Sunday, 1 August 2021

Wild Camping in Scotland

Off to Scotland, where for two days I huddled in a tent against the elements, because there's a first time for everything. Why? Just to see what it was like.

Scotland is one of the few places in the world where you're allowed to camp in the wild. You can in theory pitch up a tent on any patch of unowned land, although I imagine if you tried to camp just outside a primary school the police would not be pleased. Or just outside the Scottish estate of 1980s actress Lysette Anthony (for example). Or anywhere else that breaches the terms of an exclusion order.

Castle Stalker. The railway line is apparently used to pull boats into the boathouse that's just behind me. Historically there was a train line at nearby Appin, but it was closed as part of the Beeching cuts of the 1960s.

Let's not dwell on bad things. I wanted to see Castle Stalker, which is an awkward distance from the nearest train stations at Oban and Connel Ferry. It's too far to walk, close enough to cycle there and back in one day if you're really keen, but I wanted to try out camping, so I used Google Maps to pick a green spot called Gleann Dubh, which is near Castle Stalker. It's a reservoir.

Gleann Dubh isn't famous at all, and I can find no record of anyone on the internet camping there, although while there I saw a couple of tents, so perhaps it's a favourite local spot. Who knows.

Let's share tips. I have never camped before, but I've read Into Thin Air and at the very least I didn't die, but you are probably much more experienced than me. Perhaps you want to know how a novice got on.

Tent
My plan was to cycle to Castle Stalker, so I had to save weight. Cycle with a Brompton, not ordinarily thought of as a long-range touring bike, but it can be done. If you're planning to do this yourself but you aren't keen on camping in the wild there are several motor caravan parks in the local area, and of course you could cycle to Port Appin and stay in the hotel there instead. Port Appin is a scenic half-hour stroll to Castle Stalker. I wanted to camp. To experience the glamour of army basic training and/or being homeless.

A few years ago there was a fad on the internet for hammocks, strung between two trees, with a V-shaped tarpaulin on top, but I expected to camp on open ground, so that wasn't an option. Hammocks also strike me as being very conspicuous. Another popular option is a bivouac bag, or bivvy bag. They're essentially sleeping bag liners made of breathable waterproof fabric, although the more elaborate models have a hooped head area. Some bivvy bags even have provision for guy ropes, and are essentially low-to-the-ground, sausage-shaped tents. One that stood out to me is the Terra Nova Jupiter Lite, but it seems to be discontinued.

Bivvy bags have discretion on their side, and they're easy to set up, but I wanted a way to keep all of my gear inside away from the rain, including my folding bike if necessary, which meant a tent. Hiding the bike from plain sight might also prevent passing wildlife from nibbling the brake cables or peeing on it. Of the lightweight tents the Terra Nova Laser Competition 1 stood out, especially because it's easily available online in the UK, but I settled on a Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo, which is slightly lighter and around £100 cheaper. They aren't sold in the UK so they have to be imported, but they're lightweight so postage isn't especially onerous.

The Lunar Solo is around 700g, but you have to factor in some tent pegs - six, with fittings for two more - plus a 49" tent pole. Six Moon Designs expect you to use a walking pole, but I bought a lightweight carbon fibre tent pole from eBay:


Did it snap and shatter? No, although the length is an awkward fit in some backpacks. I was worried I would shoulder my backpack, and - crunch - snap the poles in the process, but again I was being too cautious. The pegs and pole probably didn't exceed 300gm so the package was less than 1kg. On top of that I had to add an inflatable bed and a sleeping bag.

I pondered bringing a sleeping bag liner - or alternatively only bringing a sleeping bag liner. In the event it was warm enough to do this, but I didn't know in advance, so I left the liner at home. On reflection I could have saved more weight by using a half-length sleeping bag. The external temperature at night was apparently 11-13c, but inside the tent I only really needed to keep my feet warm.


The Lunar Solo has a small internal half-hoop at the top but is otherwise structured with a mixture of guy ropes and the central pole, which fits into a pair of rings in the top and bottom of the tent. The tent itself is an odd shape. Imagine a pyramid sliced in half from one corner to the other, with an insect net strung across the slice, and a foyer area just outside. The floor hangs down from the sides of the pyramid, with a strip of ventilation netting running around at ground level:


A so-called bathtub design. At first I was concerned about privacy. It reminded me of those avant-garde homes where the walls are made of glass, but the tent flares out at the base, making a little roof over the ventilation nets, so it's much more private than it looks. It's a clever design that ventilates the inside of the tent, keeps out bugs, and lets you see what's going on directly outside the tent.

Now, the first time I erected the tent I was in a hurry, and the ground wasn't ideal, so my pitch was a bit floppy. I picked a little bowl in between fallen trees, and tried not to imagine that there was a dead sheep carcass underneath it all:


Furthermore the mossy ground didn't give much purchase for the pegs. Excuses. Even though my pitching was rubbish there was still plenty of internal space for me, a backpack, my boots, and a Brompton bike bag. You could almost certainly do a better job. During the night it rained, but the tent stayed upright and dry:


In that shot my boots are in the foyer area. The laces got wet but the boots remained dry. For the second and final night I rearranged the pegs, which gave me more space internally. The picture of my sock further up the page has the second configuration, as does the following shot:


As you can see it rained again, and the tent got floppy again, but I still had ample space inside. On the positive side there was almost no wind where I camped, albeit that on the negative side this encouraged midges, but on the positive side the netting kept them out. The anti-bug netting has a inside-outside two-zip design, thus:


It was easy enough to reach outside the tent and set up my camping stove without letting flies get in. Six Moon Designs provides their own bag, but I used a slightly larger bag that I had lying about because it had straps:

The Lunar Solo will pack down even smaller.

As you can see I also brought along a collapsible water container. I camped near a reservoir, but the water didn't look appealing at all so in the end I filled it - very slowly - from a stream. I was near the top of a hill and there didn't appear to be farming uphill, but nonetheless I added a water purification tablet (taken from, off the top of my head, a Polish MRE). And boiled it.

One thing that came in handy was an empty plastic drinks bottle. It's surprisingly difficult to fill a collapsible water container. If you hold it under water it collapses. I ended up using the plastic bottle to fill up the container.

Sustenance
I also took along my Trangia stove, which burns alcohol. You're supposed to use ethanol or meths, but I used 80% alcoholic hand sanitising gel, which worked just fine and also doubled as hand sanitising gel, important given the prevalence of midges. Could I have used vodka? Apparently the alcohol content isn't enough to sustain a good flame, and it would be a waste of vodka.




A Prevalence of Midges would be a good name for an early-80s dark ambient record. By Coil, Nurse With Wound, Current 93 etc. The Anti Group. Etc.

My plan was to use the Trangia for coffee, washing, and food. In the end I used it almost entirely for coffee, because cycling is thirsty work, and I wasn't all that hungry.

A rare glimpse of an MRE beverage bag (bottom-left) in the wild. They're intended for hot drinks - you're supposed to put coffee in them, shake up the bag, heat it in a flameless ration heater, slip it into a plastic sleeve and drink - but no-one does that. Instead I used several of them as waterproof pouches to keep things separated from each other.

I took along a plastic tub with savoury rice, some curry powder, some beef jerky, and some stock cubes. I have a bunch of dried onions that I should really have taken along with me as well. Rice is tricky in a Trangia because it's difficult to simmer things without using the awkward simmering ring, but I brought along an insulated pot cosy, so after boiling the water I let the rice cook itself while I made a hot drink.




The end result was edible but very bland, but I suppose that's the nature of dried food. For the second meal I simmered the beef jerky in hot water with a stock cube, which made a very salty meaty broth. I understand now why there are low-salt stock cubes.

All of this put me in mind of Das Boot, the famous novel of a Second World War submarine. At the beginning of the trip they filled every available space with eggs, bread, vegetables, chicken etc, but after a week or so all the fresh food had been used up, so their diet for the rest of the patrol consisted of tinned potatoes, Scho-Ka-Kola caffeinated chocolate, and whatever Germany had instead of spam. Dried food is even more spartan than that. I could have spiced my diet up with porridge and soup, but I was only camping for two days, and I was never more than a five miles away from a shop. Bear in mind my original plan was to hike for a week in [foreign land]; I overspecified for three days in Scotland.

Trangias are bulky, and when you account for the weight of liquid fuel they're heavy and slightly awkward, but they're compelling because they're a complete set of pots, kettle, windbreak, burner, stand etc. In retrospect I wish I had brought along some lemonade powder and much less food. I'm not a nutritionist, so I have no idea if I could have compensated for the loss of calories by drinking lots of sugary coffee instead. Or alternative if I could have not compensated at all and just lost weight instead. I have some surplus weight.

The other good thing about a Trangia is that it gave me something to do. It kept my mind active. The process of assembling it, trying to light the fuel without setting the tent on fire, juggling the two pots and the kettle, it all ate up time that would otherwise have been spent contemplating the fact I was sitting in a damp forest in Scotland.

The other thing
I bought along a trowel, but one consequence of eating so little and drinking so much is that I didn't have to use it. I was cognisant of the Apollo astronauts, who went on a low-residue diet before spending six days velcroing a plastic bag to their buttocks whenever they wanted to poo.

The diet sounds surprisingly appetising - baked potatoes, pound cake, toast, bacon and eggs. I assume the idea is that the food was high in oils and carbohydrates and low in fibre. I took a much simpler approach and simply ate a light lunch for three days in advance of the trip, and nothing else.

Technology
National cycle route 78 has plenty of signs. It runs alongside a main road for the most part. It's not Death Valley. A map comes in handy, though, because there's something to be said for having a bird's eye view of the local area. I have two maps, an old Garmin eTrex Legend and a much newer Motorola Moto G7 Power, so-called because it has a larger battery than the standard model. I use OpenStreetMap data on the eTrex and OSMAnd, which also uses OpenStreetMap, on the G7:


I mean, yes, there are also paper maps, but there are some things I will never be nostalgic for. Videotape, that's one. Having to share a bathroom with four other people. Being constantly distracted by lustful thoughts and spontaneous erections. That's not a problem any more. Oh no. And paper maps. They're great to study at home, horrible to actually use on the move.

Many many years ago I took the eTrex with me whenever I went abroad. You can set it to find shops and restaurants within a certain radius, which was useful more than once. However the basic technology is ancient, and the map is tiny, and it's very slow. The eTrex Legend was launched in 2001, and my module - with a colour screen and support for a MicroSD card - came along a few years later. In the pre-smartphone days it was probably terrific, but mobile phones have caught up. In its favour the eTrex takes standard AA batteries.

A few years later I compared it with my Moto G2, which picked up GPS satellites just as quickly and had the benefit of being able to make calls and connect to the internet, which are very useful if you're travelling. Furthermore the screen was a revelation in comparison. The G7 is a modest Android phone, but after three days of camping (without the internet) and taking a lot of photos it still had around 75% battery life left. I didn't bother with a power bank. No, spontaneous erections are no longer a problem. In a way I'm free.

Just visible at the bottom of the map screen is the bridge that links Castle Stalker with Port Appin:


I spotted it on the map and it piqued my curiosity. I wouldn't have thought to explore it otherwise; a quick search with OSMAnd revealed a corner shop in Port Appin, so I popped over there and bought some supplies. This is why OSMAnd is the only open source project I have donated money to. It's genuinely useful. It benefited me, and Port Appin's economy, a little bit.

I also took along my iPad Mini 2, on which I read Dark Sun by Richard Rhodes. It's a fascinating book about the making of the hydrogen bomb, although the entire first half is about the espionage that went on during the Manhattan Project. It's one of those enormous, well-written, extensively-sourced books that's almost tailor-made for long train journeys.

Anything else? As pictured above I wore a well-worn pair of Altberg Defender boots, which had no grip on the bike's pedals but did keep my feet dry over what was occasionally boggy ground. See, in order to get from my tent to the nearest path I had to do a little jump over a stream, which was difficult with my Brompton, so I decided to wade the stream, only to find that the bottom was mud. And yet my feet stayed dry because the Defenders didn't let in any water.

I have the impression that ultralight camping is an unattainable goal. It's appealing but unattainable. The biggest issue I faced was weight. It's hard to be free when you're carrying a weight. That's why I don't mind losing custody of the kids. It's hard to be free when you're carrying a weight. The Brompton carried one of my bags, but a bike-mule would be awkward over bumpy or muddy ground. Are drones sufficiently advanced to use as pack mules? Not yet.

Could I have saved weight? The Model 27 Trangia weighs about 1kg. Back in 2001 this chap tried to shave some weight off his Trangia by leaving out the aluminium baseplate, which was surprisingly effective. For three days in Scotland I could have just bought food from the nearest shops, or brought along a couple of bars of Kendall Mint Cake, but it was nice having access to hot water. My sleeping bag is more bulky than heavy.

Camera-wise I took along my old Fuji S3. Hence the unsubtle sky gradients. It's good at that. I could have taken along my Olympus E-PL1 Micro-Four-Thirds camera, but I only have two batteries. Would they last? The S3 takes AAs, which are widely available, but as far as I can tell batteries for the E-PL1 (and other early Micro Four Thirds cameras) were discontinued years ago, so powering it is surprisingly difficult nowadays.

The Brompton bag itself is surprisingly heavy. I could have shaved off some weight by putting everything into a single larger backpack, but that would have concentrated all the weight in one area. And of course I could go on a diet and eliminate some weight that way. Ultimately it would have amounted to a handful of kilos before getting into the expensive world of carbon fibre and titanium, but nothing that I could have compensated for by simply moving a bit slower.

On the other hand soldiers carry far more than I did when on route marches. It seems that throughout military history 25kg is a common basic load, but during actual military operations they carry more than that. That source gives 50kg for the British soldier during the second Gulf War, and I've seen photos of soldiers alighting from landing craft during the Falklands War whose backpacks were as large as them. In contrast the combined weight of my gear was no more than 10kg, rising to 20kg during the thankfully brief periods I had to carry the Brompton, so I had it easy. Perhaps I'm just incredibly unfit and out of shape.

Glasgow
Oh yeah. Glasgow. I used Glasgow as a base, renting a hotel room at the beginning and end of my trip. I only got to see the city for one day. The central streets were draped with US flags. At first I thought it was a banking thing. Had the NASDAQ opened? But it turns out that the new Indiana Jones film is being shot there, because inner-city Glasgow looks like New York.


In fact a few years back I saw Florence Foster Jenkins, which also used Glasgow as a stand-in for New York. It looked slightly off, but only because it seemed too clean to be real.







Saturday, 10 July 2021

From Oban to Castle Stalker by Brompton


Off to Scotland, to do some cycling and camping and also have my arms bitten off by midges. Have you ever seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail? It was mostly shot in and around Doune Castle in Central Scotland, but a couple of scenes were filmed at Castle Stalker in the west of the country.



Castle Stalker is privately owned and you can only see it from the outside. The Monty Python team were restricted to shooting exteriors. Graham Chapman's King Arthur goes up the steps and knocks on the door, but he doesn't go inside. Nonetheless I've always wanted to see it, but how?

I don't drive. The nearest train station is Oban, ten miles as the crow flies to the south, but more like twenty miles once you account for the twists and turns of the coastline. That's too far to walk. I could take a taxi, but that seems wrong. Besides, do I want to spend five hours on the train to Glasgow, then another three on a train to Oban, just to take a taxi to look at a castle for a few minutes? No, I do not.

So I filed Castle Stalker away in my filing cabinet of "places in Britain that are harder and more expensive to visit than Rome, so why not go to Rome". However last year I bought a Brompton folding bicycle, and that planted an idea in my mind.

Long-term readers of this blog might wonder why I started writing about military food a couple of years ago:


Partially it was curiosity, but mostly it was because 2020 was going to be the year I did some hiking and camping. Proper multi-day hiking. Real man-vs-nature stuff. I wanted to see if military MREs were any good as hiking food (they are not; too bulky). So I bought a bunch of different MREs and tried them out, and I got hold of some camping equipment, including a Trangia alcohol stove. I stocked up on compressed toilet paper, dried food, and alcoholic hand gel, which ironically came in handy a few months later...

... because nature also had plans for 2020. It decided to give us all a playful kicking, in the process shutting down international air travel. Before 2020 a complete shutdown of international air travel would have been the plot of a thriller, but it actually happened in real life. An extraordinary period that is not yet over.

After the airline refunded my tickets I made a profit of four pounds, on account of currency fluctuations. Four pounds! Flush with this cash I bought a Brompton folding bicycle, which I took off to Italy during the brief period at the end of 2020 when it looked as though the world was getting back to normal. A year later I still have that bicycle, plus my camping gear, so why not put it to some use? It's too late to fly on a 747 - they're all gone - and Mongolia is still closed, and Monica Bellucci will  have to look after herself for a while longer, but Castle Stalker is still there.

As mentioned earlier a main road leads from Oban to the Castle and then north to Inverness, but it's not ideal for cycling, especially not cycle touring with lots of luggage. Here's what part of the A828 looks like:


It's not hyper-busy, but it's the only road north of Oban, so there's a steady stream of cars and trucks, usually in little groups, once every couple of minutes. Bicycles are explicitly forbidden from some parts of the road. Could I have risked it, and pulled over when traffic came along? No, I could not.

But there is hope. National Cycle Route 78 runs alongside the A828. A few parts run on the road, albeit only on sections with a 30mph speed restriction, but mostly you can cycle up the left coast of Scotland without having to share space with lorries. So I refined my plans. I broke the route into three sections:


Section one runs for about four miles from Oban to a bridge at Connel. Section two is about eight miles from Connel to another bridge at Dallachulish / Creagan. Section three is another four miles to Castle Stalker. My original idea was to continue north to the village of Duror and then camp out near a bothy in the hills above it, but I decided to drop that part of the route. Too ambitious, and the section from Dalnatrat to Duror is one of the few parts that runs along a main road. Perhaps I will visit Duror another time.

Instead of visiting Duror I devised a plan to cycle up to Dallachulish / Creagan, find somewhere to camp overnight, then continue to Castle Stalker the next day, then visit Port Appin to kill time, then return to my camp and rest overnight, then cycle back to Oban on day three. I could in theory have done it all in two days, but a train strike forced me to spend three days on the road. If I had a proper touring bike or I was very fit (or both) I could in theory have cycled from Connel to Castle Stalker and back in a single day, but I didn't just want to see the castle, I wanted to do some camping as well, and if I'm going to camp for one day, why not two?

One of the many great things about Scotland is that you can, in theory, camp on non-privately-owned land without a permit. It's one of the few places - along with Mongolia, Greenland, off the top of my head Norway and Sweden - that permits wild camping. Obviously there are limits, and even if I was legally in the right it would be a terrible idea to camp near a road, because there are hooligans all over the world. I am familiar with the Country Code, the gist of which is that you should leave no trace.

All gone. I used an ever-handy Ikea Dimpa bag as a small groundsheet. After setting it up I noticed a red plastic stick stuck in the ground, just visible in the bottom-left - had someone else used this spot beforehand?

I'll write about the camping side of things separately. I took along my Trangia stove, which burns alcohol. You're supposed to use meths, but I used alcoholic hand gel, which worked just as well. I want to stress that in the following picture it isn't lit (it's too close to the tent flap):

That red stick again.

The tent is a Six Moons Lunar Solo. I chose a tent over a bivvy bag so that I had space to store my Brompton if necessary. The Lunar Solo requires six tent pegs, with fittings for another two if you have them, and in theory it requires a 49" hiking pole, but I bought a carbon fibre tent pole from eBay which worked just as well. I suppose I could have used the Brompton's seatpost as a makeshift pole if there were exceptionally high winds.

Here's a shot of the equipment I took, all packed up:


That's a Brompton B75, a generic backpack, a Brompton Large Metro Bag, and the Dimpa bag, which went inside the backpack. It was handy in case my Brompton was covered in mud and I had to bag it up for the train.

Two things worried me. Firstly that the combined weight of the backpack and my chunky body would cause the seatpost to collapse. In the end this wasn't a problem - after cycling for an hour the seatpost dropped about an inch, and no more - but just in case I put all the fluffy, lightweight stuff in the backpack. That included the tent, the sleeping bag, the sleeping bag liner, and an inflatable bed.

Do you remember the fad for rubber horse masks from a few years ago? I could have brought along one of them. It would have been nostalgic, and perhaps it might have sparked up some conversations, but in the end I left mine at home. The second thing that worried me was this:


It's the standard Brompton front luggage block. Rated for 10kg, and apparently very sturdy. Brompton bags have a frame with a plastic slot that slides over the luggage block. It's a clever design that works well, but how would the block hold up to sudden knocks, or hours of being pushed over cattle grids and rutted tracks? Would the block snap? Would the block hold, but gradually come loose from the bike? Would I have to tie the bag to the frame with some tent ropes? In the end I left behind a couple of things, including a tripod, to make sure that the luggage bag weighed as little as possible (about 6kg in the end).

Thankfully however nothing went wrong. The luggage block feels as solid now as it did before the trip. Furthermore the rest of the B75 held up. The hinges are still intact, nothing has rusted, the gears still work, as do the brakes etc. I have Schwalbe Marathon tyres - not the Plus variety, just ordinary Marathons - and they're still intact as well, despite pushing the bike up several gravel tracks.

Google tells me that some people have cycled through China and Tibet on their Bromptons, so perhaps I'm worrying too much, but let's talk about the trip. Stage zero involved transporting myself and the Brompton from the south of England to Glasgow via train, but that was just a load-carrying exercise. Stage zero point one involved getting the train from Glasgow to Oban. I arrived at just gone 11:20. Oban is a popular outdoorsy location and lots of the other passengers had luggage and bikes:


I'm not sure what happens if you try to get on with a bicycle but there's no space. Luckily my Brompton fits into the standard end-of-carriage luggage racks and would at a pinch fit in front of a seat.

Stage One
This runs from Oban to the bridge at Connel. I picked up National Cycle Route 78 on Glencruitten Road, which leads east-north-east from Oban:


It winds uphill before splitting into two roads; the eastern road leads to a C-road that runs north to Connel, through scenic farmland:



This part of the journey isn't much fun. It's a single-track road with periodic passing places. The section above is relatively flat, but the first part is very hilly. There's just enough space for a bicycle and off-roader to pass on the road. I mention off-roaders because although the volume of traffic was objectively low there was nonetheless a steady trickle of cars, almost entirely off-roaders, often in little convoys of two or three vehicles in a clump. Furthermore with all this luggage my Brompton didn't do inclines at all, so I found myself awkwardly pushing a bike uphill, hoping that nobody would come over the crest too quickly to dodge.

The irony is that this part of the journey was entirely superfluous. After reaching the bridge I realised that I could have skipped Oban entirely and got off the train at Connel Ferry station, which is about a quarter of a mile from the bridge. I have to say that if you're planning to do this trip yourself, you don't lose anything by cutting out Oban.


The bridge at Connel

Before going on I took the opportunity to stop off at a village shop in Connel to get something to drink. This part of the trip was, judging by Google's distance measuring ruler, five and a bit miles long. It took me around an hour and three-quarters to reach the bridge, although I could have done it faster if I hadn't kept stopping to take photographs. Minus luggage, on a proper touring bike, with stronger leg muscles, I would have been quicker still.

Stage Two
The rest of the trip was a lot easier because it was almost entirely on a flat cycle path. Once past the bridge I came to a new part of the cycle route that goes by Oban Airport (EGEO):





Oban Airport is also in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020. The arrangement is roughly correct. Just up the coast is a caravan park - there are several camping stops in the area, but they're all aimed at motor caravaners, not tent-ers:



Cycle Route 78 then goes through some nice wooded paths that lead to Benderloch, a mile and a half up the road, which has a shop and a camping store. At that point you can turn off to visit Tralee Beach, which is mostly covered in shingles. The biggest problem I found was insects. Scotland is plagued with midges in the summer months. If spiders ever discover Scotland they would have a field day, but perhaps the cure would be worse than the disease. There were benches along the route, but they were swarmed with flies and midges, so I kept going.

The route eventually turns into a pavement that runs beside the road. I remember cycling past a man selling oysters, and a small truck stop area that had a restaurant and a pottery shop. Was it a pottery shop? Yes, according to Google Maps, it was.


Just past the half-way point you have to cross the road from west to east and detour around another caravan park:


It took me around two hours to reach this point, although I took time to have a look at the beach. At that point I had to find somewhere in the vicinity of Gleann Dubh reservoir to make camp, so I stopped taking photographs because the reservoir was half-way up a hill:

In the following photo I'm standing roughly at the bottom-right, the southern edge of the reservoir, looking at the spit of land that sticks into the water on the right of the picture.


Looking back south-west

I went counter-clockwise around the reservoir. A couple of lads, possibly from the caravan site at the foot of the hill, were fishing, so in order not to attract attention I didn't explore the clockwise part of the water's edge. I have no idea if it's legal to fish in reservoirs in Scotland. I have to say that the water didn't look particularly appealing. As per the image from Microsoft Flight Simulator the clockwise part was much less wooded. I will probably never know if it would have been a better camping spot.

Incidentally my biggest worry throughout the trip was other people. I know that wild camping is allowed in Scotland, but do the locals know that? Are they keen on it? I imagined a busybody asking  me where I was going, then threatening to call the police if I didn't buzz off, then smashing my bike if I refused.

A track led down to the water's edge, but there were already a pair of tents. A second group of lads were kayaking. I have no idea if they were connected to the first group. On the positive side I was at least in the right ballpark, although as it began to rain it dawned on me that I had travelled four hundred miles across the UK on the off chance that one of the green patches on Google Maps was the right place to pitch a tent, and that I was now half-way up a hill with a bunch of neds for company.

However the nearby forests had a couple of patches that looked less boggy than the others, so as mentioned above I pitched my tent and got settled in. It was by now seven o'clock in the evening. As mentioned earlier there was a red plastic stick at the exact spot I pitched my tent. It was obviously artificial. There were a couple of other signs of human passage:



Satanic signal? Hobo code? Something to do with the Forestry Commission? Random crap? Who knows.

After spending the night in nature's sweet embrace I decided to risk leaving the tent standing throughout day two, so after waking at around 06:00 I left my backpack in the tent and cycled on to Castle Stalker with a few things in my Brompton bag.

Gleann Dubh at half-seven in the morning.


The kayak people were still about. I encountered a couple of dog-walkers on the trail early in the morning. It took a surprisingly long time to cover the three-quarters of a mile from the reservoir back to the road, because it was a bunch of steep, winding, gravel tracks.

The kayakers left on the third morning - they had built a fire.

Stage Three
Day two. The last stage was easy. The cycle route crosses a bridge at Creagan / Dallachulish:


And then becomes a wooded path:



Eventually it crosses the A828. You can in theory turn off west and cycle up to check out Port Appin at this point, although you would have to cycle up a steep hill to get there. I decided to go off to Castle Stalker first:



Castle Stalker is also in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020.

Incidentally I navigated with OSMAnd on my mobile phone. OSMAnd is the only open source project I have ever donated money to, because it's the only one that has been genuinely useful. It showed me that there was a bridge leading from the vicinity of the castle to Port Appin. The Jubilee Bridge.




The road to Port Appin was similar to the road in stage one of my journey, but easier, because there were fewer trucks:





I arrived at around 10:00, which was handy because the local Co-Op opened at that time. I chowed down on some chocolate and fizzy pop. Port Appin itself is a jetty with a couple of restaurants and a nice view of a distant lighthouse. I was tempted to stop for breakfast, but my trousers were covered in mud, I had nowhere to put my bike, and I probably smelled strongly of deodorant. I've seen lots of films in which the locals spurn the out-of-town drifter so I decided not to risk it. Port Appin struck me was a nice place to stay if you wanted to get some writing done.

And that was essentially that. I retraced my path back over the bridge and cycled back to my tent. Almost immediately I realised that I hadn't taken an Instagram-friendly shot of my Brompton with Castle Stalker in the background, but I was in no mood to backtrack. I had a mean sore throat, probably a combination of cycling with my mouth open and drinking chemically-purified water. After getting back to the tent I had a meal, read a bit more of my book - Richard Rhodes' Dark Sun - and got some rest. I can confirm that the Six Moons Lunar Solo has an effective anti-midge screen.

I was aware that the train left Oban at 12:21, and would arrive at Connel Ferry a few minutes later. I woke up early enough so that I could in theory have walked the distance in time - perhaps my Brompton would finally develop a puncture - but in the end nothing went wrong, so my trip ended with a mixture of freewheeling and pushing my Brompton back to Connel Ferry in the early hours of Monday morning while it drizzled.



Suppose you want to do something like this but without the camping? The obvious answer would be to book a room in Port Appin or the surrounding area and use that as a base. I would suggest cycling from Connel Ferry to Port Appin, and if you want to see Oban perhaps you could cycle back to Connel Ferry and take the train to Oban on your last day there, then take the train from Oban to Glasgow Queen Street. Connel Ferry doesn't have a ticket dispenser so you'd either have to book in advance online or ask the ticket inspector.

From Port Appin you could then pop across the water to Lismore and also perhaps go north and visit Duror and the hills above it. Your attempts to have a nice picnic will be frustrated by flies and midges, unless you go in the colder months, but that's part of the charm of being in the outdoors.

Of course if you don't want to camp or cycle there are, as mentioned, several motor-caravan camping sites in the local area. I'm not a lawyer, but I understand you can't just park at the side of the road and sleep in your motorhome overnight, although this raises the question of whether you could park the motorhome and then sleep in a tent outside it.

And of course if you're really fit you could do the journey in one day. The earliest train is 05:20-08:35 Glasgow-Oban, the last train Oban-Glasgow 20:37-23:33, more than enough time to cycle there and back with a long pause for lunch and some exploration on top of that.

Will I ever go back? Who knows.