My first real bike adventure (3 days after I got a new bike) was a bikepacking trip around Orkney in July 2016. If you look at my instagram feed there are some photos but not many, I was only 2 months into having a smart phone and wasn’t really on top of the tech. When I look back now the photos look very bright and colourful. I don’t know what I was expecting from Orkney, but my main experience of Scottish islands is of the Isle of Mull (I lived there for 18 months, perhaps I will write about that sometime).
I didn’t actually originally plan to bikepack on Orkney, or in-fact take bikes or camp! I was going to head up on the bus and stay in the hostel in Kirkwall (I have a friend who had done this). I wasn’t really much into cycling, I was using a 90’s mountain bike (16kg!!) to commute to and from work, and that was about it. I thought maybe I might hire a bike a couple of days to explore (a fore mentioned friend had done this). Then my friend Ben decided he was coming (I probably invited him). So I thought if he was coming, then maybe we could camp (he has a tent). And he suggested we take the bikes and at some point I discovered we weren’t taking tents, just lightweight bivvy bags.
As we had decided to take bikes and I had been thinking about getting a new bike for a while, I finally took the plunge and purchased one and this has been such a good thing for me! I took the bike out for a quick ride the day before and then the first time I rode with panniers was up to Waverley station. I remember riding very cautiously! Although the bike was loaded with stuff and I was cycling with a backpack, the new bike was 6 kg lighter than my old one, with bigger wheels and narrower smoother tyres, so actually it was much less effort to ride.
We travelled by train to Thurso, bivvied on the cliffs as we only had an 8 hour lay over, and then boarded the ferry from Scrabster to Stromness. The ferry had an all you can eat continental breakfast buffet. Highly recommend this option (after we checked we could go round more than once). Had an uneventful crossing aside from me managing to kick a metal strut with my sore foot (see things I learnt below). Good way to get an adrenaline rush!
Disembarked from ferry and set off on an adventure. Cycled to Yesnaby Cliffs (ate a snack), Cycled to Skara Brae, just as a load of coaches pulled in, so we decided to go to the beach for a bit. We were having a wee paddle when someone called Ben’s name, and it was his friend who lives in London, random. Then we cycled to the Ring of Brodgar, and eventually back into town, about 20 miles, it was the furthest Id ever cycled at that point!! Had dinner, admired my sun burnt face.
We were a bit nervous about taking a brand new untested bike away, but didn’t worry about Ben’s (recently serviced) 30yr old bike, until it started making weird noises on day 2. The hub gradually seized up. Great for me, as it slowed Ben down and ment I wasn’t lagging behind, but hard unpleasant work for him and it was one of the reasons we didn’t get an opportunity to see the Old Man of Hoy. The other being that about 2 days before we went my foot staged a protest. I’ve had stress fractures in my feet before and was scared, stressed and worried that it had happened again. I couldn’t put any pressure on my toe joint, luckily I could ride my bike without too much problem, but walking around was painful. It did actually settle down about 3 days into our trip, so I suspect it might have been gout caused by dehydration. (I was working in a kitchen that was reaching temperatures about 30 deg, in full chef whites and I was struggling to drink enough water).
As Ben’s bike has now virtually seized up we spent a couple of days in Stromness trying to sort it (probably for the best, otherwise I imagine I would have run out of energy much sooner into the holiday!) Eventually deciding to head over to the bike shop at Kirkwall (Cycle Orkney, awesome service!!). As we arrived in Kirkwall it was pouring with rain so we opted to hostel overnight rather than camp. Once we had decided on that plan the sun promptly popped out again and dried up all the rain, itsy-witsy spider style.
The next day was my highlight of 2016, we go the ferry to Sanday and camped on a beach. It was amazing! In the morning we wiggled out of our bivvy bags and Ben informs me he went skinny dipping – memory being what it is, I had imagined shorts into the memory! I refrained – mainly because I dislike getting my hair wet. During the day we cycled the length of Sanday and despite having bought some sun screen I got extremely burnt and Ben laughed at me (supportive friend that he is). We spent the night in a shed (glamping) in the pouring rain, so we were glad to be inside!
The day after we cycled too far (although it probably wasn’t actually very far, remember I am new to this) and didn’t eat the right things and it messed up my energy levels – ohps – I know now to pay more attention to that.
Final day on Orkney we were going to cycle down to the south end of the island and catch the ferry then cycle to Thurso via Dunnet Head, but we changed our minds and got the ferry to Gills Bay. Once we got back on Scotland the weather was pretty rubbish, after bright sunny Orkney! It was blowing a hoolie when we were at Dunnet Head (most northerly point of mainland Britain)(watch this space for us going to the most southerly and most easterly points, we have previously visited the most westerly), but when we go further along the coast and looked back it was bathed in sunshine!
Camped on the cliffs at Thurso and made our way home by train. An excellent adventure most ordinary! and some great memories, and I didn’t hate my bike or Ben by the end of it.
Things I learnt
Going on holiday to the very north of Scotland? Don’t forget your sunscreen!
Book your trains as soon as possible to avoid having to use weird connections.
Take more warm clothes, I was warm enough only because the weather was exceptional.
Pay attention to your food intake – I didn’t know to do this, and ended up somewhat lacking in energy on the last day. Luckily our plans were flexible and we cut short the cycling.
Finally it is OK to change your plans; foot issues, energy issues, bike issues and weather issues, ment our plans changed as we went along, and that is OK! It was a holiday and it was to be fun. I remember pointing out to Ben before we went, that even if we took the bikes, we didn’t have to cycle every day.