Vatersay to North Barra: 16 miles
North Barra, Eriskay and South Uist: 30 miles
Total miles: 51 miles
Loading up the bikes after a good rest on Vatersay, we left our island retreat, stopping briefly for a photograph in front of a sign marking the start of the Hebridean Way.
We soon came across a challenge which forced us awake – a steep hill which would lead us back down into Castlebay on Barra. The load on the bikes really started to bite and I seriously questioned whether I’d packed too much. At this point in time, it seemed unlikely that we’d be travelling far.
With an undulating road and windier conditions, our first real day in the saddle felt more testing than expected. However, the miles whizzed by as we soaked up the incredible views and kept a look out for cars. The single track roads meant being ever vigilant about the nearest passing places…something we became pretty adept at doing as the days progressed.
The airport cafe at Barra had been recommended to us for lunch and we were hopeful that the tide would be out. You may wonder why?
To give you a clue, the staff at the cafe wear t-shirts proudly stating that Barra Airport has ‘the only scheduled beach landing in the world’.
Yep, planes land and take off on the beach. I was in airport heaven.
Ok, at this point I should admit that I love airports – any airport.
However, at Barra Airport, the cafe, arrival/departure screen, check-in desk, security and departure lounge are all in the same room. I could have stayed there for hours (although to be fair, there are only a handful of flights a day). It was a toss up whether it was me or the 7 year old next to me that was more more excited when a plane landed.
At this point, I think I should add that the cafe is well worth a visit whether you’re an airport nut like me or not!
Interestingly, chatting with the staff, I got the impression that the increasing popularity of the Hebridean Way (and resulting increase of cyclists on the single track roads) has created a few issues with residents/motorists. It’s the age old issue whenever discussing cars and cycles, although I have to say that our own experience was nothing like the stories she told. Without exception, we found drivers to be friendly and courteous throughout our travels.
We’d decided to stay the night on Barra, with a plan to catch the ferry over to the next island (Eriskay) in the morning. Cycling to the end of the road beyond the airport, we came across Scurrival Campsite. It had superb facilities and we pitched the tent before indulging in a lovely long shower.
The air stilled as evening fell and we headed into the campers’ kitchen to avoid the midges. Ah the luxury of chairs with backs!
It turned out that the kitchen was a great place to be. It was the hub of the campsite and we met all kinds of interesting people that evening.
The Lake District climber who reminisced with us about all our favourite crags in Europe. The bike packer turned family man. The lady who had been visiting for years – she told us that the site first opened to accommodate wild campers moved on from the dunes near the airport and, in those days, just had a tap in the field. It’s fair to say that the owners have really developed the facilities since then.
We realised that this campsite was one which, once discovered, was loved and returned to year after year.
The owners treated you like old friends, whether you were there for a night, a week, or a month. Angus is a quietly spoken man who told us to just “stop, slow down, rest a while and stay as long as we liked”. We couldn’t help but listen.
Our final friends for the night were Chris and Laura who were bikepacking for the first time and testing out their kit and set up. They had been as far north as Benbecula and told us that it was very ‘doable’.
That became our next goal and we headed to the tent with plans to catch the morning ferry north.
The best laid plans and all that jazz….
Not quite used to life on the road and packing up our kit, we had another lazy morning and missed the ferry. Frustratingly, the next one was not due until 15.45pm. Ah well, no worries, we were on Barra time so just headed back to the airport cafe for brunch and spent some time reading in the sun (although to be fair, we were more than ready to get moving by the time the ferry was due).
Arriving at the terminal we met more bikepackers – a group travelling fast and light with pre-booked hotels (aiming to complete the full Hebridean Way over a long weekend) and a Canadian family fully loaded up with camping kit who were planning a slower journey along the route.
It was the first time (and thankfully, the last) that I felt like a fraud on this trip. In comparison, it felt like we were just playing with bike touring.
Our ambition for this trip stopped at a hostel 20 miles up the road. The excuse we had made to ourselves was the logistics of getting back to our van on the mainland and yet here were others who had found their own way around the problem. The thought of 30+ miles a day with a fully loaded mountain bike had also seemed too much, but meeting others was starting to ignite a spark inside me.
During the crossing, I chatted with one of the guys working the ferry and consequently became somewhat hesitant about our trip over to the Uists. He told us that we would find them quite different to Barra and his recommendation would be to “pedal like buggery” to get through them quickly.
My resulting expectation of South Uist had become quite low, but my actual experience was superb. It just goes to show that people have different perceptions.
The Hebridean Way route took us off the main road and towards the coast on tiny roads through settlements. It seemed like a working island, full of farms/crofts and there was a real sense of going back in time. I discovered a definite beauty to South Uist despite (or maybe because of) the lack of tourism.
By the time we arrived at Howmore Hostel, we’d cycled a credible and very enjoyable 30 miles. It had been a glorious evening of cycling and I finally felt like the real adventure had started. We happily pitched the tent and headed inside to meet our fellow travellers.
Our Canadian friends had arrived with us and we also met a couple from Harrogate who were touring via tandem (we’d seen the tandem outside the cafe on Vatersay a couple of days before), along with James (later to be known as Famous James) who had been visiting the area for 40 years and staying at Howmore for 3 weeks on this occasion.
Over the evening we learned more about the area north of Howmore.
We started to play with the idea of pushing on a further 30 to 40 miles, into North Uist.