I've been mountain biking a lot this year and loving it. Bikepacking seemed like the perfect way to explore the Affric Kintail Way, a 44 mile trail from Drumnadrochit on Loch Ness to Morvich on the north west coast. Will's sister and her husband are experienced mountain bikers and have done a lot of bikepacking, so they lent us some bags for the bikes and gave us some tips! I'd naively thought we could carry all our gear in backpacks, but Mags and Adam explained that it's best to keep the weight on the bike to save your back and shoulders.
It took a while to get used to riding our bikes with all the bags on! We'd run the first section from Drumnadrochit a few days before and knew that the main trail was closed for the first three or four miles. The diversion was a push up a steep hill and then narrow uphill single track that we just managed to stay on our bikes for. After this we rejoined the real trail on a big descent. This was the first downhill I'd done with all the kit on the bike and I had to really force myself to relax. My saddle was higher than I was used to to provide enough clearance for my saddle bag. This meant I couldn't get my weight as far back as I would usually on a downhill, but the weight of my saddle bag meant I didn't need to, and the bike stayed balanced nicely.
It was a lovely ride to Corrimony on quiet gravel forestry tracks. Then we joined a road and had a very cold descent to Carrich before rejoining forestry tracks. The sun was shining and the path was undulating and we made great progress. I'd estimated we'd average 5 miles in 45 minutes, and we'd matched that for the first 15 miles after our slow start, but the next 15 miles flew by on easy gravel trails. After a steep winding descent to a car park full of midges at Dog Falls, we climbed and descended some more and enjoyed bumping along high above Loch Beinn a' Mheadhoin and then Loch Affric.
We passed the (closed) youth hostel at Alltbeithe and from there the going got a lot tougher. It was very wet underfoot and the gravel path turned into grassy bog. We rode where we could and pushed where we couldn't. The bikes were heavy with the bags and pushing was hard work! We made very slow progress and soon became disheartened. The terrain became more remote and more extreme, with steep rocky sections to climb. At one point I tried to ride down a steep bit, got the front wheel stuck and went in slow motion over the handlebars, landing hard on my knee. After that I was scared to try to ride any steep descents! We were planning to camp somewhere near the end of the trail but after taking three hours to cover the last 10 miles we decided to call it a day. We dragged the bikes down a steep descent and found a flat place to camp near the River Croe.
Within seconds of stopping the midges were upon us. We put the tent up with our midge nets on. Unfortunately this took a long time as we hadn't put the tent up before - somehow the grand plan of trying it out in the living room the week before had never been realised. Eventually it was pitched and we took it in turns to change into long leggings and warm clothes in the tent, and Will bravely boiled some water on the stove for dinner. We retreated to the tent and spent a good five minutes stamping on all the midges that had got in. There were thousands of them! We realised the disadvantage of camping in Scotland in the summer. We were in a beautiful location but there were too many midges to sit outside and enoy it! Our tent is great for backpacking as it's very small a light, but it's not the most comfortable place to spend the whole evening in! But I got warm and snug inside my sleeping bag and ate dinner from there and started reading Anna McNuff's new book, Llama Drama, about cycling along the Andes. Within minutes I was chuckling to myself and feeling better about the fact that we had taken so long to cover the last section - it was all part of the adventure!
I had a restless night being paranoid about midges and all too soon the alarm went off. The midges were slighly less aggressive in the morning and we are breakfast marching around to try and lose them, then found a windy spot to pack our bags in. We set off to finish the trail. After the first half mile the trail turned to farm track and it was easy riding to Morvich and the end of the Affric Kintail Way.
The night before we'd decided that we couldn't face the big push that awaited us back to Alltbeithe, so instead took the road through Glen Shiel. Unfortunately this is the A87: the main route from Fort William to Skye. It was super busy with cars and lorries flying past too close and too fast. We rode in tight formation, each taking our turn on the front, averaging 15 miles per hour on our loaded mountain bikes! We stopped for second breakfast and some respite from the traffic at The Cluanie Inn. The fast and furious pace continued all the way to Invermoriston on Loch Ness where we were relieved to leave the road and join the Great Glen Way for the final push back to Drumnadrochit. Initially this was a shock as we turned onto a single track winding road that was so steep we had to get off and push! By this point we both had very tired legs. Thankfully we turned on to gravel tracks which traversed along above Loch Ness and finished with some splendid single track a few miles out of Drumnadrochit. From here it was a slow roll along some quiet country roads back to the van.