When heading out off Mallaig you have a choice of the slick new fast road – straight and wide, with added EU funded cycle lane or the tougher, not-for-wimps, old road that followed the coast. We were in the groove, so it was the old scenic route for us. I suspect that the new roads cycle path was going to remain totally unused by the touring cyclist. The main A830 Fort William road seemed to be subject to a total relocation. Make no mistake these road works were no minor inconvenience – they were huge – they must have stretched for ten miles. The road to Mallaig was being turned into an extra wide carriageway and dead straight. Whole mountains were being torn aside. Now I don’t live in Mallaig, so probably for them it’s a good thing but there is a difference between knocking out the odd bend and the extent of these works, it was out of all proportion.
This is part of my cultural heritage, this was the 'Road to the Isles' for heaven’s sake; it’s now a superhighway from nowhere to nowhere. No doubt as soon as it is finished the accident rate will go off the scale. Money will then be spent in speed reduction schemes (like bends and staggered junctions). At what point does making it easier for the tourists become self-defeating? The road now is no different to driving on some sections of the M1. And don’t tell me it’s for the HGV’s – there is a perfectly good railway running alongside the entire route!
In fact speaking of railways, just before we turned off the Mallaig – Fort William road we managed to catch a glimpse of the steam tourist train heading north. I’ve seen it many times but the sight of a engine going uphill in full steam in this terrain still makes you stop and stare - it is doing all of 40 mph, which for this area is quite fast enough. Soon enough we left the A830 at Lochailort, the village, not to be confused with Loch Ailort, the loch, on to the quieter and more scenic A861. Just after the junction we stopped for a snack in a bus shelter. We were getting real experts at these bus shelters and according to the graffiti it was poor old Morag getting slagged off yet again. She must get around a bit and seems to be the main entertainment for the local youth’s from Arran to the Outer Hebrides
The road along by the sea and shores of Loch Ailort is very beautiful. Across the bay, there were plenty of islands to catch the eye and imagination. The film ‘Local Hero’ has close connections with the area. The Lochailort Hotel had been used to film the dining room scenes (where the rabbit was eaten for dinner). Also nearby is the church used in the same film.
If the continual mention of the film 'Local Hero' is too subtle for you, then just get a copy and watch it!
This section was going to be hard work but as it turned out it was worth the effort. It is a little used scenic road and basically serves the numerous fish farms in this area. There was a big climb up Glen Uig over to Loch Moidart, then a second climb from Kinlochmoidart, punctuated by three large stone cairns, shown on the map as “Captain Robertson’s Cairn -1868” although I have not been able to find out who Captain Robertson was and why he has three cairns. I suspect though that Captain Robertson died from cycling up all those hills and they buried him with his bike and kit.
From there it is an easy ride down to Salen on Loch Sunart. The road threads its way through wooded glades, thick with rhododendrons. The views changed as the road dipped into dark forests only opening up at Loch Nan Umah. On reflection, this part of the journey was the time when we were both at out peak of fitness and were putting in quite a few miles. The steeper of the summits still defeated us but in general we were riding like ‘pros’. We had a short stay at a very nice tea room at Salen and soon we were at the Reispole campsite. This was a near perfect site - or initially so it seemed. There was a laundry, soon full of our stuff, excellent showers – even a small camper’s kitchen. The site clearly was upmarket with camper vans and caravans of the circus/showman type sizes – all had at least one large Jet Ski and a collection of valuable but clean mountains bikes outside. The campsite was set in a wooded glen right next to Loch Sunart.
While we were waiting for the tumble dryer we wandered into the shop and Chris spotted a two litre tub of Mackie’s ice cream – what attracted him was the reduced price of 50p. What I immediately spotted was that it was Mackie’s. Never mind your American/ Italian rubbish this is the crème de la crème of ice creams. We shamelessly scoffed the whole lot in the laundry room, which I might add also provide a collection of up-to date magazines. One thing beginning to dawn on us was that despite the site being nearly full there was no one about – no kids on bikes going round and round, nobody out for a caravan-comparing walk (ideal place for this type of strolling).
We were to soon discovered why, since our arrival we were constantly moving around – shop – pitch tent – shower – shop – laundry – eat large tub of ice cream – now that the initial rush was over and the evening was beginning to settle in so did the midges. I can honestly say, this was the worse place I have ever been to for the little blighters - they were horrific. Near our tent was a litter bin that made a noise, on close inspection found that it was a midge hoover-upperer. Despite it sucking in the little devils by the bag full, it was having absolutely no effect on numbers still hanging about. So it was that just after seven in the evening we effectively went to bed – it was just impossible to do anything outside the tent. There was no let up in the morning, luckily we had the campers kitchen to cook and eat our breakfast but getting the tent down and getting underway was just pure torment.
We had expected the ride across Moidart and the inland section of Ardnamurchan later on to be tough but it only confirmed my prejudice against big hills i.e. you hate the downhill flyers because you know soon there will be a long climb back up again. By contrast, the section in between, the coast from Salen to Camas Nan Geall, rises very little above sea level but is a punishing series of short steep hills making hard work for us. It’s a very attractive stretch of coast, and I must say very quiet, both of local and tourist traffic, it was a great surprise therefore to come across a large visitor’s centre and we soon had some warming hot chocolate inside us. There were about four staff members to every visitor currently mooching about and clearly would never be able to run at a profit. It did have a very attractive show of local paintings and the usual up-market tat. We were encouraged several times to purchase tickets for the ‘audio/visual show’ but we neither could afford the entrance fee or the time. After a good hour of hanging about from the rain the wet gear was on and off we went on our weary slog. The only shelter we had in the occasional showers was the very large trees that seemed to flourish in this area – it was like going through a rain-forest. There was an unusual mixture, very tall and straight conifers and huge beech trees, all covered in a thick layer of moss but you can’t really enjoy the scenery so much when you are straining up an incline or gathering your strength for the next one.
The ride from the top of Armamurchan into Kilchoan was quite superb, by now we were above the tree line into the bleak, mist, covered hills eventually, though it did stop raining. Despite the grey day the view across the Sound to Mull (our next island) was exceptional. I would love to have seen it on a clear day. We only had a few minutes wait for the ferry from Kilchoan which was a shame really as the area was worthy of further exploration with ancient castles on the shore and large Victorian shooting lodges in the village. The weather closed in as we crossed the Sound Of Mull and we could only see a short distance through the mist. We were the only foot passengers and stripped-off in the passenger lounge to lay our wet clothes on the heaters which were going full blast. Shortly after doing this the windows all steamed up so saw even less of the journey.
On landing at Tobermory the sun came out. So we were soon at the reception desk of Tobermory Youth Hostel and even sooner we were back out in the street having been told it was full. We had picked a rather large visitor guide from the Tourist Office and retreated to the Mishnish Hotel. Now this is a world famous pub on the seafront of Tobermory. The Mishnish lived up to its usual welcome. We sat in the main bar with a pint of '80 shilling' in front of a raging log fire (what did you expect – this was Summer in Scotland after all). I had no hesitation in taking off my wet shoes and socks and hanging them to dry on the grate. It was perfect bliss. The next task was to find some place to sleep and so passed a pleasant hour perusing the guide and drinking.
The basis of choosing a B&Bin Tobermory was first down to cost and twin beds. After a few phone inquiries rejections were becoming the norm and so became pretty desperate and soon we were ringing any B&B regardless of any pre-set criteria (i.e. cheapness). One place was answered by someone who was clearly was of Far Eastern origin and assured us that there was a twin-bedded room available. I asked if they were on the sea front and got the reply yes. I asked where they were, the reply was overlooking the small traffic island at the end of the main street. What I didn’t ask was the main street in which town! After going up and down the main street in Tobermory we could not find it. The mini-roundabout at the far end had a distillery and a car park, definitely no B&B's. So it was that, brochure in hand, I approached the local postman and asked him where this B&B was “Oban” was the reply. In our panic to find a B&B I had failed to notice we had moved on to the next section of the book. Ooops, I did feel a complete idiot. I tried to have a joke with the poor man about being on the wrong island on the wrong day, but all it did was confirm his suspicions about ignorant tourists. He did suggest a few places out of the main area of Tobermory and so it was that we ended up with another Dutchman at the very top of Tobermory. Like all the B&Bs we had been to this fitted the bill just nicely. In the evening we returned to the Mishnish and had a glorious meal washed down with the now compulsory single malt.