Jim Sutherland's Fundraising Bikepacking Trip from Land's End to John o'Groats - Part 3
Braco to Dalwhinnie 67miles/6000ft ascent
I left Braco at 8:00am after a wonderful stay where we all agreed to try to keep in touch and see one another again sooner. With some careful navigation I managed not a Golden Hour but a Golden Four Hours as I climbed, rolled and pedalled up and down beautiful countryside filled with fields, trees, morning light and glimpses of hills.
Rain again today but the waterproofs had been on from the start so It wasn’t a problem. I headed up what is called ‘The Sma’ Glen’ which at first I thought was going to be a bit of an epic so I zipped up and fueled up at the bottom first. Funny how you can sometimes think the worst when it is cloudy and raining. Later on I arrived at a place called Amulree which led to a beautiful, remote glen surrounded by hills where the sun was splitting the sky. At the very end of this glen I knew there was a very steep road climb to take me over to the other side with a warp speed descent to Kenmore for lunch. Disappointingly I didn’t get my gear dried out much as I enjoyed my lunchtime salad in Kenmore. In the end it didn’t really matter as the drizzle and rain were never really that far away all day.
After lunch I realised that I was now going to be riding on roads that I had visited earlier this year during The Etape Caledonia as well as the steep wee climb from Trinafour across to the A8 and the National Cycle Network track to the hostel in Dalwhinnie. Neither of the climbs felt as tough as they did earlier in the year which was a satisfying feeling to know I had got fitter on this ride.
The garage at Dalwhinnie is an excellent resupply stop, I know because I have used it three or four times now. Today I simply bought my usual snacks for the ride and food for dinner. Earlier at Easter I had sat on the forecourt guzzling energy drinks and shovelling chocolate and sweets into my face as I prepared for my first 100 miler of the year from Killin to Grantown on Spey via Ben Lawers, Innerwick, Trinafour and the back roads parallel to the A9.
It had been a while since I had stayed in an independent hostel so I was not quite sure what to expect in Dalwhinnie. I needn’t have worried as Lee, the manager runs a welcoming, clean and extremely well fitted out place. He showed me to a nice quiet room, the spacious kitchen and secure bike shed. This was all that I needed as tomorrow I had to make the committing ride over the Corrieyairack Pass to Fort Augustus and the forecast was ‘poor’. Tomorrow and the next two days were all that stood between me and a successful completion of this ride. I was NOT getting carried away yet.
Dalwhinnie to Fort Augustus 33miles/3124ft ascent
For once I was pretty close to the estimated time from my app but stops to sort kit, eat and take photos meant another hour and a half. At the hostel Jose & Luisa and I exchanged contact details then we wished one another well. It was great to hear later on that the route south I had recommended to them was exactly what they were after.
My ride to Laggan was horrendous. There was greyness, lashing rain and lots of traffic for the ‘Golden Hour’. I knew that the day was supposed to improve later but that was no use as I was already soaked in these northwesterly squalls. At the first place of shelter I stopped and phoned Alison my Trail Angel. I asked her if she could square it way for me to sleep on the floor of the Fire Station in Fort Augustus as I couldn’t get booked in anywhere to camp. I also stressed that I was soon going to be out of any signal so it did not take her long to get back to me with the news that I could use the floor of the station.
On the approach to the Spey Dam Reservoir I had a great chat with Al. He knew exactly what I was going through and exactly what the conditions were to be like. It was so reassuring how he knew what to say and what not to say - thanks! Already I was thinking about my old guiding and mountain rescue mantra of ‘Being bothered’. By that I mean being bothered to stop and get out your big warm, waterproof mitts then put them on before your other gloves get soaked and your hands cold for the climb and descent. I also mean being bothered to have a decent feed at the same time so that you could then focus on riding all the way to the hairpins without stopping.
These tactics worked and I was then able to switch to ‘walk mode’ for the hairpins where to some extent I could take in the view and importantly not sweat. Did Lachlan Morton really ride them!!?
I had never crossed the Corryairick Pass before. I am sure that on a sunny day with company it might be a different experience but for me it was rather eery. There were no birds, no animals just the hill, the track and the power lines. At the top an old concrete block house came into view so I made that might place to stop out of the wind. At the same time the wind turbines to the north were all picked out by shafts of sunlight whilst I was slowly being engulfed in cloud again. Because I had been bothered lower down and not over heated I was able to efficiently transition to the descent in a couple of minutes. My descent was fun but I was probably riding at 60% because I did not want bag bounce to threaten my front rack repair, or more importantly catch a loose rock at speed and have a crash up here at nearly 3000ft.
The descent just got better and better with that wonderful sense of achievement that comes after all the effort on the way up. I had some glimpses of Fort Augustus and Loch Ness before disappearing into the green of a Highland summer, all was going well. Then things got even better when near a stream crossing I spotted the roof of what could only be the roof of the Blackburn Bothy. It was time for some food and a drink so I took the wee path along to it. There I changed out of some wet kit and had a look around which didn’t take long as it is only one room! Having seen for myself how long the descent to the north goes on for I’m sure this has been a very welcome stop for the evening if caught out by weather, darkness or pace.
There was a sting in the tail for me…the grave yard. A sign said ‘Right of Way through burial ground.’ I chose to ignore this as I didn’t want to lug my bke over a gate. Instead I quested off into the path through the head high bracken. This was going well until I reached a gate which didn’t know if it should completely fall over or not. Negotiating this gate demanded very careful footwork so as not to twist an ankle whilst tip toeing across it with a loaded bike in your hands.
The final straw was having to clamber onto an old wall then jump down the other side with the bike. With only three days left I sustained my one and only bike injury as one of the pedals clattered into my calf.
Eventually the path delivered me at Fort Augustus Community Fire Station. There I stripped off any remaining damp kit, emptied out my wet Sky Trekker shelter and sleeping quilt onto the railings at the rear of the station in the late afternoon sun. It felt SO good to get into my sandals and put my riding shoes and socks into the mix to dry as well. Unfortunately I had trouble with the key safe combination and was about to text Alison to check it when Davie, one of the crew appeared. Davie soon has me inside and gave me a tour of their station, showing me where to get a shower, fresh water and where to sleep. I was a happy and grateful rider that night safe in the knowledge that all of my kit would be dry and sorted for the next two days through the mountains to Lairg.
Fort Augustus to Strathpeffer 50miles/4480ft ascent
This was a route that I had done twice before so I was pretty chilled about what was ahead of me. I had arranged to stay with my friends Alasdair & Linda that night and knew that they would not be around until about 6:00pm. The ride was lovely and I truly had forgotten how much fun singletrack there was on the Great Glen Way so that was nice. The final third of my day was over the Culnakirk hill which is actually quite steep but went by smoothly after over two weeks of riding from Lands End. The descent towards Beauly is an absolute belter as the road is usually pretty quiet and there is excellent visibility. As the road was starting to flatten out I was passed by a VW van whose passenger gave me a big friendly wave. Then I saw them stop and pull in on the other side of the road. It was my friend Fiona and her daughter Sara. I pulled in then crossed the road to greet them. Fiona said that she had been following my progress and was wondering which way I was going to head today. I explained that this way was the straighest line to Strathpeffer via Dingwall where I hoped to visit my old local bike shop. It was cool to hear what these two had been up to and I have to admit that nice, flat rides along the canal on e-bikes in the sun sounded like fun. Once Fiona and Sara had posed for a photo with the yellow bike we said our goodbyes and I cranked it up onto the 44 at the front and headed for Dingwall.
There I made a quick trip to the shop for provisions before heading to Dryburgh Cycles hoping to catch up with Mark and James. While waiting for Mark the two of us had a right old blether about the route and both laughed about how my Penrith to Hamilton effort had apparently come out of nowhere. This was truly a day spent with friends and I did feel that I was back amongst people and places that I feel close to. Once the shop was sorted and closed I headed west for a short ride to Strathpeffer.
Despite some canine distractions my hosts treated me to a delicious dinner, refreshing beer and some local advice on the safest and quickest way of getting established on tomorrow’s ride. Last time I stayed with Alasdair and Linda we were in the depths of the Pandemic with Al and I camping in their garden. This time I was warm and comfortable in their ‘Hobbit House’.
What a day!
Strathpeffer to Lairg 65miles/4037ft ascent
I left Alasdair and Linda’s place feeling pretty chilled as I knew more than half of the route. The weather forecast was not too accurate as there was always drizzle or rain threatening. At least the wind was at my back as I set of through the remote and spectacular Strath Vaich. Each time I see the track stretching into the distance alongside Loch Vaich I feel SO grateful to be able to ride here. Today was going to be a longish day with a committing traverse through the hills before accessing a quiet road to Lairg. This meant that I kept things moving and anyhow, the glens here are so big and wide you have plenty of head space to look around for the estate ponies by the river, the waterfalls that cascade over the slabs of rock on the hill or take note of how the re-wilding of Alladale Estate is going as you ride through Gleann Mor. I was looking forward to having lunch at Croick Church. In 1845 the church featured in the tragic Clearance of Glenvalvie where those families being removed from the area sought shelter in the church grounds and even scratched their names and the date on the east window. Whe the church is open to the public you can see this incredible piece of history for yourself.
After a drink and some lunch courtesy of my hosts I headed on the track which eventually reaches Ullapool. Today I was not going to Ullapool via Strath Cuilleannach but was going to head north over on a track by Einig Wood to the road at Oykel Bridge. At the high point of this track I was enjoying the views, the effort and the fact that it was downhill when I noticed the rain shower that I thought I had outrmanouvered by heading north appeared to have different ideas. Because I had been working to ride uphill I had my lightweight windproof jacket and not my full waterproof jacket. Full of confidence I set off downhill as I was to ‘beat’ the rain - HA HA! I needed to navigate so that meant stopping briefly to check my GPS. I also needed to open a rather strangely tied gate. I definitely needed to keep moving as now out of any wind but in the drizzle there were midges!
When I hit the road at Oykel Bridge I decided to push on to Rosehall with no more stops. This kept the midges away and the movement was now drying off my wet kit. This worked until I was a few miles away from Lairg where I had hoped to wild camp somewhere near Loch Shin. As soon as I stopped I was surrounded by midges and quickly realised that camping was a really, really stupid idea. Somehow I managed to contact Alison again and asked if I could get clearance to sleep on another Fire Station floor, this time in Lairg. No time was wasted waiting for an answer I kept going. Another shower then undid all my good work so now not only was I vulnerable to these biting insects from Mordor but I was damp and cold again.
At the garage in Lairg I resupplied for the next day and got local recommendations for B & B or even a hotel. My SixMoonDesigns Sky Trekker is a fabulous shelter but there was simply NO WAY I was camping tonight. The Highland jungle drums worked and whilst in the pub it was worked out where the local fire crew were and when they would be back to let me into their station.
Dinner that night was in the local hotel and I did not hold back - venison, ice cream sundae and cheese board. Best thing of all was to find out that Rachel was going to meet me tomorrow at the end of the day with the VW van. She’d then drive to John O’ Groats in the morning and then cycle back to meet me on the route for my last day.
Lairg to Forsinard 58miles/2355ft ascent
Alasdair had kindly agreed to meet me this morning and ride up to The Crask Inn for breakfast before he headed back to Lairg and then home to do a day’s work. We left Lairg at 7:30am and got up to the Crask with plenty of time for a blether and a big feed which set me up for the day - Thanks Alasdair!
Up the road and back onto new territory for me and what a beautiful ride it was to Altnaharra and Loch Naver. On the way I stopped and had a yarn with Alasdair from Edinburgh who was also nearing the end of his Lands End to John O’ Groats adventure. I really enjoyed the mellow conversation we had about places or people we had met on the way and the quiet confidence that we had just about got this in the bag.
Alasdair headed north for the coast road while I tarried a while in the hotel for a cup of tea and some lemon drizzle cake. There I met Jane Schrier who had just completed her Lands End to John O’ Groats journey on foot, having started in March. I was blown away that someone would be tough enough to do this as a walking route! Look out for her book…
For the rest of the day I seemed to either be heading south or east into a gentle headwind. Eventually I arrived at the beautiful wee place called Forsinard which has a train station with an visitor centre for The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. There I had enough time to talk to the friendly and very knowledgeable ranger there about the importance of this area which is know as The Flow Country.
I nearly managed the snooze in the sun I had promised myself before Rachel arrived with her beaming smile in the van. What a perfect end to another wonderful day on the bike.
Forsinard to John O’ Groats 51miles/1782ft ascent
We woke to a gorgeous morning. Apart from the midges it could not have been better. The first muesli for breakfast in over two weeks and first coffee of the day with milk! You could hear a pin drop too it was so quiet here.
Rachel left me to ride down the glen to Melvich on my own before heading east to Thurso and then onto the back roads heading to John O’ Groats where we had agreed to meet. There had been little change in the weather since the day before which also meant little change in the wind direction. This meant I had a very flattering tailwind for the first 15 miles before turning onto the North Coast 500 which I have to say was very pleasant and nothing like the horror stories I have heard about. Nonetheless I rode appropriately on this road and did not let my guard down for passing lorries, campervans or cars.
The views over to Orkney were clear as a bell and the sun picked out the cliffs, beaches and coastline of where we had been for a family holiday pretty much a year ago. I was surprised to see the famous golf ball shaped Dounreay nuclear power station and found a safe spot to get off the road to take some photos and think about what it had been like to work there nearly 40 years ago. I passed through Thurso without any problems although by this time I was starting to think about what the head/side winds would be like for Rachel on her mountain bike.
We met as planned near Inkstack on the National Cycle Network no. 1 route and despite turning through 180 degrees Rachel was still not rewarded with a tailwind - typical. As we approached John O’ Groats we met Alasdair the rider I have encountered the day before north of the Crask. We exchanged a handshake before he headed back to Thurso to catch his train home the next day
Rachel told me she had met another rider near John O’ Groats who had been attempting the GB Duro route. I mentioned that I thought it might have been Gary who I rode with on day 1 but thought that would have been too much of a coincidence.
Soon we were turning into the John O’ Groats hotel, shops and car park area where the free Milepost sign was. Once the photo was done the two of of found some shelter out of the sun to have our chicken sandwiches and for me a mini bottle of Proseco! As we headed to our van I recognised Gary’s bike, it was him! We both were delighted to meet one another again and swapped bikes for one last photo.
I had completed a fantastic adventure where I saw some wonderful countryside, met lovely people and had some fun adventures. Finishing it with Rachel in this way was truly the icing on the cake - Thanks.
Lands End to John O’ Groats 19 days of riding, 1177 miles and 62,255ft of ascent on a route that included parts of the National Cycle Network, the GB Duro and other sections of road, tracks and trails to raise £2588 for The Fire Fighter’s Charity.