort.

Before that I had stopped at Beasdale where there was a small railway station. I had a snack of dates and Brazil nuts and thought of Expedition Fawcett, an archetypal British explorer who searched the Amazon for lost cities, eventually disappearing without trace. In an account of one of his trips he described stocking up on large peanuts that made ideal expedition food. Sustained by my Amazonian tucker I was about to ride on when, an extra treat, a splendid steam train pounded through the station bringing tourists to Mallaig, the line carrying a regular service by preserved steam engines as well as the more usual kinds of train.

At the pub in Glenuig I caught up with the mountain biker who was intending to reach Mull that day. He was soon away and I wondered where the pleasure was in riding a long distance on soft tyres (yes another one of those) with a fair-sized rucsack to burden your spine and give you a sweaty back.

The pub provided a disappointing sandwich, I should have had one of their venison burgers. However my pint of shandy hit the spot exactly. Shandy is not regarded as a manly drink these days but when I was 19 or 20, as an apprentice with Elder Dempster Lines, I had taken part in a football match in Nigeria between our ship’s crew (MV Onitsha, Capt. Spud Murphy) and the local European club in Sapele. In the first half, we young sailors ran rings round the middle-aged expats and scored a couple of goals. In the second half the situation changed slightly. The heat took the legs out from under our team and the seasoned veterans strolled on and annihilated us with ten goals or so.

The point of this story is that, when we got back to the clubhouse, lined up on long trestle tables and deliciously frosty with dew, were a large bottle of Heineken Lager and a matching bottle of lemonade for each of us. The mixture went down perfectly, the first half-pint or so never even touching the sides, as they say, and I have been a believer in shandy ever since.

Meanwhile, back in Glenuig, the bar, dark after the bright sunshine outside, displayed a poster for the traditional musicians, Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain. A lot of people will know the Shetland fiddler, Aly Bain, from his TV programmes but Phil Cunningham is also well worth seeing, a member of Silly Wizard who, back in the 1970’s and 80’s, were one of the most exciting folk bands In Britain.

There was a big climb up Glen Uig over to Loch Moidart, then a second climb from Kinlochmoidart, punctuated by three large stone cairns, shown on the map as “Captain Robertson’s Cairn (1868)” although I have not been able to find out who Captain Robertson was, why he has a cairn or why there are now three. I stopped for tea at the hotel at Ardshealach, another slice of traditional service and a pleasant garden followed by an easy ride down to Salen on Loch Sunart.

I had expected the ride across Moidart, and the inland section of Ardnamurchan later on to be tough but they only confirmed my prejudice in favour of big hills. By contrast, the section in between, along the coast from Salen to Camas Nan Geall, rises very little above sea level but is a punishing series of short steep hills making hard work for a cyclist. It’s a very attractive stretch of coast, although lacking any refreshment stops for weary legs, but you can’t really enjoy the scenery so much when you are straining up an incline or gathering your strength for the next one. That confirmed my other prejudice, against undulating (bumpy?) countryside without proper hills. You can sum it up as Shropshire good, Warwickshire bad.

Eventually I reached Camas Nan Geall where I had planned to camp since seeing a photograph of it on the front of Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 40. Here’s an almost identical picture. The way down to the beach is a steep track, leaving the main road roughly where the photograph was taken, followed by a rough overgrown path down the field, not easy with a bike, but the beach itself is beautiful and peaceful with a grassy margin for your tent. There was a good supply of midgies and, for the first time, I resorted to my midge hood while cooking. That worked pretty well until I needed to eat so I had to have my dinner pacing up and down the beach to give them no chance to collect round me. Apparently midgies home in on the carbon dioxide that you breathe out, so an alternative strategy might be to stop breathing.

My main defence against midgies was a bottle of Shoo, a Scottish invention and the only insect repellent that does not contain Deet. I don’t know what Deet is but the consensus is that it is bad for you.  Shoo seems to work pretty well, the only thing that confuses me is that it is a decidedly Scottish product but, on the web (when I bought mine) you have to buy it from a company on the south coast of England.

At this point I should say something about my batterie de cuisine. As I hinted while at the Youth Hostel in Broadford, I am quite keen to enjoy my food while cycling, even if I have to haul it and cook it myself. The meal I cooked at Camas Nan Gaell has become a good standby for cycle camping trips.

For carbohydrate I carry some basmati rice and penne (I’m a carbohydrate addict), pre-weighed into meal-sized bags. I take a salami or something similar which will travel well and form the basis of two or three dinners. That can be augmented on the journey with a few tomatoes and a bunch of spring onions plus a lemon (I’ve started taking a squirty bottle of organic lemon juice). Then I have some little plastic bottles filled with olive oil and fresh-grated parmesan (and another for washing-up soap – remember which is which) and a camping salt and pepper thingy, freshly ground black pepper of course. For variety I take a tin of Stagg Chilli and some kind of pasta sauce – on my own I take a jar of Sacla Tomato and Olive Sauce but with my 12 year-old son a plastic pouch of Dolmio Bolognese sauce is a good compromise. The loose items, together with an excellent set of lightweight cutlery made from Lexan, a high performance technical plastic, fit into a waterproof zipped container sold in Muji as a washbag but just the right boxy shape. I use another of these for my CD player and headphones. Here it is:


The chilli makes a hefty meal and a squirt of lemon gives it a terrific lift. the lemon also is good for making a salad with tomatoes or leaves but it really scores with my salami dish. I chop up the salami into small cubes, chop up two or three tomatoes and a few spring onions and cook them all , with some olive oil, in a stainless steel mini-wok that is just the right size for cooking and eating a single person’s meal, and very light to carry. The process is to just let it simmer for a good while, adding a little water if it looks like drying until the tomato is fully cooked down to a sauce and the salami is tender. When I am alone I have a single stove (a “Pocket Rocket” these days as it packs away so well) so I cook the rice beforehand in my titanium billy (another very useful piece of lightweight kit) and transfer it into a large insulated mug with a lid, to keep hot.


When the meal is complete you tip the rice into the mini wok beside the salami sauce, squirt lemon over the sauce, lift up your midgie hood and eat, walking around if midgies attack. That evening I made a list of things I needed to take next time, including a half-size bottle of wine and plastic wine glass and something to cut up food on (I used a flat stone that night but it wasn’t ideal, on later trips I had a small tupperware type box for food and used the lid as a chopping board. My cook’s knife was the sharper small blade of my Swiss Army Knife. Other items on my “bring next time” list were a small lamp for inside the tent and pyjamas to avoid the slimy feel of the synthetic fabric sleeping bag (my cotton liner was just a tangled mess, maybe I should consider a silk liner?)

The day’s ride was 45 miles and I slept well.

days | 0-1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 |

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