Day 2: Balranald to Tarbert - 45 miles (plus a ferry)
Another glorious day, with bright sunshine!
Day 2 would also incorporate a ferry, 20 miles in, so I had to plan my times carefully again. I planned for the 13:30 ferry, this way I could have a relaxing morning swim and walk with my parents, and leave at about 11:30, after all, I’m on holiday! On checking my ticket, I saw the time I had booked was completely different to those on my timetable, hmmm??
It must have been the big tide, as I remember looking up at the moon last night and thinking how big it was. My nautical background coming in here.
Now here’s a tip for you, BIG moon = BIG tide!
The ferry is occasionally restricted by the water depths and due to it being such a big tide, my ferry was restricted to either 08:50 or 15:20. With a mixed weather forecast for the morning, and high winds until lunchtime, I picked the latter, which meant I could set off with plenty of time, but also, I would not have to get up at the crack of dawn to get going. Like I said, I'm on holiday!
Leg 1, I set off at midday, after my morning swim in the sea, a walk with my parents and a light lunch. The strong Northerly wind seemed to have dropped off little too, or so I thought... I was wrong, what a battle Day 2 was.
After an average of 17mph on day one I was well and truly shot down with the wind on day 2. I kept looking down to see my speed, 8 mph, YES EIGHT miles per hour! And I was pedalling HARD…. pedalling hard and seemingly moving at a snail’s pace! The North-East wind was Brutal, I kept working out in my head that with 20 miles I'd only just make my ferry at this rate, I pushed harder, yikes I’ve got an average of 10 now! 10 miles an hour, 20 miles, that’s two hours!
I daren’t look at the map as I didn’t want to upset myself on my lack of progress. I did remember seeing a forest on the map which stuck out like a sore thumb as there aren't many of these on the islands (the weather is too harsh) and as I reached the forest and looked at the time, panic set in again, I really wasn’t making much progress.
When ferry signs started popping up I thought I was nearing the terminal; I wasn’t, but these sort of put my mind at ease! I pushed as hard as I could and didn’t stop for any photos, I took in the scenery as I huffed and puffed into the wild wind and yes, I made it, I made it with 45 minutes to spare! Phew! Now time for a catch up with the rents again, a refuel and a brew before the ferry arrived.
Leg 2. On reaching Leverburgh, I got straight off into the saddle. With it already being 16:30 I knew I had a hilly 25 miles ahead. Another superbly beautiful 25 miles too, 15 miles right on the edge of the island, with white sandy beaches to my left all the way, followed by 12 miles of hills through raw rugged boulder fields which felt like I was riding on the moon. Again, I was battling a headwind all the way and my gear cable (unbeknownst to me until I stopped and checked at Tarbert) had become trapped under my bar mounted tent making gear changing near impossible. 20 miles in I called the support van and told them I would meet them at the Gin distillery. It had been a difficult day, it was touching 18:30 and I would cover those extra 3 miles on my next day of riding.
I knew the perfect spot to camp for the night and this was 45 minutes drive down a road to nowhere and again. I needed to get my swim in!
Day 3: Day off
On my day off we went hiking.
I wanted to show my parents the stunning views that we had experienced back in April, a short hike up and over a hill to a secluded white beach and we were lucky enough to be able to see the isle of St Kilda in the distance.
Day 4:Tarbert to Callanish Standing Stones on Hilly Harris - 39.5 miles
Smaller miles today to allow the parents to walk to Eilean Glas lighthouse before catching me up. Today’s miles were the ones I had most been looking forward to, for the hills! Descending with all the kit on my bike was so much fun, and the climbing wasn’t so bad either. The weather, again was spot on with a light tail wind.
The views were just as spectacular as the days before. Last time I was on Harris I tackled a few of the surrounding hills on my mountain bike, it was a great feeling to be back again, this time on a road bike, which was just as much fun and both so rewarding.
I stopped off at an eagle reserve for my lunch as I was in no particular rush today and my corned beef sandwiches were calling - no eagles spotted here but a nice peaceful stop.
I stopped again just a few miles up the road when I saw a couple with cameras and binoculars out… what are they looking at?
Aha! There are my eagles...!
Back on the road again I passed a couple on bikes also doing the Hebridean way, both were in there 70’s and had been on the road for a week already, they had planned 20 miles per day, so just another 3 days ahead of them! I stopped to chat and ride with them for a few miles and then off at my pace again. I arrived at the Callanish stones a lot earlier than expected so I sat outside at the visitor centre café and after copious amounts of tea and scones in the sunshine, I met up again with my parents and off we went to another beautiful beach! Yes, you guessed it, more swimming! Well... more of a dip as the weather came in and the wind was bitter.
Day 5: Callanish stones to the lighthouse, the most northern tip - 36 miles
I woke to very strong winds and sideways rain, just as it was forecast. Wow, when the weather comes in there it is unforgiving!
My support team drove me to the stones to start the route again - blimey, we nearly got blown over in the my parent's motorhome! They thought I should abandon the mission I was on, but when I set out to do something, there is no stopping me (and they know this)!
I donned my full winter kit, thermals/fleece leggings/overshoes and 2 coats, with another 2 ready to grab if I needed to mid-way. What an exhilarating ride this was! Maybe a little silly, but like I said… I'd set out to do something so I had to do it!
I had a cross wind all the way except a 2-mile segment where I had it behind me and I felt like I was flying along! The rest of the way I was literally flying my bike to a side wind, I ditched the tent off my bars into the motorhome for this stretch, in order to make my bike a little safer to handle. Still…. I got blown off the road twice by strong gusts on the open moorland. The last day showed just how exposed to the elements the islands are, how brutal the weather can be and how little shelter there is on these islands (also how lucky I had been to get the weather I had been blessed with for the previous 4 days!).
Knowing the forecast, I should have carried on from the stones to the Butt of Lewis the previous day- I had plenty of energy left – but I just wanted my support crew to see the wonderful beaches near Uig.
As I arrived at the Butt of Lewis lighthouse, perched 80ft up on the cliffs with the sea crashing beneath it, right on the outer edge of Europe, I was now in 3 coats and quickly found another; the wind was biting.
The Butt of Lewis is in the Guinness book of records for being the windiest place in the UK…
The sense of achievement from battling the wild Atlantic winds and sideways rain for the last leg was awesome, but I felt a little down that my first long distance bike-packing adventure was over already!
What a great time though, and this has just fired me up for finding more island routes to take on, there’s just something so exciting about biking on the Scottish Isles, and I can say without a doubt that I'll be doing it again!
Find more cycling content on the GetOutside website.