All roads lead to Eigg. OK, this may not actually be true, but they should. For Eigg is a magical little place, where all those real world problems you inevitably carry on your shoulders if you live anywhere else seem to effortlessly evaporate as soon as you set foot on it.
The aim of this two day ride is to get to the small harbour town of Mallaig, in time to get the CalMac ferry over to Eigg for the amazing wee Howlin’ Fling festival, while seeing as much of the beautiful Western Highlands as possible along the way.
First though, a word about getting to Oban. The biggest drama inevitably involves getting to Euston station in time for my train. As usual, I wake up with plenty of time but somehow conspire to not leave the house until about 50 minutes before the train is due to leave. And then, to make matters worse, I inexplicably choose to use the new QuietWay route to Waterloo for the first time.
Fortunately, I find the route easily enough, it’s well signposted, pretty fast (considering I’m carrying two full panniers) and joyfully traffic free until it gets close to Waterloo. From here, realising I’m painfully close to missing the train, I freestyle it and manage to get on the train with minutes to spare, and a sweaty back for my exertions. Nice. Luckily for other passengers it’s not too packed.
The train to Glasgow is uneventful – passing through the Lakes is nice enough but I know even more spectacular scenery awaits. Using the bathroom is as infuriating as ever though, as the toilet now actually tells you not to flush your hopes, dreams or goldfish down the toilet as well as just having the annoying sign. Get over it Virgin Trains, you’re really not that funny.
The ScotRail on to Oban chugs along pleasingly, and as it gets closer to its destination, the vistas expand and the station names get more exotic (Tyndrum Lower, Helensburgh Upper). In Oban I stay at Backpackers Plus, which is in a converted church and pretty nice for a hostel.
I am on the road by about 10am the next day; it’s dry, bright and not too chilly. Although Sustrans advises picking up the main national cycle route 78 straight away and following it inland (and over a big hill), I can’t resist seeing a bit of coast, so follow the ‘spur’ route to Ganavan and Dunbeg instead.
This is an amazing start to the ride, passing old ruins, a beach, and riding through sand dunes. Eventually you have to join a main road (the A85), but the traffic’s not too bad or fast. Soon you reach Connel and go over a big bridge, and suddenly you’re on NCR78 proper and either off-roading, or riding on wide, people-free pavement.
Sustrans have done a great job here. The surfaces are good (road bikes would be fine) and the off-road parts of the journey are fantastic. Winding down country lanes, or on tarmac paths through woods, alongside lochs, or among fields full of sheep. There are also information signs along the way (including an electronic one telling me I’m the 6th cyclist to pass so far today), and occasional resting places to stop. Miraculously, the sun is even shining for the first half of the day.
There are also a couple of extra loops along the way, should you want to do a bit more exploring or a few more extra miles. One of them is a circular route around the smaller part of Loch Creran, a marine special area of conservation, and home to some of Europe’s best serpulid reefs (look em up, they’re well cool!)
At this point the weather is so nice that I can’t resist a quick dip in the loch’s cooling (make that freezing) waters. It’s quickly back on the bike to warm up and do a circuit of the loch while looking out for otters – sadly, none are spotted.
The route continues as before, mostly off road but – due to annoying landowners (mostly, it seems, caravan clubs) – there are some points where you have to join the main road. It’s not so bad on a midweek afternoon but I can imagine it gets much busier at the weekend or during the school holiday.
Considering it’s the Highlands, the route is also pretty flat. There are a few short steep bits, but no long hard slogs at all. And some of the time you’re following an old railway line, so it’s almost completely pancake. Joy.
At Inchree, you have a decision to make. Either continue on the A82 to Fort William (and apparently the traffic on this bit of the road is really fast and busy), or take the ferry to the other side of Loch Eil, where an almost traffic-free route awaits.
Although I’m starting to run low on time, I decide to go for it. The ferry is free for bikes, and pretty frequent, so I hop on for the 5 minute crossing. On the other side of the Loch, it’s almost like being on a traffic free island – it’s amazing cycling!
But, I’m now riding against the clock. The return ferry, to Fort William, is a tiny little boat with a last sailing from Camusnagaul at the silly time of 4.35pm (Mon-Sat). I do the last 8 miles or so in record time, fortunately with the wind behind me, and make it with literally a minute to spare. I don’t like to think of the massive ballache that missing it would have been..! This ferry costs £1.50 for you and £1.50 for your bike, so isn’t gonna break the bank.
After bobbing across the water, I’m in Fort William. I have a big pub dinner to make up for lack of proper food along the way, and then realise it’s another 2 or 3 miles to my hostel of choice, The Wild Goose in Banavie, close to Neptune’s Staircase (the famous series of loch gates). I cycle along main roads to get to it, but later discover it is in fact on NCR78.
Overall, a great day of cycling, with a bit of added drama at the end to make things more interesting..!