Scotland is such a magical place. The country first captured my senses when I toured the HT550 in July, and on the last two days of the GBDuro, I became utterly besotted with the country. In November, I had time for one more adventure before leaving the UK back home to Australia. Despite the promise of unsettled autumn weather and long hours of darkness, the call of the Cairngorms was too loud to ignore. The largest National Park in the UK, the Cairngorms, comprises a group of mountains in the East of the Scottish Highlands. My route glued an amended version of the Cairngorms Loop bikepacking route with an extra section to include the wild and beautiful Royal Balmoral Estate. I started and finished at Aviemore to allow a direct train ride to and from London. The full route I took can be found HERE. Knowing the weather and short days would prove challenging enough for someone so unaccustomed, I planned a short daily kilometre count and added a contingency day in Aviemore at the end. It wasn’t needed, and I took a leisurely five days to complete the route.
On the first day, Gerty and I cruised from Aviemore towards Braemar via Tomintoul, along the Glen Avon (a glen is a narrow valley) and up towards the high ground near Culardoch. Intermittent rain and super strong winds contributed, but my slow progress was primarily due to stoppages to enjoy the scenery and cherish the opportunity to be out adventuring again. I had never experienced as strong a wind as that night and morning. As the sun was setting, I was about 2 km from a high point of the route and wondering if I would find a sheltered place to set up my tent. A locked mountain hut presented itself just as I became concerned, so I nudged the tent as close as possible to the building on the calmest side. However, the wind break proved insufficient as my tent was battered, and sleep was virtually impossible. Packing up well before dawn, I drank multiple cups of coffee on the hut’s little porch while waiting for the first light. As I sat there, I was visited by a pair of large mountain hares who seemed not to notice me as they went about their business. They were beautiful, with fur already white in preparation for the snow. I left at the first glow of dawn. As I reached the highest point of this part of the route, the wind made it difficult to stand, let alone ride. I staggered along until sheltered by the cover of lower ground, peppered by hail as I descended. A few lovely sunrise scenes were captured on camera, and I enjoyed a fast descent towards Braemar over a pine needle carpet.
After the challenges of the previous 12 hours, I was uncharacteristically pleased that my route took me on the tarmac through to Ballater. There were no cars anyway, and the autumn colours were spectacular. So, after a hot breaky to recharge, I was onto the Deeside Way and single track reminiscent of Melbourne’s Yarra trails. By afternoon, I was riding through the magical Lochnagar on the rocky and beautiful Balmoral Estate byways. As I travelled down a long rocky descent, my path was crossed three times by a family of Red Deer, including a stag, doe, and young one. They were glorious and graceful creatures and seemed almost as interested in the fast-moving Gerty as I was in them.
I spent the night in the most deluxe of bothies: Gelder Shiel (Ernie’s Bothy) on the Balmoral Estate. Superbly cared for by the Mountain Bothies Association, it is named Ernie’s Bothy after the former president of the Braemar Mountain Rescue Team. A bothy is an essential mountain shelter open to all with the landowner’s permission, and on the Balmoral Estate, that is the Queen herself! I spent a magical night alone here, illuminated by candles and warmed by a lovely roaring fire I had set in the fireplace. The wind dropped entirely overnight, and I was treated to beautiful dawn with snow dusting the peaks of the surrounding mountains. It was bloody freezing and magnificent!
After stopping for a generous hot breakfast at the Bothy Café in Braemar, I started the inner loop of the Cairngorms. Notorious for its long sections of exposed hike a bike, it, of course, lived up to its reputation. The scenery was spectacular, making the wading through bog and rocks completely worthwhile. Unfortunately, a wrong turn meant I crossed a somewhat swollen part of the Geldie Burn twice (a burn is a large stream or small river), falling in on both occasions. A tricky elevated bridge over a ravine and a few scrambles across cliffs where the path had been washed away, with the challenge of a fully loaded bike and early sunset, tested my usually mild fear of heights and resolve to hold it all together. However, the long hours of darkness allowed for extra recovery time, and with each morning came excitement for the adventure ahead.
After solid rain all night, I was not surprised to see the river crossing near Glenfeshie lodge was too deep and fast to cross. I was glad of the paper ordinance map I had included in my kit as I could navigate to a bridge about 4 km downstream. The detour took me through the pine forest and along a trail where little red and white mushrooms lined the trail like mini fairy tale signposts. A few riverside scrambles and some lovely single track later, I rode onto a sturdy bridge that popped me over the other side of the River Feshie and back onto my planned route. I rode onward through Feshiebridge then the Glenmore Forest Park before the route became wild again. Climbing upward, the riding turned to rocky hike a bike passing to the right of the Munro Bynack More through to the Fords of Avon. My stay in the mountain refuge here was not planned, but a backup option was marked on my route for contingency. It had been a slow day, and I reached it at half an hour before sunset in sideways rain. In the last few hundred metres before getting there, a military helicopter flew low overhead, and as I looked up at it, I fell clumsily onto the rocks. Lots of swear words later, my decision to stop for the night was set. The wind howled outside through the night, and I was inside and cosy, dry and drinking cocoa.
At dawn the wind continued to rage, and after a relatively easy river crossing at the Fords of Avon, I continued the long and beautiful hike a bike section down toward the Mar Lodge Estate. Again, the sunrise was an absolute ripper. Unfortunately, my camera was not working through here. A bit of a bummer, but if anything was to break on this trip, that was the least troublesome. After finishing the walking part out of the remote high country, I launched Gerty onto the brilliant flowy trails towards Derry Lodge. This was the most enjoyable single track of the whole trip. It was also beautifully situated beside the great regenerating Caledonian forest.
After passing the Lin of Dee for a second time, the route continued alongside the River Tilt. I hope I helped lift the spirits of another bikepacker (he lifted mine!) with a handful of skittles, chats of route choices, and general encouragement as he was despairing about dragging his heavily laden steel randonneur bike over the tricky terrain in the opposite direction. We both laughed at the rollercoaster of emotions bikepacking can bring. Later I met a dog who loved ear scratches from a dirty bike rider and carried its own little saddle bags. That was a super cute encounter, and her backpacking human was friendly too! The views along here were on par with the rest of the trip, nothing short of spectacular. I continued over the suspension footbridge built over the Falls of Tarf in 1886 and to Blair Atholl.
Rather cold and wet, I stopped to grab a warm early dinner from the bike rider-friendly Blair Atholl Hotel. Predictably, I succumbed to its mesmerising fire, the offer of beer, and a warm bed. After wet feet since day one, it was a delight to have dry boots and clothing as I rolled out on the last morning of the trip. My route took me up a bit of paved bike path before descending on the fire road, then boggy walking track into a valley of lochs towards Kingussie. On this final morning, there was not a breath of wind, and Loch An Duin’s mirror-like surface was breathtakingly beautiful. Onward through the Glen Tromie, forestry trails, and then tarmac back into Aviemore, where I had begun the adventure five days before. The Cairngorms had been an incredible adventure, and I celebrated it with beer from the local brewery!
Written by Claire Stevens
Claire's Gear List
|Bike:||Curve GMX+ (aka Gerty), Small with 50 cm Walmer Bars|
|Wheels:||Curve 29” Dirt Hoops with SP Dynamo front hub 3” WTB Ranger Front and 2.9” Terravail Coronado Rear Tyre|
|Groupset:||SRAM R-Eagle 32 x 10-52|
|Bags:||Terra Rosa Gear custom frame and top tube bag
Apidura fork bags, Voile strapped to Curve Rocket Cages
Apidura 17L Expedition saddle pack and small food pouch
|Lights:||K-Lite and Exposure|
|Sleep System:||One-person Big Agnes Copper Spur Tent
Sea to Summit insulated sleeping mat and inflatable pillow
Winter sleeping bag rated to minus 7 degrees
|Other:||Butane Stove, poo trowel and all the warm and wet weather clothes, including two pairs of insulated gloves, waterproof socks, and winter boots.
Fuji X-T30 with 18-55mm lens wrapped in a beanie and carried in a small bum bag.