THE CAIRNGORMS, SCOTLAND
Kim Jones usually gives us directions for a cycle ride closer to home, but at the end of March he and a mate left Swansea and travelled north to Scotland and the Cairngorms. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to travel further afield when you’ve read his account.
A cursory glance at an Ordnance Survey map of the Cairngorms reveals multi-layers of contour lines, but look closer and you’ll see there are no public rights of way. Scotland has an open access policy, which gives you the right to roam and camp anywhere (something which is currently being looked at by the Welsh Assembly). We took advantage of this, and spent three weeks wandering around on our bikes, wild camping and staying in bothies. The area so fittingly labelled by author and naturalist, Seton Gordon and used as the title of Jim Crumley’s thought provoking book ‘A High and Lonely Place’ is vast; we took four OS maps with us and still ended up riding off the map!
It feels very liberating to start a trip from your front door; we cycled to the station, caught the train to Paddington and the sleeper from Euston. As usual we only had a vague idea of a route before disembarking the train in Aviemore; the only definite was the train timetable. It was 7:30 in the morning when we arrived and absolutely freezing so we headed straight to a cafe; two cups of coffee later and we were on our way.
We thought we’d ride to Ryvoan bothy which is a reasonably straightforward 15km from Aviemore, using this short day as a shake down for both us and the bikes. We were lucky to have this bothy to ourselves, and hav-ing been given 10kg of coal by a group who were going to stay but changed their minds, we enjoyed a warm and restful night. Looking out of the window in the morning at the climb up and onto Bynack More, a hill high-er than Snowdon, we made the first of many changes to our already loose plans. It was far too early into the trip for a climb like that as the bikes were loaded with five days’ food; it could wait for another day. Before heading off I went down to the stream to swill the pans and realised I’d forgotten a dish cloth, so I went back to the bothy to grab a discarded sock and without giving it a second thought I packed the sock away with the pans. It’s ludicrous to think that two adults could revert to keeping a video diary narrated by a sock, but we did and the sock was taken on a tour of the Cairngorms! I guess if I was 30 years younger I’d post it on You Tube, but alas no and the sock diaries will forever remain an enigma.
The following few days we camped and the weather gradually improved as we got back into the routine of travelling with the bikes. On the first night we struggled to pitch the tent in a gale force wind blowing down from the north which brought hail that was cruel on exposed skin. But in the morning we awoke to absolute quiet, a perfect stillness and peace as if the world had for the moment stopped spinning. Propped up by an old birch next to a babbling stream we sat in silence drinking tea, not wanting to interrupt nature’s voices.
Riding through this land is an almost ethereal experience, but we must look upon it as a privilege not an entitlement and respect what nature has provided. It’s easy to look upon this area as wild and untamed but the reality is, the Cairngorms, in places, are a highly managed environment and not necessarily for the benefit of the land. Deer and grouse numbers are encouraged through supplementary feeding; whilst the estate land rover tracks, often built without the necessary permissions, provide access to the hills for the benefit of people who take pleasure in taking the life of a wild animal for sport. Deer are fero-cious grazers and their artificially increased numbers have certainly contributed to the eradication of Scotland’s forests, with just 1% of the ancient birch and Caledonian pine remaining; this in turn has created an imbalance of both nature and ecology. One potential victim is the capercaillie whose numbers are a cause for concern. It’s a dichotomy, though, as these land rover tracks provide convenient access for other users of the park, particularly those who choose to wander on mountain bikes.
Towards the end of the first week, having enjoyed a few days of cycling in shorts and tee shirt, the weather closed in. A storm was brewing and though the hour was late, we decided to press on, 20 minutes later it broke. I’ve always felt that to fully appreciate the hills you must experience them in all weathers, but this was just bonkers. The wind came howling down the glen flattening the heather and scattering the wild life, intent on clearing everything in its path. The snow blew into our faces, stinging our eyes and on more than one occasion we had to get off and push rather than risk being blown off our bikes. Over the years I’ve noticed that on trips like this you become risk averse and ride accordingly, aware that a nasty fall in a relatively remote place could cause one or two problems. That night, Faindouran’s waters – the purest in all of Scotland – froze over. We stayed two nights, enjoying the relative warmth and comfort of the bothy, whilst taking the time to reappraise our food supplies; it was time to restock so we headed for Braemar.
We stopped off in Balmoral on the off chance, but Liz was away so instead we made do with a B & B. Ah, the luxury of a warm shower and clean kit! Strangely though, comfortable as a warm bed is, we were both keen to return to the hills and I felt naked eating breakfast without my duvet jacket on! Now, where to go? Corrour bothy is located towards the southern end of the Lairig Ghru, a great gash that dissects the Cairngorms and is ideally placed to launch an attack on Glen Tilt. Seven hours later having pushed and manhandled the bikes across rivers and boulder fields, been verbally abused by the grouse (you know you’re knackered when you think the grouse are talking to you “over here, over here, too late, too late”) there was an absolute joy in seeing the bothy. Corrour, deservedly so, is a popular bothy, and we shared a warm fire and a dram or two of whisky before filling the floor space with our bags and mats. Most were up early, the necessity of work bringing a premature end to their trip, but for us a lazy morning. Tomasz who we’d met the day before was keen to climb Devil’s Point, but we declined his invitation opting instead for more coffee and biscuits. The sight of a buzzard or kite touches my soul, but an eagle, it’s much deeper than that. She swooped down towards Tomasz then soared high above us, above the land of which she knows every burn, every corrie and glen. For this is her land, her domain, a vast space over which she rules. Sadly for us, though, it was time to move on.
What had initially appeared to be an easy foray down the valley of the Dee, turned out to be another struggle as we pushed and dragged the bikes for four hours, crossing the Dee five times in the process. It was clear we weren’t going to make it to Glen Tilt, let alone the bothy below Meall Tionall that night, so we camped near some old shielings at the top of the Glen. Later that evening we were buzzed by a Hercules that flew so low over us it almost blew out the stove; if the tail gate had been down and your man had been quick enough he could have grabbed a cuppa!
Glen Tilt seems to cut an almost straight line through the southern Cairngorms, and the single track at the top of the Glen was an absolute blast to ride, even with a loaded bike. We made good progress that day making the bothy in good time. Throughout the trip we’d been lucky with the weather, as it only seemed to close in when we had a roof over our heads and it did so again, so we stayed an extra night. On trips like this I find as long as I can clean my teeth every morning I can manage without a wash for a day or two, but our food hygiene seemed to go out of the window. We’d often find ourselves inadvertently picking bits up off the floor only to realise that they were left over from the previous occupant! Yet despite this and only drinking unfiltered waters from the streams and rivers, I never once suffered an upset stomach. I became quite a connoisseur of Scottish stream water, noticing the difference in taste depending on where we were – sometimes peaty in the glens and almost sweet high up in the hills.
Blair Atholl, our next re-supply stop is hardly a metropolis, but I must say, arriving there having not seen anybody for four days and not cycled on tarmac for three, was a bit of a shock. After a rather tasty haggis and tatties supper, we found ourselves somewhere to stay and the following morning bought some essentials like peanut butter and rusks; together with a strong black coffee this is my favourite outdoor breakfast.
It was time to leave and we headed west along General Wade’s old military road before turning north back into the heart of the mountains. I was becoming acutely aware of a developing sense of belonging here; for me the non-material pleasure found whilst wandering the hills is longer lasting and ultimately more satisfying than the routine of normal life. Subconsciously, the seeds were being sown. A skein of geese flew over us in a perfect V comprising some 16 or so birds seemingly cementing my thoughts.
The last week passed all too quickly and soon it was time to return to Aviemore, but first we must return the sock. This was a big day and a fitting end to the trip. The approach to the bothy took us through the ancient Rothiemurchus pine forest (the great plain of firs). The birchwoods were the first trees to appear after the last Ice Age and play a large part in the landscape of the Cairngorms. If you were a birch, I think it’s fair to say that you could do a lot worse than settle here. We bumped into a group of mountain bikers who seeing the bikes were full of questions. How long? How far? How much climbing? We honestly had no idea and to us it wasn’t important, the joy really had been in the journey.
The hills, no, the mountains of the Cairngorms don’t dominate the landscape; they are the landscape and having spent some time amongst them I can see why Scottish novelist and poet, Nan Shepherd was inspired to write so eloquently about them. People rush to climb their peaks and sit on the summits, but when your focus is the end goal, you miss so much. The stag standing high on the hill watching you with his keen eye; the startled hare still wearing his winter coat bounding through the heather, teasing you with his speed and the capicaillie strutting through the pine forest; surely the joy is in travelling slowly through these glens admiring the majesty and reverence of this vast area, and then when the day is done, sleeping on the land wrapped in its arms. The Cairngorms were here long before man arrived with his brash ideas and will be here long after man has forgotten those ideals, for as someone once said ‘the land endures’.