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Traveling in Style : HIGHLAND WHEELING : A Cycling Trip Across Northern Scotland Passes Through Spectacular Countryside and Under (and Sometimes Into) Stunning Skies

May 15, 1994|Ted Botha | Ted Botha is a free-lance writer based in Cape Town, S. Africa. He has written for such publications as Outside, the Wine Spectator and the (London) Sunday Telegraph.

OUTSIDE KYLE OF TONGUE, MY CYCLING mate, Haddon Curtis, left the road and took flight. It looked pretty sensational, really. Having freewheeled down one of those hills that make the Scottish Highlands both a pleasure and a struggle to cycle, he had reached the bottom, let out his usual manic yell of excitement and then, instead of stopping, careened over an embankment. Haddon's Puch rocketed one way, Haddon's pannier another and Haddon himself a third. Then they all disappeared.

Fearing the worst, I rushed to the embankment and looked over the edge. A soft bog had broken Haddon's fall. He was lying on his back, not hurt at all, and laughing wildly. I was quite sure he wanted to do it again.

The only damage, it appeared, was not to Haddon but to his Puch's front wheel. This posed a bit of a problem: We were only halfway across the Highlands, in the middle of nowhere, with few cars passing and practically no places of business in the vicinity--apart from a fortuitously placed youth hostel. The nearest town in which we might get the wheel fixed was Thurso, a day's ride behind us. Haddon proposed that he hitchhike back there while I stay at the hostel. Tomorrow, he'd return and we'd continue westward. Muddy but otherwise intact, he set out with his mangled wheel in hand. I pushed/carried our bike-and-a-half to the hostel and checked in.

*

WHY HAD HADDON BEEN JETTISONED so spectacularly from his bicycle? I'm not sure--but it might well have had something to do with the Highland skies. Instead of watching the road, he had probably been looking heavenward. The sky around here was so magnificent, you just had to look at it. The blues, the whites and the silver linings were mixed to perfect effect. Below them lay kyles, lochs, muirs or firths, each body of water so still that you could see the sky twice, the second time reflected in a surface broken only by an occasional excited trout or salmon. Sometimes a single boat would lie, immobile, on these glassy surfaces, but no human beings appeared to cast a line or dip an oar.

The trip had been Haddon's idea. A madcap friend from Dundee, a scientist, he'd suggested last summer that we bicycle across the Highlands and then cross over to the Outer Hebrides by ferry, and bike and ferry down their length--a journey of about 450 miles in all, fully two-thirds of it on two wheels.

We took the train north from Dundee, a busy seaport about 60 miles north of Edinburgh. Most of the passengers got off at Inverness or--if they possessed a bike, a tent and some energy to climb mountains--at the resort at Aviemore in the Grampian Mountains. By the time we reached Georgemas Junction, where the line splits for Wick and Thurso, the train was almost empty. Almost, but not quite. Across from me sat two middle-aged women, each with a backpack. One, who was wearing sensible shoes but too much lipstick, talked incessantly, while her friend looked out the window. It was about the last English I'd easily understand for two weeks. If the language spoken by people in these northern reaches of Great Britain isn't Gaelic, it might as well be; the accent is that thick. Gaelic, of course, is worse. Signs, in that tongue and in English, showed me that right away. Tarbert on Harris is Tairbeart. Creagorry on Uist is Creagh Ghoraidh. "Failte d'on Ghaidhealtachd"--a haggis for any non-Scot who can pronounce that perfectly--means "Welcome to the Highlands."

When we reached Wick, the last station on the line, we retrieved our bicycles from the baggage car and set off. Though it was already late in the afternoon, we had plenty of time before nightfall. In summer, the sun sets late in Scotland, after 10 p.m.--which, for a cyclist, means at least 16 hours of good riding time every day.

We rode for about 15 miles and then stopped for a dinner of fish and chips in John o'Groats, a town less famous for its food than for its position as one of the most northerly points in Great Britain. Here, many a cyclist has ended or begun a country-long trip from or to Land's End, on England's far southwestern tip. We headed north and then west instead, and by sunset we were in Hey. Here we found a barn furnished with six-foot-high bales of hay, and, with the farmer's permission, unfolded our sleeping bags and passed out.

In the morning, the farmer pointed out a castle across the way, where, he said, the Queen Mother vacationed in the summer. The weather up here never got too hot, he added, but never too cold either. When we pedaled off at 8:30 a.m., Hey was still quiet. The only sign of activity was a milkman delivering cartons along a hedge. We bought several pints from him and then set off along the road for the Bridge of Forss.

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