SIX hours, 10 minutes and roughly 45 seconds. Before setting off to cycle the world I joked “I wonder how long it will take before I miss my old apartment and its crappy shower” and the sad answer wound up being “about half a day”.
But here I am, standing on the freezing cold stone tiles of a rustic stable-turned shower trying to shove 20 pence pieces with trembling hands into a small box that magically turns on the hot water while trying not to breathe in the strong stench of horse manure.
My dangerously white feet feel like blocks of ice and my nose is already permanently red when the water spurts out and I dive enthusiastically under it. I couldn’t care less about being clean, I’m just desperate to feel warm and eventually the sting of the hot water becomes a pleasant warmth as I relish the pitiful five minutes of bliss in a rundown Scottish highlands campground.
The five minutes is over faster than you can say “blimey” and already a cold-induced tremble has taken over my limbs (my feet remained stone cold throughout) when I reach for my towel and attempt to dry off in record speed before throwing on thermal layers to combat the chill of a Scottish summer’s night.
Just seven hours earlier we arrived in Inverness after catching a rickety old train from Edinburgh that took us past thick forests and snow-covered hills and while we laughed and pointed at this pitiful example of Scotland’s “warm season” it wasn’t until we wheeled our fully loaded bikes out of the station that a wall of icy wind slapped us painfully in the face.
We were standing on the cobbled stone streets of the Highland’s biggest town but with steel grey clouds hovering and icy drizzle freezing our blood we had as much chance of soaking up that Scottish magic as a pig does flying.
With a resigned hunch of our shoulders we slowly cycled our wobbly bikes south of the town to launch into the first three days of the Long Rode Home adventure – to Fort William via the Great Glen Way.
It all sounded wonderfully easy when we planned it out from the comfort of our Gold Coast apartment but with a relentless cold clawing its way into our bones the reality suddenly seemed a hell of a lot harder.
After cycling along a busy and narrow highway for 30 minutes we pulled over in exasperation and began fumbling for our maps. A kindly old Scott pulled up in his truck and asked us where we were headed and I said “the Great Glen Way”.
“What! To cycle?” He exclaimed.
“Um yes,” I said, with a hell of a lot less confidence than before.
“But that’s up in the mountains,” he said, while pointing at a soaring and ominous looking range that ran far into the distance.
Giving us up for lost causes the Scottish driver took off and we continued to wobble along until finally stumbling across the entrance to the formidable mountain path.
Within minutes we were down to our lowest gear as the rough road grew steeper and the tarmac gave way to bumpy gravel.
My legs were burning, my lungs were screaming and when both looked set to give way I jumped off and desperately began to push. But when your bike weighs more than an obese elephant and the road feels like Everest simply wheeling it up by foot isn’t the easier option.
I quickly came to an exhausted stop and shouted out to Scott who was still stoically wobbling up the ascent.
Within seconds we re-evaluated the hill (it just seemed to keep going) and our meagre fitness levels (which are abysmal) and decided the narrow tarmac of the A82 highway was in fact the better option. Without so much as a guilty look sideways we cycled back to the main road and battled rolling hills and icy winds before stumbling across a campsite near the famous Urquhart castle three hours later.
It was a mere 30km from Inverness but our soft legs and even softer Queensland skins screamed for warmth and a rest and so the glorified stables became our first stop.
One minor mishap with the cooking stove (we’d bought the wrong fuel) and a cold night later we were reluctantly crawling out of tent to begin day two. It took more time than I’m willing to admit to pack up the tent, pack the panniers and actually get on the road but finally our slightly sore legs were again pushing peddles as we headed towards Fort Augustus, a quaint riverside town where we’d camp for the night before the final leg to Fort William. The rolling hills continued and while the majesty of the Loch Ness took our breath away on the descents, it was hard to focus on anything but screaming legs as we cursed our way up the narrow and slow winding rises. Cars, lorries and buses screamed past us we clung to the edge of the road and with the traffic having little option but to completely overtake us we marvelled at the patience of these drivers.
When the biggest and nastiest hill rose menacingly before us all joy was quickly forgotten as we let out a string of swear words and began making mental lists of the gear we’d turf out at the next opportunity.
Suddenly the extra pairs of pants, shampoo and conditioner and even technology luxuries seemed ridiculously unnecessary when faced with a 40kg loaded bike and a hill and we marvelled at how quickly our minds were bending to this new way of life.
It was no longer television programs and a Sunday brunch that made us happy, but clothes you could wear for three days without smelling like a homeless bum.
Eventually Fort Augustus crawled into view in a magnificent picture of old stone houses, bright rows of potted flowers and a quaint canal where sail boats meandered slowly down.
Pulling up the bikes beside a stone wall we hobbled over to a bakery for some treacle scones before wheeling out of town to a campsite.
We’d arrived mid afternoon with plenty of time to pitch the tent, shower and eat but after just a couple of hours we realised we’d stumbled into what had to be the biggest population of Scotland’s worst pest.
A black swarm headed straight towards us and within seconds we both screeched “midges!” before diving for the insect spray.
By this point Scott was dancing around like a drunk Peter Garret, waving his arms widely and scaring the nearby children, while I began slapping my hands left right and centre to “send a message to the other midges”. Neither tactic worked.
Eventually a sympathetic Englishmen wandered over and explained that midges were worse at both dawn and dusk, which explained why anyone with a bit of sense had retreated to their tents well before this time (the Scotts would also wisely emerge from their tents a little later to avoid the then plague-proportion midges).
In a rare fit of diligence we set our alarms for 6am the following day in a bid to get an early start to conquer the final 50km to Fort William. We’d decided to spend two nights in the “adventure capital” town where we would take a day to recover before hiking up Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis.
At 6.30am we rolled out of bed and quickly ran around (while madly swatting away midges) to scoff down a bowl of steaming porridge and a coffee before packing up and heading out.
The icy wind seemed to dwindle as the sun showed its warm face for up to five minutes at a time as we passed quaint country villages and battled more of the rolling hills (with the help of a block of chocolate and some good old fashioned Scottish shortbread).
It was just 10 minutes out of Fort William when the A82 split and a cyclist’s path opened up to the left.
I almost fell off my bike in astonishment as the flower-lined path wound off in an image of breathtaking beauty and I shouted back to Scott: “This is it! This is exactly what I pictured we’d be cycling down when we dreamt up the trip!”
Arms loaded with food from Tesco we treated ourselves to a picnic in the park with sandwiches and crisps before forcing ourselves to get back on our bikes for the final two miles to our campsite in a place called Glen Nevis. With snow-capped Ben Nevis looming over us we massaged our aching legs (which now felt as though bruised wood had replaced them) and began to mentally prepare ourselves for the next challenge, climbing to the chilly and steep looking peak.