South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist: 37 miles
North Uist (with a short hop onto Berneray): 31 miles
Total miles: 119 miles
Ever the late risers and slow packers, our fellow travellers at Howmore Hostel were on the road while we were still sorting ourselves out.
Having calculated distances, we decided to make the RSPB site at Balranald on North Uist our turning round point. So many people had recommended the site to us and it would mean that we could celebrate making it as far as North Uist.
Cycling over one of the many causeways along the route, we arrived on Benbecula and I had to giggle at the ‘no mobile phones beyond this point’ doctoring which had taken place on the formal welcome sign.
We were aiming for a morning cafe stop, but soon realised that all the water was off on Benbecula due to a major leak somewhere along the pipework. As it was shaping up to be another hot day, the local Co-op was doing a roaring trade in bottled water.
While loading up on water, we chatted with a lady about our travels and she immediately asked if we knew James from Howmore Hostel. The lady supplied eggs to James most mornings and it seemed that he was something of a legend in these parts. Turning a corner, we bumped into the legend himself, having waved goodbye to him only a couple of hours before. It wasn’t the last time we came across James on the road!
Our next highlight was crossing onto the island of North Uist. I was pretty elated to have hit my goal and considered anything else a bonus.
Then we climbed up onto moorland with a strong headwind, the sky became overcast and the place seemed desolate. Remembering our CalMac friend’s words, I concurred that Uist certainly was a place to “pedal through like buggery”. It’s strange how only two days later, my whole feelings about that particular stretch of road were to be completely different.
The road to Balranald where the campsite was located seemed to take an eternity. It was windy and undulating with lots of start/stop needed for traffic on the single track road. The only cafe marked on our map was closed so we pushed onward until we came across a little oasis – the Hebridean Smokehouse was open! Sitting on the kerb outside, we scarfed down smoked salmon with oatcakes, very civilised!
By the time we arrived at Balranald campsite, we’d done the most mileage yet (37 miles) with a strong headwind. I was shattered and whilst I rarely drink sugared drinks, I downed a can of coke there and then. It perked me up enough to pitch the tent, shower and have some food before catching up with our friends on the tandem who had also arrived here.
Looking at our map a little later, the island of Berneray was beckoning to me. We calculated that it would mean some extra 30 mile days on the bikes, but it marked the end of the southern part of the Hebridean Way.
At Berneray, another ferry crossing is needed to get to Harris before continuing on the Hebridean Way. It would mean only Harris and Lewis remaining if we wanted to finish the Hebridean Way at a later date, so it seemed like a good stopping point.
I was definitely having the cyclist’s equivalent of summit fever. Then I read a comment on social media from Rachel back home at Cafe Adventure encouraging us to continue to Berneray. The decision was made – if I woke feeling like my legs could cycle again the next day, we were pressing on.
The following morning was foggy, cold and windy. There was no point in spending a rest day when it was like this, sheltering in the tent all day to keep out of the cold. My legs felt like they had a few miles left in them so we loaded up the bikes and set off for Berneray.
Despite the overcast sky and headwind that morning, our spirits were high and I realised that we’d finally settled into the adventure. With no idea of our final destination, we just pedalled with our minds empty.
The top part of North Uist felt remote, wild and beautiful. In the whole 31 mile day, we came across just 1 shop on North Uist – a Co-op which was closed because it was Sunday.
This place could have felt desolate, but I realised that I’d started to fall in love with the island and the raw beauty of the place was hitting something deep inside of me.
Turning off the road towards Berneray, we ate up the miles knowing that unless we stayed here for the night, we’d be coming back the same way in a couple of hours. When we stopped for a rest at historical site, a lady in a van decorated with a washing line of knickers rocked up – honestly, I kid you not, they were knickers. The story goes that she’d bought the van from someone else and planned to paint over them…we urged her to leave them be!
Along with her friend, they recognised us from way back in Barra and had stopped to offer us their fudge (tablet in Scotland) to give us an energy boost. It was a lovely thought and we cycled off with renewed energy in our legs.
Our feeling of achievement at reaching Berneray was fantastic. We took the obligatory pictures and looked for a cafe (Sunday closing), so went back to the ferry terminal for a cheese and oatcake snack. The ferry for Harris was waiting to load and it was so tempting to get on. Everything we needed was on our bikes and it would have been easy to just keep pedalling the Hebridean Way.
It was a bittersweet moment turning away, but instinctively right.
Back on the main road into Lochmaddy (North Uist), the terrain became a bit nondescript. Just a hill up over some moorland, although to be fair I think our perception was really a symptom of needing some food and a bed for the night.
Arriving in town, we’d expected it to be a hub of activity. It had been described to us as “lively and full of artisan places” and we felt a little trepidation about being somewhere we imagined to be the Las Vegas of the Hebrides. Struggling to find the town centre, we wouldn’t have been surprised to see tumbleweed rolling down the street. We soon realised that Lochmaddy was actually a tiny little place to catch a ferry to Skye.
The few B&B’s we found were all full and tiredness started to kick in, making us both a little narky. We pounced on a lady wandering up the street to ask her about camping places and she pointed to an overgrown football pitch saying that we were fine to pitch up on that. I was a little concerned about visiting the toilet in such a public area surrounded by houses, but it was a gratefully received reserve option.
Continuing into town, we came across the Lochmaddy Hotel. Grumpily wandering in, we found an empty bar but a friendly welcome for two rather dishevelled, smelly and over tired cyclists. The staff were wonderful and told us that we could wild camp anywhere on the shoreline, plus the marina had facilities which we’d be able to use. Bonus!
Settling in, we enjoyed a superb meal (with desert) before the guilt of taking up a table all night in the now busy bar drove us to leave the warmth. I have no idea where on earth all those people had been hiding out when we rolled into town!
Just near the ferry terminal, we saw a flat area of grass on a headland and pitched the tent, feeling incredulous that this was not just tolerated but actively encouraged. Struggling to get our English minds around the Scottish wild camping laws (and how we were right next to houses, a car park and a ferry terminal), we burst out laughing as a huge CalMac ferry from Skye passed right by the front porch of the tent.
Thankfully, the ferries didn’t run through the night and with the spotless facilities of the marina on hand (seriously, England could learn a few things about facilities for adventurers) we settled in for the night.
Our plan for the next few days was to cycle back to Howmore Hostel before spending a couple of nights relaxing on South Uist.
Posts in the series:
1. Getting started
2. Barra and Vatersay
3. Barra, Eriskay and South Uist
4. North Uist and Berneray
5. North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist
6. South Uist, Eriskay and Barra
7. Bike packing kit list