Tour de Mull

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July 28th 2018
Published: February 9th 2019
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Courtesy of guest blogger TWJ

Isle of Mull, 3 days, 118 miles...

Dad has been talking about cycle touring for a while and I thought what better way to start than with Nick who's crossed continents on his bike! For years I've turned my nose up at cycle touring, but I decided I would do it for dad and it would be 3 days of hell and hard work, but I'd manage. Plus Nick had bought me nice new yellow Ortlieb pannier bags!

Day 1 (Oban to Craignure to beach near Iona)

We arrived in Oban to pouring rain on Saturday about lunchtime, and a huge faff to get three bikes off the roof rack. As we were taking the bikes off, Nick had a bit of a calamity when his bike toppled over whilst still attached to the roof rack and it bent the fork that the wheel attached into. Disaster! Before we'd even started! A little creative thinking and we put the bike back on the rack to bend the fork back the right way, and Nick was able to align his brake pads to the new (not improved) arrangement - not ideal but it worked. We had a mad dash to the ferry, and just made it, phew!

After a nice takeaway seafood lunch courtesy of the stall on Oban pier and a brief cameo from a few porpoises en-route, Craignure also greeted us with heavy rain, but it wasn't long before it lightened and ceased and we began our cycle tour! Nick who had planned the route (meticulously) promised there was one big hill at the start and after that, no more big hills - if only! The first hill didn't seem so bad, the views were interesting and the incline was gradual. We stopped often to admire the views or have a few haribos, and it wasn't long before we were having the most wonderful descent. My wheels did feel a bit wobbly in the wind but it was so much fun.

The next part of our route followed the coastline to Iona and the road hugged the coastline with spectacular views to Ben More now in bright sunshine.

We made a detour for the first night's camp to this beautiful beach we remembered from a previous trip. 3 miles off road, through a couple of fields and we were there about 7 in the evening. Unfortunately the beach was not as pristine as we remembered, there was sheep poo everywhere, and a bit of rubbish washed up by the tide. Dad, who is very fastidious, did not want to camp anywhere near sheep poo, unfortunately that wasn't an option, and we were a bit disappointed after a bumpy 3 mile ride. Dinner was couscous with courgette and pepper (somebody (that's me) forgot the cheese and chicken) and a lovely sunset, but, alas, too cold for Nick to swim in the southerly breeze.

As soon as we had snuggled into our sleeping bags, the wind picked up and the storm that we had seen approaching from offshore fell upon us. The wind whipped around us, bucking the tent poles and the rain started lashing down. We were in Nick's new untried tent while Dad was in Nick's trusted tent of over 14 years. I lay awake listening to the weather and wondering if we would be bundling into Dad's tent soon. In actual fact, it was the other way round! Soon after we saw a torch on and Nick asked Dad if he was alright - he was initially having a pee, which even at a distance of about 10m was threatening to whip into our tent due to the severity of the wind!! - the response to which was, 'not really, I'm swimming in my tent'. Horrified, I asked Dad to bundle into our 2 man tent! I lay between the two mats. It was a bit cosy, but we were dry. After about an hour dad need the loo again, it was still hammering with rain, but out he got. And drenched he came back in! I really wondered if we would survive the night and I wished for morning. When the rain ceased in the middle of the night, dad left to go back and sort out his tent.

Day 2 (Beach near Iona to north side of Ben More via Iona)

When morning eventually came, we were able to assess the damage. The tent had failed dramatically due to a tent pole snapping, and Dad had spent the rest of the night wringing water out his tent (using his clothes) and was utterly exhausted. He says he now knows what it must be like to experience a storm on Everest's South Col. Who knows, maybe the Scottish equivalent is worse! We pinned some of his clothes and sleeping bag to our tent to dry in the wind. Luckily there was a bit of sun. We decided to pack up and have our breakfast closer to the dirt road. Tea, peanut butter on oatcakes and porridge restored dad a bit. We set off along the dirt road and onwards to Iona. The sun stayed with us the rest of the day and restored us all. We found a little shop and bought lucozade and nectarines and had them on a beach harbour wall. The tide was out and the scenery was turquoise, blues and greens. Feeling stronger we set off again. We encountered a nasty local who shouted abuse at us while we were on our bikes and he was in his car - he almost ran me over. He was horrible and fat, a toxic individual. Nick was furious with his behaviour - in a way we couldn't believe it, that he was so nasty. (Having said that most drivers on the singletrack road were friendly and gave us space, but curiously it tended to the the local 4x4 pickup drivers who were not.)

We continued to Fionnport and we saw the ferry pulling in, we decided to hop across to Iona - I've always wanted to see it after learning about the Scottish colourists in school. It was charming, the old Abbey dominated the island, and the little town had loads of interesting shops and a couple of cafes. The beaches were stunning and you could see why those artists had based themselves in Iona. It inspired me. We found a nice lunch spot in the grounds of a pub/cafe and with good coffee and ginger cake we warmed ourselves in the sun. Dad used this opportunity to dry his sleeping bag and clothes from the night before, so we had various things strewn about the lawn. We didn't linger too long as we had about 20 miles to do before nightfall and we hopped back on the ferry soon after.

The cycle after Iona was tough. About 4pm we found a little village hall that was an art gallery and coffee shop. The lady who was volunteering kindly served us tea and cake (it was after her closing time). It was really sweet of her and dad really need the restorative tea! Feeling much better, we set off again. Nick warned us we had a big climb (I thought there was only one hill?!) ahead and it was a real slog. We got some encouragement from passers-by that cheered us on. Totally finished we eventually made it to the top. Nick of course was way ahead of us, and had got his camera out to cajole us like on the Tour de France - Allez, Allez! The second best bit about this day (Iona was the first) was the descent and spectacular views of the ridgeline dropping dramatically to meet the sea. When we looked out to sea, we could see little islands and the sun sparkling on the water. Truly breathtaking. We whizzed down on the descent stopping often to admire the view and it wasn't long before we were searching for a camp spot.

After a bit of to and froing between a couple of potential camping spots, we settled for a small promontory next to the road with just enough flat grass to set out the tents, just few enough sheep poos to satisfy Dad, and a convenient little stream to provide fresh water. Large rocks surrounded the promontory as it dropped into the sea which was a good platform watching the beautiful sunset, but also acted as a nice diving platform for Nick to finally get his swim. He eventually even cajoled me in, but I didn't last more than a couple of minutes - freezing!! Dad didn't fancy a dip in the end (too cold for his South African genes) but did have a quick splash in one of the natural rock pools to freshen up.

Nick, probably feeling bad still about Dad's lack of sleep the previous night, and throwing in that extra tough climb, took over cooking and cleaning duties. We had a filling dish of spaghetti with courgette and pepper al dente (do you spot the theme with previous night's meal?) and a dash of cheese (some purchased en-route to replace the forgotten pack!) - it was divine! Amazing how the simplest food can taste so good when camping and when you're really hungry! Dad and I didn't last too much longer after dinner and we withdrew to our respective tents (Dad's broken pole was now tightly lashed with some fix-all tape) leaving Nick to the dishes and a bit of star-gazing. Even though it was mid-summer, the night was cold.

Day 3 (North side of Ben More to Tobermory then back to Craignure)

The next morning Nick woke us up with coffee. The night had passed uneventfully - a little rain late on but both tents held firm!! Dad looked a lot better, less doolah-ly than the previous morning! The clouds had come in a little and there was a brisk cool wind, so we were keen to get cycling as soon as we could. The first part of the cycle followed the sea loch under the gaze of the northern flanks of Ben More. The sun eventually started to break through just as we got to the head of the loch and through a tranquil woodland thankfully sheltered from the wind. Beyond that the route headed inland over a small pass back to the eastern side of the island. The section of road was newly laid and sooo smooth that even cycling uphill felt fast and good. We were all starting to get our touring legs!!

We made a coffee stop at a hotel at the junction on the main road we'd now reached. Surprisingly decent coffee and shortbread, and of course several 'pit stops' and refill of water bottles.

The next section would see us climb steeply up the main road towards Tobermory but only for a mile (thankfully as it was noticeably busier than the other roads thus far travelled) before heading left down a forest track that would cut us back through the heart of Mull to reach Tobermory from the quieter western approach.

The forest track made for a very bumpy ride in places, but thankfully didn't have too many loose stones which would have slowed us down even more. We rode through the pine forests for several miles (with dad now forging ahead) before hitting the flank of a long freshwater loch. I was worried about getting punctures and was weaving to find the smoothest routes. Once at the loch side the road, rather than being flat on the water's edge, made some very steep climbs and descents which saw both me and Dad off our bikes pushing. Nick of course was way ahead grinding up like superman, and then waiting to ambush us at the top with his camera.

The loch seemed to drag on longer than we expected, but eventually the end was in sight and then after a short uphill we were back at the main road at the base of a formidable looking Alpine-esque switchback. This is where we had our first cycling incident. After having a brief rest to steel ourselves for the very steep incline, we pushed off, Nick first, then me, then Dad. Unfortunately the incline was so immediately steep that Dad didn't get his momentum going, and in a panic shifted up the gears rather than down. That meant he suddenly ground to a halt and keeled over in the middle of the road. We both heard the yelp (or was it a cry of 'Jeepers') and with horror looked back to see him sprawling. We went back to help him pick himself and the bike up (and get off the middle of the road). With worse luck the fall could have led to something more serious: a broken arm?!?!, but Dad is made of tough stuff - just a graze but somewhat bloody and painful looking. He was more embarrassed about the silliness of the fall, but we were just thankful that the tour was still on!

So take two: this time starting lower down to get into the rhythm before the steepness kicked in. I tucked in behind Nick who was setting the pace and surprised myself by keeping with him past the first hairpin (well over halfway) and almost to the final kicker before succumbing to the pain. Nick annoyingly stuck with it and was there looking smug at the top as always. Dad did well too. We all collapsed in a big heap of bikes at the top and had a 15 mins recovery with snacks (and another patch up of Dad's wound) and a view of another nice loch.

From there it was pretty much downhill to Tobermory. The last bit got really steep and was super exhilarating. The sun was now out as we broke down on to the harbour front and it's teeming throngs of tourists, locals and sea birds! We parked up by the fish and chip van next to the monument on the pier and with much amusement watched a seagull perching dangerously close to Nick's bike. Then it was 3 rounds of fish and chips and more Lucozade from the Co-op over the road. The fish was super fresh and melted in our mouths. The batter and chips lined our stomachs and would later haunt us as we made our departure very steeply out of Tobermory. Before that we'd had a wander around the delightful harbour area, had another coffee, and watched the fishermen bring in crates of langoustines (giving a huge bagful away to a lucky tourist).

By 2.30pm we realised we'd better get going again if we were going to make the 5pm ferry from Craignure as planned (Nick wanted to catch that so we'd be able to get to Edinburgh before midnight). It's approx 20 miles so 2.5 hours seemed enough. As previously mentioned however the climb out of Tobermory is extremely steep and relentless. Nick again, fighting that fish and chips, forged ahead as a matter of pride, but Dad and I didn't even attempt it and just walked up pushing our heavy bikes. By the time we got to the roundabout at the top we'd probably lost another 15 minutes.

The next stage of the cycle was probably the least enjoyable as the road was quite busy. We stopped briefly at a waterfall (this was before we realised we were short of time) and then over the high point (from where we could see across the sound of Mull to the mainland and also south to Craignure in the distance). We eventually got to some abandoned fishing boats we'd seen in the morning (before the turnoff to the forest track) and knew that we were half way to Craignure. Dad wanted to get some photos so we stopped again. But it was at this point that Nick suddenly realised we were cycling too slow to make the remaining 10 miles or so before 5pm (it was currently 4.05pm or so).

From then on in it was a brutal regime that Nick set - heckling us to fall into his slip stream and denying Dad any much-needed sugar breaks. It was also at this point that the heavens opened and there we were drenched and cycling through hell. Nick claimed he was maintaining 12mph but it felt like faster to me. Dad was struggling and kept dropping off the back. I thought he was going to have a heart attack (he's over 70 you know)!! Nick eventually relented and let us have a short break. I could see him calculating distances, average speeds, headwinds, etc... (as we tucked into sweets) and after about 45 seconds break he declared we needed to get going again.

The rain had relented too by this point but we were still soaked and clothes sticking to us and cold in the headwind. A load of cars had been passing us, then the local bus, indicating that the ferry departure was imminent. After that the cars were less frequent but faster (indicating that they too knew they were late for it!). As we approach one long but shallow rise, Dad declared he'd had enough, and so a brief power struggle ensued. Nick finally convinced us that this really was the last climb and with the time at 4.50pm we still had a chance. So with final reserves of energy we carried on, and for once Nick was right. At the top, the road trailed down to the beginnings of Craignure and within sight of the ferry terminal. Nick sprinted ahead at this time just to catch the last few cars as they passed the ticket collector and onto the ferry. Dad and I rolled up and Dad immediately started saying with real vitriol that he didn't know what the rush was all about. Nick quietly took out the tickets and passed them over to the collector who urged us on over the slipway into the hold. Within seconds of us entering, the doors were closing and we were off! 118 miles in 3 days (well 2.5 really) done! An impressive debut cycle tour for me and Dad!

Upstairs in the warm cabin we treated ourselves to cups of tea/hot chocolate and a few bags of crisps. Dad was utterly exhausted but jubilant as we were too. His wound had opened up again with all the kerfuffle of the race to Craignure so we tidied it up again. We got to Oban in another downpour and had to wait out about 20 mins before the cold got to us and we decided to sprint again in the rain back to the car. But sprint was an overstatement - we were all dead on out feet (or pedals!).

Loading up the bikes again in the wet was a real mission and the boot was just a big pile of pannier bags and wet sloppy cycling gear. We all had a change of clothes, so all was good once the car heater was on and we were on our way home.

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