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: 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.

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…

Colombia, days 3-5: On Dangerous Ground

Aside from being eaten by cannibalistic tribes, what other dangers lurked in these parts?

Blog post 2 camping amazon
The guide and I were camping alone in the jungle last night, and he had a literal potboiler of a story.

When he was 10, his childhood friend was kidnapped, and eaten, by a local indigenous tribe.

“Why was he eaten?”

“Because he was white.”

We unwrapped the palm leaf parcel that had been roasting on the fire. It was a delicious local river fish known as arapaima, or by locals as “the other white meat”.

Aside from being eaten by cannibalistic tribes, what other dangers lurked in these parts? The daily offer of activities around the camp gave a fair overview.

Piranha fishing
Piranhas are legendary for devouring whole carcasses of cows within minutes, much like the Polish tour group that arrived that night. In reality this only happens in exceptional circumstances. Tempting fate, we took a motorised wooden boat into a mangrove forest close by the lodge with a handful of bamboo fishing rods.

The guide cut up a large fillet of fish into bite-sized pieces, which we threaded onto hooks and cast into the water. To attract the piranhas you slap the bamboo rod repeatedly on top of the water. This is said to simulate a chicken – though what a chicken might be doing slapping around in the middle of a mangrove forest was not explained.

After 2 hours the guides had caught 2 piranhas and a small catfish. I had caught nothing, but had singlehandedly fed the fish at least half of the fillet. It was not a good return on investment for those in the group wanting to eat fish that night.

Night walk
In the land famed for its jaguars and anacondas, what beasts of the night were lurking in the shadows? “Look there!” said the guide, within seconds of starting up the moonlit trail.

“Where? What is it?” I followed his finger. Not to any large shadows in the trees or the forest, but to a frog half the size of my thumbnail sitting on the step outside my cabin. Tiny, but incredibly poisonous. I made a note to wear shoes for my nightly pee.

The tarantulas were all hiding that night. But I did see some rats, and a cool phosphorescent leaf litter that made the whole place feel like Upside Down world (for the Stranger Things fans among us).

Jungle camp-out
I decided to up the game. A night in the jungle, just the guide and me, what could go wrong? The weather, for starters. Due to torrential rain, what was planned to be a day-long hike to the deepest darkest forest was scaled back to a 15-minute hike to the rear campsite over the ridge behind.

The guide showed me the rubber tree, the popularity of which led colonialists to enslave thousands of young boys to work in rubber plantations. The type of shitty job you never bounce back from.

He showed me the telephone tree, which sends a booming echo audible across the valley when you strike it with a stick – and is for emergency use only.

And he showed me the traditional way of lighting a fire with damp wood – burning a plastic bag to kick-start the kindling.

That we slept in hammocks, slung between two trees under a tarpaulin and mosquito net. And I was lulled to sleep, not by the exotic sounds of the Amazon forest, but of a thousand mosquitos attacking my body like locusts on a wheat field. Malaria takes two weeks to kick in, so there’s every chance I will always remember this special night.

Day walk

Perhaps it would be easier to see beasts and critters in the day, lacking night vision as I do.

We set out towards a known Harpy eagle’s nest, one of the largest eagles in the world, which feeds on monkeys, opossums and sloths.

This reminded me, sloths were very close to top of my animal bucket list.

“There’s lots of sloths around here,” said the guide.

“Can we see one?”

“Sure. Just be at the campsite around siesta time. You’ll see Brazilian sloths, Germans sloths, Australian sloths…”

I’d very slowly walked into that one.

As we headed back to camp, a sudden rustle in the trees above and a hard nut the size of a grapefruit whizzed down in front of the guide’s nose.

If you thought sagging balls were something eventually to be scared of, the falling nuts of the Amazon can be a life-ending event.

It’s summertime (in Paris), and the swimming ain’t easy

Owing to several shared linguistic roots, it’s not uncommon for some French words to sound like their English equivalents.

For example: ‘Boeuf’ for ‘beef’, ‘week end’ for ‘weekend’, etc.

The French word for swimming pool is slightly different in that it smells like the English equivalent. ‘Piscine’, for, well you get it…

Anyone in Paris who’s sought to cool off on the rare stifling day, will know the desperate feeling of looking for a public watering hole with a higher level of hygiene than a Ganges tributary.

The upper reaches of the Canal St Martin comes the closest; even so almost no people swim there, and those that do, would never submerge their head.

So within the ever-tightening belt of Paris’s peripherique, you’re pretty much left with kicking your feet in the gutter they hose twice daily as a passive form of cleaning, or failing that, a public swimming pool.

And so, this July day, the swimming pool it was. By 1pm our spies at the better known pools let us know that the more appealing of the low-cost options were refusing more people until mid-afternoon: their usual human soup level of crowding having reached the level ‘minestrone’.

There was once the Molitor – where Tarzan once was a lifeguard – but since they re-added water to it (having been a derelict site for illicit raves for years), it had become quite expensive, aka 180 euros a session.

The closest option was now the best: and by best, we meant only.

The Piscine Pailleron in the 19th, near Buttes Chaumont park, is not only a pool, but also an ice rink and solarium, (and possibly not-so-secret testing ground for microbial warfare). And it can be hard to know whether you’re sitting in a very hot ice rink, or rather cool solarium.

We parked our bikes outside and headed towards the quaint red-brick façade.

The first sign of something amiss was the crowd, or lack thereof: that would be a reassuring sign on any day but a hot one like today.

The second sign was more obvious: a man with wet hair and flip-flops, swimming bag over his shoulder who rode past with the manic craze of escaping a zombie apocalypse and yelled to us: “That pool is really shit”. He disappeared into the bitumen haze, wobbling over the road as he went.

But it was hot, and we would not be deterred.

Up until a few years ago, when they famously blitzed the pool in the London Olympics, the French were not known for swimming. Perhaps part of the explanation lies in the experience of going to the local pool: which is designed to be as complicated, embarrassing and unpleasant as possible.

It starts with the dress-code. Lycra underpants – known as a ‘moule-bite’ (stick to dick) – in the vernacular. Or worse, lycra swim shorts. And no exceptions.

Perhaps this is part of France’s famous commitment to solidarity, whereby if you can’t afford trendy swimming shorts in bright colours and a private beach where to wear them, then no-one need feel left-out. In any case, the pool’s chlorine levels would quickly bleach even the most garish attire to the colour of Australia’s Barrier Reef.

Secondly, swimming caps as well? France continues to live in awe of Bay Watch – Alerte Malibu – or how else would you explain this.

And if you don’t have one? Well, as long as you’ve got 4 euros you can buy one from the vending machine; next to the vending machine selling…freshly squeezed orange juice, because, why not? That machine was out of order, and probably best left so.

Now we had the attire, it was time to navigate the change rooms. The cattle muster arrangement of the reception area now gave way to the abattoir style layout of the changing rooms.

With every step through corridors of unisex cubicles, you remain no clearer where the pool is; yet your sense of doom grows with every unlocked door you push. I’m not saying the things I walked in on were comparable to an Indonesian Halal slaughterhouse, but some things cannot be unseen.

We make it to the pool. It’s only for kids. And adults who swim like kids. We head directly outside to the ‘solarium’. This turns out to be a patch of lawn in the shade, patrolled by a man wearing plastic bags over his shoes. At least someone was thinking of hygiene (or his shoes).

Even so we still last 1.5 hours. All told, it’s more pleasant than you expect sharing lawn in your speedos with 60 other randoms from all walks of life.

But eventually  hunger gets the better of us. The food onsite was predictably unappealing,but there was a local bar by the Canal St Martin not too far away, and if we were lucky, we might find a nice fresh steak, or perhaps even a minestrone.