When my brother Steve announced he'd mapped out a coast to coast route across the Northern Highlands, I sighed wistfully... "a week long epic from Ratagan to Montrose - I'll never get the time off work". To my surprise, he had actually pulled together a little gem that could be completed in just a couple of days. Steve's route was cunning indeed - starting near Brora and finishing 145km to the northwest in the village of Kylesku. The route mapped, advice and estate permissions gained, and another victim enlisted (my wife Aneela) - a date was set in mid April. We were fortunate to land a weekend of glorious sunshine only occasionally marred by passing snow, hail and rain.
Although only a mini coast to coast, it was a 'maxi' on the logistics front. We planned to leave one car parked in Kylesku and use another to ferry us to the East Coast. Picture decanting the contents of one stuffed Fiat Punto into a tiny hatchback: a six foot two brother; his extra large mountain bike and a 'canteen's worth' of essential supplies. Firmly opposed to Rubik's cube and other such nonsense, the transfer resulted in much cursing and a significant pile of surplus gear. The trip appeared doomed before it had begun. A rationalisation plan (my bruv is a project manager) was put in place and the crate of beer, chicken satay and other 'essentials' were omitted. Noses to the windscreen and knees in seat backs, we drove to our mid point stopover at the Crask Inn, by Lairg near Sutherland. It was the perfect spot to relax the night before the riding commenced; our chosen place of recovery after the first day; and our place of sore-arsed celebration after it was all over.
After a hearty breakfast the next morning, the three amigos departed for Doll near Brora. With the car safely parked up, bikes lubed and riders fuelled, we posed for the requisite 'coast-shot'. Gorgeous sunshine ensured fantastic views as we skirted around Loch Brora on some tasty singletrack. Route finding was straightforward and obstacles were few until we reached the narrow suspension bridge beyond Kilbraur Croft. The boys picked on Aneela and gently bounced the bridge when she was half way across. Aneela did a neat cleat-shoe-shuffle and only scowled a little.
After a quick burn on the road we launched into Scribberscross Forest. Steve developed a terrible habit of intruding on my 'personal climbing mantra'. "Hey - there's a lapwing" and "look, look - deer". I took this moment of 'burst climbing mantra' to explain "I prefer silence while trying to both climb and keep my breakfast indoors". Point ignored, Steve again got excited about DEER. As I turned to sneer I was almost bowled from my bike as twenty-odd deer darted across the track.
Onwards along the Ben Armine Lodge track which degenerated into a leg-sapping vague trail through the moor. We continued into Ben Armine Forest (where curiously there are no trees) and pushed, carried and occasionally cycled on a point of principle. Nirvana. At the end of a delirious 5km of bog plodding we had earned the easy descent to Loch Choire. Its mirror-smooth water, sandy beach and remote setting prompted an outbreak of motivational song to aid my tiring companions as we tackled a formidable climb... "The hills are alive..." "SHUT UP".
At the top we rested and munched on our remaining snacks - funny how fantastic a fig roll can taste. We sat in the sun, confident that "just over the next hill" we would sight the Crask Inn and our bed for the night. Breaching the summit, we were elated to see the Crask about 4km ahead. Frustratingly, the anticipated singletrack turned out to be axle deep 'home-of-frog'. Worse, the Crask was on the move - it stayed exactly 4km away for almost an hour. Eventually, nine and a half hours after our merry start in Doll we stumbled into the Crask for a well-deserved pint.
Waking up to blue skies and frosty bikes, it took a lot of mutual persuasion to leave our cosy cottage for another day's toil. We started gently with some speedy road work through spectacular scenery en route to Loch Hope. Dropping into the Reay Forest Estate, we then zigzagged to Gobernuisgach Lodge. With permission to cross the estate already obtained, we were rewarded with a majestic climb on a rocky track, flanked by impressive mountains and curious deer. An exhilarating descent on loose rock and shale spat us out at Loch Merkland.
The mountains surrounding us as we approached Ben More Lodge were fortress-like. Scary. Sure enough a lung bursting climb awaited at the head of Loch More. The dry, fast surface toyed with our fitness as the incline steepened. Twenty minutes later, the silvery slopes of Foinaven across the glen provided a just reward. Narrowing into the Bealach nam Fiann - a culvert-strewn masterpiece, tricky on a down slope, sappingly difficult on the way up - we gave it one last big effort. Topping out at last, we lay on the sun-baked rocks until heart rates stopped racing. One final adrenalin hit remained before we reached the west coast. We plunged towards sea level following the waterfalls of the Maldie Burn. Dropping 450 m over 2km on rough singletrack - boulder strewn, rut-infested, wheel swallowing bog pools and vertical slate sections. Not a puncture nor skinned knee among us, we regrouped along the edge of Loch Glendhu for a final snap and group hug.
Final snap? I forgot to pack extra batteries and the digital camera had run out of juice. All eyes on me- what a plonker! We battered along the final stretch of track to Kylesku where the Punto was patiently waiting. We darted into Kylesku, found a shop selling batteries and raced back to our finish to bang off a couple of shots to mark the completion of an unforgettable ride.
Crask Inn, by Lairg, Sutherland. Proprietors - Mike and Kai Geldard Ph 01549 411241.
You'll need to negotiate access through some Estates:
Ian Smith - farmer at Carrol Farm on banks of Loch Brora, Ph 01408 621010.
Sutherland Estate (up to and beyond Ben Armine Lodge), Ph 01408 633268. Keeper at Ben Armine Lodge - John Cruikshank, Ph 07831 253778.