Fuck you this place is dead anyway.

The bikes packed, the last minute changes and panics have occurred. In a hour or so it will be time to leave.

I’m not taking a smartphone on this trip and the only internet connected device in my possession will be an ebook reader which is clunky at best. So adios, feel free to dot watch on the “Where is Ben” page. You can either expect something in a few weeks time if I find a computer I can use or a void of silence here until the end of August. You really don’t need to read my words, get out there and enjoy life…

To be honest I just wanted to post this Tiltwheel song (again).

Summerholidays vs punk routine

In six days time I’m off again.

Here is the plan:
The cycle touring festival in Clitheroe
A long train journey from London to Trondheim with a few days in Hamburg and Copenhagen.
Riding from Trondheim to Östersund with most of it off road.
Then most likely continuing across Sweden to Umeå, hopefully off road or on the smaller gravel roads.
Ferry to Vaasa, then work my way down to Helsinki, again hopefully not on tarmac.

If time allows then I’ll get the ferry to Tallinn and try join the long distance off road route that runs diagonally across Estonia. I should be able to pick it up somewhere near Aegviidu  before following it to the Latvian border. From there I’ll have to get across Latvia to Ventspils because at some point I need to get a ferry back to Germany. I have to be in France by the beginning of August because I’m doing this ‘other thing’.

I have maps and a GPS track for the first bit in Scandinavia, so I’m feeling much more organised than is normal.

Wanting to ride off road though has meant a re-think with regards to the bike. This is what I rode last year.
This is what I am riding this year.
BikeYou will note the great logic of riding suspension forks around Europe on mostly paved roads and this time riding rigid forks. I don’t have a good reason, I pretty much set off in 2014 with whatever forks I had. This time I had more time to think and plan so I changed the forks but added a 29×3.0 tyre for some cushioning up front.

The big change is going from a rack and panniers to soft/bikepacking luggage. This has reduced my carrying capacity from approx. 100 litres to approx. 60 litres. This mainly means taking less clothes. However I’ve also reduced the pack size of other items and generally got better at packing them.

I have invested in some new kit including a new sleeping bag (from PHD in their sale) which has the equivalent comfort rating to my old one but with a smaller pack size/weight. My old one did also leak down at an alarming rate so I was going to have to do this at some point. Perhaps the biggest size difference is between the Klymit X-lite camping mat I’ve started using and the old Thermarest 3/4 mat that I got for free.

After burning a hole in the Vango Banshee 200 I used for the first part of my touring in 2015. I bought a Laser Competition 2 from the classifieds forum on the Bearbonesbikepacking website. It was really cheap and naturally well used. However it was a good investment and made it round Europe last summer almost in one piece. However when I started using it again this year the floor of the inner had suddenly become porous allowing damp from the ground to seep through. After an email exchange with Terra Nova I decided to make use of their ‘tent trade in’ offer and so splashed out on a new Solar Photon 2 tent. It’s lighter than the Laser 2 and I like the design better as it gives me more headroom. I’m a bit unsure how durable the floor of the inner on this one is going to be though as it seems even thinner than the Laser 2!
Tent Over the past two days I loaded the bike up and took it out for a ‘shakedown’ ride. I rode most of the Dorset Gravel Dash route although today I decided that it wasn’t really necessary to haul myself over Hambledon and Hod hill. Everything pretty much worked, which was nice and I didn’t feel like I was weighed down by luggage. After a wrong turn I even lifted my bike over a gate at one point without too much trouble. I like the gravel dash route it’s very ‘Dorset’ encompassing all the terrain and surfaces that this county has to offer. Which I have to add is a mixed blessing as sometimes it feels like you’re being tarred and feather with mud, sand and grass!
SwanageCorfeSo the excitement and fear is building and before I know it I’ll be lost somewhere in the middle of Sweden wondering what the hell I’m doing.  Well at least I don’t have to ride anywhere quickly…

Paddling the Caledonian canal (part 3).

If you want to start at part 1 click here.

I’m not known for waking up early but clearly our collective nervousness about tackling Loch Ness had affected me. My eyes opened and I realised that firstly my phone had run out of battery so the alarm I’d set for 7am wasn’t going to happen and secondly it was 5:45am and I was wide awake. Outside the window it was cold but still, favourable conditions so further sleep was shelved in favour or getting up and facing our fears. We walked down to the loch to be greeted by a mill pond and so reinflated the boat and started to load our gear.
lochnessmillpondAt this point a couple of guys appeared with a canoe who were also paddling the canal route. They said that the weather forecast was good up until about 1pm so they also had decided to head out early and try to get as far as possible before the weather deteriorated. We let them set off first and then followed them out onto the lake. We had discussed our plan for Loch Ness at length in the days leading up to this point and it had changed multiple times. The last iteration had been to follow the south shore and try to reach Foyers by the end of the day.

So following the other canoe we headed forwards, following the north shore. With the weather good it seemed sensible even though we knew we would have to cross the loch at some point. We made good speed due to a slight tailwind and calm conditions. After a couple of hours though for some reason I felt really cramped and my bottom and legs were starting to ache and really affect me. This was probably the low point of the trip for me personally and I’m not sure Judith appreciated me timing this with us traversing Loch Ness.
Despite knowing we needed to press on we took a short break on the shore and this let me get back into a good position both physically and mentally. The wind had risen slightly but not enough to worry us and at this point we crossed the loch from north shore to south. Loch Ness is only around a mile across but it seemed to take an age for us to cross but we persevered and attempt to put in long powerful strokes so we weren’t away from the shore for too long. Finally we reached the southern shore and continued north eastwards.

It then didn’t seem that long before we spotted the red canoe from that morning ahead of us. They had overshot the landing point/campsite at Foyers and so were paddling back to it. We landed shortly after them and realised that the ‘wild camping’ site was less than ideal. Essentially there was no flat ground to be found in the area that has been marked out for pitching your tent. Above that site though there is a camping and caravan site which Judith having looked over the fence described as ‘camping nirvana’. She wasn’t far off as it was big, flat and had very new facilities. As Judith is a member of the camping and caravan club we decided to pay the (quite reasonable) £11 cost and camp there for the night.FoyerswaterfallAs we waited to check into the site the weather started to worsen and turn. Clouds started to build over the mountains on the north shore of the loch and the wind started to increase. Our early start and maintaining a good speed had definitely paid off. The rest of the day was punctuated by showers rolling across the valley from the north and these became increasingly cold and full of snow as time went on. With an afternoon to fill we braved the weather to walk up through the woods above the campsite and see the waterfalls that Foyers is known for. Afterwards we sought the pub again for a good feed and a warm place to shelter until it was time to turn in for the night.

The following day was less of an early start as we caught up on sleep from the day before. The camp site owner informed us that the weather for today (day six of our trip) was good but it was going to be horrendous the day after. We packed up and headed onwards along the south shore of the loch. Our biggest landmark for the day was Urquhart castle on the north shore, which seemed to appear quite early on in the day but then it also seemed to take forever until we felt like we were passed it. From then on it started to feel like a slog as the landscape on the shore changed little and every headland we rounded presented yet another to paddle towards and pass.

Our initial plan had been to wild camp somewhere on the south shore that night but with the weather still good and the possibility of horrendous conditions the day after we kept moving slowly forwards until finally we could see the beach at Dores ahead of us. Reaching Dores for us meant we felt like we had paddled the bulk of Loch Ness and also provided a pub where we could warm up and once again get a good feed. We definitely blew the budget that night with a bowl of chips pre-meal snack followed by three courses in the pub restaurant. After dinner we hiked into the woods on Tor point ignoring the ‘no camping’ sign and once again fell asleep with tired limbs and full bellies.
torpointWe awoke to rain on the tent which eased and stopped eventually although the wind in the trees meant they were shedding water still as we packed up and prepared for day seven of our trip. The wind was higher than we would have liked and so instead of hiking back to the beach at Dores we headed north to shore around the other side of Tor point to see what conditions on the loch were like. The remaining portion of Loch Ness didn’t look inviting as the waves had white caps so we continued hiking north eastwards hoping that conditions would improve. Having taken a wrong turn we ended up hiking past Aldourie Castle which has been restored and is an expensive retreat. No one challenged us though and we found ourselves back on the loch shore across from Bona lighthouse. Our path on land was now blocked by overgrowth so with conditions on Loch Dafour looking better than those on Loch Ness we inflated the boat and got back on the water.

It didn’t take long to cross this small body of water and we even managed to time passing a tourist boat so we could shelter from it’s wake behind the small island in the lake. The weir at the top end didn’t pose any problems despite my irrational fear of the boat being sucked over it and before long we were back onto a canal section and reached the lock at Dochgarroch where we could camp for the night. It was another short day and to be honest there isn’t much at Dochgarroch so we took a wander to explore the local area and enjoyed the sunshine. The weather was definitely not horrendous. We cooked ourselves a good meal which included smash, that may sound impossible but actually smash is definitely on easy to cook camping foods list. One issue on this trip was that we carried my lightweight cooking set up which is definitely tailored for one person. With two of us it meant using the stove multiple times to produce enough food for a meal.

After a cold night the final day of our trip was upon us. The weather conditions were the best we had had all trip. Sunshine and finally a tailwind. It didn’t take long to paddle the final 5 miles to the Seaport marina at Inverness and so eight days after we had set off we reached the end. In total we had paddled approx 48 miles and hiked for about 16 miles. Over three years after having this crazy idea it was completed. Paddling the Caledonian canal was at times tough but on the whole genuinely great (and type 1) fun. The scenery is beautiful and moving at a slow pace makes you appreciate the peacefulness of your surroundings especially in the western portion.
finishingphotoI know I would have enjoyed this trip less on my own, so I have to say thanks to Judith for coming with me, being far more organised than I will ever be and being a great person with whom to share this adventure.

I also have to say thanks to Tim for the small grant we received from the Next Challenge; thanks to BAM bamboo clothing for giving us some socks, base layers and underpants which were comfortable and warm; and finally also thanks to Backcountry biking from whom we hired the packraft.

Paddling the Caledonian canal (part 2).

To start with part 1 click here.

Waking on the morning of our third day it was clear that there had been a change in the weather overnight. The swirling wind from the previous evening had risen and was blowing from a northerly direction across the loch towards us. This was causing white caps on the water away from the shore which for us was a very bad sign. A packraft is light, this is an advantage in getting from place to place when the boat isn’t inflated but it does put it at the mercy of the wind if it is over a certain strength. After a short discussion a decision was made, the wind was too strong and we would have wasted a lot of energy to reach the end of the loch for not much gain.

So we deflated the packraft packed up the kit and set off on foot. Plan B, and a clear advantage over a more traditional canoe. Although we were more at the mercy of the wind than a canoe we could if need be carry our boat over long distances fairly comfortably. The key word here is ‘fairly’ though. The Alpacka Explorer 42 packraft we used weighs 2.75kg. In addition we had two paddles, two bouyancy aids and the small matter of a tent, cooking gear, sleeping bags, food, fuel, water and spare clothes. Even with light and small gear it all adds up. After a few hours I realised that although it was physically demanding paddling was probably favourable to hiking.
windyflagWith the wind against us there was at this point no choice, we hiked to the end of the loch and stopped for an extended rest in the Eagle barge at Laggan Locks. The sandwiches were to be honest a bit disappointing but as it’s literally the only restaurant/pub for miles it doesn’t have much competition. Emerging from the barge to some weak sunshine but still a strong breeze we pressed on along the Great Glen Way which follows the canal here. At the top end of the next canal section we took a short detour to the shop at the ‘well of seven heads’ to pick up more supplies. In hindsight we probably carried too much food and therefore extra weight for the rest of the trip however naively I think we expected all of the route to be as remote as the first couple of days.
wellofsevenheadsAfter meeting a slightly crazy but very friendly lady called Sally who regaled us with tales of which of the surrounding mountains she had hiked up (all of them apparently). We stopped at the next ‘wild camping’ site on the south shore of Loch Oich. By this time the weather was starting to include some showers of hail, sleet, snow and rain. The wind had dropped a touch and again with hindsight we probably could have continued by boat for the rest of the day if we had pushed ourselves to get back on the water. Instead we put up the tent outer to shelter from the showers and again discussed our options. Originally this camping spot was our destination for the day but it was slightly exposed on a headland so pressing on was also appealing.
dandelionThe next informal camping site at Aberchalder however didn’t have any toilet facilities so the further site at Kytra locks became the target for the day. We hadn’t brought a spade so wild pooing was not on the agenda. Leaving the shores of Loch Oich behind and entering another canal section we just kept placing one foot in front of the other until we arrived at that destination. In total we only hiked 15 miles but with heavy packs it was incredibly exhausting. I now have new found understanding and respect for the journey that Leon McCarron and Tom Allen took along the Karun river in Iran. It was good to finally reach camp for the night although slightly annoying to find that the composting toilet was out of order!

All through our trip we were very conscious of the impact that the weather could have and so regularly checked the forecast to plan for the day ahead. As we headed further east it was apparent that the weather forecast could only give you so much information. Often we had to rely on our own observations of changes in temperature, what the winds were doing and clouds in the sky to make an informed choice on course of action. Weather forecasts are generally only given for certain towns or places. The weather in the mountains is variable and changes quickly so we had instances where we could see along the loch or canal that the forecast was correct for the town but 10 miles away we had completely different conditions. Generally a noticeable cooling in the temperature was followed by the winds picking up and a heavy shower.
lochnessKnowing that our biggest challenge lay ahead in attempting to paddle the length of Loch Ness the fourth day of our trip was mostly one of rest and recuperation. When we awoke the wind had dropped from the previous day and the sheltered water of the canal was suitable for us to continue in the boat. The forecast was for more wind and worse weather in the afternoon. With this in mind we paddled the short 2 mile stretch of canal to Fort Augustus, booked a room in a hostel and replenished our energy stores with a big pub lunch and a big pub tea. Fort Augustus was a bigger and busier town than we had expected and bustling with tourists. It was a bit of a shock after the remoteness and quiet of the canal further west but clearly had it’s benefit in terms of facilities.
The afternoon was punctuated by short heavy hail and rain showers and we tried to dodge these as we secured accommodation and yet more food supplies. In the evening the weather cleared and we wandered down to the launching point on the shore of Loch Ness to contemplate the task ahead. The weather forecast for the next day wasn’t great but an early start seemed the best plan in order to make some ground before having to shelter from the inclement conditions again. After a good feed it was time to get as much sleep as possible in the warmth and comfort of an actual bed.

The final part of our journey should be up on Thursday.

Paddling the Caledonian canal (part 1).

Where do I start? For some reason it seems appropriate to begin in the middle. The tough hardcore world of stupid ideas and adventure saw myself and Judith sat in the Loch Inn, Fort Augustus surrounded by foreign tourists. It was heaving and everyone is crammed in tooth by jowl, the couple next to us are from Tolouse and we have to inform them that there isn’t table service. The matriarch behind the bar answers another odd question from someone unfamiliar with the environment of a pub and rolls her eyes. Two large plates of food appear and I sip my beer. It’s a tough life when you leave your comfort zone.

There was a stipulation for this trip from Judith that it had to include some home comforts and it couldn’t be the sort of type 2 fun I seem to actively seek out. So our journey across Scotland started in London catching an overnight sleeper train to Fort William. We had booked a cabin/twin berth rather than sleeping seats, luxury. It was an enjoyable journey. Although the cabins are tiny especially when you’re carrying a load of gear the bunks were comfortable and I think we both slept fairly soundly. After waking up we gazed out of the window at the Scottish landscape rolling by.
traincabinWe arrived in Fort William about 10am and did the only logical thing to do before setting out on a long trip, visited the cafe in Morrisons and had a cooked breakfast. After picking up a couple of last minute provisions it transpired that my theory that we could get a train to the start of the canal was correct but it ran incredibly infrequently and we wouldn’t be on the water until late in the day. So wanting to get started we splashed out on a taxi to the canal office at Corpach. Here we handed over £10 per person for a facilities key. This enables you to use the showers, toilets and water points at various points along the length of the canal.

The first 1km section of the Caledonian canal isn’t particularly exciting and ends with a long flight of locks known as Neptune’s staircase at Banavie. So taking the advice of the guide book we hiked this section and up to the top of the locks where it was time to get the boat inflated and start paddling. The weather conditions were good, although the wind was against us it wasn’t strong and the skies were clear. Progress was slow, packrafts are not fast moving crafts. Packrafts with two people and associated camping gear are even slower. The guide book for the Caledonian canal gives a 5 day itinerary for completing the route. We had 8 days, no need or for that matter ability to rush.

The end of paddling for the first day brought us to the informal camping site at Gairlochy. About 6 or 7 miles paddled and a good place to pause before our first attempt at paddling on an actual loch the next day. The facilities were really good and incredibly warm which was a welcome bonus. After some food and a stroll to the loch side we turned in for an early night. Morning came and after a breakfast of porridge and a long time spent packing everything up we headed back out onto the water.
camponepepperpotThe second day of paddling took us out of the sheltered harbour at the top of the canal and onto Loch Lochy which is the second largest of the four lochs on the Caledonian canal. Luckily again the weather was favorable and we made slow progress into a slight headwind whilst the sun shone. Easing ourselves in gently we stopped frequently and followed the shore around the lock. The scenery was incredible with the snow covered peak of Ben Nevis looming over us to the south. As most other boats took a more direct route across the loch it was also incredibly peaceful. Occasionally we would stop and as the wind span the boat on the water just sit gazing at the mountains whilst essentially listening to the silence.
lochlochyboatlochyAfter 8 miles and approx. 4 or 5 hours of paddling we arrived at our stopping point for the evening a ‘wild camping’ site on the shore of the loch which consisted of a wooden shelter, fire pit and composting toilets. After unloading the gear and rolling out bivy and sleeping bags we attempted to relax with an open fire but the swirling wind meant picking a smoke free spot wasn’t possible. Feeling weary from the days effort we again opted for an early night.
camptwoRead part 2 here.