On my seventh and last day the weather turned. I managed to get my tent packed away reasonably dry and set off towards a western sky that showed successive waves of rain cloud and brightness rolling in from the Atlantic.
I was ahead of my schedule, having confounded my fears that I had set too tough a challenge, and my plan was to head out west to Fidden where there was a good campsite on a classic white Hebridean beach looking across to Iona. Along the south shore of Loch Na Keal the headwind was hard work but I could see the weather coming pretty well and managed to find shelter in good time when the rain threatened to pass over, quite a lot of it stayed away on the north side of the loch where I had passed the day before.
Once the road had worked its way along the coast past the huge bulk of Ben More, Mull’s biggest mountain, it turned south-east away from the wind and climbed over the pass of Gleann Seilisdeir where I had to exercise my bus control strategy a couple of times and came up behind a German cyclist with a loaded bike and trailer piled with camping gear. He was pedalling doggedly on, obviously a tough man but feeling the strain. I rode with him for a while and he told me that his wife and children, lightly loaded, were ahead somewhere. He, as fathers often do, was taking the pack mule’s role.
I realised that making conversation with me was not helping him so I pushed on through the woods, down the valley to the north shore of Loch Scridain where the road turned east for a few miles before meeting the westbound road for Fidden and Iona at the head of the loch.
At the junction I took stock. The west wind was still blowing stiffly and would be in my face for the rest of the day, like doing the whole afternoon uphill. The weather was not improving and I could easily get a soaking, maybe followed by a wet night camping. And 6 days cycling had used up a lot of my reserves of energy, my fuel tank was getting very empty.
It didn’t take long to make up my mind, and then I was on my way home with the wind behind me. Although I still had a distance to ride, east to Craignure, the whole mood of the day changed and I felt that I could relax and take my time, winding down from the effort I had been making against the wind. I also remembered that Duart Castle, just before Craignure, has a cafe serving home-made soup.
The road climbed east through Glen More, with Ben More’s bulk still on my left. It felt bleak and empty on that dull wild day and I had little incentive to stop along the way, but a year later I came to the same area in similar weather with my family on a wild-life expedition led by David Woodhouse, a former graphic designer from South Yorkshire who has become a leading expert on Mull’s wildlife. David has an amazing ability to look at a landscape and tell you just where a golden eagle is likely to break over the horizon, and to point his telescope at a wood and focus in on exactly the spot where a Sea Eagle was sheltering from the rain. He took us out to the south coast to see the huge sea eagles and an otter fishing in the sea, then up Glen More where we spotted several golden eagles patrolling and playing out territorial games. In Glen More he also showed us how the empty landscape high above us was actually full of red deer, scattered across the hillsides and watching us down on the road in case we decided to come closer.
I finally got my soaking as I rode down from Glen More towards the coast at Ardachoil then along the lower-lying road to turn off up to Duart Castle, seat of Clan Maclean, exposed to the fierce wind on its headland with a perfect strategic outlook over the Sound of Mull to the northwest, the Firth of Lorne southwards and Loch Linnhe running away northeast into the Great Glen. The soup and home made bread were every bit as good as I remembered and I lingered there too long. I had not been paying attention to the ferry schedule, partly because I didn’t want to give myself any pressure, and when I came out of the cafe, the ship from Oban was sailing into Craignure Bay, about three miles away.
If I had been the Mclean of McLean, with my telescope on the ramparts of Duart Castle, I daresay I would have seen the ferry leaving Oban and had more than enough time to meet it at Craignure. As it was I pedalled hard but arrived just as the loading doors were being closed.
I had a 2-hour wait ahead of me and Craignure offers little in the way of comfort or diversion. Once I had bought my ticket and wandered round the tourist information centre’s shop there was little to do. I chatted for while with a pair of tandem riders who just pedalled in from Fishnish at 20mph with the wind behind them and tales of homicidal coach drivers. One of the ferry port staff advised us to move our bikes out of the covered waiting area (a very long transparent plastic tunnel with space for several hundred people) in good time before the rush of Iona-ists who were due to roll in over the next hour. He implied that once we got trapped in the middle of that lot we’d have little chance of extricating ourselves.
The ferry was crowded but the small group of cyclists and motor-cyclists who parked in a corner of the car-deck had some fellow-feeling as we surveyed the herd of mass-market tourists on their blinkered schedules. There was a very fine big single cylinder Yamaha bike owned by a young woman who worked in Tobermory and had the bike to get past the traffic on business trips to Glasgow. A good strategy and fun if you don’t have to do it often. Big singles are the most romantic motorbikes, I remembered a review I had read years before of a vintage Vincent Comet 500cc single built in the 1950’s, described as “Ideal for fast touring in the Himalayas” and I will never forget standing at the top of a huge hill at a Shropshire motocross event in the 1970’s, seeing John Banks on his British CCM 500cc single (available again in modern form) thumping effortlessly up and away from the buzzing pack of little two-strokes.
In Oban I had a short picturesque ride along the coast to the campsite at Gallenach which has hot showers, a shop with chilled beer, opportunities to admire vast German motorhomes (although the British ones are just as offensive these days) and a vicious hill to finish your ride. I was tempted by an attractive hotel as I left Oban but I decided to keep going. Probably they were full and if they turned me away camping would feel very second-best.
The following morning I packed up and pedalled back to Oban for the morning train to Glasgow and my adventure was over.
Three weeks later I was cycling back from doing some shopping in Sheffield city centre. My normal experience had been that I needed to drop down to my lowest gear for the hills between the city and my house. Half way home and I realised that I was steaming up the hill at a good pace and had three gears in hand. Something lasting to remember my trip by.
Chris Rust, 9 October 2004
(relocated to this blog in February 2009)