Instalment 2 (and Day 1) of our Outer Hebrides tour
A pair of braying sheep were our alarm clock (on a usual day it’s “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton). I’d love to know what they were squabbling about.
The pristine Vatersay beaches are awash with life: lapwings putting on noisy, lolloping decoy displays to tempt us away from their ground-nests; the grating song of stone chats; a tiny rabbit huddled stone-still on a farm track, presumably waiting for us to un-see it.
At the start of our bike route we met a Dutch bikepacker whose transcontinental travels, extra weight of luggage and photography skills put our meagre effort to shame. She shared her travel stories and we shared our chocolate truffles over coffee in the Castlebay Community Centre which had more just-add-water travel luxuries than you can shake a stick at. Together we watched a 12-seater plane land on sand that stretched as far as the horizon at Barra airport and were audience to a group of seals rolling and basking and making banana shapes on the seaweed-encrusted rocks as we crossed the causeway to Eriskay – a paradise of turquoise waters, buttercups and minute frog orchids. We parted ways as we coasted into South Uist, isle of wildflowers.
South Uist has one of the best examples in the Outer Hebrides of machair – a type of earth created when sand blows inshore and is fertilised by seaweed and cattle manure. The end result is a petri-dish of unique plant life which counts innumerable species of delicate orchid and attracts a plethora of insects including the über-rare Great Yellow Bumble Bee. The main road on South Uist, lying to the west of the island, is pancake-flat and we were left exposed to an uncommon but fiercely strong headwind from the north which we battled for several hours. When the wind occasionally died down enough for our spirits to lift our gaze from between our handlebars, we were green with jealous amazement at the ease with which swifts and terns navigated the gusts and eddies of wind, easily keeping double our pace. I found myself wondering what these birds made of the regular clumsy intrusions of sightseeing humans into their harsh and feathery umwelt.
Eventually the rain drew in and the winds became too strong for our morale and our waterproofs, and when a youth hostel sign appeared at the side of the road it was like manna from heaven. Walking into a cosy stone hut, being welcomed by a table of backpackers and a roaring fire in the hearth, I think I was delirious.
🚲 Cycle mileage: 49
🥃 No whisky today – it was coffee-flavoured tequila which tasted like soap and chemicals from whatever hair product I last used the travel bottle for. You know what: after all that wind and rain, I drank it anyway.
24 June, 2019