After cycling from the lovely little bothy in the Scottish highlands we continued over some very rough tracks and eventually had to push our bikes through some seriously boggy ground to get to where the road continued on the other side.
It was slow but in my opinion it was well worth the dragging pace to not deal with the stress of cars and busier roads even if we could cover twice the distance.
It was amazing how quiet it was and how infrequently we saw other people. There were old abandoned buildings all over the place and we were always curious as to who had lived there and why the countryside seemed so empty now. This was famously one of the least populated parts of all of Europe per square km and we could tell. After having talked to several locals we found out why. There had been many people farming the land and living out there but then the land owners decided it was more profitable to dedicate the land to sheep and they forced many of the people out of their homes and off the land. We were told of an old church along the dirt track where many of these people were given shelter and a small plot of land to try and work before they were officially forced out. We arrived at the church which was a very moody place with thick clouds above and a strong wind it was easy to feel the melancholy that pervaded the history of the place. There was no one else there and we wandered around it and even saw where some of these people had historically scratched their names into the glass before they left for good as a way to be remembered. As we were exploring two women pulled up in cars and walked down to the church in the wind. One of them was a descendant of those people that had been forcefully moved and she told us many of the people got on ships and settled in Eastern Canada. It was a fantastic moment to see some of this history and then meet someone who was a result of that and in a way a more positive ending of sorts several generations later.
We continued on and luckily the weather held for us despite the looming clouds. The slow descent eventually led to better road conditions and we passed a beautiful loch before entering the town of Ullapool.
Here we were at a crossroads of sorts. We could continue down the coastline along potentially busier roads while seeing the Scottish coastline or we could take a ferry out to Harris and cycle south along the Outer Hybrides Islands and ferry back to a more southern point from the southern end of the islands. After discussing it we decided the weather was going to be bad either way and that it might as well be bad for us while on quieter roads on the islands.
While we were getting groceries a British man who was on holiday in a camper van was excited to talk to us about our trip. After some talk about traveling in Scotland he quickly ran over to his van and came back gifting us a package of baby wipes each. I was just filling up my food bag and with a newly heavy bike I graciously took it but was already secretly trying to think of a way to get rid of the gift as I felt it was extra weight. I quickly learned my mistake and have found baby wipes to be amazing for bike touring in so many ways. Who needs a shower when you have baby wipes? Who needs toilet paper when you have baby wipes? Who needs chain degreaser and cleaning cloth when you have baby wipes? Who needs soap when you have baby wipes? The continued use of them over the next week made me rue the moment I couldn’t think of a single reason to want this gracious gift!
We scrambled about to find a location to camp and eventually snuck into a gravel pit to spend the night. It was a miserable place in the rain but it was free. This was also where we discovered my dads bug net was not fine enough to keep out the midges that incessantly attacked us. They could crawl right through the holes in the netting. We quickly ate while pacing in circles to avoid them but also avoid being seen from the road and then dived into the tent to get up early and get the hell out of there.
The next morning we headed to the ferry and made breakfast at the dock which was greatly preferable to the muddy gravel/midge pit. The ferry ride was three hours and upon arrival in Stornoway we immediately went to get some fish and chips to celebrate my fathers birthday!
After this we began cycling south and almost immediately my chain broke…. I luckily was able to take out the broken link and put in a quick release master link and have it sorted within 30 minutes. Very happy it didn’t snap in worse weather.
We then continued on into what would be a rough ride in 25 mph headwinds and intermittent rain.
Headwinds aren’t that bad. At least that is what you tell yourself for the first 30 minutes of pushing against one. After a few days of it though every time you get buffeted by the wind from the front you cringe and daydream about no wind at all, maybe even a tailwind! This was a great lesson to learn on the Outer Hebrides Islands heading against the prevailing winds. After covering only two thirds of the distance we wanted to we decided to find a place to wild camp and continue on the next day, the winds had won.
The following day we struggled up and over some steep short passes fighting headwinds up to 30 mph both up and down passing many windmills spinning madly. The prevailing winds all come from the southwest and they are called that because they are ETERNALLY prevailing from that direction…. We then pedaled downhill against the wind and huddled in a bus station with free wifi to try and work out our plans for how to exit the UK and go to mainland Europe. With a storm raging outside we eventually bought some tickets for a ferry leaving from Newcastle and entering Amsterdam! With this figured out we went back into the elements to try and find a place to camp.
The weather suddenly began to get better and it was a very surreal part of the island with lakes and rocks everywhere and the ocean framing it all. It was a beautiful and slightly eerie.
When we found a campground my dad said he wasn’t feeling to hot and we new the weather was going to get worse over the next few days, so we decided to stay in the same spot and hunker down for a few days so he could recover from whatever was ailing him and the weather could hopefully improve.
They were pleasant rest days spent reading and watching the storms come and go. No data or wifi was to be had so lots of time for contemplation. We were camped right above a beautiful beach and looking out over a bay with other beaches framing it from the side. In the distance we could watch windsurfers enjoying the strong winds and kayakers as they explored the more protected waters. We biked one day to get groceries 15 km away and the fight to get there against the headwind and the rain with out laden bikes reminded us of why we had decided to wait it out.
Eventually the weather improved and the cold ailing dad went away and we continued on. We went a short distance and jumped on another ferry to go from Isle of Harris to North Uist so we could continue biking south. On the ferry we quickly made friends with an awesome Irish woman, Rhona. She had a great dog and a funky van which was so close to home for the things we enjoy back home with my fathers man van. We swapped van stories and eventually we decided to camp in a similar area and chat while cooking dinner. It was a nice evening finished off by a good walk on the beach appreciating the cleanliness and the diversity of the jelly fish washed up on shore.
The following morning was a lovely day and we even had a slight tailwind. We ran into Rhona at a grocery store and did some improv van maintenance together then my father and I continued south. It was a great day of riding traveling from Island to Island on little causeways, nearly no wind and the sun was in the sky. Eventually we found another beach to camp at after getting a tip from a duo bike touring from Edinburgh, but of course they were heading north on the Hebrides and had the winds with them.
The campsite was beautiful with grass right up to dunes and a lovely beach overlooking the island and the ocean. We decided to get up early to try the next day for the ferry to the Island of Barra to the south.
The next day we woke up to a return of the wind and the rain. We packed up our wet things and got on the move fighting the winds and heading south once more. I pushed on ahead trying to get to the first ferry for our schedule at 1:00. I quickly realized we wouldn’t make it at 6 km out and stopped at a nice cafe to wait the next three hours from the rain.
Heading to the ferry for attempt number two we happened upon Rhona one last time! We chatted for a moment and then our ferry came and it was time to go. Once on Barra we immediately were hit by extreme winds and rain. We went straight to the ferry terminal their and decided to hunker down. After several hours we just asked the ferry staff for permission to wait out the storm in the terminal for the night which they allowed with complete understanding. There was free wifi, bathrooms and a hot beverage vending machine which really made it a pleasant night despite the storm raging outside.
The next morning there was a beautiful sunrise and very little rain, it was a much more pleasant way to start the day. We biked around Barra and stopped in Castle bay to buy our tickets for a ferry the following day. We stopped by an airport that was famously the only commercial airport on the world that took off and landed on the beach. We waited to see if we could catch a plane landing but the timing was off. It still gave me plenty of time to scrub some rust off of my chain which had developed from some salt water spattered on it from the stormy ferry crossing.
We found a great spot to camp for free by a community center with showers and a bathroom. It was on a spit with a beach on either side. The beaches here have been amazing, all though the weather makes it rough some times the beaches are white and sandy, clean and beautiful! It is no wonder some call it the Caribbean of the British Isles.
We woke to an early day and an early ferry ride from Castlebay to the coastal town of Obon. We now have a week and a half to cycle south, explore the Isle of Arran and then head to Newcastle for our ferry to Amsterdam. We survived the headwinds and although more rain is in our future the weather should improve day by day as we head south and east!