How many calories does cycling burn?
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Annie Evans describes her Scottish Adventure.
Sometimes I get envious looking at friends photos from their homelands: vast countries, with huge tracks of wilderness and endless mountains to explore. It seems like real adventure is just around the corner for them and makes our small island shrink even more into a man managed country park. In summer, just trying to find a bit of peace can be hard - let alone a multi day journey. But in July that’s exactly what we managed.
It started as all the best plans do, over lemonade in the quiet corner of a pub. An idea I wrote off as being not gnarly enough. However the seed grew and sprouted, and then Huw decided he fancied it. Our plan: to circumnavigate the outer Hebridean islands of North Uist and Benbecula using fatbikes and packrafts.
Fast forward to the first morning, on the sea in what should be a very sheltered piece of water; full of skerries, seals and turquoise sand. Instead we are ferry gliding across the wind to hop from eddy to eddy as a force 4 wind races over the water, dark sullen waves beginning to break over our decks. Trying to paddle into the wind is impossible, working flat out, sweat running down my shoulder blades as the rain smashes into my face. After ten minutes I’ve gone two metres. Downwind. Time to give up, we let the wind carry us into the flanks of an island where we quickly jump out and get the boats packed up onto the bikes. With the tide low, there’s a chance we can hop between skerries back to the mainland. Small causeways have been built to allow passage of sheep between the tiny blobs of grazing that speckle the bay here. It is with delight that we can navigate these with only wet feet to the mainland. It wasn’t the start to our trip that we had hoped but at least we had a big reality check on what is possible in these boats.
We had fallen asleep under a still, shimmering, deep orange sky, but in true Scottish style we awoke to horizontal rain battering the tent. Packrafts, if you haven’t been lucky enough to come across them yet, are a lightweight inflatable kayak. Whilst their high volume and low draft makes them excellent for navigating shallow waterways, it does mean that they are a plaything to the wind. Stick an extra two feet of bicycle on the front and you have to go with the whim of the wind.
Back on solid land we pedalled a section of tarmac to keep our journey going. Then, once further round we skipped off onto the rainy, pockmarked sands of the west. This would be another test of the kit: this time the fatbikes’ turn. Whilst we have used them extensively on the snow, sand was an unknown and we hoped their performance would live up to expectations. The first few kilometres we sped along, then reaching windblown sand slowed progress slightly - but the wheels kept turning and tyres floated over surfaces that would have mired feet.
The Outer Hebrides, especially the Uists, are home to one of the rarest habitats on earth, the Machair. Found only along the western coast of Scotland and Ireland, it is as fragile as it is beautiful. A combination of crushed shell sands, wind, rainfall and human practices turns these barren looking coastlines into huge wildflower meadows during July. Every area of machair will vary slightly to the next. At its richest around forty different species can be found per square meter and the air around filled with a variety of insects.
Stopping early to enjoy the beautiful buttercup meadow we set up camp and spent the rest of our evening exploring the dunes and beaches between the huge rain showers still sweeping in from the Atlantic. In between we were rewarded with that very intense golden Hebridean light, as though the sun is trying to make the most of its rare appearances.
The following day whizzed by in a blaze of empty endless sand. The feeling of remoteness was unexpected on an island so small. Our only company the odd fishing boat. Although the Uists are only a fragment of the Scottish coastline, they in turn have their own chain of mini peninsular and islands, separated even at low tide by deep fast tidal drainages.
Although the winds were still strong, the packrafts came into their own, allowing us to stay out on the fringes of the land by crossing these channels rather than heading back inland. We planned to camp on Kirkibost island, which is a small machair island. It was once connected to the main island, until a storm in the 17th century. It has the ruins of a farmstead, but is now uninhabited apart from the cows that graze it seasonally. Camping tucked out of the winds, in the dunes we could look back on the dots of light showing the indoor comforts but neither of us would swap our wildflower bed for theirs. Here the machair was less yellow, big white daisies reared up above, sheltering tiny purple orchids. We were settling into the rhythms of a trip: ride, paddle, eat, sleep. Relishing every moment of freedom, from the still frequent rain showers to our sand entrenched toes. Waking to a dry tent for once, we were up and away early as there are several large tidal crossing to be done. Although the winds had dropped slightly, we still wanted to catch them at their narrowest, and preferably before the tides began running too strong. A short push through the sharp marram dunes and we were onto the first, over to Baleshare island.
We rode along the 7km beach along the island, most notable for not achieving a single contour line on an OS 1:50000 map, with only the gentle hum of our tires and the endless crash of the Atlantic surf for company. The endless horizon to our right and sands in front made this small island a giant universe with us as its only inhabitants. All too soon we reach the next tidal crossing, the packrafts allowing us to jump straight over to Benbecula island without having to make a big detour over the chain of causeways that link the land. A few more sandy kilometres and we descended into the local supermarket in Balivanich for pastries and cookies. Checking the forecast here, signal being a rare commodity on the islands, we realized that we had a two-day window of lower winds to do as much of the east coast paddling before the next big frontal system hit.
Looking at a map of Benbecula and North Uist, it is a packrafters paradise, lots of very sheltered broken sea, and where the Minch becomes too scary, a landscape filled with a complex system of lochs that we would use to link us all the way back to Loch Maddy. Following an old track we cut across the middle of Benbecula, sad to leave behind the machair meadows and white sands for the blanket bogs and seaweed of the east.
In the end the magic low winds never arrived but we enjoyed a day nipping in and out of eddies, sheltered between the islands of Grimsay and Ronay, always followed by the ubiquitous ‘rons’ (the gaelic word for seal). Drifting over the clear water, looking down into the damp world below, filled with beautiful kelps, sparkling fish and clear sands is wonderful. It might not have been adrenaline fuelled fun but worth so much more. Deciding against our more ambitious plan to carry on round the coast, we opted to hop onto the fresh water system where strong winds would be less serious. The great thing about a boat the weights just a couple of kilos is its very easy to carry. Portages that would be a pain with another craft become fluid parts of the journey. Two short portages later and we made camp under the mighty Eaval, north Uists highest peak at an airy 341m.
One of my favourite things about an OS map, is the names found on them can go back centuries and lead clues to the past, like the Norse name Eaval, possibly dating back as far as 800ad when the Vikings attacked, or translating the Gaelic words, gaelic still being the first language of the islands, can give clues about the landscape. One such word we became acquainted with a little too late.
Delighted to be camped by fresh water for the first time in days, we swiftly set about rinsing the salt crystals from our kit. Then, a tiny jellyfish drifted by in the shallow water. After a short debate about the existence of a freshwater jelly, Huw sampled the water, and quickly spat it out. Here, surrounded by land, in the middle of north Uist, is a saltwater loch. Careful checking of the map later and we discovered a tiny channel marked where the sea flows in. But the name, Loch Obasaraigh, is a giveaway. Ob, in Gaelic meaning a tidal inlet. Not a mistake we will make again.
Camped in this landscape, we can see no people, yet we are surrounded by the remains of them, and signs that the land, even in this remote corner, is still heavily used by them. Down in the loch stand the remains of two duns, a Neolithic fort built on an artificial island often connected by a rocky causeway. High above on the hill, the land has the signs of old drainage channels and peat cutting, looking closer the ruined foundations of a series of old cottages remain. Often the only giveaway being a mound of rock and a change in vegetation, nettles, honeysuckle and brambles have long outlived their human counterparts.
Our last evening of freedom, as tomorrow we would arrive back in bustling lochmaddy. Climbing Eaval for sunset the views opened up the island, revealing all the waterways. In the low light the land glittered like a giant chanderlier. As darkness lowered we made our way back down the steep hill, watched by the rugged sheep and deer.
Our final day started with some short fresh water paddling where, too lazy to dismantle the boats we dumped them wheels still in place, on our bows and paddles awkwardly. A short portage took us to our final sea passage, crossing loch Euphort. Timing it with the tides we drifted inland, peace interrupted by sparing seals before crossing back past a whelk gatherer and onto the next chain of inland lochs that would transport us back to town. Finally with a tail wind, we finished our final portage, put on next to some beautiful lily pads decorated by metallic damsels, got sails up and were away. Finally bumping into the road, we packed up the boats for the final time and peddled the old road back to Loch Maddy. Passing stacks of drying peat we were left to consider what an amazing journey we had been on, in a very small part of a very small country, but feeling as though we had been to the other end of the world.
Annie Evans loves to write about the countryside . She loves to inspire others through her work as an outdoor educator, teaching folk to understand and respect the amazing wild spaces we have.
Annie loves to GetOutside in all different ways, from mountaineering to climbing and packrafting to remote travel by mountain bike, with mountain biking being her speciality.
She also loves sharing her interest in the environment, getting excited about lichens or rocks and the many birds and animals we have, and wants to educate people on the importance of looking after and using our landscape responsibly.
You can find out about Annie's adventures here.