Leg 34 – to Gairloch and the Big Sands Campsite

A 59 mile stint, despite a late start.

03 June 2013

After a slightly hazy start to the morning due to the whisky consumed the previous evening, I had a quick breakfast and got down to the business of the day, which first involved mending my rear wheel.

I had to take the wheel off again, remove the tyre and find the spoke nipple, before reattaching the whole thing, a messy job. I then spent about 30 minutes carefully trying to straighten the wheel without over tightening the spokes. It’s a tricky job but I managed to get it vaguely straight without anything going ping, and the wheel rotating without rubbing against the brake blocks, a result in my books. I’d still need to find a bike shop to get it professionally straightened and the spokes tightened, however the next shop I’d pass wasn’t going to be until Portree on the Isle of Skye; even if I diverted inland there were none closer. My administrations would just have to suffice for the time being.

Having spent a while on the bike, then getting a shower and packing up, I missed the 10.30 ferry to Stornaway. On reflection I decided this was probably a good thing, as I wanted to get further down the coast with a lot of Scotland left to do. I could always catch the ferry from Oban across to Barra at a later stage, depending on how I was time wise. I had a quick trip to a supermarket to restock on a few supplies, having run out of shampoo for starters but also needing breakfast stuff, then had a ride around Ullapool, which is well worth a visit even if you’re not catching the ferry.

The ferry I just missing, leaving it's berth

The ferry I just missed, leaving it’s berth

 

Rowing skiff out practicing in the bay

Rowing skiff out practicing in the bay

As I rode along the seafront a couple of Tornados roared through over the bay, practicing some low level flying by the looks of it – almost another Top Gun moment.

Looking out along Loch Broom towards the Hebs

Looking out along Loch Broom towards the Hebs

 

Bike post restocking at supermarket

Bike post restocking at supermarket – banana and baguette accessories

Before leaving Ullapool I had an early lunch at the Ferry Boat Inn, who serve a great sausage bap. Food photos are for my Japanese readers to give them an idea of ‘traditional’ Scottish fare, although I’m not convinced that usually involves salad.

Ferry Inn - sausage bap

Ferry Boat Inn – sausage bap

 

View from Ullapool across Loch Broom

View from Ullapool across Loch Broom

 

The Ferry Boat Inn

The Ferry Boat Inn


I hit the road south at 13.00, with at least a 55 mile leg in front of me which I hoped wasn’t going to be too mountainous. I wasn’t too worried as it stays light so late, and would be alright as long as I didn’t encounter any significant wheel trouble. 

From Ullapool I cruised down the A835 alongside Loch Broom. Aside from the traffic, which consisted of some big lorries, it was a nice ride through woodland with bigger trees for a change. This section ended with a big climb up the Corrieshalloch Gorge, with the weather deteriorating I turned on to the A832 to follow the coast.

Riding up towards Corrieshalloch Gorge - bigger trees

Riding up towards Corrieshalloch Gorge – bigger trees but weather deteriorating


I stopped at the Falls of Messach, and walked down to the gorge and Victorian suspension bridge. The gorge is startling, and the bridge over it wobbles quite a bit when there’s more than one person on it. I decided not to bounce up and down as I didn’t want to upset anyone, or cause them to fly into the depths of the gorge.

Road bridge over the Gorge, before reaching the falls

Road bridge over the Gorge, before reaching the falls


 

Falls of Messach - Victorian suspension bridge

Falls of Messach – Victorian suspension bridge


 

Corrieshalloch Gorge

Corrieshalloch Gorge


 

Falls of Messach - looking down on them from suspension bridge

Falls of Messach – looking down on them from suspension bridge


In a fit of enthusiasm I ran back up the path to my bike, something I’d no doubt pay for later. With the rain closing in I progressed up a gradual but on reflection long climb in the shadow of Meall An T-Sithe – I don’t know if that means anything specific but it sounds cool. 

View back towards Ullapool

View back towards Ullapool


 The roads takes you up pretty high, and I passed quite a few patches of snow further up the mountain – they weren’t that much further up the mountain.

Road over the top - snow on mountains

Road over the top – snow on mountains


 

Low cloud and rain ahead, was going to get wet

Low cloud and rain ahead, was going to get wet


I felt like I was on the road to Mordor at this stage, with the fairly bleak landscape and weather closing in. At least it wasn’t winter when this road must get closed by snow fairly regularly. And at least the weren’t any Orcs or Uruk’hai chasing me, although couldn’t be absolutely sure of that. A lot of the place names around here sound very Tolkien, and surely provided him with some of his inspiration.

Having travelled upwards for so long there followed a remarkably long descent down to Dundonnell, that seemed to go on forever, but did take me down into more verdant territory, with the first flowering rhododendrons I’d seen this year providing a stark contrast to the trees and mountains. I free wheeled down most of the way, at quite some speed, just hoping my back wheel held out. The downhill section was only slightly marred by another cold shower, however I didn’t bother putting my waterproof on as it was protecting a couple of baguettes I’d bought earlier and attached to my rear rack cargo net. I’d rather have gotten wet than be eating soggy baguettes later. As it was I was pretty much blown dry by the time I reached the bottom, and the sun came out.

The descent to Dundonnell

The descent to Dundonnell


 

Rhododendrons

Rhododendrons

I stopped outside the Dundonnell Hotel and ate a pork pie and some fruit I’d bought earlier, as well as some chocolate, chatting with the only other cyclist I’d seen all day; a lone tourer on his last couple of days around the Highlands. He was about to go home before packing his car and going to the Isle of Skye where he had a cottage for the week. He was staying at the bunkhouse just up the road from Dundonnell, and hadn’t been camping, hence had a lot less kit. Got me thinking I ought to try the occasional bunkhouse. We agreed the hills around here had been an ‘interesting’ challenge before parting ways, wishing each other the best of luck and the wind at your back etc etc.

Continuing along the coast there followed another long climb up to Gruinard Bay, with Gruinard Island in the middle of it. The  island was the site of Anthrax tests during the Second World War, both with a view to dealing with such an attack from Germany, or launching an attack versus them. Happily neither occurred but the island was contaminated for years afterwards, not being declared safe until 1990. It’s safe now, but uninhabited aside from sheep, who haven’t keeled over. Apparently the original owners were able to buy it back for £500 once it was declared safe, the price agreed with the government during the war.

Gruinard Bay and Island

Gruinard Bay and Island


There followed another long climb out of Gruinard, the steepest of the day. I made it up despite my chain slipping off at one point; I wonder if I’ll need to replace my gear cassettes soon too. I rode on passing through Laide and Aultbea as the narrow road dipped and turned, past more great scenery including deserted beaches, cliffs and patches of pine forest.

Road around to Laide

Road around to Laide


 

Passing over more mountain streams

Passing over more mountain streams


 

Deserted beaches

Deserted beaches

Aultbea is quite a sizeable village, with the Isle of Ewe in the centre of the bay – Loch Ewe. There looked to be houses on the Isle as well, probably farms by the looks of it. The sea was flat calm today and it had been lovely riding so far, despite the hills and occasional shower. I put it down to there being no headwind, which really makes a difference to your morale as well as your speed. I’d also only had to tighten one spoke so far so must have been doing something right.

Loch Ewe, with Aultbea on the right, and the Isle of Ewe in the centre

Loch Ewe, with Aultbea on the right, and the Isle of Ewe in the centre

 

Aultbea

Aultbea

 

Poolewe

Poolewe

I rode on to Poolewe, where followed another long ascent before finally riding down into Gairloch. I stopped at a general store to buy some Branston Pickle that I’d started craving for some reason, before turning right up the B8021, through Gairloch itself, and on to Big Sand where there’s a campsite. Gairloch is a nice looking town and I thought I’d stop at one of the cafes on the way back through tomorrow.

The ride alongside Loch Gairloch was really magical, with the sun coming out, the sea flat calm, no traffic to speak of on the gently undulating road, and no headwind. Sitting up in the saddle I relaxed and rode the last 3 miles admiring the view, but forgetting to take any photos, accompanied by the odd cuckoo and a few ducks out on the water, and only interrupted from my reverie when I rumbled over the odd cattle grid; they always worry me as they rattle my wheels around.

The campsite at Big Sand is set right against the seashore, amongst the dunes covered in Marram Grass. It was really peaceful, it not being the school holidays, and I had plenty of space to find a spot for my tent. Having arrived at 19.30, covering 59 miles in the end, reception was closed so I’d settle up in the morning again. 

With my tent set up I proceeded to feast on baguettes, Crowdie cheese left over from yesterday, ham, pork pie, Branston pickle, tomatoes, a banana, two cookies, a twix and some peanuts…I didn’t think it excessive. Just about sated I went for a walk on the beach and sat with a beer on a dune for a while, just letting the calm atmosphere wash over me. It was a great spot just to relax, gazing out across the slightly misty loch towards mountains in the distance. I hoped to see some dolphins or a whale, but there were only seabirds out on the water as far as I could see. I walked down to the waters edge thinking how much Lucy would have liked it here, so I built a small cairn near the dunes to mark the spot for her.

Big Sand and Loch Gairloch

Big Sand and Loch Gairloch

 

Dunes covered in Marram Grass

Dunes covered in Marram Grass

 

View back to campsite and my tent

View back to campsite and my tent

 

Beautiful view across loch towards mountains of Skye

Beautiful view across loch towards mountains of Skye

 

Low tide at Loch Gairloch

Low tide at Loch Gairloch

 

Waves gently lapping on the shore

Waves gently lapping on the shore

 

Pebbles at Big Sand

Pebbles at Big Sand

 

Cairn to mark the spot for Lu

Cairn to mark the spot for Lu

 

With seaweed attachment for artistic purposes

With seaweed attachment for artistic purposes

Wandering back to my tent I met a German couple touring by motorbike – one of the many sets of German bikers I’ve passed up here. We had a good chat about our rides so far; they’re off up north to Cape Wrath, with me heading south. Karl had been there before and agreed it was much more impressive than John o’Groats. They also informed me they had a friend who was a local whale watcher, who says that the whales and dolphins weren’t coming in yet as there’s little in the way of plankton due to the late spring and it being cold for longer. This means for example the fish the dolphins feed on (mackerel) haven’t come in, as they in turn haven’t got as much to feed on, all part of the food chain. We also had a chat about the relative state of the economies in both countries, Karl reckoning that things weren’t as good as people think in Germany, with a lot of people on very low income jobs (400 Euro jobs); he was certainly concerned about what would happen if he lost his job, being nearly 50 which does make a difference to your employability, despite it not being supposed to.

Turning in for the night I chilled out listening to some music for a while (Abney Park). The cuckoo I’d heard earlier still going strong at 23.30 when I fell asleep. It was so peaceful I could have stayed for a while, but I needed to make my way down to Applecross, before crossing over Bealach-Na-Ba (pass of the cattle) and on to Skye.

Sun going down at campsite

Sun going down at campsite


Sunset at Big Sands

Sunset at Big Sands – the colours were actually much more dramatic than this picture shows


Sunset at Big Sand 2

Sunset at Big Sand 2

Thanks to Nigel and Rich for the texts today, helped get me up some big hills!

2 thoughts on “Leg 34 – to Gairloch and the Big Sands Campsite

  1. Rachel Thomas

    Thanks for sharing. Envious of your travels. Stayed in a cottage opposite Gruniard island for a holiday when I was about 10, so the island was still contaminated. I was very concerned about the sheep on the island and if it was safe for them!

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Self Propelled | Bike Around Britain

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