For a number of years our band of 3 (David, Doug and Gavin) 50+ year old mountain bikers have been going out for a longer day trip in the autumn. The target has been to cover 40 to 50 miles with as much off tarmac as possible, preferably in a loop.
In the spring of this year David suggested that we join in with the Neil Mackenzie Trust’s Bell’s Bothy Challenge, get to the bothy at Camusunary on Skye by your own steam from as far away as you could manage, using our bikes. The official Challenge was to take place over the first weekend in May but due to work and personal commitments we had to settle on the first weekend in September. Firm plans were made in July and accommodation booked at Dornie and Broadford. We estimated that we had 120 miles to cycle from Farr to the bothy and split it into 3 legs of about 40 miles each, plus the return from the bothy to our accommodation in Broadford on day 3.
Thursday 31st of August dawned bright and calm and we set off from Farr Community Hall at 8am, usual starting point and time for our Saturday morning rides. Riding through Tomfat woods and onto Wade’s Old Edinburgh Road took us onto Inverness where we headed to the sea lock on the canal to take in the East coast before heading along the Great Glen way over Dunain Hill and Abriachan to Drumnadrochit for a long lunch break. Due to construction work at Craig Dunain finding the start of the GG way wasn’t easy but the ride to Drum was great, especially a steep downhill section from Abriachan to the A82 at Temple pier, wouldn’t want to ride back up it!
During our stop at Drum the rain started but we still had to get to Cannich to complete day 1. Our route now took us along the Affric Kintail Way up Glen Urquhart and then over to Strath Glass. Once again we had route finding trouble at the start of this way marked trail and ended up pushing the bikes up a very steep grassy hill to regain the trail above Drumnadrochit. Now soaked to the skin, thankfully easy forest tracks took us along the south side of the glen to Corimony where we joined the main road to Cannich for a 42mph run down the steep brae into the village.
Caledonian Canal Sea Lock
Day 1 stats: 46 miles, 4,800ft of climbing.
Continuing along the Affric Kintail Way on day 2 saw us leave Cannich straight uphill on the Glen Cannich to Mullardoch road before heading along forest roads to Dog Falls, Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhion and finally escaping the midges at Loch Affric. Beyond the west end of Loch Affric through to Camban bothy the going gets more difficult and the cycling more energetic. We called in at Altbeithe Youth Hostel which sits well onto the mountains and enjoyed hot drinks and chocolate bars in the company of the relief warden. The going gets progressively trickier west of Altbeithe but still rideable in the main as far as Camban. Beyond Camban it’s a case of, “I’ve brought my bike this far and I’m going to ride it as much as I can, even if it’s only for 10 yards until I have to get off it and push/carry it again!”. Eventually we gave up riding at all as the path down to Glen Lichd was so steep and slippery it would have been suicidal for us to attempt. At last we reach the head of Glen Lichd and enjoyed a very quick run down the landrover track to Morvich with the lure of a late lunch at the Jacobite café. Unfortunately at 3pm we arrived at a café which closes between 2.30pm until 5pm, disappointed and hungry.
Sandwiches and hot drinks were found at the filling station at Inverinate and we set off over Carr Brae to our overnight stop at Dornie.
In the mountains west of Glen Affric Glen Lichd House
Day 2 stats: 41 miles, 4,200 ft of climbing.
We left Dornie in another infestation of midges, the price we pay in the Highlands for a calm mild morning. This was the start of our big day, planning to reach Bell’s Bothy by mid-afternoon then on to Broadford to our accommodation. The greater part of today’s riding would be on tarmac unfortunately with only a short section from Strollamus to Luib and then Sligachan to Kilmarie via Camusunary off road. By keeping to side roads we managed to reduce the main road mileage to a minimum. Dornie to Balmacara was done on the footpath beside the main road, then past Balmacara Square across to Erbusaig and in to Kyle. Crossing the Skye Bridge on a bicycle was pretty good, being able to stop at the top and enjoy the view. Next a main road slog along to Broadford where we deposited our overnight gear at our bunk house accommodation for that night. Morning coffee at Broadford then along the footpath to Skinadin before leaving the main road again at Strollamus to take the old road, complete with old mile stones and plenty of deep water, directly across the hill to Luib. This track was a complete unknown but rode really well with a fast descent to Luib. Another couple of miles on the main road and then we turned off to follow the coast round by Moll to Sconser. This was another unknown but was a lovely ride along a very quiet, if rather potholed, road where we watched gannets diving for fish with Raasay in the background. The last main road drag took us from Sconser to Sligachan, and lunch. The next 8 miles would lead us to Bell’s Bothy and would challenge our riding skills, a narrow stony footpath with plenty of rock steps, and an unexpectedly deep peat bog. The going was very slow here and technical, physical and mentally tiring as we’d already cycled 38 miles before lunch. To travel into the normally unseen side of the Cuillin and Blaven was quite special and then to have the bay at Camusunary appear with Eigg and Rum silhouetted on the horizon was a great way to arrive at Bell’s Bothy.
Our arrival was later than intended, 5:30pm so not quite mid-afternoon. We paid a quick visit to the bothy, toasted our success with a dram of malt on the beach and then started the last leg of the day, over the 600ft pass to Kilmarie, then 9 road miles through Torrin to Broadford. The climb out from Camusunary was hard going, loose and steep, pushing the bikes where we simply couldn’t cycle them. But going down the other side was excellent. Steep and some parts rocky, some parts loose, but all pretty fast. We made good time along the road to Broadford and arrived at the bunk house around 8pm.
Looking back to Sgurr nan Gillean Outside Bell’s Bothy, Camasunary
Day 3 stats: 63 miles, 4,400ft of climbing.
Sunday morning and we were back on the bikes. Only 9 miles to get us to the railway station at Kyle for the afternoon train back to Inverness and a welcome rest.
A great weekend, with great company, and great sense of achievement. To the Neil Mackenzie Trust, thank you for the inspiration.