Bikerafting Scotland’s Great Wilderness

Loch Na Sealga Scotland Bikerafting

Adventures By Bike and Boat

Bound for lesser-known trails, and laden with an armour of adventure gear, we topped out on the steep, singletrack road above Little Loch Broom, catching a glimpse of Scotland’s remote west coast.

Known as The Great Wilderness, this isolated and exposed area had both intrigued and unnerved me as I’d laced together the route ahead.

GORE-Scottish-Highlands-H+I-Adventures-14And the reason? Being no strangers to enduring weather, hours in the saddle and isolated terrain, Naomi and I had come together again for a maiden bikerafting mission. Our attempt to do so was aided by the kind efforts of both GOREWear – and a man with equally adventurous aspirations – Andy Toop. With a colourful spectrum of weather conditions to contend with, our bags were bulging and my legs burning under the weight.

Over two days, our goal was to complete a circular route comprised of trail, road, loch and unpredictable sea. Curled tightly on the front of each bike were Alpacka rafts; a crafty solution to water crossings and the essential link in our chain. All that stood between us and the finish point was our ability to keep them afloat.

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In Search of Scoraig

Lurching forwards and back, I moved ungainly and awkwardly along the narrow, skirting path; paddles perched somewhat precariously on my Miss Grape saddle bag. Positioned on the far west of the peninsula, Scoraig is an off-grid settlement, accessible only by boat or path. Looking across the water, white horses reared higher and higher; whilst doubts about our crossing dug deeper and deeper.

Thankfully, whoops of excitement drowned out those fears as we descended the trail.

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Rolling into Scoraig, the rain battered hard against my helmet – perhaps trying to knock some sense into me. Having been here once before, I was hopeful for the solace of the small community hall; a chance for a warm brew and respite from the storm. As we arrived, I couldn’t have painted a more surprising picture.

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Greeting our soggy faces as we peered into the window, was a room full of smiling children and a birthday party in full swing. Unsure what to do at first, the weather pushed us towards the door and we were duly welcomed by grinning locals.

Soaked and shivering, there was an instant offer of tea, coupled with curious questions about our journey. As we took our last sips and prepared to leave, they reassured us all eyes would be watching.

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Crossing Little Loch Broom

As our nerves calmed, so did the sea, and on the approach to the jetty, the water seemed almost still. A friendly face awaited us; Jonah the ferry man had in the weeks before, been my trusted source of advice. Unpacking our abundance of kit on the shore, I took an age to inflate my raft, attached my bike and reassemble myself – hoping all the while not to sink to the bottom. Looking back mid-paddle, I saw Jonah standing on the pier, remaining there until we were securely on the other side.

Having ruminated about this leg for so long, as we landed on the shore, I let out a little shriek to mark our success. We’d made it in one piece. For months I’d been doubting myself, struggling with confidence and questioning my abilities as a whole – our victory over Little Loch Broom was a significant block towards rebuilding it back again.

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Sunset over Scotland’s West Coast

Ready for the road, the rain had been replaced by a beautifully calm sky. Pedalling towards Grunard Bay, we were tailed by the sun. I couldn’t have imagined a more spectacular setting.

Set out above the beach was the perfect spot to pitch our tent and set up camp. As Naomi hunted for dry wood, I lit the fire and warned off the mass of midges swarming around us. Warm, dry and well-fed, we soaked in the sunset; drinking more tea and replaying the day’s adventures, unaware of what was to follow the next day.

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Lashing Winds on Loch Na Sealga

From Grunard Bay, we changed direction, heading back east along a well-trodden track that shadowed the river. Within minutes we were absorbed in the wild landscape; AnTeallach stood in the distance and was the anchor point for our second crossing over Loch Na Sealga. What we didn’t realise was the increasing force of the wind. On a bike, even one encumbered by endless amounts of kit, the wind doesn’t pose such a threat. But as we reached the western shore, the gravitas of the distance we’d have to cover by packraft seemed all too apparent. I’d been so focused on the sea, I’d underestimated this section and it was only now abundantly clear what was ahead.

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As a very average kayaker, I’m no stranger to battling it out in the waves, but a packraft is little match for forceful winds. To the left and right of the water, the surface was more akin to that of the moon – and so the best hope was to put all we had into paddling our way to the end.

Just Keep Paddling

Tediously, we made marginal gains across the water; the relentless wind and jarring waves making it tiresome work. Naomi crept further and further ahead and I coaxed myself to dig deeper, paddle harder and keep going. “Just don’t stop” I kept repeating.

For hours we sought stroke after stroke to make headway. The harder I pushed, so did the wind. I looked to my right; the rocky marker on dry land was still parallel, and the wind screamed in my face. For a split-second I stopped, losing metres of loch, tumultuously traveling backwards. I was exhausted and felt utterly tiny against the elements. No match for them, I guided myself to the shore, relenting. My legs shook a little, thanks to adrenaline and a distinct lack of food over the last few hours of intense labour. Shovelling a bar into my mouth and reciting some motivational mantra, I got back in the raft for a second round.

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Not a chance. I was almost immediately whipped back on to the stoney shore; walking it would have to be.

Naomi was some way ahead, having suffered the same fate. We met in the middle, and hauled my kit along the insanely wild shoreline at a painful speed. Reunited with Naomi’s rig, we submitted to a long trek towards our eventual goal, Shenaval Bothy. For a moment, we sat down, recharging with some food and water, and acknowledged the magical surroundings. Our minds had been trapped in survival mode, so a chance to admire this great wilderness was very welcome.

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Final Strokes

Only moments from the beach, a sheer rock face stopped our progress dead. We’d consumed hours, but had travelled mere kilometres from the put-in. Tired, soaked and sore, we considered and quickly dismissed scrambling over the top. In that moment, the air seemed to relax, and the evening sun appeared, lighting up our little patch of sandy shore.

A sign.

Once again, we established the routine, my attempts at inflating the raft still well below par. Landing on the beach our frustrated faces had been replaced with satisfied smiles. Only a short distance stood between us and a roaring fire – that was enough to spur us on the final kilometre towards our bothy retreat.

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Bothy Culture

Inside, a group had already settled and saved us the work. The heat of the fire was like a familiar hug, and kept us cosy long into the night. As is bothy culture, we exchanged stories and took inspiration from each other’s adventurous tales. When darkness eventually came, we curled up next to the fireplace and dissolved into a long, deep sleep.

Waking the next day, all signs of the storms has subsided. With our bikes loaded, we said our goodbyes and gave well wishes to our new found friends. Looking back to Loch Na Sealga, there was nothing but stillness and sunshine.

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Over The Hill

As we turned pedals and made our way along the track towards Dundonnell, I heard a shout from Naomi. Turning around, I saw she was off her bike, inspecting her rear wheel.

“‘My freehub has gone!”

Operating on basic repairs, we had nothing in our arsenal for a quick fix. There was no other choice but to begin pushing and freewheeling; and there are worse places to have such a hardship of course. Our last big push came in the form of a sharp, aggressive climb out of the glen. Naomi is one of the most stoic women I’ve ever known, so did as we’d done the day before and battled on, no complaints. As we ascended, ideas started brewing for the next packraft adventure; all scars from the horrendous headwind appeared to have faded.

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At the crest of every turn, we hoped for the descent. Eventually it arrived, and our faces lit up; it was time to turn to full gas. As we charged down the hill, rocks kicked back at our bikes and our rafts shook furiously on the front. We met a gate, the marker to our final point. As we rode the last few metres back to the van, the sense of achievement, satisfaction and adventure shared, poured from our expressions.

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Adventure Lessons

Our last adventure in Iceland gave us a shiny gold medal and a cheering crowd. But wild, self-supported journeys don’t offer up podium places; they are a true test of your limits, of your ability to make life-changing decisions in moments of stress, and to feel vulnerability in nature.

Wild adventures are the ones that make you feel truly free, capable and happy. And without having to even saying so, we basked in that feeling; smiling and packing up our gear, ready for another brew.

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Thanks to GOREWear for their support in documenting this journey, to Andy Toop at Backcountry for the Alpacka Rafts and his endless guidance, and to H+I Adventures and Ross Bell for capturing the journey and waiting hours for us to reach shore.

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