Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Drumochter Pass

Try as we might to book our bicycles on a Scotrail train for our return journey, following three days away in the highlands, we were unable to do so, despite trying 11 train times! In the end we opted to drive to Pitlochry, park the van, and then get the bikes on the train from there to Aviemore, with the intention of cycling back.

This three day adventure was primarily a road test for Pauline's new bike, specially built for her imminent two year cycle round the world. We started out around midday from Aviemore and took the ski road for seven miles as far as Glenmore, stopping, of course, at the Ord Ban cafe, for cappuccino and a heavenly fruits-of-the-forest-filled, coffee-cream meringue!

Saturday was a reasonably short day, with our route going from Glenmore, round the south shore of Loch Morlich, on through Rothiemurcus forest to Lochan Eilean, finishing at a small clearing under an enormous ancient Scots Pine that we knew about previously. This was camp for the night. It was an idylic spot and one where we had wanted to camp for years.

Unfortunately, as evening wore on, the tranquility was broken with a contingent of local neds riding trail motorbikes, a quad bike and a small Suzuki 4x4, along the forest track, barely wide enough for our mountain bikes. Surprise surprise, the 4x4 became stuck, and thus around an hour later we endured their noisy return. There's no escape from the ned element of British society. There are more brains in a butchers pork sausage than all of them combined! We would later report it to the police, who literally told us there was nothing they could do. Another example of the dregs of society imposing their crass behaviour on others.

As darkness fell, off in the distance we could hear black grouse lekking. We ventured out to try to see them, but the encroaching darkness made it difficult to see anything. At 4am the next morning we were woken by the black grouse once again, and this time we could just make them out in the distance, strutting around each other, the white of their rear feathers fanned in display in their little dance. A rare sight indeed.

Sunday was a five hour ride that would take us out of the forest and onto tarmac quiet back roads, through Kingussie, Newtonmore and on to Dalwhinnie. We stopped for coffee at the only hotel in Dalwhinnie, and I had to admire their sense of humour. Outside they had put up a sign, that said: "Dalwhinnie - twinned with Las Vegas".

There was quite a head wind as we eventually joined the cycle path after Dalwhinnie. This fairly new section funded and built by Sustrans, leaves a lot to be desired as a cycle path. At points it runs just three feet from the edge of trucks and cars travelling in excess of 70mph, with no barrier between the path and the road. One false move by either party and you're dead meat. Evidence of previous crashes lay along the embankment, together with mountains of rubbish, discarded from passing cars by more brain-dead people. Obviously way too much effort to wait until the next refuse bin!

Around four miles after Dalwhinnie we pull off the track and head into the hills up a dirt track and find a sheltered spot to camp for the night. A local flock of sheep found us most interesting as we negotiated getting over a locked gate, dissappointed I think that we didn't feed them!

Day three was the homeward stretch as we set off from the drumochter summit of 462m toward our finish line at Pitlochry. It is quite literally all down hill from there, and we made very good time. The cycle path still went too close to the main road at points, but eventually picked up the old disused A9. The road had become quite narrow as roads go, with nature reclaiming the tarmac. All was going well, until I commented that on Pauline's bike's maiden trip there had been no major problems. Within minutes she hit a large nail that went straight through the tyre and deflated it in a matter of seconds! However, as ever, pauline turned this negative into a positive and relished the experience of repairing a roadside puncture for the first time.

With a stop for lunch beside the river Garry, by mid afternoon we were back at the van in Pitlochry, after what seemed to me to be a very easy ride, with all three days stunning hot and sunny weather.

As for getting bikes onto Scotrail trains: I'll be booking my next trip in advance . . . for 2012 when Pauline returns!

Friday, 21 May 2010


Let's just cut straight to the chase: I'm on a diet!

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not enormously overweight ,or anything like it, but the time has come to shed a few pounds. Around eleven altogether, which in modern money is roughly five kilos.

Ever since the Christmas indulgence I've been unable to lose the effects of the traditional feast, and though I've not put on a lot, what went on, stayed on. I'm a pretty active active guy too, going away hillwalking regularly, as my recent blogs will show, and the occasional big trip on the mountain bike. But despite all that effort, it refuses to shift. I'm guessing it's the dreaded middle age thing!

If ever there was a sceptic of diets, then I must hold the record. I know many people who have gone on them for long periods of time, and given up. Some return to their previous weight once the stop and have to start all over again. And some had gone on a crash diet and it had aged them dramatically. I knew of very few real success stories.

The reason for me starting this diet is quite simple: a number of years ago I hurt my back, and in 2003 had a spinal operation. I need to keep my weight to around 82kilos or I start to suffer from aches and pains again, which if I don't do something about the cause, can lead to serious problems. At the start of this diet I weighed 86.5kilos. That was the main reason, but I'm also noticing the beginning of man boobs, and that's just not going to happen!

Anyway, a friend of mine, Louise, introduced me to a diet called the "up and down" diet. So, still a sceptic, I started five days ago. It goes like this: first day is a down day, so using a calorie intake calculator, I worked out that I could only have just short of 600 calories on a down day. That's barely a few mouthfulls of salad leaves, I can tell you! Then the next day is an up day, and pretty much a normal eating day, but keeping an eye on not going wild with cream cakes etc. On this day I can have between 2500 and 2800 calories, which is about the normal amount for an active male. I also make sure on my up days I go for a long cycle.

One of the things I'd heard was that most people on a diet drink diet coke, as it contains zero calories, and they think this wont impact on their diet. However, a bit of research uncovered that the artificial sweetness in diet coke, or any sweet, diet product, creates an insulin spike reaction in your body, which then switches off the fat burning gene! So if this is you, ditch the diet drinks!

Just 5 days in and I've dropped a kilo! That's two pounds in under a week! Apparently it works by tricking your mind. Regular diets, where the calorie intake is reduced every day, makes the body go into starvation mode, and it becomes much more difficult to shed the pounds. This one switches on your "SIRT 1" gene, which when triggered, burns fat. It works because you're not on a restricted calorie intake every day, so your body doen't go into starvation mode.

I have to be careful that I still get enough nutrients etc every day, so one meal is replaced with a Slimfast milkshake product, which contains everything I need. And already I feel great! I'm living proof that it definitely works. Granted, on the down days I'm pretty hungry, and the smell of cooking food from anywhere drives me mad, but I'm starting to get used to it, and hopefully I'll stick to it.

Afterall, I don't fancy man boobs, or a tummy the size of a small country!

Thursday, 13 May 2010


Fisherfield is a wilderness area in the north highlands of Scotland, southeast of Ullapool, and a landscape that Pauline has explored many times, but one which I had yet to discover.

Following election day on 6 May (and let's not talk about the hideous result here!) we set off for our destination of Kinlochewe, by train to Inverness, then Westerbus through to our start point. Our first night was a mere one hour walk into the hills from Kinlochewe, past fields of very cute new-born lambs, and our first camp was set up by 8pm.

We were woken the following morning by glorious sunshine and bus loads of day trekkers passing by on their way to Slioch, the neighbouring impressive-looking mountain. It never fails to amaze both Pauline and I how the female part of a couple often never carry a rucksack, leaving it all instead to the male. Lovely.

Even though I was still nursing a heel injury I couldn't get Pauline to carry my rucksack, and so we decided early on that each day would be a lazy late start and cover only small distances, the emphasis being on enjoying the area. Our route took us along the shore of Loch Maree, and remained more or less flat all day. Occasionally we would catch sight of the wild goats that populate the area, and I wondered if their presence dated back to the times of the old Highland settlements, and had been set free when the people were cleared from the land.

By 2.30 in the afternoon we had found our camp two spot, on a pebble beach on the shore of the loch, with a spectacular view to the north side of Torridon, and spent the afternoon lazing on the beach, drinking coffee in the warm sunshine. We had chosen the beach to camp due to the fact that finding a grassy spot that was tick free had proved impossible. Nearby in the woods we heard the first cuckoos of the season, and occasionally the iconic screech of a buzzard soaring nearby. During the night several owls hooted away.

The next day's route took us further along the shore of Loch Maree, and we could hear a woodpecker in the distance, knocking out it's signature sound on the trees. We passed by an isolated settlement called Letterewe, then turned north to ascend the path that would take us through the bealach to the valley beyond. By late afternoon we were descending toward Fionn Loch, facing into an icy north wind. The approach to where we were to establish camp three at the head of Fionn Loch, was quite spectacular, with a deep cauldron of rugged peaks forming a colossal amphitheatre of granite.

Camp established, we explored the area around, and as we walked across a nearby causeway, that links two sections of land across a narrow inlet of water, Pauline spotted a black-throated diver swoop down and land on the loch.

Our campsite was in a fairly exposed location, and the wind was bitter. It was going to be a cold night.

The next day we were battered by wind and rain, which turned to hail at times, and we decided to sit it out until early afternoon. We had only a short walk to the next place we were to camp, and so time was on our side.

By mid afternoon we were on our way, experiencing four seasons in the space of one hour. Mid-May and we were in a blizzard!

Camp four was literally only three or four miles from Poolewe, where we would finish the next day, but we wanted to spend one final night out in the hills. Our choice was on the edge of a small wood in a clearing. The weather remained wintery and by late evening I had a thin layer of snow around the tent.

Loch Ewe, at the south end of which is Poolewe, had an important part to play in the second world war, being a naval base from where supply ships to Russia would leave from. During the summer months they would sail north, out and around the northern side of Iceland before turning back east. Many convoys were lost, and at times only a third would make it through due to U-boats lying in wait out in the north sea. Security was so tight in the whole area at the time, that even the locals were issued with passes to be able to come and go.

Our final day trekking out of the hills was in very changeable weather once again, and the wind continued to be bitterly cold. No sooner had we emerged from the forest than we hit the outskirts of Poolewe and journey's end.

Camp five was rather luxurious an official campsite of the Camping & Caravaning Club, complete with showers and flushing toilets. Ahhh, the simple pleasures of the modern world! The very kind site helped us out with gas for our stoves as we had both almost run out over the past few days.

Wednesday, and it was time to go home. The bus sped it's way through the hills and past Loch Maree, where we had trekked on the opposite shore just a few days before. Summer had returned and it was a glorious day, with the hills looking majestic with their fresh dusting of snow on the summits.

After five days of rehydrated foods I decide on a bit of indulgence, and bought my lunch from McDonalds in Inverness. I'm at the counter asking a bemused assistant if the fries are gluten-free. This is met with a blank expression, so I ask again. This time I get a reply: "No, not free. 99p". I sigh, and try again, speaking more slowly and loudly, as if that would help in some way. "No, sorry. 99p. Not free" came the response once again from the Polish employee.

I think the bus had dropped me off in Warsaw by mistake.