Britain’s real Big Ben and the painful road south

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Nearing the summit of Ben Nevis

THERE’S only one thing worse than setting off on a world cycling trip with no experience and laughable fitness levels and that’s using your first proper day off to climb Britain’s highest mountain.

We’d been in Scotland for just over a week battling the tarmac on two obese bikes before we crawled into the adventure town of Fort William where lies the formidable and often snow-capped peak of Ben Nevis.

Scotland, a country of foul weather, fabulous people and hit and miss food had so far rewarded our cycling efforts with icy winds and grey clouds as we battled the narrow and hilly roads of the A82. But after setting camp in a spectacular campsite in Glen Nevis, which lies at the foot of big Ben, a miraculous thing happened. The clouds parted, the icy winds evaporated and glorious sunshine embraced us as we excitedly prepared to ditch the bikes and reward our absolutely shagged legs with a leisurely stroll up Ben Nevis.

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Scott battles the rocks on the descent of Ben Nevis

Minuscule by world standards, the picturesque mountain stands at 1344 metres but we’d been warned it was a bloody steep and arduous climb that was permanently splashed in snow around the peak.

In a rare fit of organisation we jammed a day pack with thermals, food, rain gear and water before setting off at 7am from the Glen Nevis visitor’s centre to beat the crowds that reportedly hiked up the mountains in droves from just after 8am.

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Hiking snow to get to the top of Ben

Within minutes the lush green fields gave way to a rapidly rising narrow track of rocks and gravel sparking our calves and thighs to burn while we gulped down heaving breathes.

Just an hour later we were peeling off every extra layer we could as sweat rolled down our backs while we scrambled over boulders in rare Scottish sunshine as big and ragged Ben came slowly into view.

We’d been walking for a mere two hours (locals predicted a seven hour return hike) when what looked like the summit rose before us in a vision of steep gravel and rock.

But just like a desert mirage this false summit would be the first of many as we battled on for another hour through snow and rock before the brilliant peak finally soared into view.

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T-shirt one minute – thermals the next, while climbing Ben Nevis

All “summer” sun was forgotten at the top where icy winds cut through our clothes and in a bid to escape the chill (and get back to ground level) we soaked up the panorama for just 15 minutes before slowly heading back in what we ignorantly believed would be the easier leg of the trip.

Just 10 minutes into the descent the harsh gravel and rocks began wreaking havoc on our squashed toes while the endless aches and pains from our previous three days of cycling reared their ugly heads.

All good humour was fast forgotten as we bickered and swore down the torturous path at a pace scarcely any quicker than the climb.

Knees screaming, lips burnt and tempers foul we finally crawled back onto flat ground a whopping three hours later only vaguely managing to hobble to the nearest pub where we threw the budget spectacularly out the window to order two mega burgers and a couple of drinks.

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The Ben Nevis torment is over

Sitting down turned out to be a big rookie mistake as we pried ourselves painfully from the booth two hours later in considerable worse shape than when we sat down.

It seemed like our chances of getting on the bike the next day were slim to none as we downed some Voltaren and hobbled into our tents before sinking into a blissful sleep.

The next day dark grey clouds hung ominously in the distance as we crawled out of our dewy tent to test out our legs and make the big decision: to carry on south or give our legs an actual day off.

In what was to be our second epic rookie mistake we decided the Voltaren had worked and were in a fit state to continue and so we painstakingly packed up the tent and panniers before scoffing down some porridge and wheeling out to Oban via the western isles.

After looking at the map Scott had declared the western highland tip of Loch Aline followed by the isle of Mull seemed like a good spot to strike for and so with groaning legs we rolled out of the campsite with the promise we’d take it easy and cycle a mere 20km if we were feeling dodgy.

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Battling rain, headwinds and hills on a backwater road on the way to Loch Aline

The grey clouds thickened and soon a hammering headwind battered into us as we slowly peddled out of Fort William in a bid to reach Corran ferry some 15km away.

It took a heartbreaking hour to cover this hilly and windy distance and as we rolled towards the ferry we looked across the steel grey waters to see a rugged vision of mountains with just a handful of houses speckled between.

“Oh god,” Scott muttered.

“Should we do this? It looks pretty steep!”

I was just as wary but told him a hot lunch would get me through and so a wild ferry ride later we began cycling down a winding narrow track in search of a cheap and cheerful cafe.

As we cycled slowly past green rugged hills filled with thistles and tussocks it seemed we’d stumbled across a wild part of Scotland left off the tourist trail.

A blimp of a village eventually emerged out of the wilderness and we came across the lone village store/takeaway sporting empty fuel pumps, cheap plastic tables with floral covers and a menu that belied a gourmet touch considering the scabby surrounds.

A plump Scottsman (who looked mildly surprised to have customers) took our orders: “One huge stuffed potato and a panini please” before sitting down to ask us where we were from and where we were heading.

With a twinkle in his eye he glanced at our heavily loaded bikes and announced “there’s a wee bit of rain on its way” before telling us the nearest town was Loch Aline (50km down the road) with little between it but mountains, narrow tracks and a bucket load of thistles and midges.

“But you won’t make it that far today,” he said wisely.

We looked at our meagre supply of petrol in alarm and as we washed down our lunch with a coffee great drops of rain began bucketing down in a windy sideways slant.

A friendly relative of the owner offered us some free fuel to see our camp stove through the night and we whipped out rain gear (this would be its first true test) wondering what would be worse: camping in torrential rain in Scotland’s wilderness or cycling for another 50km into the night with nothing but steep tarmac for company.

Just 10 minutes later rain and wind battered into us with brute force as we clawed up horrendous hills in our most dismal state of misery yet.

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Waiting for the ferry to the isle of Mull

I came close to throwing the towel in several times as my lungs and legs screamed but eventually a dangerous numbness took over as we battled miserably on for another three and a half hours.

Like an angel in the gloom Loch Aline eventually came into view at 8pm and we staggered towards a local pub (all thoughts of camping long forgotten) and scored the last double room available before tucking into a lasagne and a curry to reward us for our toughest day yet.

We slept sounder than logs in a warm and cosy bed but morning came around far too quickly forcing us to leave our temporary haven and pack up our wet clothes to take the ferry to the isle of Mull.

A travelling beer salesman had suggested we venture on to the well known historic island called Iona (it houses an ancient abbey and the graves of kings) but warned the road was longer, windier and just as hilly as the one we’d just cycled.

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On the harbour at Oban

This time there was to be no discussion at all. We simply cycled another six miles to the next ferry to the seaside town of Oban and checked straight into a quirky backpackers for food, sleep and some serious down time.

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Stunning Oban

It’s been raining since then and we’re still stuck in vibrant Oban (we were able to wile away a serious amount of time in the giant Tesco) but tomorrow we’ll hit the road (rain, hail or shine) for a four day ride to Troon (200km) where we’ll catch the ferry to Larne in Northern Ireland for the next stage of the Long Rode Home.


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