Cycling the Outer Hebrides with mum: Eriskay, South Uist and Benbecula

The ferry on the horizon would dock within minutes, but a commotion was breaking out. Mum rushed towards me in a small panic. “The pump! The pump!”


Day 4: Maslow would be proud of the ferry terminal at Barra, which clearly catered to ferry travellers’ hierarchy of needs: 

  1. Hot & cold drinks
  2. Snacks
  3. Toilets
  4. Wifi

We were proud too, having made the 10-mile journey from the BnB to ferry in good time.

Ardmhor ferry terminal hierarchy of needs
Ardmhor ferry terminal hierarchy of needs

Mum, busying herself packing and unpacking her bags, declined my generous offer of a vending machine coffee: you can lead a Melburnian to coffee, but you can’t make her drink it from a machine.

The spy was also lurking around, but I stayed away from conversation beyond the obligatory “Hello” and small-talk about the fine weather.

Meanwhile, I read the signboard on otters, which lived around the pier. It was good timing, as World Otter Day was only a few days from now, and I knew next to nothing about them. In short, they are a cross between a weasel and a seal, live in the salt-water, and eat fish.

Otters crossing
Don’t cross an otter…

Only later did I learn the terrible truth about otters, and it certainly wasn’t from this generic tourist information sign.

In fact, otters routinely hold the heads of their mates under water while having sex, causing them to drown; have been known to rape baby harbor seals to death, and even make love with deceased mates.

Clearly this type of behavior had been deemed too commonplace in the outer-reaches of Britain to have been considered of any interest for tourists to read on the signboard.

Welcome to Eriskay
Getting frisky in Eriskay

The ferry on the horizon was making good speed towards us, and would in fact be docked within a matter of minutes.

Yet a commotion was breaking out. My mum rushed to where I was sitting in a small panic. “The pump! The pump! My tire’s got a flat.”

Someone had walked past mum’s bike and heard the tell-tale fast rush of escaping air. Luckily, we were far from the only bikers on the ferry that morning. In fact, there were close to 15 of us, nearly outnumbering vehicles.

Seeing mum in stress, a silver-haired man rushed into action. Within seconds he’d whipped off her front wheel, removed the tube, and soon had it pumped up good as new.

As for what caused the puncture, that remains a mystery. The tire was not pierced by glass, screw or stone, neither did the inner tube look torn.

Eriskay view in the sun
If only the terrain was as flat as mum’s bike tire

Famous detective Sherlock Holmes sort-of said (I’m paraphrasing), when you’ve eliminated all other explanations, the one that remains, no matter how fanciful, is your solution.

Therefore, it was either the dodgy spy, seeking vengeance for my panier bag death joke of the day before, or it was an otter. Either way, it was an act of otter bastardry.

Cycling the Outer Hebrides with mum: Barra and Vasteray (part 2)

The first day of riding was also about testing out THE GEAR! I’d been on an online shopping spree as part of my preparation, and now had all the gear, and no idea.

Day 3: Having travelled from Paris, to Glasgow, to Oban and now Barra, we were sufficiently out of harm’s way to discover whether we could actually ride the bikes or not.

Mum had been putting in months of hill training back in Melbourne, with a vigorous regime of three rides a week of up to 80kms. I know this, because she set her app to send me an automatic message boasting of her daily accomplishment. Before the bike trip, the guilt trip.

Beach at Vasteray
The beach at Vasteray…whiter than a Scotsman in summer

Because my training regime had been somewhat less than vigorous. Rather than put faith in endless training on an actual bike, I instead backed my boundless ego.

Given I was half mum’s age, twice her size, and poor at math, I figured that 8 minutes of spin cycling at the gym should be a suitable training regime for a 380-km trip through the wilds of Scotland.

The merits of our respective regimes were about to be tested.

The bikes were hybrids: 24-speed, and ‘speed’ here was relative. I maxed out my speedometer at 24 miles/hour (this is the empire, remember, where the metric system is on eternal holiday) on a straight, with wind assistance along a causeway.

Mum meanwhile was maxing out the other end of her speedometer, with her ‘slow and steady’ approach to walking up the odd hill, seeing her bottom out at 0 mph. Still, it was good to know the limits of our equipment, both upper and lower.

The suspension forks came in handy for the numerous potholes in the roads around Barra and Vatersay, and allowed us to negotiate gravel paths and lesser roads much more ably than a pure road bike.

Their weight, while a disadvantage going up hills, made it easy to build momentum, and perversely, meant you didn’t get blown off the road by a strong gust of wind or blow-back from any helicopters nearby (stay tuned for the upcoming entry on Skye for more on this…).

Gorse hills on Barra
The hills are alive with the sight of gorse

Aside from the bikes, the first day of riding was also about testing out THE GEAR! I’d been on an online shopping spree as part of my preparation, and now had all the gear, and no idea.

These included my first ever pair of bib-knicks, in short and long-legged variety. I also had a short-sleeved jersey with highly motivational phrases printed on them: “Pleasure” across the breast, and “Suffering for Glory” on the sleeve.

We started with a light downhill from the house to Barra’s main village of Castelbay, then continued around the bay and up a sweeping hill, the top of which was marked with a memorial to the men of the area to have died in the “Great War” of 1914-18 and ’39-45.

“Great” is a favoured adjective around these parts, almost always used in a positive sense. Seeing the nearly hundred names on this memorial though, it could only have been a devastating loss for the communities on Barra, which could not have numbered many more men in those days. The “Suffering for Glory” motivational messaging on my lycra top was feeling a little silly.

Down the other side of the sweeping hill we crossed the causeway in Vatersay, which now divides the Atlantic Ocean on one side from the Sea of the Hebrides.

For a look at the economic and social impact of the causeway, consider this:

“The immediate reaction to the causeway saw the population rise from 65 in 1988 to 83 in 1993, and planning applications soar from a mere two in 1985-9 to 24, including four new houses, in 1990-3.”

Remains of the RAF Catalina
This seaplane didn’t see the mountain

While the causeway might make it seem that Vatersay is easy to get to, numerous monuments on the island suggest otherwise.

Somewhere on the island there was also a monument to the Annie Jane, a ship that went down with 350 people off the shore in 1853.

We struggled to find this one, but did find a pillar that marked the start of the Hebridean Way, the route we were cycling. I showed mum how to use the timer feature of the iPhone to perfect the perfect silly selfie in front of it.

The most evocative monument on Vatersay is that of the rusting remnants of a seaplane fuselage and wing from the RAF Catalina, which crashed killing three of its nine crew. The memorial stone is set down an unmarked trail off the road, next to where the plane went into the hill – you could barely see it, and I guess that was the original problem.

If Barra and Vatersay are still known for aviation landings, these days it’s only thanks to the quaint airport at the northern tip of the island, which is unique for being the only airport where scheduled planes actually land on the beach. According to our guide book, this also made it one of the “most dramatic airports in the world ™“.

I quibbled with this description, as the number one “most dramatic” was Lukla in Nepal, where the risk of mistiming the takeoff/landing means careening over a precipice to certain death.

Barra's unique beach airstrip
Barra’s unique beach airstrip

By contrast, if you fucked up the landing at Barra, you might run over a seagull nest or get your tires wet. Still, it speaks volumes about what constitutes the definition of drama on the Outer Hebrides.

Over the road behind the airport are some dunes, behind which stretches one of the most glorious beaches in Britain. So long, white and sandy that you could think you were in Australia – until the 11-degree water gives you a refreshing plunge of reality.

That night on Elisabeth’s balcony, we erected her sun umbrella (its first outing for the year) and enjoyed the home-baking of the day: scones.

We also read up on local history and landmarks. It turns out we had actually unwittingly found the memorial to those tragically killed on the Annie Jane. And I still had all the silly selfies to prove it.

Memorial to the Annie Jane
Memorial to the 350 Annie Jane victims: lycra is always the most appropriate clothing

Cycling the Outer Hebrides with mum: Barra and Vasteray

“What do you do?” I asked at breakfast on the second day.
“The type of job where if I told you, I’d have to kill you,” he replied, not very cryptically.

Day three: a scarcity of accommodation brings us face-to-face with the vacationing James Bond of Middle England. Wanker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy?

What’s the best site for finding accommodation on the Hebrides? Aird BnB.

What’s not a joke is the accommodation situation in the Outer Hebrides, with rooms to sleep as scarce as other essential resources on the islands such as trees, vegetables, and sun-cream.

Welcome to the (Outer) Hebrides
On the Outer (of the Hebrides)

Thankfully our tour organizer Scot Cycle had a network of hospitable locals on each island willing to rent out spare bedrooms to travelers who’d ventured beyond the reach of reliable Internet connections.

Our first host, Elisabeth, was a kindly 60-something woman who was active in the church and community and had a passion for making scones, shortbreads and cakes.

As a retiree, she’d replaced bringing home the bacon with “a bit of home-baking”, and that perfectly suited mum and me.

Her house commanded a superb view over Castlebay in Barra, presumably named for the small castle in its bay, though I didn’t check.

View of Castlebay
Forget the castle in the bay…check out the blue sky!

Since this was more-or-less the first sunny day of the year (it was May 26), Elisabeth had been painting the fence and mowing the grass. In fact, almost every local we met during our trip in the Hebrides was either painting something or mowing the lawn. You definitely got the impression these were once-a-year activities to be celebrated in the Hebrides, like their children phoning home for Christmas.

But chez Elisabeth, mum and I were not the only ones to be occupying rooms those two nights. There was a third person, a mysterious man who arrived late the first night, and appeared before us at the breakfast table in the morning.

He was a middle-aged Englishman from Gloucester – only the second person I’d met from that city, the first being Beatrix Potter’s famous tailor  – and I’m not sure anyone would be writing a book of his exploits any time soon.

Fancy dress and clubwear travelling sales van

He was balding from front and back simultaneously, was probably needing to meet someone, but also on a solo car trip to a gloomy island chain for his holidays.

Yet, there’s a plot twist! Luckily, he had a sexy job that more than made up for any physical or conversational shortcomings.

“What do you do?” I asked at breakfast on the second day.

“The type of job where if I told you, I’d have to kill you,” he replied, not very cryptically.

“So you’re a spy,” I deduced.

“Well, I work for GCHQ, put it like that.”

“So we can put it that you’re a spy.”

He was of the opinion that it was easier just to say who he worked for, without going into any details of what he did.

Still, my interest was finally piqued. Perhaps his other car really was an Aston Martin, in which case the beaten up blue hatch-back poorly parked in the driveway was the perfect foil.

I imagined the subsequent James Bond-esque film titles of his trip through the Outer Hebrides:
– You Only Hebrides Twice
– Skye-fall
– Oldenguy
– The Man with the Golden Handshake

I demurred.

“You’re not going to lock yourself naked inside a hold-all bag and suffocate to death in the bath are you?” I now asked, referring to the unfortunate GCHQ employee Gareth Williams, who’s death still remains shrouded– if not zipped up, locked and key thrown away – in mystery.

“Why does everyone know about that?” he said, flummoxed. Clearly the conversation was not going where it was intended. “

“Because it’s such an odd way to die,” I explained. “Someone must know something.”

“Yes but if they did, you wouldn’t hear about it,” said he.

“Just stay away from my panier bags,” I said, and that was it for breakfast.

Cycling the Outer Hebrides with mum: Oban to Barra

Crossing over the Minch by ferry was a near-death experience for some.

Day 2: Every man and his dog was taking the ferry from Oban to Barra, and sometimes even two dogs. Meanwhile, the more elderly guests couldn’t wait to cross over.

“I don’t think Joan’s doing well…”

Joan, 70+ years old, indeed did not look well as she vomited as discreetly as possible into the plastic Tesco shopping bag.

The Hebrides-bound ferry was in the final stages of its 5-hour journey to the island of Barra, and the last rough stretch of water, known as the Minch, was having an ill effect.

This tartan carpet can (and will) make you feel ill.
This tartan carpet can (and will) make you feel ill.

I was lying prostrate on a circular couch at the front of the ship, the only person game enough to sit in the direct sunlight flooding in through the salt-encrusted panoramic windows.

Next to me, strategically placed out of the sun, were 10 senior citizens wearing Glarefoil wraparound sunglasses and each sitting very still. They all wore identical stickers, identifying themselves as belonging to a “cultural liaisons” tour.

If my elderly neighbour was worried about Joan’s well-being, she quickly conceded there was not much to be done. “Her husband seems to be taking care of it though,” she added, matter-of-factly to her friend, who agreed with an “Mmm”.

Looking back towards Oban
Looking back towards Oban

This also seemed correct. Her husband was perfecting his ‘nothing to see here’ expression, as Joan carefully dabbed the corners of her mouth with an wad of rough toilet paper, the type commonly found onboard ferries and wrapped around ice-cream cones.

When I was younger, I remember ads for a US-imported TV show called ‘Crossing Over’, in which a celebrity medium John Edward puts audience-members in touch with deceased relatives.

I recalled this as I sat with my own elderly audience in the ferry, as from where I sat, many surely wished the crossing would soon be over. Or in any event, definitely looked closer to death at the end than five hours ago.

Attend to your ventriloquist doll first
Attend to your ventriloquist doll first

After hesitating for some moments, I wobbled to my feet and took decisive action. Crossing over the horse-shoe of carpet from my couch, I discreetly asked Joan and husband if I could assist.

I’m not sure if a young Australian asking an elderly Scot if she’d like some water or tissues to wipe away her vomit was the type of cultural liaison they had been expecting on the trip, but it always pays to read the fine print.

Cycling the Outer Hebrides with mum: Glasgow to Oban

An 8-day trip to the outer Hebrides on bicycle with my mum. What could go wrong? After a debauched week in Paris, we were going sober: on the straight and narrow while we pedalled the hilly and windy, and also windy.

Day One: Glasgow to Oban

haggis crisps
Haggis-flavoured crisps actually exist. And what’s more, they don’t taste too bad – though taste is relative in a country famous for deep-fried Mars Bars and that toilet bowl diving scene from Trainspotting.

This was the first of several startling revelations I was to learn on an 8-day bike trip through the Outer Hebrides with my mum.

First though, we were taking the West Highland railway from Glasgow to Oban where the real adventure would begin.

With its slow chug through beech forests (so close that small branches regularly fall in through the windows), and vistas of distant snow-capped mountains, pastures and lochs, the West Highland railway is one of the most magical™ train rides in the world.

Latter parts of the route were even used to depict the Hogwarts Express scene in the Harry Potter movies. Now, if they could just conjure up some better on-board snacks…

West Highland route from Glasgow to Oban
West Highland route from Glasgow to Oban

Disembarking at Oban, we found ourselves by the water’s edge, with a panoramic view across the small bay and the city’s high street, full of discount outdoor clothing shops, whisky boutiques, and inexplicable groups of Swedish middle-aged men – they were too old for a stag weekend, and being May it was too soon for a stag hunt weekend.

By the ferry terminal, tour operators had left rudimentary signs advertising trips to see marine life.

Only 40 seals available – hurry!

“See the seals by boat,” said one sign. Additional information was added in shaky marker hand-writing: “book now – only 40 seals available”. Someone had neglected to cross the ‘l’.

We ate at definitely okay seafood restaurant EE-Usk on the other side of the harbor. Everything here was locally sourced, except for the staff.

Most of them came from the Continent: the unique opportunity to spend three months in an English-speaking country and leave with a worse accent than when you arrived.

Marina Hyde bingo cards

For at least the last 8 years, my favourite regular columnist has been Marina Hyde in the Guardian. For a long time she was neck-and-neck with Hadley Freeman but eventually pulled ahead due to the comedic heft of her body. And if you can suggest any more bodily metaphors for that last sentence, I’m all ears.

Straight from the school of Clive James, her thrice-weekly columns are written with equal parts acerbic wit and intelligence, calling to account powerful and corrupt businessmen (inevitably not women) and politicians, or shining a light on that particularly British breed of daft celebrities, whose need for a spotlight belies their dimness.

In any case, as an avid reader I’m come to be quite familiar with her stylistic quirks, and favourite topics she hits on. These include repeated references to “you can be my wingman any day” from Top Gun, (which incidentally caused another columnist to accuse her of plagiarising it from him despite it fairly being a commonplace joke), to references to Boris Johnson’s trickiness in writing a pro- and anti-Brexit column “in order to clarify his thinking” in the days before the all-important vote, and her contempt for hate-peddlers such as Katie Hopkins.

As such, I’ve created a first round of Marina Hyde Bingo cards. Playing is simple: read her columns each week and tick off each reference when you see it. Once you have a full line, you have BINGO!

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Colombia, day one: Bogota, Escobar, and Hostel Sexy Time

Car bombings, fire-bombings, thousands of extra-judicial killings, and even a time in the Congress. The horror, the horror!

1Who knew Pablo Escobar was such a c**t?

That was the overriding takeaway from the Heroes of Colombia walking tour which started in the Bolivar Square and visited some of the key sites in the capital linked to Pablo Escobar and his reign on terror. Car bombings, fire-bombings, thousands of extra-judicial killings, and even a time in the Congress. The horror, the horror!

The tour highlighted some of the people instrumental in exposing his crimes and bringing him to justice – almost all of whom nobly died for their efforts. At his peak, he shipped 15 tons per day to the US, and made the cover of Forbes.

One corner on the main thoroughfare Calle 12 is the intersection of power. The church on one side, the bank opposite, and…here I beat the tour guide to his joke to point out the McDonalds on the third side, and as a result don’t know what the fourth one was.

Lunch at a French restaurant, discovering the taste sensation of fruit lightly coated in hot pimento spices, then a visit to the gold museum…where I learnt that gold was used for ceremonies by ancient indigenous tribes, but that’s about it…and that they made at least enough ornaments to fill 4 floors of a large museum.

A return trip up the funicular to the Montserrat peak, which is about 3000 metres ASL (Bogota is 2600), admiring the view of foreboding thunderstorm on one side of the mountain, and a hazey sunset view over Smogota on the other. Dinner at a delicious vegetarian restaurant that had a no WiFi policy (so avant-garde!), with succulent avocados, corn, and salsa…accompanied by a blackberry juice.

Crashed in bed watching a series (not Narcos, though that is next on my cultural appreciation guide), to drown out the couple in next bedroom having loud sex. Even though my room was “private”, the adjoining wall didn’t reach the ceiling, so it was about as private as a toilet cubicle in an airline toilet…