Two Professional Mountain Bikers Take on Scotland’s Great Wilderness (and Its Midges) by Bike & Packraft
As Naomi Freireich and I stepped out of the van, rain pouring, a mass of midges descended upon us. We’d picked the only week of wet weather, having had a stream of sunny days tempting us before our maiden bikerafting mission. Ahead of us was Scotland’s Great Wilderness, an area of utter beauty and one that was both remote and seldom-explored, certainly by bike and packraft. I’d been intrigued as well as intimidated by the route I’d pieced together. Always ambitious when it comes to planning, I wondered, as we crested the singletrack road at Badralloch, whether I’d perhaps been a little gallus in my ambitions.
From our elevation, we could see the sea. White horses stampeded across Little Loch Broom, which was our inaugural sea loch crossing. I gulped a little and focused on the skirting, slightly sketchy and narrow trail towards Scoriag. Having been here a few months before, I’d been fascinated by this off-grid community; the only route in or out was via the rough path we were riding, or by boat across to the mainland. Huge smiles distracted us from the impending journey across a tempered sea, and we arrived a short time later at the small community hall.
A wall of smiling faces peered out at these strange, soaked creatures. Local families were in the throws of a birthday party, and for a moment, I hesitated, not wanting to interrupt. But I was assured on my last trip that visitors were welcome. This was a remote, Scottish settlement, not the centre of London after all.
We knocked on the door, rain dripping endlessly from every part, and stepped inside to shelter. Kindness was instant, and hot cups of tea and questions about our route soon followed. We were visibly nervous, but they assured us that we’d be safe as we packed up to go to the ferry point. All eyes would be watching, ensuring we made it across to the other side.
Arriving at the jetty, a familiar voice greeted us, anticipating our arrival. Jonah had been my trusted advisor ahead of our trip, in my efforts to ensure I knew as much about tides and times as possible. As the rain abated, and the sea settled, we set out inflating our new-found adventure friends – our Alpacka Rafts. My inflation skills left much to be desired, and after what seemed like an age of juggling gear, we were off. With a gentle push from Johan, off we went, paddles awkwardly in the water as we negotiated the bikes on the front.
Instantly, we were on a high. As if begin pulled on a line, Naomi and I paddled almost perfect towards the shore, and all fears were left on shore. I tried not to think about the deep, dark ocean; or my questioning over the careful packing of my bike. Landing on the opposite side, we let out huge cheers of success.
I’d chewed over this section of our journey for days. For weeks. There was something about the gravity of the sea that had consumed my worry. Now we were over and importantly, alive.
Chased by the sun, the rain slipped back towards the hills as we rode onto Grunard Bay, our camp spot for the evening. I couldn’t have dreamed of a more glorious finish to our first day. Sitting around the camp fire, we retold the memorable moments of the day, sharing cups of tea and sitting still, just watching the sun fade into the sea.
Waking the next day, the wind was with us from an early hour. I’d been so transfixed on the first crossing, our second was somewhat sidelined. As we rode east towards Loch Na Sealga, I started to consider the consequences of an increasingly rapid wind. Slowly we made our way toward the loch head. After a day, we’d adjusted to the heavy loads on both our backs and bikes, and enjoyed the steady rhythm. Arriving a few hours later, the full force fought against us, as we considered our fate. Either side of the water, the landscape was lunar; inhospitable rocks, baby-heads, and steep, unforgiving slopes meant a detour wasn’t an option. Rafts ready to go, we looked on pensively, knowing this was our best shot.
Hour after hour past, and only meter after meter was agonisingly gained as our muscle power was no match for the wind. We did all we could and dug deep, pulling and pushing hard with our paddle strokes, watching for side waves and all the while hoping my bike wouldn’t suddenly slip away.
Fighting it was futile and as my efforts began to fail, I stopping for just a second. The wind grabbed hold of me and threw my raft backwards. Loosing meters, I relented and shuffled to the shore, stopping to refocus and recharge my energy. Determined, I got back in the raft for a second round. But the wind won out, and back I went. Packing up my kit on the side, I’d lost Naomi to the same fate further ahead. We met in the middle, and retreated on land, stopping for a moment to admire this truly rugged and immense landscape. We felt small, insignificant, but at peace in this beautiful setting. We felt lucky to call this country home.
Trudging tirelessly towards the end of the shore, a foreboding cliff face stopped us our tracks. There was no way we had the mental or physical strength to overcome it. Pondering what to do, the wind seemed to regress all of a sudden and was replaced by sun lighting up a small patch of beach in front of us.
Not wishing to be defeated, we set up our rafts for the third time, now knowing the routine. With only a short distance to paddle, this time it was all smiles as we quietly dipped our paddles into the water, savouring the last moments of our time in the rafts. Across to the other side, only a short walk stood between us and our home for the night. As we approached, smoke from the chimney signalled company, and we toasted our tired, wet feet by the fire, chatting to our bothy buddies about their day of adventure in the hills.
Rising the next day, the sun was battering down. Our faces were crisp from days of salty, sea air, and sweating. Gathering our gear, we rode towards our last section of this two-day exploration. Soon after, I heard a shout and looked back to see Naomi staring at her wheel. Her freehub had decided to call it a day, and so a slow retreat back to the start ensued. But I could think of no better, more beguiling place to take our time, and so we enjoyed the journey homeward.
Our last test was a steep and spicy uphill, 500 meters of ascent over mere kilometres. As Naomi stoically pushed on, I rode steadily upwards, stopping to admire the incredible views of An Teallach and the surrounding munros, which appeared endless from where I stood.
Willing the descent to finally appear, after hours of upward motion, we made it. Huge cheers again ensued, and Naomi and I ripped down the trail, rocks flying, packrafts bouncing and bags bobbing furiously as we let charge. What a way to finish. As we reached the gate at the bottom, I felt elated, accomplished and a little sad that it had to end.
I’d underestimated the effort of carry kit, of battling the winds and of the energy that comes from navigating the unknown. The sense of satisfaction — of real, raw and rugged adventure — beamed from our faces. As we packed up the van, and set off back to the realities of the everyday world, conversation slid towards our next packraft adventure.