Hebrides: Day 6

hebrides6Camas Nan Geall to Loch na Keal

On the morning of the sixth day I heaved my loaded bike up the steep track onto the main road and headed towards Kilchoan and the ferry for Mull. The road looped inland to avoid the precipitous coastline of Ben Hiant and, although it looked like a challenge on the map, it proved to be a comfortable steady climb followed by a long downhill. I stopped briefly to fish out my wraparound sunglasses for the descent (the wind under my normal glasses makes my eyes water) and found myself talking to a man who used to be the telephone repairman for that district but was now retired and on his way to do some maintenance at a holiday cottage.

Listening to him brought it home what an isolated and sparse community this was. Down in Kilchoan there was evidence of how the local people worked together to provide themselves with community amenities and support their tourist trade. The community centre at Kilchoan, on the road approaching the ferry, housed the local doctor, the tourist information centre and a good cafe with home made cakes (cycling always brings on a need for home-made cakes) run by local residents. The icing on the home-made cake is that there are excellent showers for use by walkers and cyclists at a small charge. You can camp in the wild in Scotland which is great but you end up pretty smelly after a couple of days cycling and camping.

A short ferry trip took me to Tobermory, one of the most photographed towns in Scotland because of its colourful harbour. I made the mistake of having fish and chips in one of the rather pretentious harbour-side restaurants, leaving me both bloated and unsatisfied. On a more recent trip with my family we discovered that the fish and chip stall on the pier, a smart black trailer with a “Les Routiers” sticker, sells really excellent, very fresh, fish and chips for less money and I strongly recommend it as the best lunch in town.

One of the great things about an isolated town like Tobermory is that it has proper shops, and all of them seem to combine more than one business – so the book shop sells fishing tackle and the ironmonger sells bike spares (very good stock) and wine. In fact they sell small bottles of wine ideal for a lone camper so I plugged the previous night’s gap in my bicycle cellar.

From Tobermory the island’s main road runs down the east coast to the ferry port of Craignure but I took the longer route round the peaceful west coast. The climb out of Tobermory was steep indeed followed by some tough hilly country eventually descending to the village of Dervaig which boasts an unusual church tower and a tiny theatre. Turning off to the right into the village’s main street I spotted a sign on a house saying “Coffee and Books” and, having patrolled the village to see if there was anything more tempting, I went back to see what was on offer.

The house contained a tiny shop selling a small selection of groceries, wines and spirits, a very good range of books and really excellent coffee. I had my coffee and a slice of cake in the small garden, talking to a priest who had cycled the other way from Iona and made a mental note not to pass Dervaig by if I came that way again.

Compared to Skye, Mull is relatively close to civilisation, being a short ferry trip from Oban. It’s a little surprising to find that, while parts of Skye are overrun with tourists in the summer, with the traffic and tackiness that brings, the equally beautiful and varied Isle of Mull is still a peaceful backwater. I imagine this is partly down to the romantic history of Skye with its links to Bonnie Prince Charlie, the song, “over the Sea to Skye,” recording the Young Pretender’s flight from the English, not to mention the stirring tale of the beautiful Flora MacDonald barring the door with her own arm to slow down his pursuers (my Scottish history teacher never explained clearly whether the beastly redcoats actually broke her arm, and I’ve recently learned that she was a supporter of the Hanoverian King and engaged to a Redcoat officer – there’s nowt so queer as folk). Those with no romance in their hearts (or knowledge of Scottish history) might be more persuaded by the fact that they can drive over a bridge to Skye, rather than waiting for a ferry and the clinching factor may be that the roads on Skye allow fast motoring, while Mull still has mainly winding, single-track roads.

Mull also has one outstanding tourist attraction which might, paradoxically, be the reason why you see very few tourists on the Island. The Island of Iona has the same kind of status as Stratford upon Avon or Wordsworth’s Lake Windermere and huge numbers of people have it on their list of places they must visit, most with no clear idea why. Every morning the 9 o’clock ferry from Oban disgorges hundreds of people who climb into giant tour buses and set off across the south of the Island, west along the Ross of Mull to the furthest point where they take another short ferry ride to Iona with its Abbey and tourist shops. In the afternoon the same process is repeated, coach drivers under pressure to meet the 5pm ferry pushing their great vehicles along the narrow island roads as fast as they dare. Local drivers, no doubt, know how to time their journeys and keep their stress low, those from further afield may be surprised by quite how far 36 miles can become, feeling more like 100 on Mull’s roads.

As a cyclist you learn to look out for coaches and take no nonsense from them. Position yourself in the middle of the road until there is a good passing place because they will try to overtake and run you off the road if you give them a chance. Head on the same tactics apply, don’t let them pass you until you are certain you are safe. Pretty well every other driver on Mull is cautious and considerate but coach drivers seem not to care and have little sense of how to approach cyclists. If you can avoid the morning and afternoon rush to and from Iona and can cope with hills, Mull is ideal for cycling.

From Dervaig I climbed again over to Calgary Bay on the coast, a beautiful sandy beach where it’s possible to camp, although it can get crowded in summer (the camping, not the beach). On the hill north of the bay Calgary has a very tempting hotel, a cafe and a sculpture trail so there is enough to encourage you to spend some time there. The British officer who named the city of Calgary in Canada did so because he had good memories of a stay at Calgary Castle.

After that the route becomes more isolated and the road winds, climbs and falls along the shore of Loch Tuath, looking across to the Isle of Ulva, a road-free estate and home to a small community that welcomes walkers and other visitors. Not much to attract a cyclist with fragile ankles and a passion for smooth tarmac. I stopped for a break at Ulva Ferry as the late afternoon became dull and cool and then gathered the last of my energy for a push along the north shore of Loch Na Keal to the campsite at Killichronan. 41 miles from Camas Nan Geall and some tough hills behind me.

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

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