I have lived in Fort William from the age of seven, and my brother Joe from five. My family moved up from the English Lake District to be near to the sea for sailing, bigger mountains to explore and a more relaxed vibe with fewer people. Apart from a few years away at University, Fort William has always been home. It’s an awesome place to live, and I love coming back after trips away. Travelling every year to lots of new and exciting places for racing, riding and other adventures is a fantastic way to live life and see the World. It’s also made me really appreciate being at home and the quality of life Scotland has to offer.
I decided that as I spend a large proportion of the year racing and travelling, I wanted to explore what was on my doorstep. Growing up we explored the West Coast a lot as a family, going sailing on every family holiday around the islands. When I was 15 a friend and I sailed on a creaky old wooden boat from Fort William up to the Lofoten Islands in the North of Norway (I can’t believe my parents let me!!). I don’t think I’ll ever turn down the prospect of an adventure! That was a long time ago, and long before I started riding bikes. I decided it was about time I headed North on an adventure with my bike! Finishing the trip at the most Northern point of Scotland, Cape Wrath, seemed like a fitting place to end the journey, and getting there would cover all the remote and wild places I’ve always been keen to ride and explore.
After chatting over some ideas with Stu Thomson, we thought it would be cool to document the trip and make a film about it. We wanted to show the personal journey, the mountain biking, and also Scotland and what an awesome a place it is! To do it properly we needed a good team of friends, and a camper van! Our crew consisted of Stu as filmer/director, Stu’s brother-in-law Lec Park was our helicopter filmer, Dave Mackison as filmer and camper-van driver, and Andy McCandlish as photographer. We were all already really good friends, so it was awesome to be able to do such a cool trip with this crew of talented peeps! Gradually a plan came together, and we got to work devising the route and the logistics of filming it. I was to ride the ‘Cape Wrath Trail’ a walking route from Fort William all the way North to Cape Wrath. The route is 250 miles long, so we had to figure out the logistics of covering the ground in the best way possible, so that I could ride as much single track as possible in the week we had to do it.
Day One: Fort William – Glenfinnan – A’Chuil Bothy
I headed from home with my bike and bag and jumped on the tiny passenger ferry from Fort William to the other side of Loch Linnhe. From here I set off riding and my journey began! I met the guys in Glenfinnan, had some tea and food and set off up the Glen and over towards A’Chuil bothy. The old guy in charge of Glenfinnan Estate said we weren’t allowed to film, and we better watch out because he had a rifle and wasn’t afraid to use it! Charming! The fast and gradually climbing fire road quickly became very overgrown and turned into a largely nondescript ‘trail’. At the top there was a random abandoned gate, so that was vaguely reassuring. I stupidly only took cereal bars with me, so I was obviously already starving! The trail wasn’t very apparent, there were sheep tracks though so I followed those down into the valley, then followed the river to eventually see a road and what must be the track to the bothy. I got stuck in some deep bogs away from anything which looked like solid ground, which was slightly scary! If I started properly sinking I planned to lie my bike down flat and stand on it like it was an island. I luckily didn’t need to test my theory.
It was great to reach the bothy just as it was getting dark, and get inside away from the blood sucking midges! The boys had got a bit worried as I’d been gone for hours. We were all absolutely starving, and I couldn’t wait for some food. Dave had kindly made some pasta, but as we didn’t have a sieve, and instead of using the pan lid, he’d left it in the water and just added some sauce, so it was now a congealed mess. It was pretty funny, and we ate what we could stomach! All the wood outside was soaked through, so Lec started a fire using the ink from a set of Sharpie pens. Quite an expensive way of doing it, but they are evidently extremely combustable and it got us a roaring fire!
Andy knew the areas we were riding and travelling through pretty well, so it was great to have his sound advice to influence route choice. As Day One had taken so much longer than we had expected, with the heavily soaked ground due to all the rain we’d had, and a distinct lack of trail ahead, we decided that the next day we would miss out the next long boggy section and drive to Sheil Bridge and set off riding from there and hopefully find some sweet single track!
Day two: A ‘Chuil Bothy to Loch Carron
Stu came with me on day two, for some company and also to try and film some of the days adventures. I was really pleased he did, as it was another really long ride in not very nice weather, and the last part of the trail was so sketchy and hard to find. Reaching the Falls of Glomach was awesome, such an incredible and beautiful waterfall which I didn’t even know existed before going there. The trail from there was pretty hard to find and was so sketchy, traversing the side of the valley, it was hard to believe that was actually the trail. It was as it turned out, and we made it to the bottom alive! hannah-barnes-cape-wrath-502 We were absolutely soaked, and I could see me quickly running out of clothes. Dave and Lec weren’t complaining however, they’d spent an enjoyable day in the camper drinking tea and vandalising a page 3 girl with shaving foam. We used the shower room of the camper van as a bit of a dumping ground / drying room for wet and muddy clothes, which realistically had no chance of drying. The rain that evening was unrelenting, and it was a fairly wild night! We decided to head to the local pup for some hot food and some warmth.
The landlord was a fairly strange character, with his two manic black labradors sprinting up and down chasing their frisbees. After a good meal and a few barely palatable whisky’s from the Landlord (I hate the stuff and would far rather some tea, so Andy subtly finished mine), the boys persuaded me to get my fiddle out and play a few tunes. It would have been awesome to have some others to play tunes with, you can’t beat a good session!
Day Three: Loch Carron – Loch Ewe
My good friend Rachael Walker arrived first thing in the morning to share the day’s adventure with me. It was awesome to have Rach along, a great riding buddy and nice to have some lovely girly chats to break up camper van life with four guys!
It was a beautiful sunny day, and we were riding awesome singletrack through the famous Torridon mountains. the last couple of wet and muddy days, it was great to have some sun and nice trails!
On a relatively simple navigational route, we somehow managed to take a wrong turn. If I remember rightly, we were chatting about boys and baking cakes. We unnecessarily pushed and carried our bikes up to a saddle between two mountains, realised our error, then went off-piste to try and find the trail again. We were soon back on awesome singletrack and riding down to Loch Torridon with huge grins on our faces.
We met the guys, had a quick bite to eat then finished the day with a night ride as we were aiming to finish the day in Loch Ewe and were a bit behind schedule. The evening midges were horrendous, and we couldn’t stop or we got eaten alive! By then, we didn’t want to ever look at another cereal bar ever again we had eaten so many!
It was a lovely evening, riding along the edge of Loch Maree as the sun set and a beautiful rainbow came out, it felt like we really were in the middle of nowhere. We arrived in darkness a couple of hours later, soaking wet, exhausted and hungry. It was an amazing day, and we were ready to eat as much as we could and go straight to sleep.
Day four: Loch Ewe to Durness
We woke up to a beautiful sunrise and spectacular sunny views out to sea. We had heard that there was no real trail or nice single track from where we were, so we headed in the Camper to Arvreck.
There was a really cool old ruined castle there, and hopefully a trail! Today I was back riding on my own again as Rachael had to head south to do a DH race.
There was no trail… just an open hillside where the trail supposedly was. We headed in the camper to Loch Glen Dubh, and I picked up the trail from there. It was really fun heading off along a trail, with no real idea of what to expect. A single dotted line on the OS map was anything from a desolate hillside to a forest track. That was all part of the adventure, up in the mountains with just my bike, a map, and a few food and bike supplies.
We arrived at the sea and a beautiful long golden beach on a sunny evening which was awesome, definitely a highlight of the trip. Finishing the ride with a swim in the sea was the business. What wasn’t the business was going into the sea a second time because the Go-Pro was strapped to the Heli backwards, it was bloody freezing! The guys stood a safe distance away on the beach in their nice warm jackets. It was so refreshing, but not so good for my already bad cold!
It was such a full on trip, with not enough sleep and proper food, with long days out riding, so I was getting pretty run down and having lots of cold medicine. I wasn’t complaining though, it was awesome and we were certainly packing it in! That evening we arrived at Durness and parked the camper up on the cliff edge, with a spectacular view of the beach and the rough and wild sea. It was the first time during the trip we all got to have a shower, the best feeling ever after four days of riding!
It was so much fun hanging out with Dave, Lec, Stu and Andy… the banter was in full swing and I didn’t stop laughing the entire trip (other than when I was by myself at the top of a mountain, cold and hungry). That night we made a fire on the beach, had some beers and chilled out by the fire. Awesome!
Day Five: Durness (weather bound)
That night a huge storm came though and battered the camper van all night long. We had to delay heading out to Cape Wrath as the ferry wasn’t running due to the stormy weather. It was a perfect excuse to have a more relaxing day, listen to Dave’s Family Guy impressions and visit Cocao Mountain.
Cocao Mountain is a lovely cafe, and producer of fine artisan truffles and chocolates and incredibly rich hot chocolate. It’s located in a pretty random place in the middle of relative nowhere, but the perfect place to spend a stormy afternoon and sit in a chocolate coma. There, I remember we introduced Lec to the rules of Instagram (don’t post 5 consecutive pictures of the same Highland cow!).
That evening the storm passed, the sun came out, and we headed to the beach to enjoy the last of the evening sun. As we were leaving, Stu realised he had left his open camera bag with his fancy lens and cables in it… when we got there it was floating in the sea as the tide was coming in! Minor disaster. That night we put the lens in a container full of rice to dry it out, then realised it might be nice to eat the rice, so we cooked it and made a curry.
Day Six: Durness to Cape Wrath
Andy had had to leave the evening before, it was sad times to see him drive off and break up the dream team. We had to complete the trip and do the last day without him. That morning I jumped on the small passenger ferry over to the other side, and the road to the Cape Wrath light house.
Only the mini bus taking people to the light house is allowed on the road, no other cars which is cool. The bus goes so slowly, it’s actually about the same speehd to ride there. It’s a very barren and desolate place, beautiful and wild and it definitely felt like the edge of the world as I was riding towards the lighthouse, with vast views out to sea. There were big craters everywhere from Military bomb training, which was quite surreal. Arriving there was awesome… perfect blue skies, the tallest cliffs in Britain, endless sea and a huge lighthouse. We were all really happy to have made it, after an exhausting and incredible week!
On the bus back to the boat, we met a Scotty dog from Germany who’s owners had brought him all the way to Cape Wrath to show him his homeland. The journey took forever, the driver was really strange and kept stopping to chat and tell various stories every two minutes. It didn’t help that Dave kept asking him questions. The tide had gone right out when we got to the boat, and we nearly didn’t make it back, the boat was skimming the bottom and we had to jump out onto a sandbank before we got to the slipway! We had an outburst of high fives and hugs, then loaded up the camper van ready for the long truck home. I think we’ll have all slept pretty well that night!
To watch the full ‘NORTH WEST’ film click here!
Words & Photos: Hannah Barnes