Storm Ali was packing a punch, hitting Scotland hard. The perfect storm some would say.
We travel up in Jason’s van during the night. The dot matrix signs all along the motorway are warning of the high winds that were already in force. We passed a truck laying on its side on the hard shoulder, like it couldn’t take it anymore and succumbed to the gale. It looked bad. It was bad and you wouldn’t have believed it to look out beyond the windscreen that it would pass by morning. However, we couldn’t help but think that the fine line between bravery and stupidity was already looking thin and we hadn’t even reached the border.
We parked up just beyond the sign welcoming us to Aviemore. It’s late and from the moment the engine was killed the roof was popped, bed rolls were unfurled and we anxiously await what tomorrow will bring.
By 7:47 we were tucking in to a hearty breakfast, having googled our best options at dawn. As we listened to the rain, we decided on a tactical approach to our journey. The weather apps maintained it would brighten up by 11, so why start in the rain? Besides, Jason hadn’t really had time to pack properly and needed supplies (you know essentials like, socks and something more than just shorts). He did however bring the most prized of all possessions, Zima’s (his daughter) homemade flapjacks, which were incredible! Faffing over by 11ish and as predicted, sunshine and instant warmth.
It felt great to be kitted up and rolling down Aviemore’s main road, heading in to the wilderness, enveloped in pine forest and knee high heather. I was immediately taken back to New Zealand and ‘The Old Ghost Road’ I had done on this very bike 18 months ago, it was incredible. The climbing, the descents, the views, the flora and fauna, but also the Huts and the people we met. The Cairngorms has all this and more and yet less in a sense. Certainly less Huts to flee in to, equipped with kettles and coffee presses.
Just an hour in and we had our first river crossing and our first insight to how this trail was going to open up to us! This route certainly doesn’t take the most obvious track. With trust in our Garmins, we travelled over ground where barely a track was visible at times and if there was a river…we would be crossing it. Over the 4 days we would cross over 30 rivers. Trench Foot was a certainty.
The day would be a steady mix of climbing, awesome little descents, single track to wide fire tracks. Just several kilometres short of Braemar we had a wild ride down through open moorland. Herds of Deer and Stags racing across our paths, not 10 meters in front and in between Jason and I. Those moments would lift my energy levels like no amount of Tunnock Wafers could. Through the moorland and into an enchanting forest, which seemed to be eerily lit up from the dying yellowing ferns below. It was at this moment my heart sank as I felt what we all dread, the squishy tyre! I had hit a meaty drainage channel and struck the back wheel hard, forgetting that the bike was somewhat heavier than it had been used to all year. Weighing up our options, we elected to get the bivvy bags out and set up camp. It was now getting late and we were exhausted, already not capable of making sound decisions let alone tackling a flatty. It wasn’t long before we scouted a good spot to hunka down. It was hidden, had a fast running stream and best of all moss so thick it was comfy enough to just lie on! Within minutes the stove was on, tarp up and bed rolls out. We would sleep a solid 11 hours!
When morning came around it was time to take on the tube! Have you ever tried getting a 650+ tyre off? It’s incredibly difficult, but thankfully after only 20mins I remembered ‘the knack’. The problems didn’t end there though, the tube had succumbed to a ‘snake bite’ puncture, the valve was damaged and quite unbelievably the Allan bolt skewer had been rounded out making it impossible to take the wheel off. We patched it up as best we could and limped slowly towards Braemar, in the rain. The one shop selling tubes didn’t have my size so we sat in a cafe weighing up the options, it looked bleak. The closest place that would have the necessary stuff was 26 km away so Jason faced the fact that he might have to ride there and back, the small matter of getting the damn wheel off still stumping us. Frustrated by it all, we made a firm decision to have one last blast at fixing it and at least slow down the inevitable flat so at least we could ride and pump on the road to Ballater.
As rain persisted we took shelter in an archway leading to the tourist information (sadly we learnt, soon to close!), flipped the bike upside down and set to it once again. A figure watched over us in the archway and as I looked up I instantly recognise her… Sam! A friend from years ago who I hadn’t caught up with in many years and she couldn’t have been more surprised eirther! With an amazing streak of luck, it just so happens she used to run a mountain bike shop, and was super helpful. Having explained our quandary to her she offered a multitude of suggestions before pointing us in the direction of the nearest mechanic who might be able to help, so on we went to meet Barry the mechanic, The King of Braemar in our eyes. We wheeled the bike in and he got his tap and dye set out and went to town. In less than 20 minutes the wheel was off, the tube binned and a new 29er tube in its place.
Finally, we were on the road, it was 2pm and we had travelled a grand total of 10km, so we rode our socks off. We needed to make at least 70km each day as somebody, Jason, had to be in work on the Monday. We got to Blair Atholl and saw the train station and guiltily wondered if we should hop on and get to Aviemore and do the shorter loop?… No.
We rode through the sunset, in the rain, and wouldn’t be stopping until we had covered a significant amount of miles and until the perfect bivvy spot presented itself. I’ve always been incredibly fortunate to find something that was no less than perfect, fitting all the criteria needed for a cosy night under the stars. A little hollow in the woods, comfy Moss and even a little stream. We made camp as the full moon came out from behind the clouds.
Waking from the forest and our first real early start, it was clear right from the off we had chosen a good bivvy spot that night. The cover of the trees didn’t last long though, giving way to vast open moorland. Some incredible views accompanied us all day, the sky was kind but the wind was not. From high moorland to valley bottom, the terrain was mixed and ever changing, keeping our minds focussed on every move. Really feeling like this wild valley had just been forgotten about, what lay ahead was some of the most perfect, technical single track that went on for miles and miles.
Jason took a tumble sideways down a steep slope but somehow managed to keep smiling as he carried his bike 20m back up to the track. It was tiring to focus for so long, nothing like this exists in the Lakes. Approaching Glenmore, the forest tracks eased us in to civilisation and the rain was settling in as we lent our bikes up against the Pinemartin Pub. A cute little bar with a tiny convenience store attached, full of old skiing memorabilia. Hot chocolate with all the trimmings left my face glowing red. Jason was planning our next assault, where to stay the night, unfortunately it wasn’t staying in and under cover. It was 5pm, the rain lashing down against the window and I didn’t want to leave. I dreamed about finding a hotel and closing my eyes. Scoffing down flapjacks and a babybel I could feel the energy flowing back in to my body, I imagine that’s exactly how Popeye must’ve felt sculling down his spinach.
The rain had abated and we left the cosy mountain pub to ride on. We passed a hut that was recommended on the route, but it was too close to the track and it looked busy with folk milling around outside. We literally pushed on for the next several hours in hope of something better. The track would rise up 500m in to the clouds as we watched the sun setting behind us. False summits and smooth tracks only to be halted every 5m by huge, wheel swallowing drainage ditches flanked by boulders. Even the flat parts were unrideable. If I knew what lay ahead of us in the warm comforting pub, nothing would have gotten me to leave. Typical of this route, this would go on and on, up and down. Getting on the bike only to have to get off 5 or 10m later. It was demoralising. We had reached that period in the day where it’s too light to use a torch but too dark to see every lump and bump on the ground, now flanked by mountains. I spotted a deer looking down at us, perfectly silhouetted against the grey sky. Still magical I thought, even in these conditions.
Days later I would find bruises on my stomach caused by my handlebar and water bottle repeatedly jabbing me as I pushed my bike, hampered by the arm without an elbow or tricep.
The hail came in as it turned dark, Jason had taken out his torch and I was in no mood to carry on. It was cold, windy, we were soaked and too high up to comfortably bivvy. Without saying a word to each other we knew that our only real option was to continue to the valley, several hours in front.
The Bothy we had looked at on the map ‘only 10km away’, that looked so close and so perfect, blinded us by its perfection so much so that we didn’t appreciate the narrow contour lines that separated us from it. Reaching near our limits, something metal reflected from Jason’s torch, it was a little bothy and not the one marked on our map. The Bridge of Avon Bothy. Relief flooded over us as the door opened and we found shelter for the night. Leslie, an adventurous women in her 60s and on an 8 day solo sojourn of the Cairngorms welcomed us in. We feasted, shared stories of past daring deeds and slept so well (following the dosage of ibuprofen she offered me to ease the pain).
At 7am, our last breakfast was demolished and we put on our wet, cold shoes and socks for the very last time. Leslie packed up her stuff and I help load her gigantic rucksack before she disappeared off into the clouds. Leaving the warmth, and now somewhat smelly Bothy, we’re reminded of how unbelievably lucky we were to find that tiny little wooden oasis. Even with the light of the morning, the river crossing that faced us was a tricky undertaking. With no point trying to keep dry, I wade straight through, the bike lifting with the force of the water, as if it wanted to stay drier than me. From this point, we are rolling downwards, still having to stop and negotiate some tricky trail sections, but far less than the previous night.
We spy the Bothy we intended to head to 10 hours ago, way off in the distance at the head of a valley. With no way to it other than to go further down and double back on ourselves. No chance we would’ve done that. Ahead was some of the most flowing single track of the trip. Incredible views and fast descents, it’s those simple pleasures that are all I need to renew my energies. Deja vu hits us as we come to cross the road we were on two days ago, remembering the relentlessly bumpy tracks. This however, became all too much for my chain. After 5000kms of seriously hard graft, carrying my gear and my ass over the last two years, it had finally given up and stretched, so shifting became problematic.
We would follow this valley for the rest of the day. On the map it looked like a great track and not too lengthy. In reality however, it turned into a slow and boggy mess, having to wade the majority of the way. Hailstorms arrived, lasting only a few minutes, but each time I was convinced they came with the force that they’ll be here for the remainder of the day. I was at my lowest and getting lower. All I wanted was to sit on my saddle and slowly turn the pedals, but the terrain wouldn’t let me have this luxury.
Later we crossed a tiny bridge made from scaffolding pipes, high up over fast moving water that led to a 30m waterfall. The sun came out to light up this beauty, we stopped here for a while. It was too beguiling we couldn’t leave in any hurry.
Having crossed a multitude of rivers throughout the trip, when the next appeared we instinctively crossed only to find however that the track continued back where we came from! Damn it, we crossed back again. This track wound itself up over the river, overgrown with young trees. Bashing through them, I hit one hard and went down, only relieved that I didn’t go the other way, 60m down to the raging river. I think riding through this little jungle was one of my favourite parts of the whole trip. We came out the other end to meet the dirt road, soaked head to toe as if we’d been through a car wash. Following the same bit of track we arrived at Feshie Bridge, we were on just 15 hours ago. Incredibly I felt stronger today on this part, which gave me a boost.
From there until the end we would be riding on tarmac. I tucked into the last of Zima’s flapjack which I’d been saving for this moment to keep me going for the last few hours. Riding through Aviemore filthy, wet and exhausted after 3 nights wild camping, 270kms in 30+ hours of riding/pushing and now returning to the van. Relief overwhelming me as I sat on the back bumper peeling away my shoes and socks, thankful I don’t have to wear them again for some time. It was getting dark but we had to make it back to the Lakes that night so after a quick fish supper at the Happy Haggis we hit the road home.