12 April 2013

Touring the Outer Hebrides part I: Glasgow - Inveraray - Oban

The big day had arrived. We are still in the process of polishing up our packing skills, but this time we managed to get everything ready before midnight for our 5:30 am train up to Glasgow.

Fully loaded, we happily made our way to a deserted Euston station on a cold Thursday morning. Latest forecast for the West of Scotland showed pretty chilly days, with below freezing nights, but no rain. That part of the world being the wettest of the whole of Europe, was encouraging news indeed!

Bikes ready in Glasgow Central
Virgin trains dropped us in Glasgow by 10:30 am, and shortly afterwards we headed West on our first leg of the journey, a 160 km ride to Oban. Initial feelings were good, the weather was reasonable and I had no choice but to take some layers off. It actually was the first day of spring that we had come to enjoy in 2013, so we pedalled on in very good spirits.

Although Glasgow is quite a large town, the traffic isn't nearly as bad as that of London. The roads seemed deserted to us, and with the advantage of having the Sustrans cycle route 7 to take us out of town on off-road lanes, we had a pretty relaxing urban ride.

Off-road route out of Glasgow
Once past Dumbarton, we started to see some elevations and soon after that the shores of Loch Lomond. Given the previous snowstorms, the scenery was stunning, with snow-caped mountains to brighten up our ride. Despite the A82 being a dreadful and dodgy road for cyclists, we did see a few intrepid roadies cycling on it, while we took the cycle path that runs along it, on the West of the Loch. Although it wasn't pleasant at times, with the noise of the fast going traffic and all that, it was scenic if you looked to the right. We saw some families with the kids and the odd cyclist on a day ride, but other than that it was pretty quiet.

Quiet cycle lane running along the A82 on Loch Lomond
Can't beat that Scottish scenery. Loch Lomond.
A local of a certain age seemed intrigued about what we were doing on a cold Thursday morning carrying four panniers with a heavy load. As it happens when I come to Glasgow, or much of Scotland, I have a hard time understanding the accents. On this occasion though, I had Lucy to help me translate what he was saying: 'Where youse headed, John O'Groats?'

Soon after 1 pm we decided to have a quick bite at Luss, a pretty small town near Loch Lomond, where we had some much needed warm food. The "bistro" at the entrance of the town did the job, without being exceptional.

Lunch stop at Luss
We were making good progress, but we still wanted to get as many km in to have a relaxed following day on our way to catching the ferry from Oban. We put our audax mode on and pressed on to Inveraray.
Alberto aka the loading mule

Leaving the A82 for the A83 gave us a bit of respite in terms of traffic, which was noticeably lighter now. But as soon as we left the shores of Loch Lomond, we were confronted with the "Rest and be thankful" pass. What a weird name for a pass that was... The climb, as it usually happens up in Scotland, was very gradual and comfortable to climb without much efforts, on the middle ring. The scenery was superb though, and reminded me of the Pyrinees in winter.

The A83 could well be in the Pyrinees
In Inveraray we hit the 100 km mark, which wasn't too bad considering we had got up at 4 am that morning and were still riding in daylight. Also, I was carrying around 20 kg of load on top of an already heavy bike, so not the lightest set-up! After a quick incursion into the village public toilets to load up our water bottles, we turned northwards along the A819 and found a place to camp for the night.

As soon as it got dark the temperatures plummeted well below freezing. It was handy to have a fully free-standing tent, as we happened to be pitching on a disused road, completely covered in vegetation, where it was impossible to peg the guy lines. The forecast called for a still and cold night, but just in case, I pegged the tent to the bikes. We ate some cous cous, boiled some water for the following morning, and got comfy in our sleeping bags. By 9 pm I was already asleep. We set the alarm for 5:45 am.

It must have been rather cold overnight as our water bottles got completely frozen. We ate some biscuits and drank some tea which we had made the night before - our thermos had kept it warm overnight despite the cold temperatures. We hit the road by 7:20 am. The A819 was quiet at this time of the day, had good tarmac and allowed us to make good progress until we joined up the A85. It was really cold, but luckily, the sun was out.
A819 in the morning
Cold start

The A85 was a bit busier. We followed it for about 20 km until we reached Taynuilt, where we turned on to NCN route 78, passing through a lovely glen. We took it easy until we reached Oban, as we had plenty of time for our ferry to Barra, and that little road was so nice that it invited to just relax. We only saw one other car for the 20 km or so that remained of the route, until we got to Oban.

Somewhere along the A85

Route 78 to Oban
We made it to the ferry terminal at just after 11am, with more than 2 hours to spare, so ended up having some seafood (salmon sandwich and fresh garlic scallops) and doing some pricey grocery shopping. While waiting to catch our ferry, we chatted with the only two other cyclist who were on the same service as us...which was quite a contrast with the several I saw back in September.

One of the cyclist was a Scot on a mountain bike with a BOB trailer attached to it, and had plans to visit St Kilda. It was his third or fourth time on the Hebrides. Not only had he cycled it all the way to Lewis, but he had walked it also. The other was probably our age and had no firm plans other than stopping at certain hostels on the way up to Harris. Both agreed Barra and Harris were the best in terms of scenery, and gave some useful advice as to where to wild camp on the isles.

Best scallops (vieiras, in Spanish) I've had in a while
The ferry crossing was also rather scenic, going past familiar places such as the Isle of Mull, and Ardnamurchan point, both of which I visited in September. However, because we were the last to board, we had no proper seats for the duration of the (rather long, at 5 hours) crossing and had to resort to the cafeteria chairs.

See you soon, mainland Scotland
After five hours on the ferry, slowly the outline of Castlebay, Barra, became visible in the distance...

(to be continued!)

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