Grinding isles adventure of a very gritty travelling man

by Colin Campbell

OUT on the bike in the sunshine on Sunday, I stopped for a break on the cycle road from Tore back to Inverness.

The Tore roundabout in mid afternoon was the busiest I’d ever seen it. Approaching it from the Muir of Ord side the tide of traffic heading north from Inverness was relentless. It took me nearly 10 minutes to cross the road to the other side. Fuel crisis? What fuel crisis?

Rolling along towards me as I took a slog from a water bottle in the heat was a guy on a bike heading for Inverness. This was not a Lycra clad speed merchant but a travelling man. His bike was loaded with so much gear that he should almost have put a “Warning: wide vehicle” sign on the back.

Catching my eye he pulled over alongside me. “Time for a breather,” he said. “I’ve come from Ullapool today.”

That’s a decent distance, around 55 miles to the point where we met. That’s not a huge challenge for a regular bike user, you just keep pedalling and roll along.

But what astonished me was the weight of the bike. A very solid flat handlebar machine, the rear was so heavily loaded I could barely lift it an inch off the ground.

There’s a long steep 12 per cent gradient climb a few miles out of Ullapool up to Braemore Junction. I’ve done it a few times and it’s quite tough in any circumstances. How this gentleman had been able to power, or force his way to the top of that climb with that amount of weight to be shifted… well it would take legs of steel.

We got chatting, and it was a long chat. Maybe in his late 40s or early 50s, he’d headed off from his home in Aberdeen nearly two weeks earlier taking everything but the kitchen sink with him. Tent, sleeping bag, foam mattress, pots and pans, small stove and other accoutrements, all crammed into the three large panniers attached to the rear of the bike.

Over the next two days, he travelled cross country to Oban. Then he boarded a ferry and started island hopping, or island grinding, covering the length of each to the ferry departure point for the next.

I asked him how many he’d done. “The lot,” he said simply. He’d just ploughed on regardless.

I envisage cycling the isles and camping along the way could be a grim experience in bad weather. Driving it would be a grim experience in bad weather. But apart from one dampish day he’d enjoyed good conditions all the way.

His final port of call on Saturday was Stornoway where he’d got the ferry back to the mainland, to Ullapool, where he’d camped before heading off on Sunday morning.

And he said, crucially, that Ullapool was the only place where he’d been bothered – attacked – by midges, which have turned many a holiday in the west into midge misery. In the islands he’d sat outside his tent and watched the sun go down without one of those ferocious little beasts bothering him.

He hadn’t kept a tally of his mileage, but it must have been well over 500, maybe 700 or 800. Every yard of the way having to power that extraordinarily heavy bike along.

He was of average height, and was clean shaven enough to head straight into work. His panniers were large but not overflowing. A battery charger was strapped to the top of one. This was a man of efficiency who kept everything in its proper place.

I’ve often thought about doing cycle touring, it’s a great idea. But I’m not efficient when it comes to assembling and packing a tent and sleeping bag and so on. In fact I’m totally cack-handed. The travelling man said he had a great little tent with a minimum of poles which he could put up in five or 10 minutes. Then roll out the foam mattress, and the sleeping bag, get out pots and stove and food and start cooking.

Have a good night’s sleep, pack it all up again and then hit the road again the next morning.

I said after nearly 14 days on that two wheeled juggernaut he must be pretty tired. And he conceded he was. He was going to  stay at a guest house in Inverness for a couple of days before heading back to Aberdeen via Aberlour.

He didn’t wax lyrical about his adventure, but just said it had been a good experience and he’d enjoyed it. But he said he was glad to be able to anticipate sleeping in a bed in Inverness.

Many folk are enduring the rigours of “airport chaos”, “lost luggage”, “cancelled flights” and so on.

But the travelling man had had his holiday under control every mile of the way, in a masterpiece of grit, determination, and calm self sufficiency.

After an hour or so he said it was time to cover the last few miles, get over the Kessock Bridge and check in to his room in Inverness.

He rolled away, working his legs again hard on that broad, loaded bike. He’d been on quite a journey and had had quite an experience. I watched him disappear down the road, envious, reflective, and lost in admiration.

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