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At last โ€“ we make it to the Outer Hebrides! (written by my cycling buddy, my wife Chris)

We were desperate to go on a cycle tour but were not quite sure what we were searching for. What we did know was that we didn’t want to be anywhere crowded. So, we decided to try for the Outer Hebrides once again. You may remember that in 2015 we got as far as Oban, only to be faced with a forecast of a week of gales and rain. We decided to pull the plug on that visit to the islands; in hindsight, a wise decision!

Two years and three major life events later (one sad, one happy, another sad), we felt the need for some wild landscapes, some remoteness, no crowds, no busy roads, some quiet moments, some time to soak up nature and be at peace. The Outer Hebrides seemed the place to go.

We stood waiting for the ferry at Oban in torrential rain, slightly apprehensive about what we were letting ourselves in for. There was quite a large group of cycle tourers in the queue; surely we couldn’t all be mad?

One of the nice things about travelling on ferries is that, in most cases, those on bikes are first on, first off. We got some seats at the front of the ship so that we had a good, all-round view. Even in the murk and mist, the islands off the mainland looked tantalising and beautiful; some really tiny, others much larger.

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The further we got from the mainland, the more the weather improved. Unbelievably, the sun even started to shine!

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We began to get excited. Perhaps the weather would be kind to us after all? But the highlight of the ferry trip was the pod of dolphins we saw leaping joyously alongside the boat.

We arrived on Barra and luckily found a tiny space to erect our tent in the busy little campsite at Borve, which was almost full with people who had just come off the ferry. We bumped into the Irish cycle tourer we had chatted to whilst waiting for the ferry, who seemed very knowledgeable about the islands. The reason being, we were to discover later, that he had been visiting the islands twice a year for the past several years. In fact, he seemed quite well known (almost famous, I would say!) amongst other travellers that we bumped into later. That’s the nice thing about travelling by bike: people stop to talk to you. Other cycle tourers share their tips and experiences; we compare gear; talk food and recipes; recommend weather apps; suggest which campsites to avoid, what routes to follow; and pass on information about where there’s a good food store for topping up your supplies.

We spent a wonderful couple of weeks making our way up the islands – cycling one day and exploring the area where we had pitched up the next. These islands have a magical feel, they get under your skin. They are so remote, so quiet, so stunningly beautiful. There were so many places where you turned a corner and had to stop as the view took your breath away. From looking across the bay at the airport on Barra

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to the view from Scurrival campsite on the tip of Barra

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to the RSPB reserve at Balranald (where we actually saw the ever-elusive corncrake and also the islands of St Kilda silhouetted against the skyline; they are the remotest part of the British Isles, lying 64 km from North Uist)

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to the gently undulating, almost traffic-free, single-lane roads that taper into the distance.

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Seeing these islands in sunshine was an absolute delight. We were so lucky.

Our favourite cycling day was from the campsite at Balranald, on North Uist, to the island of Berneray. We could not believe the views. We would cycle only a short distance before Mike would say – yet again ๐Ÿ˜‰ – ‘I must stop to take a photo’. We made very slow progress that day!

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Berneray was unforgettable.

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The view from our camping spot at the Gatliff Hostel, Berneray. IMG_0084

The 3-mile long West Beach, with its white sand, made up from broken shells, and its turquoise seas, can make you think you are in a tropical paradise (not that far from the truth, apparently, as a photo of this beach was used mistakenly by the Thai tourist board in an advertisement for Kai Bae Beach) – only difference being the temperature!

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You literally have to drag yourself away from this place. But drag ourselves away we did, as we had to retrace our steps and start making our way back to Barra and the ferry back to the mainland.

One of the highlights of our trip was the people we met. Isn’t that the case with every trip? It’s the people you remember, more than the places you’ve seen. Although, in this case, I think the views just pipped it!

We so enjoyed camping outside the Gatliff Hostels (Howmore and Berneray) because of all the interesting people we met there. James, our Irish friend, again; Craig, a Scottish cycle tourist/mountain biker/ski mountaineer/all-round mega fit guy; a couple from Malta, who beat us at Jenga; a group of young Americans (who we actually managed to catch up with and overtake on a cycling day – woohoo); on separate occasions, two Brits now living in Australia; a lady from Finland; a cycle-touring couple from Germany … and Piotr and Agata, cycle tourists from Switzerland, who we met at Moorcroft campsite at Carinish. Although only a brief encounter, Mike had a great affinity with Piotr, both being photographers. And we mustn’t forget the wonderful Hector, the driver of the school bus that we had to hire to transport us, our 2 bikes and all 12 of our bags and panniers in the driving rain and 40 mph winds that caught up with us towards the end of our trip. We were out of food, and he kindly waited while we dashed into the Co-op to grab some supplies.

Fortunately, the islands had managed to cast their spell on us in the sunny weather that we were blessed enough to have most of the time, but they reminded us of what our trip could have been like by just leaving us with a sting in the tail (see video – link at the bottom)!

More pictures from the islandsSouth Uist, The Outer Hebrides

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YouTube links to the videos of our trip :

Part I :  https://youtu.be/VeM1Wd09eMk

Part II :  https://youtu.be/Wsp2nWMdTSI

 

 


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TO THE CYCLE TOURING FESTIVAL AND BEYOND (continued)

ย AFTER THE FESTIVAL

We left the festival feeling excited and eager to get on with our tour of the Outer Hebrides. Everyone we had spoken to had told us that the islands were beautiful, wonderful, a magical place, that we would love them. No one said anything about bad weather โ€“ some had had a couple of days of rain, but nothing really awful. They were all so enthusiastic about it; we were really looking forward to it.

The drive up there was good โ€“ the sun was shining, the sky was blue, the traffic was good, the scenery was beautiful, there was even snow on top of the mountains. All was well with the world. We were on our way at last to visit these beautiful islands, something weโ€™d longed to do for years and we were now going to cross it off our bucket list.

Loch Lomond with snowy Ben Lomond (and squished flies on the windscreen!)

Loch Lomond with snowy Ben Lomond (and squished flies on the windscreen!)

Whoa, hang on a minute! We were getting carried away with the euphoria of talking to like-minded people at the festival and forgetting our usual holiday luck โ€“ BAD WEATHER. The joke in our family is never to take a holiday at the same time as us. It has even been suggested that we visit dry, arid places in order to end their drought and bring them rain! Everyone finds it amusing, but after years and years of soggy, waterlogged holidays, the joke is wearing a bit thin for us!!!

We pitched up at the campsite just outside Oban and, ominously, the skies were beginning to darken. It started raining in the night, and it continued to rain and rain and rain โ€“ solidly for the next 24 hours or so. The next morning the ferry to Barra was cancelled due to the adverse weather (weโ€™d signed up to receive text alerts on the sailings) and we spent the morning sitting it out in the tent. The ground outside was beginning to squelch and large puddles were forming around the tent. In the afternoon, we went into Oban and visited the CalMac ferry office. We had planned to buy a hopscotch ticket but, in view of the weather, we decided the best bet was to purchase the ferry tickets as we went along, just in case we had to bail out and backtrack.

Sitting out the rain

Sitting out the rain

Oban campsite - we're surrounded by tin tents!

Oban campsite – we’re surrounded by tin tents!

We spent the evening sat in the car, pouring over all the weather apps we could get our hands on. It wasnโ€™t looking good. The forecast up to the weekend was for heavy rain every day, but even worse were the strong winds, with gusts over 46 mph predicted. Not exactly safe cycling weather!

What should we do? We discussed and deliberated. We had been planning this trip for several months and were really looking forward to it. Should we chance it, pack up camp, put the car in storage and go for the ferry, only to find it cancelled at the last minute? Should we be sensible โ€“ and safe โ€“ and pull the plug on the whole trip? Are the forecasts really reliable? Suppose we donโ€™t go and then, a few days later, we see the weather has perked up? We would be absolutely kicking ourselves and cursing our caution. We decided to go to bed and sleep on it.

The following morning, the ferry was still on amber alert. We had to make a decision. In the end, our sensible heads won and we decided to bail out. We were both absolutely gutted, so disappointed, feeling utterly miserable. We reluctantly packed up the tent. Where to now? We could stay in Scotland, do static camps and go out for day rides. But the forecast for the week ahead was heavy rain and very strong winds. In the end, we knew that we would just be killing time. Why not save the money and put it towards the longer trip we plan to do later in the year to sunnier climes? Decision made, and home we headed ๐Ÿ˜ฆ ๐Ÿ˜ฆ