25 January 2013

Western Scotland and Isles Day 7: Ashaig (Skye) - Locharron (via Bealach Na Bas Pass)

Another night with plenty of rain, if a bit warm. Of course, because there was no wind, the midges were out. I managed to get ready by 10:30 am.

Good to be reminded in your own language. Right before the Skye bridge

The A87 towards the Skye bridge was not too bad at that time of the morning, despite my fears of heavy traffic. In less than 6 miles after setting off from the campsite, I was crossing over the bridge, which afforded nice views of the Skye/mainland coastlines.

There is a cycle path on the pavement as you cross the Skye bridge

See you soon Skye
I quickly stopped at Kyle of Lochalsh, which is the furthest you can get to on the train, to re-stock. The Co-Op there was nicely stocked, and I was happy to be given a wider choice than normal. From there on, I took some quiet lanes north of Kyle.

Road to Plockton
My plan was to go around the Loch Carron along quiet lanes, which proved such a good idea. There was almost no traffic, and the views were amazing, with some quick descents from 150 m down to Loch level, and back up again. It was fun.

Plockton was probably one of the prettiest villages I have come across in my cycling career (and probably as a tourist also!). The location was idyllic, probably helped by the fact that it was sunny and comfortably warm! It certainly was a place to come back to and relax, or even better, do some sea kayaking.

Plockton Lochfront

Surely amongst the tinniest Post Offices in the UK?
From Plockton, I simply followed the coastal road all the way. The railway runs parallel to it also, so I reckon it is a very scenic trip on the train as well, if you cannot travel by bike. Apparently there was a ferry linking Stromferry station to the Northern side of the Loch, but the service has been discontinued, so you have to go around the Loch if you want to get to Lochcarron. Not a problem though - it was probably one of the most scenic bits of my trip. I also hit 72 km/h (>45 mph!) on one of the descents - the tarmac was so smooth that it would have been rude not to let the bike freewheel!

Loch Carron
As it was still early by the time I hit Lochcarron, the town, I decided to have some lunch and take in the views of the lake, while enjoying the sunshine. I quickly decided my next move.

Loch Carron, while having lunch
Phil, the guy I met back in Arran, had mentioned about Bealach na Ba pass (pass of the cattle in Gaelic). It happens to be the highest road in the whole of the UK, and the longest (though certainly not steepest!) climb one can attempt on a bike in the country. It raises to above 600 m from sea level, which certainly isn't an Alpine or Pyrinean climb, but not too bad either.

Locharron is the latest proper town until the mountains of the Applecross peninsula. A plan was made. I would set up camp, leave the panniers and cycle up the pass before I got dark. It is a bit of cheating I have to admit, but still, with a 16 kg of bike under my legs, it would be a bit of challenge. 

The campsite (£4 per person per night) was a nice field run by an elderly family, with basic but good facilities. They were obviously not expecting any guests as when I set up camp there was nobody at reception. I was the only camper there also. When the owners finally returned, I quickly had a chat with them about how long and how steep the pass was...Unfortunately I could not gain any additional information from them, as I could not understand a word of what they were saying, despite their efforts to speak clearly. Perhaps they too were from Glasgow?

Applecross peninsula mountains
At 4 pm I made a start on the 25 km ride up to the pass. I got some of my winter kit and long finger gloves as I predicted bad weather at some point. The bike felt a bit weird and unstable without the panniers and with the bar bag on, so my time standing on the pedals would be limited.

Leaving Lochcarron I was soon confronted with a very steep road, which then flattened out. About 10 km later, I turned on to the Applecross road for the 8 or so km up the pass at 600 m (2053 feet).

The scenery was great and so far the weather had been very gentle. But it was about to get nasty. The road climbed very gradually for the first 5 km, but it then got fairly steep for the last 3 km, with the infamous switchbacks that feature on all the cycling magazines. I only stopped once to let a car pass and to get some calories in. It was very quiet and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole climb.

Must get nasty in the winter!
Still very gradual
Once I got to the top it soon started to rain and it was also very foggy. It did not feel like an inviting place to be, and no cars were seen for quite some time. It was unfortunate though, as apparently the views from the top are amazing! The descent into Applecross must also be good, but that will have to wait for another future trip. I have actually heard that Applecross itself and the road North of it are very scenic, and in a way, remote.

Nearly at the top

At 624 m elevation. Carry on West and you get to Applecross. Perhaps next time?
The descent was obviously pretty quick, if a bit cold. I put all my winter gear and lights on, and was back down at Loch level in no time. On the way back I got completely soaked but stopped at a random fish bar along the road. Although their fish soup was not great, the women in charge were very friendly and seemed surprised that I did not own a car and that I had pedalled from Kilmarnock, where one of them was from.

Back at Locharron campsite it was now dark, so had a shower, ate dinner and planned the following day. Inverness was only 100 km to the East, so in 5 hours I could pretty much get there the following day if I wanted to. My train back to London was not due until two days later, so will end up having an extra day in Inverness, where I could enjoy a day ride without panniers around the Loch Ness.

Loading up for breakfast
The stats were as below:

- Odometer: 92 km
- Max speed: 72.7 km/h
- Moving average: 16.3 km/h
- Pedalling time: 5h 40min

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