The Caledonian

I get complimented occasionally on how adventurous I'm being, cycling around the world.

Thing is, I don't consider it particularly adventurous: after all, I'm not visiting anywhere that hasn't been visited before, and I'm going to places people live. It's not like I'm hiking across Antarctica, or scaling some great mountain, or I dunno, hanging my toothbrush too close to the toilet. It's possibly the least dangerous thing I've ever done, professionally or otherwise, yet those close to me suddenly express concern. Weird. Were they not paying attention to the last twenty-five years of construction, rugby, mixed martial arts and a thirsty predilection for alcohol-fuelled excess or am I grossly misjudging how dangerous riding a bike along quiet country lanes is? And how hazardous can it be if folks are living there?

Maybe it's because I read a lot. When people mention the word 'adventure' to me, I think Conan the Barbarian, not Conan O'Brien, and I often compare what I'm doing to commuting by bike and camping, two activities hardly considered perilous.

It's been suggested to me more than once, however, and usually by coppers, that thieves and muggers may identify me as a target. I think those who consider such things are completely unfamiliar with three particulars of travelling this way:

1. Probably 95% of my time is spent in the countryside and wilderness, where roaming gangs of criminals aren't.

2. The overwhelming majority of people are nice. Police officers and the military are particularly bad at recognizing this, as most of their working days are spent dealing with liars and delinquents, which of course includes members of their own hierarchies as well as the politicians who tell them what to do (I realize it's unfashionable to criticize the military nowadays, if not the police, but I count too many members among my friends not to). By contrast, I run the gamut of regular folk daily, from the basest scum to the airiest twat, and am happy to report truly evil people are rare indeed.

3. Me, personally. I'm quite prepared to fuck a mugger up, and have extensive training and experience in the art of doing so. However, I'm completely aware that multiple assailants form the core of our mugging fraternity's methodology, which is why I bristle with improvised weaponry: my retracted hiking pole is a handy club with telescopic sleeve locking levers that protrude at brutal flesh-ripping angles, and my bike lock a thick chain with a weighty padlock that can serve as a rather intimidating medieval flail. I've not had a single instance of trouble, though I have probably been sized up by potential muggers who decided better of it. In fact, I know I have: one does not acquire nor maintain such immutable swagger without learning a thing or two about such human behaviour.

In addition, the time I spend in towns is fleeting, during daylight, and mostly to buy food. I like that supermarkets are usually on the outskirts, so I can circumvent the innards if I have to, but this is to avoid tiresome navigational issues (such as counterintuitive one-way systems, unmapped brick walls, and in one dramatically profane encounter, a cliff), rather than whatever the complimenter might deem dangerous. Most of the time, however, a town will contain at least a couple of things I want to see, and of course a library to work in (which is also kryptonite to the criminal mindset).

Anyway, it was time to leave Fort William.

After a week I'd grown quite fond of the place. I'd met Bricks here the first night after twenty years, and became somewhat melancholy afterwards. Well, not melancholy precisely; contemplative, perhaps? It proved to be a milestone, a waypoint to review my progress towards enlightenment, and I decided I wasn't drinking nearly enough.

I dragged my feet breaking camp, hesitant to leave the convenience of nearby shops, and finally got out of there after two hours and a final lingering look back at the towering Ben Nevis.


It may not the highest of mountains, internationally speaking, but has a topological prominence to rival many far taller.


With a sigh I mounted up and the Caledonian Canal bike path conveyed me directly to Neptune's Staircase, a series of locks and swing bridges that form the freshwater entrance to the sixty mile waterway, which, two centuries ago, took Thomas Telford and three thousand men nineteen years to build.


Unfortunately the endeavour was never really rewarded with commercial success: by the time it was finished the Napoleonic naval threat was over, the invention of the railway loomed, and the move from wooden hulls to steel saw cargo ships outsize the safe new corridor. Nowadays it is owned by Scottish Waterways and run primarily as a tourist attraction, and a spectacular one it is, too.








A few miles up its length I rode off on a tangent to see the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge, as recommended by my younger brother Dave, the ex-Royal Marine. This statue has to be situated in one of the most breathtaking spots in the highlands, with a 360 degree view that made me want to shoo off the teary-eyed old codgers moping about the place, flatten the memorial and throw up a log cabin. The only thing stopping me was the threat of swift justice at the hands of the aforementioned, who likely knew a few tricks about terminally dispatching irreverent young men. That and universal ostracisation, of course. Oh, and laws.




On the road back to the canal, I did make mental note of what looked like a small abandoned chapel, too overgrown to really tell, which would certainly work as a fixer-upper. If I ever do settle in one place, this was as fine a location as any.

The Caledonian Canal slices through the middle of Northern Scotland, joining together several linear lochs to create a continuous waterway between the east and west coasts. This tear through the highlands is known as the Great Glen Fault, where two tectonic plates frottage like teenagers on supermarket cider, or at least used to, and still do occasionally, but less enthusiastically. The first of those lochs heading east is Loch Lochy, surely named by either a toddler, managerial groupthink, or some kind of raffle. Further evidence arrived in the name of the next one up, Loch Oich. People were obviously taking the piss, so I rechecked my map. Nope, that's their names.




On the trail I had a quick chat with a hiker labouring under a huge rucksack heading in the same direction. We met again up the trail at a lochshore campsite, set amid the kind of magnificent mountain scenery that multiples house prices exponentially.

The deserted site had an open-face log bothy for campers, and a ready-built fire to warm us, all gratis.


What a remarkably more sensible approach the Scottish Forestry Commission has to campers than its English counterpart, who seems to treat public access to nature with the same distaste most of us reserve for kiddie snuff porn. The contrast is really quite astounding. Scotland throws open its arms and welcomes you in like an old mate, while England slams the door and petulantly charges you to knock. I know where I'd rather be. I felt quite embarrassed to be English at this juncture, particularly because I was in the company of a foreign visitor. Scottish landowners, by simply acting like normal people in pursuit of the greater good, make the English ruling class look like the fucking Ferengi.

Which they are, let's face it.

On returning to England I've broached this subject many times, and several people have curiously tried to defend the official Gollum position of their 'higher ups', citing ludicrous notions like Scotland having less people, so can afford greater hospitality. I've never heard such illogical and loathsome nonsense. It's justifying selfishness and legislating against freedom, nothing more: exasperatingly excusing utterly cunty behaviour.

Anyway.

The hiker's name was Liad, an Israeli climber in his mid-twenties exploring the highlands. He'd hiked and hitched across most of Europe after the end of his military service as a computer dude in the IDF. We decided not to use the bothy as we both preferred the water- and wind-proofing offered by our tents. We camped on the beach and chatted into the night, and he shared some Turkish coffee with me the next morning. He packed up more quickly than I did and set off, while I took a little longer to enjoy the misty alpine scenery.


On the bike I powered up the first hills like a man possessed, despite being unable to access my lowest nine gears (my front derailleur had been playing up the last few days, and I didn't have a clue how to readjust it). I initially put this down to the caffeine jolt from the coffee, but it was more than that. I was sprinting up the slopes like a penis helmet pro, experiencing little in the way of fatigue. I was finally getting fit, that's what it was! It'd been so long I'd forgotten the feeling. Like a cardio maniac I relished the uphills even more than usual, attacking them all the more aggressively, pushing myself to see where my new limits were. I couldn't reach them. Overnight, somehow I'd gone from a struggling wimp to a thunderous explosion of muscle, barely contained by sinew, bone and skin; svelte, powerful, and the master of all I pedalled. My lungs laughed at hardship. My heart pumped anew. Thighs roared at the mountains like great swooping beasts. I'd never felt such physical elation.

As I neared the village of Laggan I dismounted for a farm gate, and, epic plonkerdom ever ready to pounce, realized I'd left my loaded trailer back at the campsite.

I sheepishly retrieving the thing and found the return journey distinctly less worthy of comment. I pushed on towards Fort Augustus, passing the curious and temporarily closed Eagle Barge Inn, a pub on a barge. I'd planned to work here, but wasn't too miffed as rain threatened and I wanted to make more progress before camping.


Several miles on the trail on the east side of Loch Oich became too roughly strewn with tree roots to ride over: my rig could probably handle it, but water bottles kept bouncing from beneath their bungees and I lost another one I didn't hear hit the ground. I got off and pushed. Navigating a gated bridge (where I have to prop up the bike, open the gate, push through, reprop, close, unprop and carry on) the hiking pole I use as a kickstand slipped on the mossy footing and the rig keeled over, snapping the footlong pivot pin that attaches the trailer arms to the body of the trailer.

I did some swearing and then silently despaired for several minutes, considering who I should call to come and rescue me, but shut that shit down with a finality that frankly surprised me. I was ten miles from nowhere. Construction Foreman Stef took over. I unloaded the trailer, surveyed the damage, and began to formulate repairs with the resources I had available.

Just then, who should come down the path but Liad and a freshly befriended female backpacker: a Canadian girl called Emily. They had missed the next turning and had to backtrack, discovering my predicament. Liad stopped to help out while Emily kept going, citing a pressing rendezvous, and we managed to jerry rig a replacement pin from two tent pegs, wedged in place by a length of paracord, wound with duct tape and bound by a tight bungee. Not perfect, but I figured it would get me to a metal fabrication shop in Inverness: not that I had enough money for such extravagances, you understand: I needed to get online and canvass for some more writing work.


Liad headed off as I repacked. I took the wrong turn and had to double back myself, catching him about an hour later; the boy moved fast for carrying such a huge pack. Back on the trail we decided on a canalside patch of grass for a campsite. Darkness was descending on nearby Fort Augustus, so we headed into the village for the small supermarket without pitching our tents first, which turned out to be a mistake as it began to rain on the way back. In changeable weather when deciding on a tent pitch, it's always best to get one's shelter up at the first fair opportunity. I don't get wet while camping or even on the bike so much: it's during the transitions. So we got soaked. Liad got his tent up first, and then helped with mine as the rain bucketed down. I'm not sure I would've done the same, and felt both humbled and inspired by his fellowship.

I set up the candle heaters to desperately try to dry out gloves, socks and boots, and had a £1.49 tin of Morrison's Irish Stew for dinner, which I wasn't looking forward to as tinned meals tend to smell a bit like dog food when you open them up. The stew, however, was a thoroughly pleasant surprise; very tasty, and mopped up with some fresh bread I couldn't have been happier. I think I've found my brand. I finished off my repast with a box of Mr. Kipling's Chocolate Slices and a few chocolate digestives, washed down with a cup of coffee, and snuggled up in my sleeping bag to listen to the rain.

The sky was clear the next morning, and Fort Augustus is gorgeous. The sunrise dramatically lit the mountains, streaking shadows across their faces at such acute angles you could actually see them change expression.



Liad again finished packing first and headed to the coffee shop, while I took my time to enjoy the surroundings, idly chatting with passing locals. I caught up with him at the village bridge and we said our goodbyes, as he headed for the Isle of Skye and I continued on the Caledonian, promising to visit him in Israel. The cycle route followed the road here onto the east side of Loch Ness, up into the mountains and away from the water.


It was some serious climbing, and most of the morning and early afternoon were spent off the bike and pushing (I still hadn't adjusted my front derailleur, primarily because I didn't want to fuck it up further. I needed to get to somewhere with WiFi so I could watch a YouTube instructional or two). The rain started up mid-morning and set in for the day, unfortunately taking the edge off the spectacular views to be had.



After two hours of punishing gradients the miles of downhills began, and swept me into the pub in the village of Whitebridge. I got there at 2.35 pm, however, and they closed at 3, but the barman invited me to stay in the hotel lounge to dry off, such was my sopping condition. What considerate people. I got the fire going and began the process of drying out, meanwhile breaking out my laptop to put some proposals in on prospective writing jobs, and watch the first of a few videos to decipher the mysteries of bike gearing.

After three hours or so most of my kit was dry and the rain had stopped, so I packed up and rejoined the downhills, and found a very fetching spot to camp among the ferns by a tumbling burn outside the mountainside village of Foyer. I fell asleep excited by the prospect of the next day's ride along Loch Ness.

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