DAY 6 - OBAN- CASTLEBAY (FERRY)

This morning  I looked out on another grey day, a sky of clouds, barrelling along on a potent westerly. Was I really going to head into the teeth of this dispiriting, unpleasantness? Rain drops beat themselves against the hostel windows.

Visibility was about an arm’s length, Oban is a dull nondescript place at the best of times. In the worst of times, like now, with its horizontal rain it’s a bloody miserable place ‘guie drecht’ as the locals might say. Anyway breakfast is on the boil (usual bucketful of porridge) while I ponder the fate of my cycling partner…probably murdered during the night by his roommates while searching for his cutlery pack or worse …errm ...worse than dead???

Chris did appear and reassured me that his health problems were now non-existent. I pointed out the slight problem that now existed, if it were to re-occur on the islands then he could not have chosen a worse place. The issue was his to deal with, in the end, it cleared the air. We were now both ready for the central purpose of this expedition.

It was outside, while loading up the bikes that I noticed of difference to Chris. This was day six of our trip. Without exception every time we stopped and set off again I found myself either sitting on the bike waiting for him to stop fiddling, (he seemed to take twice as long to put his padlock away for instance). Today was different; today he seemed to make a point of being first off and then stopping after a few yards to wait for me. I didn’t say anything, it showed certain keenness and I certainly would not be complaining.

The very short journey to the ferry got us there about 45 minutes before departure. The ferry was busy getting readied. Long, umbilical pipes were attached from it to the shore and seemed to be pumping life into it. Trolleys of foodstuffs were being wheeled on; people were like worker bees to the Queen. I stood and watched this, admiring the logistics of it all. Meanwhile, Chris busied himself chatting up a female cyclist of a certain age. Ah, things were definitely back to normal. After 5 hours we finally catch sight of the Outer Herbrides Soon we were watching Oban disappear into the mist and we made our way up the Sound Of Mull for our five-hour journey to the Outer Hebrides. This part of the journey is very scenic, well, when it’s not raining, that is. We soon passed Ballamory on our left which used to be known as Tobermory. The ferry stopped at Coll and Tiree. Both islands looked superb in sunshine (yes, sunshine). Despite their flatness, the shoreline and rock formations are captivating. These are of course, treeless islands with not a hill of any significance in sight. What however, dominates your thoughts about these places is: what on earth is it like in the wintertime? Most of the very few passengers on board disembarked here, leaving us and another couple on this huge ferry to continue on its journey to Barra.

We were now into open sea and spent the time discussing the navigation plotter which was on display in the lounge. We saw the mouse pointer working over it, clearly showing that this was no customer sanitised version but a real-time image of what was on the bridge. We eventually came close to the island of Vatersay before swinging in a gentle curve and entered Castlebay. The sky was overcast but I could still appreciate the beauty of the scene. The houses of Castlebay (the most unoriginal named place in the whole of Britain) hugged the side of the bay while towering above was the island’s highest mountain, Heaval, at 1,260 feet.

Coming into Castlebay we were called down to the car deck to collect our 'vehicles'. We then discovered the only 'vehicles' on board were our bikes!

Barra isn’t a huge place, there’s just a single road ringing the island with occasional dead-end side roads off it. We had planned to spend the night on the beach on the north of the island but that was only 10 miles from Castlebay, so we decided to do a bit of island bagging. With that in mind, we set off to bag one of the smaller ones - Vatersay, linked by a causeway at the south of the main island. The islands south of here, evoke nostalgic memories within Scottish hearts with names like Mingulay, Pabbay and Sandray There was quite a steep climb out of Castlebay and at the top of the hill was a wonderful view over the island and beyond. There is also a very striking war memorial with an awful lot of names on it – mostly sailors of course. Considering the population of this Island has never been more than a thousand the list appeared to shown that at least half the male population had at sometime been killed during both wars.

Quite an impressive long list of names on this memorial. / View from hill shows the two beaches one on the right faces the Atlantic and the left is the airport beach with the tide in.

The first part is up a road steep enough to earn a chevron on the map, and we really couldn’t be bothered destroying our legs so we took the bikes for a walk up the hill and zoomed down the other side. Once onto the island it soon became clear that flat looking on the map isn’t the same as flat looking on the ground. There is a lot of up and down you can squeeze into a 10 metre contour interval, and if you do it enough times that’s quite a lot of climbing, that’s how the Vatersay roads work. So after a bit more work than anticipated we arrived at the beautiful beaches of West Bay and Vatersay Bay. The only significant thing we had done was post our cards in the most westerly post-box in Britain, going by the state of it and its isolation we must have been the first to use it for several years.

The cards were actually delivered in normal time. I can’t believe that the postman opens it up every day but clearly he did on this occasion. Half a day out there on your own and they send search parties and choppers and you become a minor suburban thrill on the 6 o’clock news. Having headed back to Barra, this time a lot more easier than we went, as the wind was behind us. We headed around the west side of the island in the belief that there were fewer hills to climb. It’s a beautiful place, but quite bleak in many respects. The Isle of Barra is the smallest of the islands we visited but was definitely my favourite. The island is not lacking in character, that’s for sure. We camped at the world famous Barra airport; this airport has the most unique runway ever, only available twice a day when the tide is out planes land on the huge Northbay where the sand forms a concrete like surface.

Our chosen site was amongst the dunes with sea views both east and west, although we did pitch our tents on the lee of a large container. This was for Fire Brigade use and was their practice spot for potential plane crashes. I’ve never heard of an incident yet at Barra airport so let’s hope that will remain so for the next 12 hours. After a rather nice meal of pasta and something, we headed off for a walk along the west-side beach. There was a beach on the east-side of our camping spot as well, and they were about a mile apart. Towards the end of the walk we were greeted with a glorious sunset which was duly snapped about 50 times to add to the million other glorious sunsets I’ve taken over the years.

Whilst walking along the beach which, unlike all other west side beaches in Britain (except Orkney and Shetland) genuinely faces the Atlantic with uninterrupted views of the good old US of A, (well, it would be uninterrupted if it wasn’t for the curvature of the earth). Anyway, Chris ended up at the end of a walk with a very large armful of plastic bottles. Plastic waste being a particular bugbear with him and to his credit, managed to pick up about .001% of the total visible plastic on this beach. Picking up plastic waste on a remote beach in the Outer Hebrides does present a small problem, mainly in its subsequent disposal. It was not very thoughtful of the Highlands and Islands Council not to provide a recycling bin but if there had been one I do concede the wind would have ensured it would not be long before it also ended up in the sea as plastic waste. Anyway, the people at the airport terminal would have had a surprise in the morning at the sudden appearance of a small mountain of plastic on their doorstep. I suspect though, that all Chris succeeded in doing was transfer if from the West beach to the East beach.

Barra Airport (BRR) is the only airport on the island. It’s also the only airport in the world with a runway on the beach for scheduled flights. As a result has often appeared in the “World’s Best Approaches” list.

DARK ISLAND

Away to the westward, I'm longing to be
Where the beauties of heaven unfold by the sea
Where the sweet purple heather blooms fragrant and free
On a hill-top, high above the Dark Island

Oh Isle of my childhood I'm dreaming of thee
As the steamer leaves Oban, and passes Tiree
Soon I'll capture the magic, that lingers for me
When I'm back, once more upon, the Dark Island

True gem of the hebrides, bathed in the light
Like a midsummer dawning, that follows the night
How I long for the cry, of the seagulls in flight
As they circle high above the Dark Island