03 May 2013

Touring the Outer Hebrides Part II: The Isle of Barra

View of Castlebay as the ferry approaches
We arrived on Barra just before sunset and made our way the 5km or so to Vatersay, on the recommendation of both of the other cyclists on the ferry. It's a tiny island connected to Barra by a causeway, with beautiful beaches and very quiet. We managed to find the spot where apparently everyone wild camps, a stretch of machair and beach on both sides of the road. We later learned that there are public toilet facilities at one end of this area which we did not know to take advantage of - but we didn't miss them. We cooked a quick dinner of filled pasta with bacon and tomato sauce, and fell asleep to the sound of the waves gently breaking on the sand. We didn't know it yet, but we'd be camping next to the beach almost every night of the trip.

Our Vatersay campsite in the morning
We awoke to glorious sunny skies, if a bit cold. We were in no hurry as we planned to spend a second night on Barra (and it really is not that big!) so we went for a bit of a walk after breakfast, checking out some of our surroundings. It was very quiet, with just two other people camping in the area. I can imagine in the summer the space gets much more full of tents.

Beach on the other side of our camp spot
We explored the rest of Vatersay (there's not very much of it!) and then headed back onto Barra where we made a beeline for Castlebay. By this time it was nearly midday so we were thinking about food again! We explored the town (which took all of about 10 minutes) and stopped in at the tourist information office where they didn't seem to be so informed about the flights arriving and leaving from Barra airport - which was on our list of things to see. Luckily we had phone signal so were able to check on the internet and time our trip around the island accordingly.

Vatersay -- Cariribean or Outer Hebrides?
We ate lunch in Kismul Cafe right on the harbor, which features heavily in the BBC reality series An Island Parish that first alerted us to the existence of Barra. I felt a bit starstruck walking inside, as everything looked exactly as it did on TV! About halfway through our meal the owner of the cafe walked in who I had seen many times on the programme  - about as close to a celebrity as someone in the Outer Hebrides can get I imagine!

Exploring Barra
After lunch we set off counter-clockwise around Barra, which had some good hills but even better views. We made it to the airport with about an hour to spare so explored the peninsula to the north of it before heading back, eating a quick snack in the shelter from the wind, and waiting to watch the flight come in. Barra airport is the only one in the world that uses a beach as a runway for its regurlarly scheduled flights. The beach at low tide is expansive, but the flight times have to change a few minutes each day to stay in line with the tides. Alberto really wanted to stay and see the flight land and take off again, so we did. We had a quick tea in the airport's cafe (also the departure area -- the place was tiny) and then continued on our way around Barra.

Flight landing at Barra Airport
We decided that we could do with a shower after two nights of wild camping so we headed to the campsite near Borve on the west side of the island. It is a small campsite, with not a lot of room for actual tents, but we were the only tent staying there (along with a few campervans) so it worked for us. The facilities as still being worked on but there were really nice hot showers, a kitchen area with kettle and microwave, and a washing machine that was in the process of being installed. Much nicer than many of the campsites we've been to England, and all for £12 for the two of us.

We enjoyed our showers so much that it was again dark as we set to cooking dinner--egg noodles and veggie "stir fry" with a sweet chili sauce, plus some microwaveable rice packets as a second course. It was great to make use of the kitchen facilities for some of this and I can imagine if it was wet outside the kitchen would be a godsend.

Borve campsite
We woke up at what we believed to be 7am, plenty of time to get the 11am ferry to Eriskay... until we realised a few moments later that we had forgotten about the start of British Summer Time and it was actually 8! We packed relatively quickly and were fortunately able to get hot water from the kettle which made breakfast a lot quicker as well. It still took a good two hours, and we were on the road by 10:05 to cycle the 45 minutes to the ferry terminal (near the airport). We made it pretty much right on time!

(to be continued!)

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