Eight-year-old adventurer Jim sets off on a bikepacking adventure in the Hebrides, sleeping under the stars, cooking on open fires and riding singletrack.
How to make it fun
Kids will ride further if they are interested and motivated. We kept Jim in on the decision making process, letting him choose destinations and find camp spots. Dead whales help a lot.
Choose a location without too much riding – overtired kids are unhappy kids – and always have bale out options to cut the distance short if little legs get tired or moods dip.
We chose beach campsites which Jim loved, what kid doesn’t love a beach? So a good destination each night is important.
A few treats to look forward to at night are good, so throw in some marshmallows for the fire.
Regular stops through the day help to reduce boredom of riding and give the important opportunity to regularly refuel. A good chance to crack the stove out and make tea too.
We gave Jim kit to carry, to feel involved, but needless to say don’t overload them!
Like father, like son
Words and photos: Andy McCandlish
I often wonder what it is about a ferry journey that makes it such an ‘adventure booster.’
Maybe it is the cutting of links to your safety net? After all, as soon as that ramp goes up you can’t get back to your car, you aren’t about to just retreat home easily. You are fully at the mercy of the weather and your kit packing list – if you have forgotten it, now is the time to pay for your oversight.
You instantly drop down a rung of the civilisation ladder with no guaranteed shelter or warmth to fall back on. Adventure is all about the uncertainty of a trip, and the ferry just strips away another certainty you can fall back on – retreat.
Or maybe it is just crossing the sea to somewhere you can’t normally get to. The Scottish Hebridean Islands feel like a different world at times, with a gloriously slow pace of life and friendly outlook. Not to mention the magical scenery and raw, unfettered weather with nothing to temper it but thousands of miles of rolling sea.
Whatever the reason, here I was once again stood at the rail of a Calmac ferry, heading off to a mysterious island with only my bikepacking kit and trusty hardtail to fall back on. As always Andy McKenna was somewhere nearby, quaffing on a celebratory ale inside as he left his guiding company Go-Where Scotland behind for a few days to join me. He can hear the rustle of a bivvy bag being packed at a hundred miles, and is always up for some nights under the stars.
Small but beautiful
All pretty standard stuff in a lifetime of adventuring through Britain, but this time was a little unusual. Resting his chin on the rail beside me, watching Oban slide away to the stern, was my 8 year old son Jim.
Over the past few years I have watched his riding progress, his strength and stamina grow, to the point where a new 24 inch wheeled Frog MTB upped his capability to proper adventure potential. He could ride with us wherever we chose to go, and carry some of his own kit. Even better, he wanted to come. He wanted to camp in a bivvy bag and eat out of a grubby mug. That’s my lad.
With the water sparkling in front of the boat and a hefty plate of Calmac fish and chips rapidly disappearing down his neck five minutes later, it would appear to have been a good choice. We had dropped our pin on the island of Colonsay for this trip for all those reasons I have already mentioned; getting away from it all, snipping those ties to everyday life and seeing somewhere spectacular. It also felt like the right place to really give Jim a taste of freedom, a taste of the satisfaction and self-reliance of bikepacking.
This freedom really hit home to him as we rolled off the ferry ramp and into a beautiful Hebridean evening. At nearly seven o’clock we had a quick conference on where to head. There was no destination, no itinerary and not a care in the world. Nowhere we had to be. His eyes lit up as we spoke of beaches on the far side of the island, and nearly popped out his head as a nearby local chimed in that there was a twenty metre dead whale currently washed up there. Mmmm. Decision made I think.
After checking seatpacks, tweaking bar rolls and clipping helmets we took off up the single track road through Scalasaig, the island capital. I say capital, but in this case a dozen loosely scattered houses and single hotel was enough to qualify it for the description. On an island of only 130 odd inhabitants, that really is a metropolis.
We took note of the cafe, brewery and village shop as we passed through, clocking up places worthy of a visit the next day if we were back this way, and pedalled up the steepening hill into the gloaming of the day, with the ferry revving a deep bass rumble as it pulled away from the pier behind. We were on our own.
After scattering loose stones climbing the track out the back of Scalasaig, we paused at the summit to survey our home for the next few days. At only 12km long by 3 wide it is just the right size for a pint-sized adventure, with everything from beaches, moorland, hills, cliffs and seashore never being far away. Immediately below our trail skirted the edge of a loch before plunging into the dark woodland surrounding Colonsay House, the traditional home of the island laird.
Jim forged on ahead as we crackled along the estate tracks, occasionally stopping to check the maps as we threaded through the estate to reach our destination of Kiloran beach. A little face would be waiting at each junction, raring to keep going as we came into view.
‘This way dad? This way?’ Then he would be off again.
It was a blustery shore that greeted us, with golden sands stretching off into the distance to a rocky peninsula at the far end. Pedalling along the grassy dunes we finally found a dip in the ground that kept the worst of the wind off, but allowed an uninterrupted view out to sea. Perfect. We set to work stretching the tarp over 29er wheels as a low shelter while Jim took off in search of the whale.
By this time Andy McKenna had been dubbed ‘Bivvy Wu,’ a corruption of the all-knowing, bearded mentor named Sensei Wu of Jim’s Lego Ninjago movie. (Dads out there will be nodding). Sitting cross legged, dishing out bivvy knowledge, he soon warmed to the part.
Lesson one. We have left the civilised world behind. We now reside in a place where it is alright to wear waterproof shorts on your head if it rains at camp <laughter>. It is fine to drink hot chocolate out of your titanium mug one minute, then put pasta into it the next – without cleaning it between times <grimace>. Hand washing – or indeed any washing – is frowned upon <cheers>. If we were dogs, we would be described as feral.
Don’t walk on the bivvy bags in your shoes, and if you drop your dinner into your sleeping bag, you will be sleeping in it.
Jim soaked up the chat and gave much more of his own back. In fact after about an hour of our normally chilled ‘tea making phase’ of the bivvy evening, Andy was already pulling his wooly hat down over his ears and looking at me with pleading eyes. Yes, he talks a lot of nonsense when he is excited. No, it isn’t likely to stop until he passes out. Mercifully it wasn’t long before we all crawled into our bags and fell asleep to the sound of crashing waves on the shore.
Out for the count
We awoke to a glorious morning, all sleeping in to around 8am. The sun was shining onto our glistening bags, sparkling with raindrops, at which point I remembered waking through the small hours to rain lashing against the tarp like someone machine gunning dried peas into a bin lid. Jim didn’t crack a light all night and was even surprised when he saw the raindrops. What a boy.
After breaking camp and pedalling through the island we found our way back to Scalasaig via the coast road, calling in for some olive bread from the excellent bakery, a pint of milk for the tea and somewhere to sit for a while to eat lunch. We set the stoves up on the shore by the pier and introduced Jim to yet another important bikepacking ritual. Go somewhere new, set up a stove for lunch then just watch the world go by.
We lazed back, tearing at the olive bread to dip in our dried soup special, brewed tea and watched pickups with farmers come and go, the lady with the gallery pop outside to bask in some strong sunshine, the distillery man running round with a huge ‘open’ sign to put onto the wall.
5 minutes later we were taste testing gin sourced from locally picked botanicals and discussing the new stills they were installing while Jim drained a glass of Coke thoughtfully provided by the lovely lady in charge. It was just excellent, and we rounded off our trip into the big smoke with a visit to the Colonsay Pantry for a coffee and opportunity for Jim to write his mother and sister a postcard.
‘Hi Mum, we slept out on the beach last night and I could see stars from my bed,’ was all it said. Perfect. A stamp from the post office, and into the box.
As the afternoon wore on we decided to head to the south west of the island just because it looked interesting on the map. And what better reason?
We took a faint trail round the bottom of the tiny airport, cut through a sheep-dotted golf course and followed a winding quad track over the hill to the coast. Rounding a rocky outcrop Jim immediately saw our perfect spot for the night, a small clearing in the machair with a perfect sandy spot below for a driftwood fire. A perfect sandy beach spread out towards the setting sun, framed between rocky cliffs and underlined by backlit green waves.
Andy set up camp while Jim and I scoured the shore for fuel – we both came back with arm loads in a pretty short order. Just in time too, and as the light began to fade we got a small fire crackling into life to boil the kettle and chase the midges that had started to congregate.
As we sat back to enjoy our handiwork my eye was caught by a faint winking light on the horizon – the Dubh Artach lighthouse on a small series of rocks far, far out to sea. I recalled a statistic I could barely believe: They have measured waves of 28 metres out there. I’ll say that again. 28 metres. If you saw that coming at you, I mused while chewing on a lump of Babybel cheese with my evening oatcake, your only option would be to straighten your lighthouse uniform, tidy your tie and salute. I shuddered and looked to Jim and Andy over the flames.
Now there are times I have felt like a fish out of water being a dad. I have found myself looking at my wee ones and occasionally having a flash of ‘how did I get here!? I can’t really be a dad can I?’
Sitting around a fire by a crashing beach, our bivvy tucked in close behind with Andy and Jim’s smiling faces lit by the warm firelight, I suddenly felt it was all meant to be. Jim was chattering away, soaking up our nonsense and laughing at bivvy stories of old.
Andy passed me a hip flask of highland malt as he told Jim of some of our finest moments. Like when we had run short of water on a trip to Skye. To save water we used sea water to make our rice, without a great deal of success. Well, it had made sense at the time… Jim giggled and fell back onto the sand as Andy described my face and the instant rejection of the unspeakably salty rice.
I felt like I was passing on something important, something that had meant a lot to me over my lifetime. And here he was, my wee boy enjoying it with me.
Yep, I don’t always get it right but, as his eyes finally lost the battle to stay open, I felt like a good dad that night.