Sunday, 10 September 2017

Outer Hebrides

Our extended NC500 tour ended on Sunday in Ullapool, as I was catching the ferry to Stornoway on Monday morning and Andy was heading home for work on Tuesday.  The rain had been on and off all night and when I dragged myself out of my tent I found Andy almost packed and wrestling a wet tent into its bag.  Well he did have a few hundred more miles than me to cover today!  As Andy rode off south, I started to pack up a soaking wet tent as best as I could to try and keep the inside dry, I still had at least 4 more camping nights to go, or so I thought!  Packed away I rode down to the ferry and checked in and with an hour to kill, tracked down breakfast.  At least the rain had gone off and I enjoyed a roll and a coffee on the sea front.

The road to the Isles!

As boarding time came closer the sky was beginning to clear and the fresh breeze had dropped to no more than a gentle waft.  After the bike was securely tied down by the helpful Calmac staff, I made my way to the passenger decks of the MV Loch Seaforth to enjoy the crossing.  Armed with a huge coffee I picked a seat with a superb view from the fully glazed observation lounge positioned in the bow of the boat.

A great view, calm seas and a blue sky

Leaving Ullapool and then the Summer Isles behind, I settled down for the couple of hours at sea until we sailed into Stornoway.  The sea remained flat calm for the whole crossing reflecting the few white clouds that still hung in the pure blue sky.  I started to read a book, but my eyes were constantly drawn to the sea and I found myself just looking out over the sea for most of the crossing.
All too soon the ferry was alongside in Stornoway and we were rolling into the town. Lost motorists fresh from the ferry were competing with the locals to negotiate the narrow roads around the terminal.  As the sky was still blue and the air warm I decided to avoid the chaos and head for the campsite and put the tent up to try and dry it out.
I found a corner of the gently sloping Laxdale holiday park and put up the soggy tent.  Fortunately I had managed to keep the inside of the tent almost dry and I was sure the rest would be dry by the time I got back.

The gently sloping Laxdale holiday park

After checking out the campsite facilities I decided to head north to Point of Ness and the Butt of Lewis lighthouse.  I picked the A857 to cross to the west of the island and the village of Barvas.  The road is almost dead straight as it crosses the moors.  Long straight roads I was not expecting.  As the sea comes into view the road turns right and then follows the coast north.  Again the road is fairly straight and from a biking point of view, boring.  The views over the moorland to the right and sea stretching out to the horizon on the left are far from boring though.  Pressing north on the superbly surfaced road I passed through several small settlement where the buildings are strung out along the road, rather than expanding away from the road to form a village.  One benefit is the speed limit is 40mph rather than the 30mph we have on the mainland.  Approaching Point of Ness the road drops down to single track, but again it is well maintained.  After 5 minutes of single track the beach and harbour at Point of Ness comes into view.  After a quick photo stop, another 5 minutes of single track got me to the Butt of Lewis lighthouse.

Harbour and beach at Point of Ness

Butt of Lewis Lighthouse
After a photo stop and a wee wander around at the Butt of Lewis lighthouse the rain decided it wanted to join in on the fun again.  The return journey was on the same roads as the way up, as there is only one way in.
Returning to Stornoway I tracked down fuel for the bike and a Co-Op to fuel me.
Back at the campsite the rain came and went all evening.  I whipped up a quick meatball curry and washed it down with a couple of beers.  Sitting in the tent in the rain, I planned a hopefully dry route for tomorrow.

I slept like a log and woke up on Tuesday morning contorted in to a ball in the bottom corner of the tent, the curse of  the sloping campsite!  After untangling myself from the sleeping arrangements, I opened the tent to a clear blue sky only haunted by some far off clouds well out over the sea.  Could I get a dry day at last?
After a breakfast of coffee and porridge it was off to the first target for the day, the standing stones at Callanish.  I took the same straight road over the moors to the west coast, but at Barvas turned left heading south along the coast to Callanish.  The well surfaced A858 is similar to the road I travelled north on yesterday.  The well surfaced road sweeps south over the moorland and through strung out settlements dotted along the way.  The visibility is great and there are few surprises to catch you out, it is a great riding road.  The sign for the stones guides you along a single track road by the shore to the visitor centre.  The best thing about an early start is I had the place to myself!
I walked up to the stones, reading some of the history laid out on plaques along the way.  Like Skara Brae in Orkney, these folks knew how to pick a location!  I had a good half hour of peace and quite wandering around the stones and taking in the views.  The only spoiler was 30 seconds of rain as a dark bank of clouds rolled through.

A quick shower passing through at Callanish.

Leaving the Callanish stones I headed back over the island to the east coast to join the road all the way south to Leverburgh.  Continuing south west  A858 over the moors to the east coast once again surprised me by continuing to be well surfaced with long open corners and bleak, but beautiful views over peat fields and small lochs.  Turning south onto the A859 the excellent fast sweeping road continues over moorland, through craggy cuttings and small villages.
As the road dives down to the shores of Loch Shiphoirt and the mountains of southern Harris come in to view the road suddenly becomes a lot more involving.  Two long sweeping uphill hairpins signal the start of the climb over the mountains to Tarbert.  The climb up the north side is a combination of fast flowing corners, hidden dips and first gear hairpins.  The road is a mix of brand new tarmac and worn out surface dressing on both single and normal carriageway.  All the while passing through rugged, stark scenery, more like the highlands than the islands.  Once over the summit the road dives down the southern side of the mountains through fast and very long curves.  Again the road surface is almost perfect.
Grinning like a Cheshire cat I pulled into the small roadside petrol station at Ardhasaig to fuel up and admire the view of the hills I had just ridden over.

You don't often get views like this when fuelling up.  Ardhasaig petrol station.
Back on the bike I meandered along the shore to Tarbert.  South of Tarbert the road changes to single track and was quite busy as I made my way west to the beaches of Western Harris.  As the road hit the west coast I realised I had made a mistake with my campsite.  Horgabost is where I should have been camped up!

Horgabost campsite, just behind the dunes.  Why was my tent no in there?

The mix of single track and normal road continues south with the stunning blue sea on the right lapping on pristine sand beaches.  No words just photos!

Since I was this far south I decided to check out where the ferry terminal was, to save time tomorrow.  Also the theory being I could enjoy the mountain pass a bit more without worrying about any grief at the ferry!
I found the ferry terminal and had a late snack lunch at the Leverburgh Co-Op.  Heading north again past the west coast beaches I decided to head down the single track road and check out Hushinish beach.
This is along 13 miles of the B887 single track road and I did think twice about it.  I had had enough of single track on the NC500 and another 26 miles of it was not high on my list!
Of I went anyway, past what looks like an old whaling station on the shore.  Immediately the road climbs, but it follows the coast all the way giving stunning views for the whole 13 miles.  The road is nothing special but the views are amazing, especially looking towards the mountains, over the sea and the beach at the end of the road itself.

On the road to Hushinish
Hushinish beach
The 13 miles back to the 'main' road was a drag, but I still had the rollercoaster over the mountains to look forward to.  It was so good I turned round and rode a section of it twice on the way back!
Unfortunately there is only one road back to Stornoway, so getting back was the reverse of going out.
Soon enough I was back in Stornoway and the Co-Op provided the makings of a tuna pasta tea and some munchies, all washed down with a couple of beers.
After a shower and tidying up, I checked the weather forecast.  Thursday night and Friday were always looking like the worst days, but 70 mph gusts were now forecast for Thursday night.  A quick call to the hotel where I was booked in to for Friday could take me as well on Thursday, but I would have to move rooms.  Still better than camping in rain driven by a gale!

Despite heavy clouds the rain had stayed off and Wednesday dawned dry if a bit cloudy and noticeably colder.  Fortified with coffee and porridge I packed up a dry tent, loaded the bike and headed for the ferry.  Once again the climb over the mountains to Tarbert proved to be a highlight.  I was on a late ferry so I had plenty of time to enjoy the roads once again.
Once on the ferry the crossing from Leverburgh to Berneray is the marine equivalent of riding the Bealach-na-Ba as the ferry weaves it's way through the islands and shallows marked by the navigation buoys.


Unfortunately as I was wedged in on the ferry I was last off.  From the ferry it is all single track road so I decided to find a nice spot to park up and chill out for a wee while.  Barely a mile south of the ferry terminal I was enjoying the tranquillity of solitude and a coffee overlooking white sand beaches.

Solitude and coffee, my first views of North Uist
After a quick loop of North Uist I headed for  Shell Bay campsite, my base for tonight.  It was a novelty putting up a dry tent for a change!
As it was getting late I decided to leave exploring for tomorrow.  Food, a shower and a relaxing evening were on the cards.

The most scenic supermarket in the world, probably...

RT Enjoying a well earned rest at Shell Bay campsite
The rain woke me up at about 3am on Thursday morning, but I quickly fell back asleep after putting in a set of earplugs.  When I finally woke up at 10:00, long lie or what, the wind had picked up quite a bit and it was a stiff breeze by the time I got out of the tent.  The wind and rain had arrived earlier than forecast.  After the usual coffee and porridge to set me up for the day, I set about getting the tent away.  Rolling around on the ground with my Vango flag, a camper driver took pity and used his van as a windbreak for me.  Top bloke and I'll never say a bad word about camper vans again....maybe.
I headed back to North Uist first, planning to do a clockwise loop and then locate Lochmaddy ferry terminal as I had to be there at 5:45 on Saturday morning.  The slate grey sky over the beaches and sea on the west coast looked foreboding and I could hear the sea breaking beyond the dunes protecting the beaches and lagoons.  The wind was also now whistling through the fences.  I pressed on as the views were still awe inspiring and I imagined them as blue and calm as yesterdays coffee stop beach.

Still stunning, but blue skies would be better

A rare break in the Thursday rain, it was overcast or raining all day
After locating Lochmaddy ferry terminal the rain came back on, real rain, hairy chested man sized rain almost horizontal in the wind.
I decided to make the most of it, even though it was starting to look grim.  I headed south onto the A865 heading for Eriskay over Benbecula and South Uist.  With the wind driving the rain into the right hand side of the bike the dead straight single track road was a real challenge and if I'm honest not very enjoyable in the rain and wind.
As I arrived at Eriskay causeway the the rain eased off and the twisty sweeping road over the island to the ferry terminal was good fun after the past 20 miles of ruler straight single track.  Arriving at the ferry terminal, the sea was suggesting to me that Barra on Friday may not be a good idea if the weather continued to deteriorate.

Welcome shelter in a bay on Eriskay
Once again it was one way in and one way out so in the rain I rode back up the Islands only planning to  stop at the Lady of the Isles statue for a quick photo.

By the now the rain was back on full time and the winds were slowly picking up.  I continued north, looking for fuel.  After fuelling up the bike I moved it before paying as I was seriously worried that it would get blown over on the exposed forecourt.  Now the bike was fuelled, I stopped at the Isle of Benbecula Hotel for a soup and a coffee.  The staff were more than helpful making sure a soaking wet biker was made very welcome!
After a final loop around Benbecula airport I headed for the Temple View Hotel, where I would be shacked up for the next two nights.
After checking in I spread my gear around the room to dry and then moved the bike behind a wall for a bit of shelter from the wind.  Hopefully she would still be upright in the morning.

RT Hiding from the weather, the wind would turn 180 degrees and gust to 70 mph during the night

The wind and rain got worse through the night.  I was so glad I had booked in to hotel, a night under canvas would have been hellish.
Friday morning dawned little better.  The wind had moderated slightly through the night and the rain was coming in as heavy showers that blew through in 2 or 3 minutes.  Barra was the goal for today and after breakfast I debated if I should even try it today.  Common sense lost the battle and I headed out, 10 minutes later I was back in the car park.  The cyclist getting blown off their bike and across the road just outside of Carinish, 1 mile from the hotel, should have been enough of a warning but I pressed on.  The wind had me banking the bike to the right to compensate for the wind and the wet cattle grid was never going to be pretty.  Hitting the wet steel grate the front wheel, swiftly followed by the rear slid out from under me to the left.  The kick when the tyres got a grip on tarmac had me out of the seat and my inside foot off the peg.  This really was not a sensible idea.  Finding a bit of shelter I turned the bike around and headed back to the hotel.  By the time I got back the staff had moved all my stuff to my new room.
The rest of the day was spent reading, planning future trips, watching TV and talking to other grounded travellers before a tasty dinner.

Nothing worse than a windy & rainy Friday in a hotel
The wind and rain started to easy off late in the afternoon and by about 6pm the last of the rain showers had passed through and the wind had dropped to about 30mph...

After packing and loading most of my gear on the bike I turned in early, disappointed at having missed getting to Barra but happy the bike had survived the wind and the cattle grid moment.  I had a 5am alarm set on Saturday morning to get to the ferry, so an early night was always on the cards anyway.

The change on Saturday morning was incredible.  As I left the Hotel at 5:15 the air was completely still and the sun, still under the horizon, was turning the sky a deep smoky blue.  The stars, bright points of light in the sky as I swept up the dark, empty, flowing road to Lochmaddy and the ferry that would take me off the island and deliver me to Skye.

Waiting to board at a flat calm Lochmaddy, a complete change from 24 hours ago.
The 2 hour crossing to Uig on Skye was flat calm and once again I found myself looking out over the sea while sipping a coffee.
I'll leave the run home until another day as I am planning to 'do' Skye at some point.

The outer Hebrides were amazing.  I thought Lewis and Harris were the best for motorcycle touring.  The immaculate roads lead to stunning beaches and carve over breathtaking mountain roads.  The Uists & Benbecula have their attractions as well and I think the weather put a bit of a downer on it for me.  There are more single track roads, but lots of corners still hide breathtaking views.
Missing Barra was a big disappointment for me, but I will be back eventually.  I will probably do a return trip from Oban.  I want to see a plane landing at the beach airport, or I may take a return flight and land at the beach airport!

Laxdale holiday park had great facilities mainly loads of hot, clean showers.  The only downside was the sloping field.  If it was quieter you could get a flat pitch at the bottom of the field.
Shell Bay campsite was basic but clean and tidy and the pitches are flat.  Enough showers but low on flow and my personal hate, shower curtains!  Washing facilities again were basic but adequate.
Temple View Hotel was clean, warm and spacious.  Even the single room had a bath and shower.  Breakfast was good and the staff very helpful, they even offered me a packed lunch as I wouldn't be having breakfast the morning I left early.  The evening menu had a good selection and food was delicious, if a little expensive.  I would stay here again.