Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Over to Orkney.

The Africa Twin was packed and I was off once more. The average speed vultures preying on the A9’s zombies were avoided, as usual, by following the far more enjoyable Blairgowrie, Glenshee, Lecht route north to Carrbridge. I know I’m way past broken record stage, but this road is a cracker. The sections that stand out being the swoopy Glenshee rollercoaster, up the Cairnwell pass to the Glenshee Ski centre, and the mini-Alpine switchbacks of the A939 to the Lecht.  I had a plan in my head, albeit the plan belonged to Egor. I was meeting him, Faithir, Smillie, Fergus and Snake at John O’ Groats where we’d spend the night before getting the ferry from Gill’s Bay over to Orkney. 
I had all day to get to Groats.  After a brief stint on the A9 from Carrbridge to Allness I headed inland to Bonar Bridge rather than following the coast road up through Brora to Wick. This decision was rewarded with near empty roads, the initial gorge like twists and turns opening out after Bonar Bridge to a smooth, fast flowing, tree lined, swinging pendulum blast to Lairg, where the road once again changes. This time it takes the form of a rough skinned, bumpy old single track snake with the occasional spots of gravel dermatitis.  These single track roads are my favourite, rarely lined with anything but open moorland and rocks, occasionally hugging rivers or lochs and more often than not pretty empty. Big traillies like the Africa Twin are phenomenal instruments to dissect a serpent like this. The larger diameter wheels and longer travels suspension disposing of the bumps and lumps while the off-road orientated chassis takes the twitch out of the arse when you encounter those patches of gravel. Holding a gear and rolling the throttle back and forth gives a relaxing, nearly brake free ride while allowing full examination of all ninety three and a half of the Twin’s stallions.
I followed the snake all the way to Altnahara where I stopped for lunch, hiding from the drizzle in the phone box while I cooked my boil in the bag Hot Pot on the Jetboil.  Orally satisfied, I carried on north, turning off along the side of Loch Naver towards Bettyhill. I really had to concentrate as I navigated over the gravel strewn, moss covered surface this wee stretch had. I stopped for a look around the Grumbeg ruins, an area that was devastated during the Highland Clearances before popping out on the North Coast Road at Bettyhill.


Cooking up with the jetboil in a phone box, Altnaharra, Scotland.

Cooking up with the jetboil in a phone box, Altnaharra, Scotland.

Grumber, Loch Naver.



The North Coast road is one of my most favourite stretches of tarmac in the country, taking you from the barren Caithness cliffs of John O Groats, to the wonderful, white Sutherland sands at Durness. Today I was only riding a short section, but I was still buzzing as much as I was the first time I rode it fifteen years ago. The Bettyhill to Groats run takes you along some seriously fast, smooth sweepers to Thurso before tightening up a touch past Dunnet beach and into the small village of John O Groats. Arguably the run in to Groats from the east coast side is scenically more dramatic but who cares, the sun was shining and I was stoked. What an awesome days ride I’d had.
I thought we’d be camping, but the guys had sent me a text I’d picked up earlier saying we were going to stay at the bunkhouse at the Seaview Hotel in John O’Groats. At £25 for bed and breakfast I couldn’t really argue, despite it being a sizable boot to the arse of my tight budget. The Winton Massif’s bikes (our tongue in cheek bike gang) were shining in the sun outside the Bunkhouse. Snake had his Harley, Faithir was on his BMW R100GS PD, Ferg was on the 1150GS that I once owned, Smillie on his 1150 Rockster and Egor, the trip organiser, on his R1100s. Indeed, we looked quite the motley, bad-ass crew. I’m sure all the locals were sure we’d bite the head off chickens and roll about in dog shit.

The Winton Massif at John O Groats.


Instead, we opted to have a beer accompanied by a nice big cigar before heading in to the Seaview for some food.  I had told Egor not to worry about booking the ferry as we’ve always just rolled up in the past. Egor had thought we’d be getting the early morning ferry (aye, right) but as we never got out our pits till after 9, the morning was spent looking around John O’Groats and the surrounding area, with the usual sign post photos taken and a visit to Duncansby Head and the sea stacks there. We were joined by Ferg’s pal Mikey on his XT Tenere. I’ve spoken to Mikey online as we have a mutual interest in Honda C90s and it was good to shoot the shit with him. Snake headed home and the rest of the Massif all rode to Gills Bay together, only to be met with the news that the ferry was full. Shite. I spoke with the staff at the small ferry terminal. It would be the Captain’s decision if we could squeeze the bikes on, but it wasn’t looking good. I explained it would only be four bikes going on the boat, it was only Faithir, Egor, Smillie and myself that were heading over to Orkney but teeth continued to be sooked and “I dunnos” muttered. We had pretty much made our minds up that we’d be getting the later ferry straight to Stromness from Scrabster when we were told there was space for us. I even had to beep my horn to Faithir as he’d begun to ride away. The four of us shouted quick goodbyes to Ferg and Mikey and roared up the pier to board the ferry.

Africa Twin at John O'Groats.

R1150GS and Africa Twin at Duncansby Head Lighthouse.

Woman with a baby looks at Duncansby Stacks, Caithness, Scotland.

The Winton Massif at Duncansby Head.


The crossing from Gills Bay to St Margrets Hope on the Orkney Mainland only takes an hour or so and means you get a stunning run over the Churchill Barriers up to Kirkwall. This was Egor and Smillie’s first visit to Orkney so they stopped off to visit the popular Italian Chapel. Faithir headed straight to Stromness Campsite while I took the back road past Scapa Distillery. Orkney is rich in tourist attractions and over dinner that night we formulated a plan. Egor and Smillie would spend three nights at Stromness, which would be their base as they explored everything they could on the Mainland. Faithir and I would also spend two nights at Stromness, with a night in between over on Hoy. “The Mainland” in Orkney terms is the big main Orkney Island, while Hoy is the second largest island in Orkney, south west of the Mainland. So far the Orkadian weather hadn’t been kind to us. It had rained almost constantly. The soggy weather accompanied by temperatures rarely breaking into double figures meant our bike kit was given a good workout as Faithir and I rode to Kirkwall to stock up on stuff we needed for Hoy, my trusty old TCX boots beginning to feel a bit damp around the toes.
As we sailed from Houghton to Lyness on Hoy we got speaking to some of the locals from the small island.  There told us about all the work that was being done on Hoy for the 100th year anniversary of the Battle of Jutland. Hoy will receive lots of VIPs and dignitaries for the ceremony. One local said “Every time you see a TV camera there’s some guy with a paint brush just out of shot. It’s like fucking North Korea!” Lyness is home to the museum for Scapa Flow and the war related side of Orkney. The museum is free and is a few meters from the ferry terminal. We were meeting Smillie and Egor at the museum the following morning so we skipped through Lyness and headed up to Rackwick.


Ring of Brodgar, Orkney.

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney.

Africa Twin at the Watchstone, Orkney.

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney.

Africa Twin and R100GS PD on the way to Hoy, Orkney.

Out of Lyness, Hoy feels like is hasn’t changed in 50 years. The single track roads have sagging, crumbly edges and the population is minimal. We rode north up the east side of Hoy, the damp weather staying with us along Hoy’s solitary east coast road, the clouds obscuring the top of the hills as we cut across to Rackwick on the west side of the island. At Rackwick the bothy is clearly signposted and you can see it from the road. It was a bit further down than I thought it would be. We rode the bikes down the track to the bothy as far as we could, before leaving them at the gate and unloading our stuff. It took several trips across the marshy ground to carry the stuff we’d bought in Kirkwall the quarter mile or so down to the bothy. This included all our food, 25 kilos of coal, a big bag of firewood, cameras, beer and our cooking kit. By the time it was all at the bothy my feet were soaked, my old boots finally submitting to the rain, marsh and puddles.
The bothy itself was pretty fancy as far as bothies go. It had a stove for heating, a big table at one end and was fully stocked with coal, firewood, peat and firelighters. There’s a separate wee room with a toilet attached and a sink with running water. The views around the bothy are stunning. The bothy sits nearly on the beach between two giant cliffs. You can walk from Rackwick over to the Old Man of Hoy, a famous sea stack, once considered unclimbable and now a destination for climbers and even base jumpers. I didn’t make it over to the Old Man, instead Faithir and I sheltered from the rain showers indoors, venturing out to watch the gannets and take in the views when it was dry. We had nearly everything we needed but it looked like there may be another bothy toilet disaster. We had minimal toilet roll. Shite.

Rackwick Bothy, Hoy, Orkney

Rackwick Bothy, Hoy, Orkney

Unable to hold off any longer I headed to the toiled to answer Nature’s call. I was enjoying my sit down when I saw a shadow pass the toilet’s small frosted glass window. “Where the fuck’s he going?” I thought, assuming Faithir was away somewhere. I heard him come into the wee room then the toilet door opened. “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING? I’M TRYING TO HAVE A SHITE!” I roared at who I assumed was Faithir. There in the doorway stood a black collie dog and a man holding a giant toilet roll. “Sorry, I didn’t think there was anyone in here. I’ll just leave this here.” He put the bog roll on the window sill and left. I couldn’t help but laugh.
I finished up and went back to the bothy to tell Faithir about my encounter. There sitting in the bothy was the Toilet Roll guy and his dog. What an ice breaker! His name was Jimmy, he looks after the bothy with his dog Diesel. Jimmy was great craic. We shared our beers with him and our cheesy biscuits with Diesel as we spent the night listening to Jimmy’s stories about Hoy. It was a great privilege to spend some time speaking with him and learn about the place from his wealth of Orkadian knowledge.

Rackwick Bothy, Hoy, Orkney

Rackwick Bothy, Hoy, Orkney

Rackwick Bothy, Hoy, Orkney

Diesel the Dog outside Rackwick Bothy, Hoy, Orkney.

The stove had done a great job of drying my boots overnight. As we packed up Jimmy and Diesel came down to see us off and suggested the cafe at Moaness would make a good place to grab breakfast. Jimmy was right, the cafe gave us a good feed before we rode down to the museum at Lyness, stopping to speak to the people from the RSPB who were trying to spot sea eagles that were nesting in a cliff that was covered by cloud. The sea eagles eluded us but the next creatures we were looking for should be easier to spot, Smillie and Egor. We found them lurking around the Scappa Flow museum, a superb attraction that’s well worth the visit. Sure enough there was a guy out the front painting all the old guns and other bits of machinery. A choppy sail back to the mainland resulted in Egor getting a good soaking from a particularly strong bow wave so it was back to Stromness campsite where Faithir and I re-pitched our tents and everyone got warmed up with a shower.
Africa Twin at cafe in Moaness, Hoy, Orkney.

Faither on his R100GS PD somewhere on Hoy, Orkney.

Africa Twin somewhere on Hoy, Orkney.

Somewhere on Hoy, Orkney.

Lyness, Hoy, Orkney.

Stromness, Orkney.

R100GS PD rides through the streets of Stromness, Orkney.

Egan crosses the Churchill Barriers, Orkney.


Ullapool fishing boats

Ullapool fishing boats

Ullapool fishing boats



Over dinner that evening we discussed our options for the next couple of days. We’d be sailing back over to Gills Bay the following day so we had a few options of places to stay. After some internetting we discovered there was space at Ullapool Youth Hostel, ideal. We had a nice run back down the Churchill barriers and down through Caithness but by Brora the rain was back as were my wet feet. Precipitation prevailed till we popped out on the west coast, Suilvan looking good with its cloudy cape. The A835 from Ledmore to Ullapool is always a spirit lifting pleasure, the stunning scenery matched by a phenomenal stretch of tarmac, despite my sodden feet sapping all my heat I really enjoyed my ride down to Ullapool. Parking up outside the hostel, I ripped all my stuff off the bike and burst into the hostel surprising a few walkers as I started whipping all my wet gear off and drying myself off in the hall. Faithir and Egor rolled up shortly after and we got into our room, picked beds and dumped gear. Checking our phones revealed a text from Smillie. He’d really toiled with the weather and had got a bit lost on the way down the road so planned to carry on south. Wet kit was left in the Hostel’s drying room before Faithir, Egor and I had a wander around Ullapool, taking in a few pints and a curry before listening to live music at the Ferry Boat Inn. The following morning a full Scottish breakfast set us up for the run down the road, which for me meant a sunny blast to Inverness before nipping off at Carrbridge and over the Lecht and Glenshee, avoiding the A9’s Dawn of the Dead drivers. Have I ever told you how good that road is..........?

Africa Twin at one of the Churchill Barriers, Orkney.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

First trip of the year 2016. First trip on the Africa Twin.

OK, I'm usually more than happy to share online the places we go on our bike trips, but this time I'm going to have to keep a wee secret. The original plan of going back to Colonsay on Honda Cubs was put on hold as one of the bikes wasn't ready yet, so alternative plans were made for a trip on our big bikes. Ferg, Bob, Egor and I were all going to meet at Kinloch Hourn for some wild camping but at the last minute I received a message from Egor saying the weather forecast had changed for the worse. Now, living in Scotland means you have to check where you're getting your forecast from as some seem to be far more reliable than others. Unfortunately they were all pointing to it pishing doon with rain, not the best weather when you're wild camping. A few years ago I was told about a bothy that can be accessed by bike. I was reminded about it again not long before the trip. I spoke to everyone telling them about the shite weather and suggesting the bothy. Everyone was up for it. Maps and directions were passed out and I asked everyone to bring fuel for the fire and absolutely stressed the importance of bringing toilet roll. All that was left to sort out was my bike.
I had the panniers for the Africa Twin but no frames or rails to mount them to the bike. I had told Touratech UK that I had needed the pannier rails for the beginning of April as we were planning a trip and at the end of March they we're still no where near able to give me a date for delivery. Credit where credit's due though, they posted me their prototype pannier rails to borrow till mine arrived. Mounting the rails wasn't as straight forwards as on other bikes, you need a 20mm hole saw to cut through the underside plastics of the bike. Once this was done the rails were pretty straight forwards to fit, not quite the "child's play" it quotes you on Touratech's website mind. You need to make sure you don't catch any cables while drilling a couple of big holes in your brand new, very expensive bike.
With the bike sorted I gave my new tent a quick check through. Everything was there that should be. I've replaced my old Vango Equinox 250 with the similar Vango Pulsar 300. The tent along with all my other gear was loaded on the bike and I was ready to go. I met Bob and we set off. I had planned to follow an interesting route that would take us five hours or so but with the rain pissing down we cut it back a bit. We blasted up to Crieff then over to Aberfeldy where we stopped to stock up on food, drink, bog roll and fuel for the bothy's fire. From there it was on to a popular cafe for a fry up. While we were filling our faces I got a phone call from Ferg. Him and Egor were already at the bothy. All was good but Ferg had failed to get anything to burn or anything to drink. My panniers and tankbag were full but Bob thought he could squeeze some tins into his bike, so we set off to find a shop. With supplies for the three of us on both bikes we set off for the bothy. If you recognise where the bothy is keep it a secret, no one wants it turning into a party palace or getting wrecked. The last bit of road to the bothy is a dirt road. It's a bit tight getting onto it, I was unsure of how wide the Africa Twin's boxes were but once on the track we were sorted. The bothy was great. There's a few couches in there so sitting round the fire was nice and comfy. We set our camping mats and sleeping bags upstairs and cooked our food on the camping stoves. We got the coal on the fire and gathered some fallen wood from the woods nearby. It got dark around 8. We'd brought a pile of candles up with us which were lit and put in the various holders around the bothy's room. It was a cloudy night so when we went outside it was dark. As in pitch black. The light from my headtorch seemed to be absorbed into nothing making my fears of murderers/dead people/ghosts all the more real when I ventured out for a shite. Luckily this fear was quickly extinguished by Bob demonstrating his retna burning auxiliary lights he's fitted to his GS. Deadly dark night was transformed into a sunny summer afternoon giving me a clear view of Egor crimping off a turd by a rock over the road from me. Beautiful.


The Secret Bothy. If you know where it is keep the secret to yourself.




bothy pano
View from the bothy's front door.

The evening in the bothy was a great laugh, talking shite and sitting around the fire with a couple of beers. Egor, Ferg and I all slept upstairs with our camping kit while Bob crashed on the couch by the fire. We warned him about murderers and zombies but he wasn't phased. We cleaned our rubbish up and had our breakfast. The rain hadn't let up but we'd dried most of our kit off with the bothy's rack. Bikes were repacked and we headed out for another soaking with the plan to stay at Kilchoan. We fuelled up at Fort William and Bob and I tried to convince Ferg and Egor that we should get some Big Macs at McDonalds. Luckily Maccy Dees was closed in Fort William so we pushed on to the cafe at Strontian. By the time we arrived we were all soaked. As we ate our food a wee pond appeared on the floor below us. It was still pissing down too so we decided to see if Tim at Sunart Campsite had any of his huts free. A bit more conversation and we decided that even if there wasn't any huts free we'd stay at Tim's. He has a wee room with a woodburning stove in it so we knew we could dry off all out wet gear. My jacket and trousers were fine but my boots had began to let in and my gloves were soaked. Time and time again Sunart Campsite has saved our arses from bad weather. If you are ever on a bike around Central Scotland and it turns wet (keep in mind Fort William is the one of the wettest places in Scotland) then Tim's place will sort you out. Luckily Tim had not one but two huts free. Brilliant. We barbecued a load of sausages for dinner then headed to the pub for a pint and to get some wifi to check the weather forecast.

Bob cooking up at Sunart Camping 

As predicted by XC Weather it started to brighten up the next day. Ferg and I said our goodbyes to Egor and Bob. Bob had caught a cold and Egor had to go back for work. We set off towards Kilchoan but only a few miles in Ferg started beeping his horn and waving for me to stop. His GS had blown a fork seal so a makeshift sanitary towel was fabricated out of some old tissues and some cable ties. While Ferg was sorting all this out we could hear somebody ragging along the road like their balls were on fire. Bob had decided that he couldn't be arsed riding home, turned back and set off after us at warp speed. Reunited the three of us rode along the road to Kilchoan at the end of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. It's only about thirty miles from Strontian to Kilchoan but it can take well over an hour to navigate the road as it snakes along the side of Loch Sunart then up and over the hills to Kilchoan. It's worth taking your time along here anyway as the scenery is stunning, the roadside birch trees giving way to great coastal views the further west you go. Once at Kilchoan we boarded the ferry to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, a bargain at just over a fiver for the bike and rider.
Bob and Ferg spent the ferry crossing laughing at how the Africa Twin swayed with the rocking of the boat on its supreme plush suspension and Ferg and I cleared the air over a wee niggle that had been pestering us over the past wee while. I'm guilty of being a bit over enthusiastic about bike stuff, it's pretty much all I really do, where as Ferg has hobbies and interests coming out his ears. I had been pestering Ferg to commit or not to various trips while he had loads of stuff to deal with in his own life. He in return had said that I was acting like a child about life in general. What we both realised that everything was all good and that everyone has different lifestyles. Not everyone wants to spend all their time or money riding bikes or decorating houses but that's OK. You're only here once so it's important to do what makes you happy while letting other folk get on with what they want to do.
Once in Tobermory  it was a short trip along the main street to the Chippy van for some quality fish and chips. Bob was feeling a bit crap with his cold and Ferg wanted a coffee. While they done that I went for a spin round the island. the weather had transformed into a proper summers day. It was warm and I was even sweating a wee bit as I rode out of Tobermory heading To Dervaig then on to check out Calgary Bay where we'd be camping that evening. As the road climbed steeply out of Tobermory and the Africa Twin came alive. What a fucking road! Flying along the side of Loch Peallach the Africa Twin gave me great confidence. The rough road was smoothed out by the long travel suspension, the weight of the luggage easily balanced by a few clicks of the rear shock's adjustments. The front end remained positive on loose gravel and when the bike did move it felt balanced and predictable, no rabbit's nose style arse twitching at all. Then you get to the Dervaig Hairpins. Like Renton in Trainspotting this is good. Reeeeally fuuuucking goooood. Proper alpine like switchbacks. Sure the Bealach Na Ba has hairpins but not like this. I don't know if the road had been recently resurfaced or not but it was smooth as Slappy's heid and flowed so well. Like all big traillies the Africa Twin was a pendulum on the switchbacks and I really would not have wanted to be on any other bike. All this in only twelve miles. I'd forgotten how good Mull is.
Calgary Bay is just a few miles around a flatter road from Dervaig. The wild camping spot is beside the public toilets. There were a few other folk there but still plenty room for our three tents. Campsite inspected I carried on round the coast to Salen. This is a much tighter, steeper road than the Tobermory to Dervaig stretch but you get great view of Mull and over to Coll and Tiree. 
Back in Tobermory I met Ferg and Bob banging on at them about how good the road was. We got supplies in and headed off once more over the Dervaig hairpins. The good weather stayed with us at Calagary till well after dark. We got a fire going and shot the shit before some heavy drizzle drove us into our tents.

Fixing Ferg's fork seal.

Ardnamurchan Views






Dervaig Hairpins

Calgary Bay






It was a short ride to our destination for our final night. We packed up at Calgary and headed round the coast to Tobermory stopping for a few more photos. We had booked into the Youth Hostel in Tobermory and I was dying to get in for a shower. I was pretty ripe after the previous warm day. We headed for cake and coffee at the cafe Bob and Ferg had visited the day before. I then headed along to the Hostel where the VFR riding guy who worked there (Sorry mate, I can't remember your name, Matthew maybe?) let us in early to drop out gear off and get cleaned up. Bob got a kip and a shower while Ferg went shopping and I met the famous Tobermory Cat in the Hostel who followed me up the street as I took some photos and grabbed a pint in The Mishnish pub. Ferg was soon to join me in the Mish followed shortly by Bob. What followed was a very good but quite messy night out.







Tobermory Cat with the multi coloured Mishnish in the backgroud.


We were all woken with severe hangovers. A fry up was sourced at the local bakery and we hung around for several hours until we were all OK to ride home. Bob and I took an easy run down the road saying our goodbyes to Ferg at the Corran Ferry where he headed north and we headed south. The Africa Twin gave me 200 miles to the tank even with luggage and camping gear strapped to the back.I found it to be comfy for a long journey with plenty wind protection. I did miss the BMW's cylinder heads poking out keeping my feet warm but I'm due new boots anyways. All in I'm really happy with how the Africa Twin performed over this wee trip and I can't wait to get away again next month when we head to Orkney.


And mind, if ye recognise that bothy, keep it a secret.