Digging Deep | A New Kind of Mountain Bike Adventure in Scotland
Has adventure become too safe? Dan Milner went on a Scottish boat, bivi and mountain bike mission to find out…
Words and photos by Dan Milner
My fifth year gym teacher always told us to “dig deep" when the going gets hard. “Put your head down and grit your teeth," he’d declare from a pair of shorts that were clearly too tight for him. Right now I’m digging pretty deep, but if the effectiveness of his advice is measured in forward momentum I’m obviously not digging deep enough.
The gym teacher (or Mr Weight as he preferred to be called) was talking about the obligatory cross-country run, inanely lapping a sports field through vertical sheets of rain. It all seemed daft to me, but then I had no idea how Mr Weight’s survival tip would come to be so useful now. Without it, me, my sea kayak and the inflatable dinghy with my bike strapped to its blue, bulbous form behind me would be blown right back to where I started.
"Just three mates, some boats, some bikes & a couple of nights under the stars"
I’m paddling back across Loch Morar on the west coast of Scotland. A fierce north westerly wind is slinging rain into my face and driving it up my nostrils as I battle to hold my position in the middle of the loch. Forward momentum has become a pipe dream.
But it hasn’t always been like this. For two days we’ve paddled under clear skies and ridden singletrack bathed in sunshine, downed beers by campfires and even taken an icy dip in the cold, manhood-shrinking waters of the loch. But then on day three we wake to rain. Heavy, persuasive rain, which drums down on our flimsy bivi tarps, driving us from our warm sleeping bags and encouraging us not to linger.
The idea for our kayak-bike-bivi adventure came from a chat I had with Nick Bayliss, the man behind Royal Racing mountain bike clothing, a short while before. We wanted a few days away with the bikes, riding quiet trails far from the madding crowd, but also something other than heading back to a kitsch, lace doilie-strewn B&B for the night.
We wanted riding but we also wanted it tinged with adventure, and not the organised guided kind you get by flexing your credit card. We didn’t want it managed, manicured, sterilised or safe. Only a couple of decades ago, before we became tethered to 4G online existences, it seemed you only had to get past the local chip shop to have an adventure. We rode rigid bikes or elastomer forked hardtails, steering narrow bars above skinny, skittish tyres. Every ride onto a moor or across a mountainside seemed to be enveloped in adventure.
"We didn't want it managed, manicured, sterilised or safe…"
But now we’re micro-managed by GPS and electronic shifting. Is this the future of adventure mountain biking? Faced by these thoughts, reflecting on what the future holds for the idea of adventure can be a scary thought, even scarier than some adventures themselves.
As Nick and I mulled the various possibilities for a few days away, the one adventure idea that ticked the boxes so readily was a sea kayak and mountain bike trip in Scotland. To move adventure forward a click nowadays, you almost have to go back to basics. Just three mates, some boats, bikes and a couple of nights out under the stars. It was perfect and the plan was set. Joining us for our voyage into new adventure waters would be local lad, Tadj Hendry. Whatever lay ahead, I felt sure there would be no lace doilies involved.
And that’s how we found ourselves pumping up two inflatables, dismantling bikes and stashing dry sacks of bivi gear into the hulls of sleek kayaks on the shore of the deepest loch in Scotland. Having scoured the internet for possible kayak rental locations we plumped for Loch Morar, only an hour from Fort William. Here we had access to both kayaks from the nearby Arisaig-based Sea Kayak Highlands guiding company and a well-established trail along the north side of the loch. There were even seals in the sea nearby. Our adventure had come together and it was perfect. Or so we thought.
"Whatever lay ahead I felt sure there would be no lace doilies involved…"
It is Mike at Sea Kayak Highlands who puts the first dampener on our idea. “If the wind gets up, you’ll not get far with a dinghy in tow," he said, almost apologetically as if the idea had been his all along and he was now regretting mentioning it. I cast him a knowing smile in reply, aware that he’s right. Paddling a sea kayak against a head wind is one thing, but towing a great big inflatable dinghy behind is another. “We’ll give it a go," I say, “it’s what adventure is all about."
We push off from the western end of the loch near the village of Morar and it takes us five hours of paddling to reach our planned bivi spot at Swordland, about 14 kilometres east. Even in good weather we’re thankful when our planned stop looms into view, knowing that a brew isn’t far off.
Admittedly we could have reached this same spot by riding our bikes along the trail from our kayak launch point, but that would have lacked the same flavour of adventure, and would have involved riding with packs laden with bivi gear and food for two nights out.
"As the first of our beers are downed our plans get more ambitious"
We unload boats shedding their contents across a grassy knoll we’ve chosen as our bivi spot, before scampering about to gather dry twigs for the obligatory midge-repelling fire. Tadj pulls out our Ordnance Survey map from his kit and slumped onto our Thermorests we plan the next couple of days.
As the first of the beers are downed our plans become more ambitious. “Look at this trail over here," says Nick circling a finger around a red dotted line marked on the map east of the eastern end of the loch. It’s a way away, a good few hours more to paddle, but it looks good, as does a ten kilometre loop out to a waterfall and back on Loch Morar’s south shore.
Now, armed with our kayaks, more and more remote trails suddenly look accessible. “If only we had a week out here", we lament unaware that we’re probably looking at the map through beer glasses.
We roll out of our bivi spot straight onto our trail the next morning, climbing over a small col and dropping down to Tarbet, a two-house settlement on the shore of tidal Loch Nevis just to the north of us. From here you can get the Knoydart ferry back to Mallaig or across to Inverie, the start of even more possible trails to ride.
Launching into perfect undulating, rocky singletrack, there is no time for a warm up. The trail is as good as you’ll find anywhere in the world and as it undulates its way along the loch side, suspended above Morar’s gently lapping waters, it begs us to ride faster. We oblige. Short punchy climbs break the pace and leave us wheezing as we crest the tops and are catapulted into yet another fast and furious descent down to the water’s edge. When we reach Morar at the western end of our trail, we about-turn and start our way back. By the time we return to our bivi spot we’ve ridden 28 kilometres and climbed and descended 750 metres.
We stash our gear into the kayaks and dismantle bikes to tie the frames and wheels separately on our two dinghies, making sure nothing is hanging proud of the boats. No one wants to chance losing anything so we each knot and re-knot the lines, until the anarchic web of rope looks like the work of a drunken spider. It’s not pretty but it will do the job. Losing a wheel to the icy depths of Scotland’s deepest loch is a sacrifice no one wants to make. Finally bidding farewell to our first night’s bivi spot, we push off from the rocky shore and begin the 90-minute paddle across the loch to our second stopover on the southern shore.
None of us has set foot on this loch shore before and what greets us is one of the most beautiful wild campgrounds I’ve ever laid eyes on. We beach our kayaks on white sands lapped by crystal clear water, using its icy chill to cool bottles of beer snugged into the sand while we scatter bivi gear among the golden tussock grass.
A half hour later we have a fire lit, some food on the stove and cold one in our hands. We sit around the fire embellishing stories from our day, and downing ales while the sun lights a deep red glow as it slips behind the far end of the loch. Life is simple and rewards are easy to find if you know where, and how to look, we realise.
Our plan the next morning is to ride up to the small Loch Beoraid and back, before starting our 11-kilometre paddle across the loch back to Morar village, where Mike will meet us to collect the kayaks. It’s a simple plan and now warm and dry we slip into a beer-assisted sleep, content that all is well in the land of adventure.
But food, laughter and an absence of kayak capsize rescues have brought about complacency, and in it we have forgotten the definition of adventure. We still have the ‘uncertain outcome’ to address and we don’t have to wait too long to do it. The rain that wakes us next morning at daybreak renders our plan to ride little short of a deathwish.
We huddle under Tadj’s tarp, sipping gritty tea as raindrops sizzle on the hot stove and spatter white sand onto our breakfast bowls and utensils. The wind is rising and we need to make a start on the paddle home. Time is a luxury now forgotten, and gone with it is certainty.
Right now, with a headwind blowing straight across the loch, I’m not even convinced we will finish the paddle with dinghies in tow. But then I remember my gym teacher, Mr Weight. With gritted teeth I bow my head and we push off from the shore.
Our futures are not set. Despite our technology-addicted lives, punctuated by apps and propped up by ‘likes’, nothing is predetermined. Step outside into the natural world and our attachment to predictable stability is easily left behind. Half way across a Scottish loch, being hammered by rain and buffeted by wind, with a damn rubber dinghy in tow, I realise that maybe adventure hasn’t changed after all.
I’m rummaging in my memory and coming up with advice from my past. “Dig deep," it says, and I do. I know somewhere ahead this pain will end, after all in between gusts of wind I am making slow progress. But for the moment, despite the cold drip of water down my neck and my numb, wrinkled fingers clasping my paddle, I’m kind of enjoying myself.
Adventure hasn’t changed, it’s still out there and always will be, now and into the future if you know how and where to look for it.