Friday, 10 August 2012

The empty quarter by bike

South of here there is a huge stretch of wild country running almost to the Tay. It is bounded by gentler lands on three sides and the A9 corridor on the west and human intervention is limited to some tentative roads into deep glens and the broad valley of the Spey with its outdoor industry, distilleries and occasional farmlands. It would be wrong to call this land a true wilderness since much of it is shaped by the hand of man. It is streaked with forestry and grouse moor burnings and in place land rover tracks reach high on to the hill. But in the main it is glorious country with rolling hills, big, brown rivers, huge skies and it pretty much empty of humanity where you can travel for days without meeting tarmac. All this makes it a grand place for adventure.   

Right in the heart of this place lies a group of hills known as the Ring of Tarf. While the name invokes Middle Earth the reality is a hard country of peat and bog with few paths and little in the way of logical routes. We traversed the Ring about a year ago and found it to be a real challenge and maybe not something that you would choose to go back to more than once but during the trip we also twice crossed the through route from Glen Feshie to Blair Atholl which looked a fine way to travel. I hatched a plan to take the bike from the familiar tracks of   
Inshraich Forest through the full length of Glen Feshie and then to pick up the old drove route from Speyside to Blair Atholl across the watershed of the Geldie, Tarf and Tilt rivers. On the map it is an awesome inviting slice of Scotland and a quick trawl on the web showed that it has been done by bike. The weather forecast showed three dry days. The only remaining question was whether I was man enough....

I crossed the Feshie by the only remaining bridge south of Feshiebridge itself and headed up the glen towards the small bothy of Ruigh-Aitcheachan. The path was rough and required a fair amount of pushing - panniers just do not lend themselves to anything technical. However, much of the route through the middle part of the glen was sublimely beautiful with mixed pine and birch woods and open meadows filled with clouds of rising butterflies taking flight as I passed. This was to be the pattern - tough ground for biking amongst incredible natural beauty. Equal parts inspiration and frustration.

The woodland thinned out beyond the point where the glen turned east just as the track ran down and into the Feshie. The depth of the river required portaging the panniers and bike separately across a short meander meaning 6 crossings of the river in total. Luckily, it was reasonably dry and the river was low but in spate conditions you would have to follow a slight path further up the hill. From there the track continued through the open upper glen until it petered out with around 4 miles still to go prior to Gelide Lodge. This proved the toughest section since it crossed the watershed between the Feshie and Geldie. There was a particularly tough section up and over the Eidart Bridge – it might be best to cross the river where it meets the Feshie if condition are right. Eidart Bridge itself has about six months to live and goes at severe with a bike and have been warned.   

Geldie Lodge is remote in anyone's book and would be a big disappointment to anyone turning up expecting a full Scottish breakfast. Its roofless ruin looks out towards the southern ramparts of the Cairngorms across a bleak desert of peat and heather.
Today it was quite busy – 4 other tents and a resident population of a few billion midges. The midges made dinner a challenge but by adopting a policy of walking up and down the track while boiling, cooking and eating I managed to get a few calories down.  I also made some tea but by then I had had enough of fighting the wee bastards and retired to the tent. I needed to sleep with a midgie net on for the first time ever. It was not a pleasant evening.
In the morning they were worse and I was up and away into the grey morning by 7am. The first stretch took me past the semi-ruin at Ruigh Easlaidh and onto the complete ruin of Bynack Lodge, sited amongst some tall pines.

Bynack lodge – August 2012

Bynack and Geldie lodges mark a kind of reversed terminal moraine of human activity in these remote glens. They were built after the retreat of the crofter and during the brief re-advance of the sporting estate – a short window between the croft and the motor car when these far flung outposts were needed to reach the deer and the grouse.  The decline and fall of these places are well enough recorded elsewhere but for this generation only the sad erratic remains are left high on their raised banks. They lend much to the atmosphere of loneliness and isolation which is found in Glen Geldie.  

Beyond Bynack the track gradually deteriorated until it was only rideable in parts. The upper part of the glen opened out into a large flat meadow ringed with steep hills. Through a side glen I could see out to a misty Carn Bhac which was just shrugging off the morning haar to bask in the August sun. From the meadow the path turned westwards and into the narrow ravine of the upper Tilt clinging to the steepening north bank. I traversed this with a lot more pushing than riding before emerging on the flats beside the glorious Falls of Tarf. This is worth the visit on a dry day – it must be biblical when in spate. Once over the bridge it is a long but mostly downhill on good landy tracks to Blair Atholl through gorgeous Glen Tilt with its policy woods giving deep shade. The track follows the River Tilt which is fast, brown and bubbling. The day was perfect August with high white clouds in a deep blue sky. Sheep bleated high on the green hillsides stretching away up to Beinn a Ghlo – a pastoral scene like a vertical England and a grand place to be on a day like this.  

A tough route requiring real commitment even in gentle August but I am not convinced about its suitability as a bike route. It might lend itself to a solid one day push on a full suss unloaded bike by a better rider than me but without solids skills you will be off and pushing for a fair distance as you cross the two watersheds. The Empty Quarter is not the place to have a big off.

As a footnote there were proposals up until the sixties to drive a road through Feshie and Geldie to Deeside and the plan was well advanced and widely supported locally and in political circles. Some token opposition was raised by what would now be called the outdoor lobby but I have not yet found out why the route was never developed. The good news is that while you just can’t access Glen Shee from Inverness for a day’s dodgy ski-ing, you can revel in a huge stretch of wilderness  I think that’s a result. 

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