Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Learning from my mistakes, Benderloch, Ballachulish and the Fort William World Cup

There are many mistakes you can make when trying to travel light, self sufficient and off-road in the highlands. The heather ale was only one of them...

Working in a bike shop throws up lots of exciting opportunities, including factory visits, cheap kit, mid-week drinking and enraging wealthy Morningsiders by not giving them the discount they are naturally entitled to.

Borrowing a luggage trailer may not rank very highly in that list for a lot of people, but I saw it as a chance to visit the Mountainbike World Cup in Fort William without letting the pros have all the fun.

My first mistake was treating the trailer's maximum weight capacity as a target, not a maximum.

Note the enormous bag precariously strapped to the trailer. My kit list included:

  1. About three changes of clothes, including a pair of jeans, a large fleece jacket, hiking boots, and two sets of riding clothes.
  2. A hammock
  3. A harmonica, and a copy of 'Learning to Play the Harmonica'.
  4. A large tub of delicious stew.
  5. Two books, 'Zen and the Art of MotorCycle Maintenance' and 'Gormenghast'.
  6. A Trangia stove and a full bottle of Meths.
  7. A £50 Argos camping set, good sturdy kit but weighing in at about 4.5kg for a tent, mat and sleeping bag.
  8. God knows what else.
While the above all sounds perfectly sensible, anyone who has experienced the paralysing terror of an airborne trailer at 20mph, or has encountered any of Scotland's finest 'paths' would agree it was near suicidal to try and tow the lot to Fort William off-road.

Never-the-less, off I set.

The path from Glen Creran to Ballachulish was signposted quite clearly, this would be easy...

Mistake no.2: The ordnance survey, and people who signpost paths, have sick senses of humour. Two of the sweatiest hours later, I pushed down the last of the steep, muddy and rocky path to reach the River Laroch. This had served as an excellent introduction to the fine art of portage, or as it will henceforth be referred to: Hike-a-bike.

However, with the rough must come the smooth, in this case an excellent (if intermittent) descent down Gleann an Fiodh to Ballachulish.

Having successfully reached Ballachulish, it was a short hop along the road to the Red Squirrel campsite in Glen Coe. While it may not have been THE midgiest campsite I had ever stayed in, it was certainly close. Reason enough, if one were needed, to stroll along the dark road to the Clachaig Inn.

Mistake no.3: Do NOT leave your card behind the bar, especially when they have heather ale on tap.

Very hungover the next morning, I attempted an un-trailered loop from Glen Coe, over the Devil's Staircase to Kinlochleven, and back to the campsite. However, the less said about that the better, a day in the tent with Gormenghast beckoned..

The next day dawned grey and cloudy, so I followed the road to Kinlochleven, and joined the West Highland Way to Fort William

Large rocky cart tracks suit the trailer's capabilities very well, so long as you have the guts to hold on as the ferocious momentum of a heavy trailer at speed pushes you up, over and through every rocky stream crossing and rut in your way. Just don't dare brake or you'll have to get the whole lot back up to speed the hard way...

Leaving the West Highland Way at Lochan Lunn Da-Bhra, you can follow the steep and twisty road down to Fort William. The viewpoints on the way offered some fantastic photo-stops, and an opportunity to let the brakes cool down.

As the World Cup was in town, nobody batted an eyelid as I sat myself in the park in the middle of town, patched up my bloodied leg, and enjoyed a smoke and a whisky as the Animal Trials team put on a display right in front of me. The afternoon was marred slightly when I threw my wallet in the bin amidst a jumble of receipts and Subway wrappers (make that mistake no.4). Thankfully the good folk at the Glen Nevis campsite were trusting enough to take my personal stereo as a deposit until I could get some cash at the bank.

World Cup Practice Day.

So, I'd made it to Fort William in one piece, and now had the weekend to enjoy watching the pros strut their stuff on the slopes of Aonach Mor. Except... my friend and I had heard tell of some spectacular riding to be had along the shores of Loch Morar, 40 miles west of the town. So we headed along the Mallaig road to Bracorina to see what we could find.

Dave runs the Transcend Trail Academy in Peebles, so today at least I was travelling in style.

Starting at Bracorina, we just followed our noses inland alongside Loch Morar (some facts, which I vaguely recall and may have made up: Loch Morar is the deepest loch in Europe, Loch Morar is deeper than the sea which it drains into, Loch Morar has a research centre at its far end to study the 'heavy water' at the bottom of the loch, Loch Morar also has a monster, but its harder to park tour buses beside Loch Morar so no-one cares).

The riding was superb, with the trailer off the bike (and no hangover) I felt unstoppable, although poor Dave was still trying to straighten his legs out after six hours in the car... The trail is very rocky and wet though, so don't imagine you'll be able to ride all of it, we certainly didn't.

Upon our return to Aonach Mor, we discovered we were just in time for the Four Cross finals. Grabbing a burger and a pint we headed up to the grandstand, still dripping mud, to watch the fireworks on and off the track. Perfect.

Tip: If you're visiting Fort William for the World Cup, make a few days of it and get some riding in yourself. Leave the Witches Trail to the crowds though, there's better riding to be had just 40 miles west!



  1. Mr Ezy! Great to see you've got a blog together, should be great reading in the future.


  2. great writing Ian!, i still have the Loch Morar trail to do...cheers, Bruce

  3. Cheers guys, Greg, I'll be on your case for some Glen Clova pictures in the near future, I think the number of crashes alone merit a little write up!

  4. Nice one Ian.

    Always look forward to your peregrinations on STW.



  5. great stuff ian, welcome to the blogosphere!

  6. OK, as I've lost my password and it transpires that Google's security questions are tougher than those on my online banking, I have started a new blog based very closely on this one over at http://bigplansweecountry.blogspot.ca.

    Thanks for reading.