Words by Hannah Myers
Photos by Darren Ellis
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware." - Martin Buber
When your token bearded, survivalist friend, Darren, says that there’s a bothy perfect for solitude on the North side of a remote island that he wants to check out, why wouldn’t you say, “we’ll come! What kit do we need?"? You buy a couple of frame bags and a tiny roll mat and you don’t think anything else of it. How hard could it be? After all, the island is less than 25km from top to tail.
We had a whole week to spend in the Highlands between Fort William World Cup and Tweedlove festival and we wanted to do something new: bike packing. We had a rough idea of the plan and blind faith in Darren’s experience adventuring, as well as all of the meticulous planning he had done in preparation. All we had to do was show up in Scounser on the Isle of Skye on the Tuesday evening, ready for a ferry to the Isle of Raasay the following morning.
There were five of us in total - seven if you include the hounds - with varying degrees of wilderness experience between us: the city-dwellers, myself and Ben - venturing out to the Peaks for a day but very happy to get back to the pub and the fire. The country mice, Nikki and Mike - most at home on epic hike-a-bike rides in the Lakes, the camper van waiting at the end, and the survivalist, Darren - as already mentioned, who always has a tarp and a Jetboil handy if you land in a pickle.
After filling our bellies at the pub we parked up to pack our bags. Ben and I hadn’t done a practice run so this was the test! With sudden visions of bags not fitting on bikes and trying to cram everything into my usual hydration pack maybe we should have tried this out beforehand… All worked out, however, and after a good night’s sleep, at 9.25am, five people, five bikes and two dogs set sail for the Isle of Raasay. Our first challenge came in the form of a mechanical before we’d hit dry land. Of course, one of the handlebar bags had creased the brake hose and oil was now leaking all over the place. A quick fix later though, and we were on our way.
Tiny roads lined with purple rhododendrons framed the backdrop over the water to Skye. The sun was even starting to peek through! As the clouds parted and the sun shone all of our many waterproof layers were shed and the roads got smaller and smaller, eventually turning into grassy paths. This path wound around the South coast of the island and up part way along the East coast to a cleared croft called Hallaig. We sat in the clearing to eat lunch, marvelling at the view, the weather, and the lack of midges, before realising - this is where the path stopped.
Fortunately, along with our traditional navigational methods, Nikki had a Garmin handy, which showed a route running along the top of a ridge above where we were sitting, so up we went - fully laden bikes on our shoulders, and reached a barely trodden footpath. This meandered along the ridge, banked by ferns and heather, sometimes rideable but often not, before dropping steeply down to join the coastline.
We knew that at some point we would join up with a fully-formed bridleway, that leads to the villages in the Northern part of the island, but where was it? Surely it’s just around the next corner, or the next one? As the mirage of a gravel path slipped away, the trail was getting far more difficult to traverse on foot, let alone with bikes and huge backpacks. We encountered stream crossings, fallen trees and what felt like every midge in the Highlands.
As Clif Bar after Clif Bar went down, we knew that the only way out of the situation was through - to keep going and keep pushing forward, collectively getting everyone across an obstacle before bracing ourselves for the next, without any idea of what time it was or how long we had been riding. Being so far north, it never got dark! After encountering yet another fallen tree and stream section that had been eroded by the force of the water, there was nowhere left to go but onto and along a 50m stretch of coastal rocks - covered in algae, rejoining the “path" around a corner. Bikes shouldered, and the North Sea crashing around us, one at a time we navigated each boulder, eventually ending up in a heap on a bank above the waves.
On this side of the “beach", the path was more formed. It was only a few more corners on before we saw signs of civilisation - is that a fence? Is that a gate? Is that… the path?! We climbed up the gravel to be greeted by heavenly tarmac and an elation-bursting realisation that we still had a good 7 miles to go. We’d take Calum’s Road, a road that was single-handedly built over a period of 10 years by Calum MacLeod, the postman for the North side of the island, using only a shovel, a pick and a wheelbarrow, before climbing the final three miles on a footpath.
Once back on singletrack, the footpath rose up from Arnish, away from signs of life and gradually away from a maintained trail. Even in a delirious state after 12 hours on (and off) the bike, you could tell this climb would be worth it for the descent in the morning. We climbed and climbed, up to a well-worn bridleway, up to a ridge line, and ultimately reached a wild, lunar landscape. Rather than just riding along a trail that had been artfully constructed on top of a mountain, this was going to the mountain, surrounded on all sides. Despite overwhelming exhaustion and the desire to reach our destination, it was impossible not to be awed by the place we had discovered.
And there it was. Nestled into a sheltered clearing, with a fresh water stream close by, was Taigh Thormoid Dhuibh bothy. After bogs, streams, fallen trees, and an impending Jelly Babies shortage, we had made it. Huddled around the peat fire the hip flask was passed around and flasks of red wine cracked open. The tuna and quinoa pouches I brought along may have been the best meal I’ve ever eaten.
In the morning I wouldn’t say we were raring to go (the dogs didn’t even want to stand up) but after a groggy breakfast and slow pack up we set off. Riding back along the singletrack we had found such a challenge the night before we very quickly found ourselves at the top of the descent that would take us back to Calum’s Road. Up until this point, we hadn’t had a real opportunity to test a fully laden bike on a real, honest, technical descent - so here it was! Off we went, flying over a rock roll into rocky, natural singletrack that dreams are made of. I expected the bag on my handlebars to make the bike unbalanced, but my wheel was pointing forward and that’s where it stayed. We hurtled down back into civilisation, laughing as we all came to a stop.
We took our time cycling the winding, rolling 16km back to Clachan where we would pick up the ferry. This was partly to enjoy the view, the day and the company but partly because we (I) had no energy go any faster than a crawl. This was another day of blue skies with the sun shining. All day we only saw three cars, so the pedal back through the island as it gradually got tamer and tamer was beautiful. We arrived back at the port in perfect time to catch the ferry. It’s possible that each of us drifted off on the 25-minute journey back to Skye and awoke ready to devour monster burgers at Seamus’ Bar at Sligachan.
As we drove back through the breathtaking wilderness of the Highlands I began thinking about the hidden gems we had discovered on our journey. Taigh Thormoid Dhuibh bothy may have been our destination, but the route itself had delivered even more incredible ‘secret’ sights. Every climb, corner, steep pitch or stolen gaze behind us had rewarded us with spectacular vistas of Raasay and the mainland. It felt like no one had seen these views apart from us and that feeling left me hungry for more.
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