5th May 2021 / Comments (1)

The Central Highlander

No sooner had the First Minister announced a relaxing of travel restrictions as a message came through from Al. 

Normally a lot of personal swithering entails, but this had been a long winter of lockdown, and seven months – yes, seven whole months – since our last bikepacking trip around the Capital Trail (or at least, our version of it). After an immediate yes, I started two-and-a-half weeks of actual swithering over which kit, bike, food, sun cream etc to take. I’m no expert bike packer with all the ultralight gear, so tough decisions have to be made, each one deserving of a dissertation in itself.

One decision I’m more than happy to delegate is the route as my riding partner, Al Spence, knows the intended destination like a Highland taxi driver, having been to at Rannoch School. While many of the place names he was mentioning were familiar to me, I have typically only driven past or near them on the way to walking or climbing trips; cycling the area was new to me.

The day before departure, the weather was very different to the forecast. Deciding what to wear for 5-10 degrees, wet and breezy weather is made all the more difficult while staring out at 18 degrees, blue sky bright sunshine in Edinburgh. I erred on the side of caution, knowing warm clothes can be removed but not magicked out of thin air.

Monday lunchtime saw the first leg of the trip riding the 10 miles from home to Edinburgh Waverley. I love heading off for adventures by train, it just feels right to leave the car behind. Al doesn’t quite share my passion for rail travel, and it was perhaps justified when the reservable bike spaces on Scotrail’s service amounted to a coffin-sized wardrobe with wheel hooks. A dispute with the train conductor ensued and some poor guy without a reservation was faced with being kicked off in Kirkcaldy, 250 miles from home, and 150 miles from meeting his pals to do the NC500. Some creative bike Tetris finally appeased the conductor and got us all to our destinations. Phew!

Into the wilds

There really isn’t much at to see at Dalwhinnie station, but a view of the barren Highlands, a few cottages and a gravel road disappearing to the west over the rail line towards Ben Alder.

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Alongside Loch Pattack

This was our route. The weather, as promised, was grey, sporadically wet and breezy, giving a foreboding feeling to the first leg of the journey. The going was easy enough along Loch Ericht on an estate road. The first of my decisions to bring the mountain bike over the gravel bike was already in doubt.

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Over the River Pattack with the rain closing in

As the track headed towards Loch Pattack, it became increasingly less well-surfaced to the extent of being briefly boggy at the same time as rain was lashing us. Already wet and cold, we took the opportunity of a sheltered camp spot, earlier than planned, but subsequent camp options wouldn’t likely be so sheltered. Tents up, food on, whisky out… We chatted until the rain came down and turned in at a respectable hour.

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Home for the night

It’s shite being Scottish

A damp and cold view of the Ben Alder Estate greeted us in the morning; motivation to get packed as quick as cold fingers would allow. Not 30 seconds around the first corner the wind hit us and we realised the sheltered camp spot had been the right decision.

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The brilliant estate road alongside Lochan na h-Earba

From here, good quality gravel estate roads meander through the Ben Alder, Adverikie and Corrour estates. Al pointed out camping options had we decided to ride longer into the previous evening, including the Youth Hostel at Loch Ossian. By the time we reached here, the sight of Corrour Station House nestled away beyond the Loch was a much welcomed find.

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Moody Loch Ossian, a Cairngorms staple

A failure on my part to check distances for the morning meant I hadn’t eaten enough, in part not wanting to ruin the promise of a hearty lunch in the refurbished station house. Maybe being so empty on arrival helped, but it was truly superb. We feasted on a soup of the day (even the grilled bread was amazing), burger and chips for Al, and I had fish and chips. The only disappointment (or blessing in disguise) and sign of the Covid times was being unable to have a pint of local ale inside with the food. Fortunately, I don’t have to report what beer would have done for the afternoon’s riding; maybe well represented by Renton’s performance in the infamous Trainspotting scene filmed right there.

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Over the Road To The Isles

Fuelled up, we tackled the Road To The Isles up to Loch Rannoch. The scenery along here is equally as vast as my accustomed view from the other side on Buchaille Etiv Mor and I was beginning to piece together the geography of places previously known but never visited. Dropping down towards Rannoch Station, a stunningly quiet and remote-feeling stretch of road took us to Bridge of Gaur and a decision point for the final push of the day. Our likely camping spot being above the southern shore of Loch Rannoch, we could continue on the road and take a short climb up or take an ominous looking track towards and round the back of Leagag. Ominous mainly because of the gathering dark clouds and threat of another soaking just before camp, but we decided to take this option as it would tick off another leg of the Badger Divide new to us both.

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Brightening light was offset by a thick covering of ominous cloud

The stiff climb with the weather threatening to break all the way was rewarded with magnificent views to Loch Rannoch, brightening skies and a pleasant descent to our camp spot. There was a grassy area large enough to camp an army under the shelter of trees, beside a babbling stream just deep enough for a ‘squat and splash’ to freshen up for dinner. The weather continued to improve for a dry evening, as we enjoyed more food and relieving the hip flask of its whisky load.

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A drenching of late evening sun

Worse places to have poo

Well, there are! And yes, outdoor guidelines were followed.

Bright and settled weather continued into our third day, and we packed up and headed back up the hill in welcome warmth of the sun. Through Black Wood of Rannoch Al regaled me with tales of his school days at Rannoch Station. His intricate knowledge of the area made for great tales of epic runs, mountain expeditions and water tunnel adventures around every corner.

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Early morning pass hunting

We dropped down the long descent of Innerwick Pass to Bridge of Balgie feeling slightly less expired that the previous day. Nonetheless, the very welcoming Glen Lyon Tea Room provided sustenance in the form of home made soup, sausage rolls and fresh coffee. Glen Lyon is a beautiful part of the country, or world for that matter.

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A stunning sight on the Innerwick Pass

Feeling a bit delicate from two days in the saddle, we took the serene option of coasting down the glen road enjoying the tranquillity and views all the way to Aberfeldy. From here, another decision on the final leg to either Pitochry (easier) or Dunkeld (harder). Weary legs and tender bits made the decision for us, although the trail from Strathtay over An Suidhe to Pitlochry offered a final sting in the tail. With plenty of options for food and beer, we settled in for a final refuelling before boarding the train for home.

Check out more from James on Instagram and discover more Scottish bikepacking routes.

Last modified: 5th May 2021

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Ian Dagnall
Ian Dagnall
4 months ago

Cracking read and superb photos – thank you.

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