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Guest post: Cycling Land’s End to John o’Groats via Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way – A coastal journey along the western seaboard

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Cycle touring seemed an opportunity to travel greater distances and in more comfort, so in 2017 I completed that tour, 6,000km around the North Sea over 55 days.  This journey was a great success, so for the next adventure I considered the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW) in Ireland.

The first journey explored the Anglo Saxon and Viking coasts, and the Wild Atlantic Way offered an opportunity to do the same for a Celtic nation.  With a little imagination I could add Cornwall, Wales and Scotland to the itinerary which led to the concept of cycling the Atlantic Seaboard from Land’s End to John o’Groats (LEJOG), some 4,000km. Studying the Sustrans and Eurovelo maps suggested I connect NCN Routes 3, 4, 78 and 780 to the WAW to form one continuous journey.

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So with a rough route in mind I started to plan in more detail. I anticipated a 40 day journey, using these routes and a few ferries. Hotels and B&Bs each night would be prohibitively expensive, so I researched hostels and camping sites.  The Independent Hostel guide and Youth Hostel Association covered Scotland and England, and various searches reveal possibilities for Ireland. Campsites can be searched on Google Maps.  All of this information can then be plotted on My Maps, overlaying the upload GPX files. While not sticking to a strict schedule or booking ahead, it would save time researching accommodation each evening.

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My bike, a red Thorn Sherpa, required a decent service, new transmission and tyres, but remained unchanged to the formula that worked around the North Sea.  It is a traditional setup, with Ortlieb panniers and gear shared with my backpacking equipment, except perhaps for a slightly larger tent and bigger kitchen. To save costs, I planned to cook as much as possible and stay at campsites or wild camp. Hostels every 3-4 days would make for greater comfort and an opportunity to meet like minded travellers.  All up the load carried was 20kg.  Even with this weight the bike handled superbly and was comfortable, even on rough tracks.

I am a bit casual about Navigation and tend to just follow the signs, which for the NCN, are usually excellent. Whenever I felt lost I would just pull out my Android smartphone and open the View Ranger or Backcountry Navigator apps to pinpoint my position. After many years I have developed a sixth sense, which tells me something is up – the sun is in the wrong place, the wind has changed, tyre marks have gone and so on…

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What came as a surprise when I cycled NCN Route 1 as part of the NSCR, was the extent of the traffic free sections and quiet roads.  Cycling was much safer than I expected, only 15% of the route is shared with traffic, which I took to mean > 10 cars per hour. This was equally true for NCN Route 3, which takes you from Land’s End to Bristol. The only challenge being the relentless climbs and descents of the Cornish and Devon landscape. It is a brutal introduction, made easier with connecting former railway lines, notably the Camel and Tarka trails, popular at holiday times.

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Crossing the Severn Bridge on NCN Route 4 (like the M4 but for bicycles) I entered into Wales and again follow great cycle paths through the urban areas of Newport (via the Transport Bridge), Cardiff, Port Talbot and Swansea.  These paths connected to lovely disused railway sections which led into the quieter countryside of Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. After a few days I had crossed Wales east to west and boarded the Fishguard to Rosslare ferry, with a few other cycle tourists.  The first I had met.

It was wonderful to be back in Ireland after 25 years and a large welcoming Eurovelo Route 1 sign pointed westwards. Good roads, the Waterford Greenway, a couple of ferries and a few busy stretches led me to Kinsale. The start of the WAW.

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I should perhaps point out, that the WAW is more of a marketing concept than an actual cycle route and is really designed for motor vehicles. Nevertheless it is a route used annually for a WAW Cycle Sportif and with a few exceptions is generally safe for cycling. Unfortunately, it is not yet up to the standards of the NCN, so I used a 1:400,000 Michelin Map (#712) to seek out quieter roads. This was successful and on the whole I had a safe riding experience, more than offset by some glorious coastal cycling and idyllic rural lanes.

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The coast is exposed to the Atlantic ocean and weather in a more dramatic way than I had experienced (“Wild and Windy” is a better translation of WAW). Combined with Irish hospitality and relax nature made for pleasant days, even if it is raining and wet.  Now I get “inside” the ride, a point at which I have left my normal life behind and the cycle tour routine kicks in.  I’m packed and fed each morning within an hour. A huge bowl of Flahavan’s porridge with nuts and berries is perfect cycling fuel, washed down with fresh coffee made using an Aeropress system – a weight penalty I could not contemplate as a backpacker.

Now I get “inside” the ride … I have left my normal life behind and the cycle tour routine kicks in

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On the road from Mizen Head I came across numerous M2M painted marks in the road way.  These, I later learned, mean Mizen to Malin, the Irish equivalent to LEJOG and over 600km in length. A distance covered in a straight line and two days by ultra-athletes.  It would take me a further two weeks hugging the coast. Perhaps 2,000km to reach Malin Head – but why rush? I could not miss the iconic Healy and Conor passes ahead, with tough ascents, yet exhilarating descents and a chance to see panoramic views.

Choosing my own route, but keeping roughly to the coast and electing not to explore every peninsula, I progressed up the west coast taking ferries as they presented themselves.  Dingle and the Ring of Kerry deserve their popularity, but the less popular Beara Peninsula and Slea Head were not to be missed as a cyclist. The biggest “short cut” ferry is across Galway Bay via the Aran Isles, which are a delight and fit in with the spirit of an Atlantic coastal journey. Connemara retains a strong Irish speaking community and has lovely cycling roads all the way to Clifden through an ancient rural landscape.  The past few days are perhaps a highlight of the tour as a whole, taken at a relaxing pace, stopping for long lunches at the many picturesque locations.

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Campsites and hostels have been great so far and I am meeting more people who are touring the west coast, mostly from Europe and America.  We share notes and experiences, which often result in changes to plans. I hear about the Western Greenway Cycle route to Achill Island from Westport and good cycle shops that can help me find a new chain I am sure I will need.  Surfers frequent a particularly nice section along the coast past Easky towards Sligo, where of all places Halfords has the exact right chain I need. The smooth transmission has improved my mood after enduring mechanical imperfection and I take a half-day servicing the bike and giving my body a chance to rest. I am averaging a pleasing 100km a day, but now I judge progress in units of time rather than distance. If I have cycled 8 hours elapse I am happy.

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I had high expectations of Donegal, having spent a few boozy nights there many years ago, enjoying the local craic and superb music.  Nowadays it seems to be a tourist trap, with coach loads of people idling about, studying overpriced menus. I’m happy to move on to Killybegs, a pelagic fishing port, along the beginnings of the Donegal Cycle Network (DCN).  The campsite to the south of the port offers superb views south towards Benbulbin, a distinctive coastal mountain.

County Donegal is very relaxing and superb for cycling. The roads are quiet and new former railway lines are being converted for off road cycling use.  Ideal for my Thorn Sherpa with wide 2″ tyres. Sections past Errigal on peat roads and farm tracks are rugged and tough going, but a welcome break from traffic. The DCN follows Eurovelo 1. I would highly recommend the region for cycle tours, with perhaps a break to walk along Slieve League – some of the highest coastal cliffs in Europe.

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I time my pace to catch two ferries ahead, but learn that the Rathmullan ferry has not yet started the summer season, so I divert around Letterkenny and cycle along Drongawn Lough towards Malin Head, the most northerly point in Ireland.  I’m the only guest at a huge hostel in Buncrana and sleep well before an exhilarating day on the Inishowen Peninsula. I have a favourable tailwind that beautifully changes direction with me into Moville. Malin Head does not disappoint for its raw beauty, watching the Atlantic swell crash against the rugged coastline.

It is a calm evening, with a still sea, but on waking a full gale has kicked in.  I depart early to catch the 08:00hr ferry from Greencastle across Lough Foyle.  The crew are studying the sea state and unfortunately tell me the service is cancelled. I now have a long detour via Londonderry, but set to the task, with a touch of adrenaline.  I have to be in Ballycastle that evening for a ferry to Islay the next day. I don’t feel guilty about using a train service to Coleraine to at least cut out some heavy traffic and fierce headwinds, but I can’t resist riding along the North West 200 motorcycle road course into Portstewart and Portrush.  One week later, motorbikes would travel at speeds of 200mph along the same roads. I reach my destination hostel in time, after bypassing the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. The Antrim coast is wild, made more so in the Force 9 gale I battle against.

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It is with sadness I now leave Ireland for Scotland and Islay.  The boat, a fast RIB, takes bicycles and I am met at the quayside by three cycling couples planning tours north.  The crossing saves me several days. My only other options was to take the vehicle service from Larne to Cairnryan and cycle NCN 73 and 7 to Ardrossan and cross to the Mull of Kintyre via Arran. After a tipple at one distillery, I take the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Kennacraig and cycle in glorious weather to Oban, using the Crinan canal route along NCN Route 78.  A good tailwind brings me into the town on a gorgeous sunny day. I meet up with many more cyclists, all kitted out with bikepacking rigs, en route, like me to Barra and the Outer Hebrides. The gulls are stealing the seafood from unwary tourists who have just spent £30 for a platter of lobster, shellfish, crabs and prawns. No wonder the Herring Gulls are so large and brazen, the spread looks delicious.

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We see dolphins chasing the ferry as we glide across the Sea of the Hebrides and arrive in Castlebay late afternoon.  A dozen cyclists depart and go their separate ways to hostels and campsites. I settle in to a site I know well and relax to the sounds of oystercatchers and a rolling swell gently crashing onto the beach below.

Somehow, and I still don’t know how, I ride the 185 mile length of the Hebridean Way (NCN 780) in 3 days.  It usually takes 5. It is amazing how much a strong tailwind helps. Perhaps more telling is the uncanny knack I seem to have of arriving at a ferry terminal 10 minutes before departure. So I perfectly connect to South Uist and ride to the hostel on Berneray, a few miles from the ferry to Harris. The hostel is full of quirky, battle hardened cyclists and walkers drying out in front of a coal fire.  We have a great evening finding out if all 500 pieces of a wildlife jigsaw puzzle are in the box, drinking tea and sharing stories as the picture builds, each one of us assigned to a particular species.

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The beaches on Harris are sublime, followed by the ascent of An Cliseam in heavy mist towards Tarbert. A roadside burger van is a perfect fuel stop before I set out to the west coast on Lewis and the Stones of Callanish.  The hostel at Garenin fortunately has one bunk left. So I settle in with an excited group of Canadians, Americans, Scots and Czechs for the evening in an old Black House, recently restored. Unfortunately, the peat fire has been replaced with an awful remote controlled electric effect monstrosity.  I don’t know if to laugh or cry.

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I’m up early and the day is glorious.  I can reach the Butt of Lewis lighthouse today and pedal to a hostel in Stornoway before catching the ferry to Ullapool.  Lunchtime consists of moreish black pudding rolls, a local delicacy. In the capital, I meet more cyclists and  pitch my tent in the garden. We meet later at the local brewery for a pint or two to share stories epic climbs and sandy beaches.

The crossing to Ullapool is surreal.  The Minch is like a mill pond, silky smooth with crystal clear visibility, that I cannot believe how close the mountains of Coigach appear – I think we are off to Harris and I’m on the wrong ferry.  I service the bike again, replacing brake blocks and sample local food from a great food shack. My fellow cyclists have found out a Ceilidh is on this evening. It is not advertised and the local shop selling tickets asks how I heard of it.  The evening is fantastic, with many tunes and reels that make a homesick cyclist reflect on the journey and the few days remaining.

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Now onto the North Coast 500, at first light, to avoid peak traffic. I hear cuckoos and see eagles in a silence that makes your ears pop.  The geological abnormalities of Suilven, Stac Pollaidh, Canisp and Quinag are unreal and cycling through this landscape is perhaps one of the greatest cycling experiences. I cycle alongside competitors in the Cape Wrath challenge before entering Durness, whose supporters are keen to know if I can remember the leading runners bib number.  It is a long day into Melvich and a bustling North Coast 500 campsite, full of camper vans and motorcyclists. I chat to a few, who struggle to believe how far I have cycled over the past few weeks.

The geological abnormalities of Suilven, Stac Pollaidh, Canisp and Quinag are unreal and cycling through this landscape is perhaps one of the greatest cycling experiences

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The journey now to John o’Groats seems trivial and the final marker post is deserted on a dreary day.  Looking at the forecast which demands I carry on into Wick to camp overnight before a long train and sleeper service home.  The passenger (seating) coach is faulty and we are upgraded to sleeper beds.  I wake at Euston to the bustle and noise of London going to work.  I have to stop and adjust for 30 minutes, before cycling across the city to catch a train home.

What next? Perhaps take Eurovelo 1 to Nordcap, or south into Portugal and Spain, similar Celtic communities that, no doubt, still retain the echo of a strong connection with the route I have just taken.

 

If you’ve enjoyed this guest post please have a browse around Martyn’s blog and sign up for future posts at http://www.Trailplanner.co.uk.

 

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Product Review: Kuhl Team 1/4 Zip Merino Wool Sweater

I’m a big fan of merino wool tops, which are superbly breathable to keep you cool in summer yet trap your body warmth to keep you toasty warm in winter.  Naturally wicking and resisting odour retention, they’re the perfect solution for active day and multi-day trips and far better than cotton which traps and holds moisture next to your skin. While there are some synthetic fabrics that rival the performance of wool this is usually at the cost of breathability and odour retention.

First impressions

The Kuhl Team 1/4 zip merino wool sweater is made from 100% merino that’s boiled to increase its softness.  The Kuhl website doesn’t give the exact specification but I’d say this is a midweight weave (perhaps around 300g/m2) that’s warm and hard-wearing.  It’s a little heavier (380g) and thicker than my trusted Icebreaker Skin 200 long-sleeved top that’s still going strong after a decade or so, and which I wear walking and camping for all except the warmest summer days in Scotland.  At face value, then, I’d recommend the Kuhl Team 1/4 zip as a top for cooler and winter weather from late Autumn through to Spring.

An attractive long-sleeved merino top with a zip for venting

 

It’s a well-designed and high quality top.  The short 1/4 zip allows you to regulate your temperature and the flatlock seams mean that the Team is comfortable next to your skin.  It features Kuhl’s classic thumb loops for added warmth in colder weather.  The short collar can either be worn up or down, a useful and flexible feature.  The top I’ve been testing is a medium size, in ‘brick’.

 

Kuhl’s signature thumb loops

 

Kuhl hail from Utah and make a range of outdoor lifestyle clothing for men and women.  The company has a strong outdoor ethos and their products are  typically high quality, hard wearing and well made.  They’re well suited to skiing, moutaineering, backpacking, cycling and global travel.  I already own a pair of Rydr trousers and some Renegade shorts, as well as the Jetstream jacket that I’ve recently reviewed.

On test

I’ve been using the Kuhl Team merino sweater during the Autumn on walking as well as cycling trips.  I would find its midweight weave too warm for summers in Scotland but for cooler Autumn weather it’s been great.

On a cycle ride on a cool, crisp day of 8 degrees celsius it kept me warm enough – just – without needing a jacket.  It was sufficiently breathable to trap any moisture from sweating even when tackling some fairly brutal short uphill sections.  I’m looking forward to wearing it when skiing.  This will certainly be my number one choice for winter walks, camping trips as well as for skiing.

 

 

The Team looks easy to care for, able to either be machine washed or hand washed.  I’ll be keeping a close eye to see if it keeps its shape and appearance after several washes.

 

Close-up of the Team’s flatlock seams

Overview

I’d recommend the Kuhl Team 1/4 zip merino top as a great choice for colder weather outdoor activities such as hiking, skiing and backpacking.  Wool is the original performance fabric, helping to regulate your temperature effectively and soft enough to be worn next to the skin.  I tend to walk ‘hot’ and have found the Team great as a single layer even on cool Autumn days.

What I liked:

  • Merino is extremely effective in regulating temperature, naturally wicking and odour-free
  • Soft, medium-weight fabric
  • 1/4 length zip useful for extra cooling
  • Thumb loops for colder weather

 

What I wasn’t so keen on:

  • Nothing

 

Kuhl clothing is increasingly available at a range of UK outlets including George Fisher, Winfields and Tiso.  You may need to shop around for the Team 1.4 length zip but I found it retailing for between £115 and an absolute bargain sale price of £34.

Note:  The Team 1/4 zip merino top was provided to me to review for free by Kuhl.  I have no connection with the company.  I have provided an honest and impartial review based on my personal experience in using it.

 

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Product Review: Kuhl Jetstream Jacket

Many hikers yearn for a jacket that hits that sweet spot: a lightweight, technical jacket that not only performs well in the mountains but is equally at home in the city.  The Kuhl Jetstream jacket certainly ticks the right boxes but does it live up to this promise?  I’ve been testing it to find out.

First impressions

At first glance the Jetstream hiking jacket seems to have all the right credentials.  It’s made with a highly waterproof and breathable 2.5 layer fabric (Airskape™) that comes with a 20K waterproof rating.   All seams are steam-sealed and water-resistant zips are used on the front, chest and hand pockets.  The jacket is made with woven ripstop nylon that gives stretch and strength, topped with a clear hydrophilic membrane that’s breathable but also disperses any moisture so the fabric dries faster.

 

 

So its high-performance credentials would appear to be up to a soggy day in the hills.  But is it suitable to be worn on your local commute as well as on a mountain summit?

In my experience it certainly is.  The Jetstream fabric is soft to the touch, lightweight (the medium-sized test jacket weighed in at 307g) and it packs up small.  There are five, fairly muted colour combinations (mine is pirate blue, similar to a dark denim shade) which won’t stand out like a sore thumb on the station platform.  The jacket is nicely shaped, with five-panel articulated sleeves that add to its comfort.  I found the cuffs to be a close rather than a tight fit, with some ‘stretch’ to the fabric.  So while there aren’t velcro or elasticated fastenings the cuffs certainly keep draughts and water out.  There’s a generous hood with a reinforced brim and an eye-lock adjuster at the rear, although no roll-away fastening.

 

 

The Kuhl company’s brand strapline is ‘born in the mountains’, having emerged in 1990 from Utah.  It makes a range of outdoor lifestyle clothing for men and women and according its website, Kuhl’s staff all have an outdoor passion, whether it be for skiing, moutaineering, backpacking, cycling or global travel.  I first noticed their products about three years ago and have since bought a pair of Rydr trousers and a pair of Renegade shorts, both stylish and hardwearing.  The Jetstream is clearly well-designed and fits well into this outdoor lifestyle brand image.

On test

I found the medium size a fairly generous fit without being overly roomy.  It’s comfortable to wear, the fabric being soft and flexible.  At a fraction over 300g I really like its low weight.  It’s the kind of jacket you would easily take in your rucsac in fine weather ‘just in case’ without weighing you down.  A neat feature is the way the right hand pocket becomes a stuff-sac complete with hanging loop.  The Jetstream then packs down to a respectable 20 x 15 x 10cm.

I’ve been testing it throughout the summer and early autumn.  On a wet day’s backpacking in the Cairngorms in September it proved a great rain jacket, keeping me warm and dry, with the rain beading off the outer membrane.  I did find the size of the hood a little too generous though.  Even with the drawcord adjusted at the rear it felt a little too big and I would have liked the peak to be much stiffer to keep the rain away from my face.  All in all, the hood felt a little too ‘flappy’ to use comfortably on windy summits.

 

 

Not only have I used the jacket when out walking and backpacking but I’ve been wearing it on a daily basis for work and commuting.  It certainly is multi-functional, being stylish and comfortable in the city while also being a practical, high-performance jacket in the mountains.

There are compromises to be made when designing a jacket like this of course.  Its lightweight materials, while great for the daily commute, are not up to all-season wear.  This isn’t therefore the jacket I’ll be reaching for when temperatures drop towards freezing and I’d recommend it only for 2-3 season use when outdoors in Scotland.

 

 

One fairly significant drawback is that the two chest pockets are too small for OS maps.  I like to have a map handy at all times and find it too unwieldy to have to store a map in my rucsac.  The pockets are certainly large enough for a wallet or a pair of gloves, but not for convenient map reading.

The other gripe I have – though less significant – is the front zip.  I’m presuming this is down to US convention but the zip pull is on the right hand rather than the left hand side which would be the norm for mens’ jackets in the UK.  It’s not a huge issue that the zip feels as though it’s on the ‘wrong’ side, and not enough to put me off wearing the jacket, but just mildly disconcerting.

 

Overview

The Jetstream is a very capable multi-functional jacket suitable for walking, backpacking and camping at the weekend, yet smart enough to wear around town on a daily basis.  It’s not without its drawbacks though, particularly the hood that’s a little too ‘flappy’ and small-sized chest pockets.  For the UK climate I’d be happy wearing this between March and October.

 

What I liked:

  • Lightweight (307g) and packing up into a small pocket/stuff sac
  • Highly waterproof, with water-resistant zips and steam seams
  • Comfortable fit
  • Muted colour combinations
  • Multi-functional – at home in the city and in the mountains

 

What I wasn’t so keen on:

  • Over-generous hood and lack of stiffness to the peak
  • Chest pockets too small for a map
  • Front zip on the ‘wrong’ side (for UK males)

 

The Kuhl outdoor clothing range is available in various outlets including Tiso, Blacks and Go Outdoors.

Note:  The Jetstream jacket was provided to me to review for free by Kuhl.  I have no connection with the company.  I have provided an honest and impartial review based on my personal experience in using it.

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Product review: Olight M1T Raider torch

The Olight M1T Raider is a rugged, waterproof and multi-purpose torch that’s likely to withstand a lifetime of use.

First impressions

Olight specialise in LED lighting and sell a range of torches and headtorches suitable for walking, camping, hunting and general outdoor use.  I’ve previously reviewed the H1 Nova headtorch and highly recommend it as a lightweight and powerful torch for walking and camping.  The M1T Raider is from their range of torches (“flashlights”) and comes with a wrist lanyard rather than a headband.

At first glance it’s seems quite compact (measuring 91mm by 21mm) and weighing just 69g for the torch and lanyard.  It easily fits in a pocket or can be clipped to a shirt or jacket.  I found it convenient to use: easy enough to hold while walking around before slipping it into a pocket.

 

The M1T is very well made.  The aluminium case is rugged and likely to withstand normal bumps and scrapes.  Olight claim that it will survive the impact of being dropped from 1.5 metres.  The torch also has a waterproof rating of IPX8 which means that it’s capable of operating after having been immersed in up to 3 metres of water.  This should give enough comfort that it will survive outside in the rain for prolonged periods.

For such a small and lightweight torch it packs a powerful punch.  At full power it generates 500 lumens; according to the manufacturer, enough for a beam to extend 97 metres.  I haven’t measured this precisely but can confirm that it provides a bright light that’s more than adequate for general use around a campsite or when walking.  (If you’re looking for something more powerful still, the M2T is a slightly larger handheld torch with up to 1200 lumens brightness).

The single, chunky button on the base cycles between two modes.  After 5 minutes on full power the torch automatically steps the light down from 500 to 300 lumens, giving an additional 120 minutes of power on a full battery.  The second mode gives a much softer 5 lumens of light, with a full battery lasting up to 100 hours’ use.  I found this bright beam for outdoor use and low-level light for close-up tasks a good combination.

 

 

 

What’s it like to use?

The M1T was convenient to use when I took it out on a 3-day walking and camping expedition with my Duke of Edinburgh Silver group.  Around the campsite it gave a really bright beam and I’m pleased to say won the competition to see who had the brightest torch or headtorch!  In the tent the 5 lumen mode was just about right for finding gear at night.

I would still prefer to take a headtorch when out walking or camping though.  Being able to still use both hands is a big benefit and so I’d say the M1T is best suited to general outdoor use when hands-free operation isn’t desirable or essential.  With a battery life of up to 100 hours on low power mode it will be very useful to keep in the car or at the back door of your house, safe in the knowledge that the battery won’t need to be changed very often at all.

Olight produce a range of rechargeable as well as battery powered torches.  Whichever you choose is I think down to personal choice.  I tend to prefer battery-powered torches (such as the M1T) for their simplicity.  CR123A lithium batteries are compact and widely available these days; a little more expensive than AA batteries but perhaps lasting for longer.

There’s no case for the torch, nor is there a locking mode to prevent it being accidentally switched on.  Neither of these are big drawbacks but just something to be aware of if you plan on stuffing it into a rucsac.

 

Overview

All in all, there’s little not to like about the M1T.  It’s powerful, lightweight, robust and highly waterproof – in fact, everything you would want in a small, handheld torch.  Its simplicity means that it’s ideal to keep in the house or car ‘just in case’, and its good battery life means that it’s very practical too.

But given the choice between a handheld torch and a headtorch I would personally choose the latter for the kinds of activities I tend to do.  Given that Olight make also headtorches that can also be removed from the headband and used as a handheld torch (such as the H1R Nova), this would be my preferred choice.

What I liked:

  • Small and lightweight (69g including the lanyard)
  • Powerful torch (max. 500 lumens) with 2 different brightness modes
  • Well made and robust
  • Highly waterproof
  • Easy to operate, even with gloves on

 

What I wasn’t so keen on:

  • CR123A batteries are slightly more expensive than AA batteries
  • I personally prefer a headtorch for hands-free operation when camping or walking.

 

The M1T Raider currently sells for £39.99 on the Olight UK online store.

Note:  The M1T torch was provided to me to review for free by Olight.  I have no connection with the company.  I have provided an honest and impartial review based on my personal experience in using it.

 

Snapshots of Bali – Part 2

Snapshots of Bali – Part 2

Soon after I posted Part 1 of my Snapshots of Bali news filtered through of the devestating earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Palu and Sulawesi.  The pictures on TV have been utterly heartbreaking.  

With 2,000 people killed and another 5,000 still missing this disaster is one of the deadliest since the massive Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.  I’ve donated to the disaster emergency appeal and hope that my contribution will go some way to helping the people of Sulawesi cope with this tragedy and start rebuilding their lives.

It’s with a lot of sadness then that I’m sharing this second post of pictures from my recent visit to neighbouring Bali.  I’m featuring another set of pictures that show some of the highlights of my trip with my daughter.  Following on from my first post, here then are words and pictures depicting another six themes of life in Bali.

Monkeys

In Ubud, the cultural centre of Bali, we visited Monkey Forest, home to several hundreds of monkeys.  This is the number one visitor attraction in Ubud and pretty touristy.  Despite this, it’s in a tranquil location just south of central Ubud, where the monkeys roam free around the forest and temple.

They look cute enough from a distance but if they’re hungry, or simply like the look of something you might be carrying, then they certainly won’t hesitate to jump up and grab it out of your hand.  We quickly walked away when one monkey took a fancy to my daughter’s bag, baring its teeth.  I can’t imagine why some visitors were willing to let the wild monkeys sit on their laps and heads.

Waterfalls

Bali’s stunning waterfalls are firmly on the tourist trail.  Many are easy to reach and have the added attraction of a cooling swim after the walk in.  This is Nung Nung waterfall, north of Ubud.  Our driver suggested it would be quieter than some others and we were fortunate to be there with only a handful of other visitors around.

The water thunders down to an inviting pool 25 metres below, spreading clouds of fine spray that pick out the shafts of sunlight shining through the canopy of trees.  

Volcanoes

The north east of Bali is dominated by evidence of recent volcanic activity.  We took a trek, starting off at 3.30am, to catch the sunrise near the summit of Mount Batur.  The pictures really don’t do justice to the absolutely stunning view.  Although there was a cold wind at the summit we sat entranced as the soft dawn gradually heralded a new day.

Visitors are obliged to hire a local guide, all employed by a single consortium.  A number of paths converge at the top, starting on rock which then becomes (slippery) volcanic sand as the gradient steepens.  Unfortunately the paths are becoming quite eroded and I hope that remedial work takes place soon.

Mount Batur is a double caldera, in other words a crater that sits within a much larger crater 14km across.  From it’s peak at 1,717m we saw the sun gradually rise to pick out three other volcanoes, all in a row.  From left to right in the picture below you can see Mount Rinjani (3,726m high, around 60km across the sea in neighbouring Lombok), Mount Abang (2,152m) and Mount Agung (3,142m).  You can see the black lava that has fairly recently spewed from Mount Batur in the picture underneath; the last major eruption was in 1963.  However, Mount Agung erupted in February 2017 and the Foreign Office still advise staying at least 4km away.

Scooters

Scooters are everywhere in Bali.  It’s expensive to learn to drive and buy a car but almost everyone can afford to buy a scooter.  And in an island where there’s little or no public transport, they’re pretty essential to getting around.

Scooters are therefore where you see can see real life being played out.  People commute to work on them.  In rural parts you see scooters piled high with grass or palm leaves.  Kids sit on their mothers’ laps being taken to and from school.  And you see whole families – including sleeping children – travelling from A to B.

Jungle swings

Instagram has a lot to answer for.  Jungle swings, bamboo lookouts and a range of existing temples and stone gates are must-see attractions for visitors of a certain age.

Given my daughter belongs to the Instagram generation we couldn’t resist either, taking suitable snaps at the Wanagiri Hidden Hills Lookout.  Overlooking a lake and mountains beyond, it’s a great location.  There are several different swings and bamboo constructions that make for impressive pictures.  (What you don’t see of course, are the platforms and steps just out of view, giving the impression that people are standing on the top of a cliff with nothing between then and the water below).

I take my hat off to the enterprising locals.  Seizing a business opportunity to help the hoards of Instagrammers part with wads of cash, they charge handsomely for the privilege.  Great fun, but an expensive photo op!

Sunsets

We saw some wonderful sunsets during our stay on the island.  Seminyak beach looks due west and I love this picture of a guy contemplating the waves and fading light.

And how better to enjoy the sunset than to sip on a posh cocktail at a beachside bar?

A storm in an inset box

The media has taken great delight this week in announcing that the Scottish Parliament has passed a law banning public bodies from showing Shetland in an inset box. 

The Islands (Scotland) Bill aims to outlaw the practice (by public authorities at least) of  positioning Shetland just north of the Moray coast and east of Orkney.  In fact, the islands are around 150 miles from the most northerly point of the Scottish mainland.

The two examples, from different Scottish public agencies, both show how Shetland is commonly illustrated.  In fact, a cursory glance at Google Maps shows that more often than not, Shetland is omitted altogether.

Map by Historic Scotland, a public body
SEPA map of areas of high flood risk

While this move may have satisfied many Shetlanders, it’s not gone down particularly well with cartographers.  According to the Ordnance Survey, inset boxes avoid “publishing maps which are mostly sea“.  An OS spokesman said: “The Shetland Islands are approximately 245km (152 miles) from the Scottish mainland, from the most northerly part of the Shetland Islands to John O’ Groats, and 690km (428 miles) from the most southerly point of the Scottish and English border.  It would be virtually impossible to print a paper map, with any useable detail, of this vast geography.”

To illustrate this, the maps below show Scotland with and without Shetland.  Showing Shetland in its actual position reduces the scale of the map by about 40%.  This effectively means that the names of many important places, motorways and national parks are left off completely.

Comparison of map scales with and without Shetland (Source: Quartz 4/10/18)

Maps, by their very nature, are a gross simplification of reality.  We all understand that it’s a cartographic convention to show large cities as circular dots.  We know that on OS maps water is blue, forests are green and mountains are brown.  We’re not confused by the fact that those 1km grid squares on 1:50,000 scale maps don’t really exist on the ground.

Come on, I don’t think anyone really believes that Shetland is floating in some transparent box in the North Sea.

Boxing islands, and re-positioning them to ensure a map can show greater detail, is a common practice in cartography.  You see it the world over.  The Canary and Balearic Islands are insets beside a map of mainland Spain, and the Galapagos Islands sit right next to Ecuador.  Imagine how ridiculous a map of the US would look if Hawaii and Alaska weren’t inset beside the lower 48 states!

In an interview with the BBC, Tavish Scott, local MSP for Shetland, pointed out that this change is needed to combat inaccuracies and misunderstandings about the islands. “Recognising where Shetland is located would go a long way to understanding the challenges we face as an island.”

I’m sure there are other ways to achieve this objective than banning cartographic conventions.

No doubt this headline-grabbing story has benefited the islands in other ways though.  There will now be people who have actually heard of Shetland.  Others will know that islanders are called Shetlanders and not “Shetters” (as I heard on Radio 4 yesterday, admittedly in a comedy show).

But is this whole story merely a storm in an inset box?  Has this flurry of media attention simply been a minor distraction from something that annoys Shetlanders far more than even putting their beloved islands in a box just north of Fraserburgh? 

What am I talking about?  It’s correcting the common mistake that the northern islands are called “Shetland” and not “the Shetlands“.  Now that’s something that might actually have been worth legislating for.

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Snapshots of Bali – Part 1

The summer seems to have flown by and my blog’s been neglected of late.  Mainly this is due to a crazily busy time at work (even blogging has to take a back seat when you’re exhausted), but I’ve also been travelling.

For my globetrotting I have my daughter to thank.  She’s been volunteering in Borneo all summer having recently left school.  When her end-of-trip travel plans fell through she was looking for company:  “Help, Dad … I want to go to Bali.  Can you come with me?“.

Obviously, it didn’t take too long to answer that question.  Flights were hastily-arranged, time booked off work, travel options researched and bookings made.

Bali’s a long way from Scotland (around 20 hours flying time, to be precise).  It’s a world away in many senses: climate, culture, people, food and landscape.  It was also a reminder that travel has that endless capacity to instantly ‘change the channel’, switching off one place only to immediately find yourself immersed in a completely new environment.

I found it fascinating.  The stresses of work were soon forgotten and I had so much to catch up with my daughter about, all in culture that’s so open and welcoming to visitors.

Although I’ve travelled in Asia before I’d never been to Bali, a smallish island within the Indonesian archipelago.  Interestingly from a Scottish perspective, Bali’s population is marginally less than Scotland’s (at 4 million) but its population density is ten times ours.  It’s also a comparatively ‘young’ population.  So it’s a busy place, full of young and energetic people whose economy is growing like topsy.

If you’ve never visited Bali then hopefully my snapshots of the country will whet your appetite.  If you know the country well, then my photos should be very familiar.  I’ve selected some of my favourite photos, together with some text to set them in context.  Ayo pergi!

Boats and beaches

Mention Bali and many people first think of beaches.  It really is a paradise island, blessed with warm water, weather and people.  From the world class surfing beaches of Ulu Watu and Padang Padang in the south to the idyllic sandy crescents of the east or north coast, Bali has it all.

We spent a couple of days relaxing at Seminyak before finishing up our trip with an afternoon snorkelling at Padangbai.

Dusk, Seminyak beach
Kuta beach
Padangbai beach

Rice terraces

Rice has been cultivated in Bali for centuries.  We eat a lot of white rice, and occasionally brown, but have you ever tried red, yellow or black rice?

Rice is served at any time of the day; in fact, anything not served with rice is considered a jaja (snack).  The classic Balinese plate of nasi campur has a portion of steamed rice in the middle of the bowl with a variety of meat, seafood or vegetables around the outside, together with a spicy sambal.  Delicious!

At Jatiluwih you can see how rice has been grown over many centuries.  Ribbons of curving terraces adorn the sloping hillsides with as many shades of green as you can imagine.  This is a Unesco-recognised site, where the fascinating system of subak ensures that water equally irrigates the terraces at the foot of the slope as those at the top.  Bamboo channels of water trickle constantly as you thread your way in between the narrow terraces.

Jatiluwih rice terraces
Working in Jatiluwih rice terraces

Temples

There are estimated to be 10,000 temples in Bali.  You see them everywhere, from simple shrines to impressive, ancient sites.  In fact, every home has its own temple, every village has its own temple and then there are more elaborate temples that are the focus for important religious ceremonies.

We were lucky enough to visit Pura Ulun Danu Beraton on a morning when a significant ceremony was taking place, involving several hundred worshippers in traditional dress.  It was essentially a service of remembrance; those attending had all recently buried family members and the ceremony was taking place to commit their souls to god.

Pura Ulun Danu Beraton, Lake Beraton
Funeral remembrance ceremony, Pura Ulun Danu Beraton temple

Offerings

In Bali 85% of people are Hindu, in contrast to the Muslim majority elsewhere in Indonesia. At each home-temple Balinese families make a daily offering.   This can literally be anything that you offer to god as a blessing: flowers, coloured paper, food and such like.

These simple shrines are also to be found in the corner of restaurants, outside shops and businesses and in public places.  You’ll see simple square trays made from banana leaves left on the pavement – and need to tread carefully to avoid stepping on them.


Pura Ulun Danu Beraton temple
Everyday offering in a hotel garden

Bamboo

Just as rice plays a central part in Balinese culture, so bamboo is ubiquitous.  It grows freely on roadsides, is widely used as a building material and is now recognised as a significant renewable resource (bamboo straws are fast replacing the polluting plastic variety).

We loved the entrance to the W Resort in Seminyak, where we splurged for our first two days of down-time beside the beach.  A vibrant green bamboo colonnade provides an incredibly dramatic entrance, providing that ultimate separation between the hustle-and-bustle of the narrow, traffic-choked streets and the serene luxury of a 5-star resort.

Entrance to the W Resort, Seminyak

Markets

In every country around the world, markets are the go-to place to observe ‘real life’ at work.  We visited the combined fish, meat and vegetable market at Jimbaran early one morning as a prelude to an Indonesian cooking class.

Locals bartered and noisily chattered amid scooters, cats, boats and outboard motors.  From fresh lemongrass, aromatic ginger and rolls of banana leaves to coconuts being pulped, chickens being prepared and the most amazing variety of fresh fish and seafood being carried from boats up the beach, it was all on view.

Jimbaran vegetable market
Jimbaran fish market, early morning
Inspecting the catch on the beach at Jimbaran fish market

Have you visited Bali?  What sums up the Balinese culture and way of life to you?

In Part 2 of this post I’ll share another six snapshots of Bali, including some 21st Century aspects of Bali’s culture.

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The essence of Scotland

 

Take just two minutes to enjoy this video of the essence of Scotland.

Nate paid a recent visit to Scotland from California and got in touch to share the cool video he’s made.  It was great to hear that he’d made good use of my blog to find out about places to go while touring the country.

How many places can you recognise?  And where’s next on your bucket list?

 

Thanks very much for sharing, Nate!

 

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The Beinn a’ Ghlo circuit by mountain bike

The circuit of the Beinn a’ Ghlo range of hills is considered a classic Scottish mountain bike route, a full 35-mile day out in a scenic and fairly remote part of Highland Perthshire.  If you’re looking for a circular route which is mainly on rough vehicle tracks – plus a pub and/or a chip shop at the end – then consider adding this one to your list.

I was checking out the route for my Silver Duke of Edinburgh group who are walking it over three days in early September.  The start point is at Old Bridge of Tilt, just near Blair Atholl.  The route then follows tracks and paths northeast and parallel to the Allt Coire Lagain to an estate house at Daldhu before turning north along a good track to Fealar Lodge.  It’s a singletrack path from Fealar Lodge west, dropping down to the Falls of Tarf, before the long descent of Glen Tilt along a rough track.

The route can be done in either direction.  How you ride it perhaps depends on the wind direction and/or whether you want to start off with a steep climb and have a long downhill ride at the end of the day (as I did it, anticlockwise) or whether you want to ease yourself in gently by tackling Glen Tilt first of all.

Route description – Anticlockwise

From the car park at Old Bridge of Tilt it’s a long uphill to Loch Moraig, a good opportunity to get the heart muscles pumping hard.  Having gained height, the views open out along the rough track west, with the Beinn a’ Ghlo massif directly in front.  While the main route continues straight on to the northeast, our Duke of Edinburgh takes a detour southeast to the remote farm at Shinagag and so did I.  While it stayed dry all day, dark clouds weren’t far away.

Standing stone near Shinagag

 

The Beinn a’ Ghlo hills from a distance, taken from near Shinagag

 

I took a faint grassy track north from Shinagag to climb a heathery hillside.  This was the start of a tough stretch – certainly easier walking than with a bike – following a path that skirted the hill Sron na h-Innearach (‘inner ear ache’ perhaps?).  The heather was just coming into bloom and the mountains loomed large over the landscape.  Following a fast but rough downhill, and through a couple of stream crossings, I soon arrived at the estate house at Daldhu.

The twisting summit ridge of Beinn a’ Ghlo taking from the hillside north of Shinagag

 

Navigating the path north of Shinagag, looking north to the summit, Braigh Coire Chruinn-bhalgain

 

It’s a long, gradual climb north from Daldhu along a good track.  I stopped for a well-earned breather at the summit where I met the only other cyclists I saw all day, a couple of guys who had done the route several times.  I wondered, if this is considered a classic Scottish mountain bike route, why on a Saturday in mid-August it was almost deserted?

The reward for a long climb uphill is a good old blast downhill; it certainly got my eyes watering.  A good track leads to another group of estate buildings at Fealar Lodge before the route turns west along a faint footpath.  Just as I’d needed to push my bike for much of the section north of Shinagag so I also needed to get off quite a bit of the way along this path.  While the last week had been fairly wet across Scotland the crossing over the River Tilt turned out to be easily passable and I hopped across the boulders.

After a short distance I came across the highlight of the whole route, the Falls of Tarf.  This really is a magical spot: two large waterfalls, still pools perfect for wild swimming and even a flat, grassy patch ideal for a small tent.  Maybe it’s just as well this delightful spot is over 10 miles from the nearest paved road since it would have been trashed in a more accessible location.

 

Approx. 2km south of Fealar Lodge with the remote munro Cairn an Righ behind

 

Steep downhill track towards the Falls of Tarf

 

A magical spot – the Falls of Tarf and the Bedford Bridge

 

At the Falls of Tarf the route turns southwest along Glen Tilt and path widens into a rough vehicle track.  I always find Glen Tilt to be quite a dark and foreboding place, with the river hemmed in by steep mountains at both sides.  The coming cold front had already shrouded the Beinn a’ Ghlo hills in low cloud and the gloom hung heavily.  It somehow seemed a spooky place in the dark, late afternoon …

However, all thoughts were erased out of my mind as I cycled down Glen Tilt.  I’m sure the landowners have done a good thing by filling in the potholes with new stones but on a bike, even one with suspension, I felt as though I’d survived an endurance test on a boneshaker by the time I reached the car park again.  My hands were throbbing with the handlebar vibrations.

While this is considered a classic MTB route I have mixed views on it.    Much of it are on rough tracks which can be a little dull, and the path sections can be hard going since they’re not all cycleable.  It took me eight hours, including the detour to Shenigag as well as breaks.  It’s a fairly long day out and a bit of a slog at times.

Having said that, the scenery is great and there’s a real feel of ‘getting away from it all’.  The path sections on the route are most scenic, particularly as the heather was just coming into bloom.  Other than two other mountain bikers doing the route the only other people I met all day were two backpackers just setting out at the bottom of Glen Tilt.

I’ve come to the conclusion that in spite of the long stretches of track I think this is a better route on foot than by mountain biking.  Why not take a tent and make a weekend of it?  In fact, roll on next month when I’ll return with my walking boots and a tent.

 

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Cycling the Scottish C2C

As I lay I listened to the sounds of two fisherman exchanging anecodates and laughter in the warm, summer air while they packed up their gear.  They’d spent another Saturday evening in relaxed company fishing the Tweed at an altogether slower pace of life.  Then as the two car doors slammed shut and the roar of the car gradually faded away, these noises were replaced by the sounds of distant livestock and the breeze softly tickling the trees.  I soon drifted off to sleep.

As I woke the next morning beside the river it struck me that cycling Scotland’s coast to coast (C2C) is really a misnomer.  Each coast is really just a fleeting moment, part of a much longer journey.  The time I actually spent along the coastline was relatively limited.  No, the journey is actually defined by the water in between, by the rivers Annan, Tweed and Esk that connect the landscape to the sea.  Waking up beside the River Tweed, it was comforting to think that I was getting washed in the same river I’d picnicked beside the previous afternoon, and the same river whose source I’d cycled past that morning.  What travelled quicker, I wondered, the individual molecules of water travelling downhill from the river’s source or me on my bike?

The Scottish C2C is a 125 mile (201km) journey from the Solway Firth in the very south of Scotland to the Forth Rail Bridge near Edinburgh.  It always takes a moment to explain to folk that unlike the much better known English C2C which goes east-west across the North of England, Scotland’s C2C dissects the country north-south.

Launched in 2014, it’s only now becoming a little more popular.  But it’s well signposted and has its own guidebook*, and offers most people a two- or three-day journey through some very quiet and scenic parts of Scotland.  If you like quiet country lanes and cycle paths following disused railway lines then this is the route for you.

Scottish C2C route

From Glasgow I’d taken a slow train down to Annan accompanied by Friday afternoon shoppers and commuters.  The train gradually emptied out by the time we passed Dumfries and I soon found myself outside the station trying to get my bearings.  While Annan’s not a big town it did take me three attempts to find the right road to Seafield Farm on the Solway Firth.  Here you can see the line of the old fords which connected Annan to Bowness on Solway, with danger signs warning that the river levels can rise by 7 metres at high tide.

 

My start point of the Scottish C2C at Seafield Farm, Annan

 

Annan

 

A convenient meal of fish and chips at the Cafe Royal saw me cycling about 10 miles northwards along undulating country lanes.  This is dairy country with fields of Galloway cattle everywhere you look.  There was very little traffic to speak of, just the sights and sounds of rural Scotland.  The C2C route traces the line of the River Annan and just west of St Mungo’s church, near Ecclefechan, I pitched up for the night as the evening light faded.  I camped a short distance away from the river’s gurgling and was soon fast asleep.

 

Wild camping near the River Annan

 

Day 2 would take me 53 miles past Lockerbie all the way to Peebles.  The peaceful start to my ride continued with very little traffic on the back roads.  At Millhousebridge I stopped to admire the old signpost, a relic of times gone by but still very much in use.  At Johnstonebridge, with the constant hum of vehicles whizzing along the M74 in the background, I saw another relic of former days.  But this time the old telephone box had been brought bang up to date.  The telephone box had been painted gold in 2017 to celebrate the para-athlete Shelby Watson winning no less than five gold medals in T33 wheelchair racing.  What an amazing achievement!

 

 

By the time I reached Moffat I was beginning to flag.  Coffee and a bacon roll in a cafe thronged with tourists hit the spot.  Renewed, I started the long climb on the A701 up to the Devil’s Beeftub.  This is the big climb on the Scottish C2C and I took it slow and steady, stopping half way up for a breather.  I was overtaken at speed by a young guy on a road bike carrying nothing and who said nothing.   It did seem just a tad rude; we are all cyclists after all.

From the top of the hill at the Devil’s Beeftub I relished the 10 mile continuous downhill all the way to Tweedsmuir.  I passed the source of the River Tweed and then followed its meandering as it became broader and slower all the way to Peebles and then beyond (the next morning) to Innerleithen.  Like a young child the river begins life bubbly and playfully, gains character by the time it reaches Tweedsmuir then enters middle age by the Central Borders as its waistline expands and its movements slow.

I camped at Manor Bridge, just outside Peebles, a place where I’ve often fished myself when I lived nearby.  Several families were camped beside a tributary, chattering beside campfires – I’ve never seen the place so busy – and so I found a quiet spot a stone’s throw from the river.

 

 

Wild camp at Manor Bridge, near Peebles

 

After a great catch up with friends in Peebles over breakfast, day 3 saw me cycle 63 miles from the town all the way to the Forth Estuary, within sight of the C2C’s end point.  The sun shone as I rode along the almost deserted former railway line to Innerleithen.  Quiet, traffic free and very scenic, this was one of the most enjoyable sections of the whole journey.

Leaving the Tweed, a long, steady climb from the small town of Innerleithen saw me cycle over the Moorfoot hills.  Although the B709 is well off the beaten track, this Sunday morning it was almost like the Tour de France and the Isle of Man TT rolled into one.  Almost 50 old-style motorbikes passed me going south – clearly a club outing – and I’m pleased to say that almost all of the road cyclists exchanged greetings with me.

Looking north from the Moorfoots gives a great vista over the Forth.  The Pentland Hills, Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh Castle and the Fife coast all pointed to my route for the rest of my journey.

 

View to the Firth of Forth from the Moorfoot hills

 

Following a fast downhill to Middleton and lunch in the tiny village of Carrington I met urban Scotland on the outskirts of Edinburgh at Bonnyrig and Dalkeith.  I lost the C2C signs here and instead followed the National Cycle Network (NCN1) signs past industrial estates and urban parks.  The constant start-stop to check navigation meant I lost my cycling rhythm for a while.  However, on finding the pleasant River Esk Path between Whitecraigs and Musselburgh my mood improved.  The sound of seagulls meant that the coast was getting nearer.

Being Sunday afternoon meant that … well … there was a definite ‘Sunday afternoon’ feel to this part of the ride.  Families with pushchairs and dogwalkers shared the promenade from Musselburgh, past Joppa and on to Portobello.  Cafes spilled out on the the prom.  Kids splashed in the sea and their dads constructed elaborate castles.  My incentive for getting this far was to get an ice cream on Porty’s prom.  I needed (lots of) cold, cold drinks and food to quench my thirst, and an ice cream sundae and iced coffee were just what the doctor ordered.

Suitably reinvigorated I cycled along the seafront to Leith.  I retraced the route where I’d previously run the Edinburgh Half Marathon, past the swimming pool where I’d tried (unsuccessfully) to learn to roll a kayak a few decades earlier, and passed the drab Scottish Government office at Victoria Quay where I’ve often sat in work meetings.  Leith’s harbour front was buzzing with tourists at festival time and the cricketers were absorbed in their game on Leith Links.

From these familiar sights I turned left on to the Warrington Path in Leith to discover the delights of Edinburgh’s cycle network.  I didn’t own a bike when I lived in Edinburgh and so I’ve never really experienced these traffic-free routes along disused railway lines.  What a delight.  Along the Warrington and Chancelot Paths and through the Trinity Tunnel I avoided the busy streets and soon found myself coming out beside Granton’s gas tower.

 

 

Camping at the Edinburgh Camping and Caravan Club site at Silverknowes probably wasn’t the smartest decision I’ve ever made.  There’s nothing wrong with the site itself (unless you like regimented rules and aren’t dismayed at the exhorbitant £22 cost for a bike and one-man tent of course).  However, the site’s location means that it’s directly underneath the flight path to Edinburgh Airport and I soon discovered that planes were screeching just 500 metres overhead every 5 to 10 minutes until 11pm at night.  Whether any planes did arrive after that time I don’t know but I think I was so tired that I was dead to the world.

All that was left of the C2C route was to cycle the remaining stretch of the seafront to the pretty village of Cramond before following the quieter lanes through Dalmeny Estate to the Forth Road Bridge.  I was a little surprised that there’s no sign or plaque to say that this is the end of the C2C, or at least if there is I missed it.

 

At the end point of the Scottish C2C, South Queensferry

 

I rewarded myself with a mid-morning snack in a South Queensferry cafe before stealing myself for the last leg home.  Having cycled 125 miles to get this far it didn’t seem too much of a stretch to tack on another 40-odd miles to get home to near Stirling.  I enjoyed riding over the Forth Road Bridge, still open to bikes, buses and tractors now that the new Queensferry Crossing has opened.  While most folk seemed desperate to take a trip over the new bridge when it first opened I was more concerned about not having a last chance to go over the old, familiar bridge.  But here I was once again.  The real highlight though was hearing a maintenance van pass me, making that very familiar “da-duh” sound as it crossed the big concrete slabs over the roadway.  Ah, memories …

There are several cycle routes round the Forth and my goal was to navigate past Rosyth, up to Dunfermline then join the old railway line (now the NCN76 cycle path) to go west.  This proved to be a really great route and I whizzed the 12 miles or so from Dunfermline to Clackmannan meeting almost no one.  In fact, once past Alloa’s housing estates the traffic-free route continued past Cambus until I was well within sight of the Wallace Monument.

A refreshing milkshake at Corrieri’s famous cafe in Bridge of Allan spurred me on for those last few miles.  At this point the heavens opened and I arrived home wet, tired, cooled-off but very satisfied.  I thoroughly enjoyed the Scottish C2C.  It may be billed a coast-to-coast route but from river to river and railway to railway, what matters most is the journey and not the destination.

 

Crossing the Forth Road Bridge

 

* I recommend buying the Ultimate Scottish C2C Guide by Richard Peace, available from excellentbooks.co.uk

 

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A practical guide to climbing Ireland’s ‘munros’

Having recently made the trip over to Ireland to climb its 3,000+ foot mountains I thought I’d put together a short overview of the logistics behind my trip.  I spent quite a bit of time carrying out research on the web and in print and really struggled to find much good quality information. Coming from Scotland, where munro-bagging is a hugely popular hobby, we’re spoiled by the quality and volume of available information.  Not so in Ireland, it seems. 

I’m sure Irish readers will have their own favourite sources of information but if you’re from the UK and intent on completing your round of the munros ‘furth of Scotland’ in England, Wales and Ireland, then this guide is for you.

 

Planes, trains and automobiles

Since it takes the best part of a week to climb the 13 highest mountains in Ireland, including travel between them, the main choice is to either take your own vehicle by ferry or to fly and hire a car.  Just to get the scale of the country into perspective, it’s a 295 mile (5.5 hours) journey from Belfast in the north to Killarney in County Kerry, and 200 miles (4 hours) from Dublin and Killarney.  It takes longer to travel around Ireland than you might imagine.

There are three main ports serving the island of Ireland from the UK:

  • Belfast – 2 hours from Cairnryan; 8 hours from Liverpool
  • Dublin – 2 hours from Holyhead; 8 hours from Liverpool
  • Rosslare – 3h15 from Fishguard; 4 hours from Pembroke

Living in Scotland with a campervan it was a no-brainer for me to take the ferry from Cairnryan to Belfast.  It was fairly pricey at £273 (off-peak) for just a two-hour crossing but at least I discovered that I could use Tesco vouchers to book on the Stena Line website, so it only cost me about £60 in cash.

The ferry was modern and efficient: no complaints.

I left Cairnryan at 11pm to get the cheapest fare, which meant of course that I needed to find somewhere to park up in Belfast since no campsites would be open at that time.  So six hours’ kip in supermarket car park on a rainy night in Belfast isn’t particularly glamorous … but my trip definitely picked up from this low point.

 

What and where are the Irish ‘munros’?

There are 13 Irish ‘munros’, mountains over 3000ft or 914 metres in height. Galtymore is the baby at 918m and Carrauntoohill the highest at 1039m.

As the map below shows, Ireland’s munros are spread across four locations in Wicklow (Lugnaquilla), Tipperary (Galtymore) and Kerry (the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks and Brandon Mountain).

 

  • Lugnaquilla (Lugnaquillia Mountain) (Log na Coille) (925m)
  • Galtymore (Cnoc Mor na nGaibhlte) (918m)
  • Beenkeragh (Binn Chaorach) (1008m)
  • Caher (Cathair) (1000m)
  • Caher West Top (973m)
  • Carrauntoohil (Corran Tuathail) (1039m)
  • Cnoc an Chuillinn (958m)
  • Cnoc na Peiste (Knocknapeasta) (988m)
  • Cruach Mhor (932m)
  • Maolan Bui (973m)
  • Na Cnamha (The Bones Peak) (957m)
  • The Big Gun (An Gunna Mor) (939m)
  • Brandon Mountain (Cnoc Breanainn) (952m)

You can read my posts describing my ascents below:

 

How many days?

A key question is: how many days should I allow for?  I planned on five days of walking plus two travelling days, with any ‘spare’ time for sightseeing.  Given I ended up driving 1150 miles over the week I definitely needed this amount of time to be confident of doing everything I’d planned to do.

The three single hills – Lugnaquilla, Galtymore and Brandon Mountain – can all easily be climbed in day, with time left over to drive to the next destination (it’s around two hours’ drive between “the Lug” and Galtymore, and between Galtymore and Killarney, near the Reeks).  I took between 3h15 and 3h30 to climb each of these three mountains.

However, the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks ridge is the main attraction, with 10 summits across its twisting and exciting ridgeline.  I had originally planned to climb the eastern and western sections of the ridge separately, given the Reeks have an average of over 225 rain days each year.  But given dry, warm weather and clear, blue skies I opted to walk the whole ridge in a longish (8h45) day.  If you get the chance, I’d definitely recommend you doing this.  This also had the advantage of ‘saving’ me a day to tour the Dingle Peninsula on the Wild Atlantic Coast.

 

Planning the trip

I was quite surprised that I couldn’t find more information on the web to help me plan.  Perhaps I didn’t search hard enough or in the right places but it was certainly a struggle.  I’d recommend the following resources:

Websites

  • MountainViews.ie is a site for people to share routes and trip reports – this seems the nearest equivalent to WalkHighlands
  • I found other routes and trip reports on ActiveMe.ie
  • High Point Ireland focuses on the Gribbons, the highest Irish mountains and the sport of highpointeering (equivalent to munro bagging)

Blogs and trip reports

Maps

  • The Irish Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 maps for Kerry, Cork and Wicklow
  • The Harvey’s Superwalker 1:30,000 waterproof map of Macgillycuddy’s Reeks
  • A  decent roadmap of Ireland

Books

  • I bought Jim Ryan’s book on Carrauntoohill and Macgillycuddy’s Reeks – A walking guide to Ireland’s highest mountains (reprinted 2015) and would recommend it for the comprehensive set of alternative routes and context section relating to history and land ownership.

[Note: please get in touch if you’d like to buy this book and the maps from me).

I’d never visited Ireland before.  While it felt very familiar, there were a few differences that took some getting used to.  First, the Irish 1:50k maps as well as the Harvey’s 1:30k both use different colouring and symbols.  Second, and more frustratingly, I’d assumed that I could get by with my own roadmap (where Ireland fitted on one page!), then use signposts to navigate locally.  I soon discovered that Irish road signs are a law unto themselves.  Signs on smaller roads hardly ever mention places that are further away that 10 miles, particularly in rural areas.  Of course, since the mountains tend to be at the end of smaller roads, my trusty road map was utterly useless in rural Wicklow and even my usual fail-safe method of following my nose was very hit-and-miss.

 

Where to stay?

I was in a campervan so was looking for some of the better campsites to stay at and potentially some good informal camping spots too.  My impression is that Ireland doesn’t have as many campsites we’re used to in the UK but I did manage to find some good ones.  I steered well clear of holiday parks (of which there are quite a few) and looked for well-run, independent sites.  You can find listings of sites on the Camping Ireland and the Total Camping Ireland websites.  These were the sites I stayed at:

  • The Apple Farm, Tipperary (6km from Caher, 9km from Clonmell).  I’d recommend this place.  As the name suggests, it’s a farm first and a campsite second.  You can just pitch just near the apple trees and can buy the most wonderful apple juice (and other products) from their shop.  Facilities are fine, if a little in need of an upgrade.
  • Fossa Camping & Caravan Site, Killarney.  Killarney is a tourist town, just near the Reeks, so this is a popular site.  It’s just on the edge of town, near the road to the Reeks, and is well run.
  • Oratory House Camping,  approx. 5 miles from Dingle Town.  This is the nearest campsite to the town and actually has a view of Brandon Mountain.  It’s a popular, family-run site.  While there are several campsites around the Dingle Peninsula this was one of the few I could find that didn’t mainly cater for static caravans.
  • Wave Crest Camping and Caravan Park,  Caherdaniel.  This was the pick of the campsites, right on the coast on the Ring of Kerry and with pitches looking out to sea.  Independently run and well-managed, with a cafe and shop on site, and a bar/restaurant a ten minute walk away.

Ireland’s restrictive land ownership laws mean that wild camping in tents is widely discouraged (and signs warn that dogs off leads on farmland will be shot).  I’ve read that informal camping (outwith campsites) is tolerated in rural areas but I have to say that I didn’t find much evidence of it.  While I did see one or two places where it would be possible I decided that the lure of wifi was too great.

 

Fossa Camping and Caravan Site

Wave Crest Camping & Caravan Park

Not a bad pitch! Wave Crest Camping & Caravan Park

OK, apart from mountains what else should I do?

Of course, you don’t need me to tell you that there are some great things to see and do in Ireland.  I had one day for sightseeing in Kerry so took a driving tour taking me to Tralee Bay, Dingle and along the Wild Atlantic Way.  The photos below give a flavour of what to expect – when you have the weather!

[Please click on the photos below for larger versions).

Lunchtime at Tralee Bay

On the Ring of Kerry

Coastal view, Dingle Peninsula

 

 

 

Where else can you find a bar and a hardware shop in one? Foxy John’s, Dingle

 

Have you climbed the Irish ‘munros’?  What hints and tips would you add to this brief practical guide to help others?

 

 

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Product review: Montane Halogen 33 rucksac

In my book a good day sack is functional, lightweight, suitable for multiple activities and comfortable.  With one minor modification – easily addressed – the Montane Halogen 33 comfortably ticks all boxes.

I’ve been testing out the new rucksac over the summer during a round of Ireland’s highest mountains as well as on a Duke of Edinburgh silver expedition.  It’s performed very well and I’m sure I’ll get many years’ use out of it.

First impressions

I have to admit that I’m already a big fan of Montane gear, having first bought a featherlight smock almost 20 years ago.  I find their products very well designed and using lightweight, innovative materials.

The Halogen 33 rucksac fits this mould: an attractive pack that is packed with ingenious features.  At 880g it’s not going to handicap you before you’ve even started filling it up and the weight compares well with the crop of similar packs from other manufacturers.  Montane make a slightly smaller 25 litre version of the Halogen but if you want to go lighter still then there’s the 30 litre Featherlight (686g) or the 35 litre Featherlight Alpine (750g), both more minimalist in design.

What you get with the Halogen is a tough but lightweight and durable nylon fabric (210 denier), with an abrasion-resistant 420 denier base (the Featherlight is made with 100 denier ripstop nylon).  But what also marks out the Halogen 33 are the many features.  From the front-facing top pocket to the ice axe and walking pole attachments, as well as the two zippable waist pockets, it’s a functional and versatile pack.

 

 

What’s it like to use?

I found the Halogen 33 to be a good-sized pack and roomy enough to carry everything you’d need to take on a day walk, both in summer or winter.  It has one large packable space, together with a separate internal sleeve and opening for a hydration pack.  The shoulder and waist straps are very comfortable, even when the pack is loaded, and I found the waist band pockets very useful.  The only improvement I would make is to change the zips to waterproof zips to risk getting a phone (or sweets!) wet.

Montane have used their ZephyrFX back system which combines a stiff structure with a soft, comfortable moulded back pad.  This is covered with a mesh designed to allow air to circulate.  I certainly found this extremely comfortable but perhaps because it was close-fitting and moulded to my back, I didn’t particularly notice any ventilation benefit.

 

 

There are two features which I really don’t care for much at all.  First, there’s a stiffened carrying handle that sits between the two shoulder straps, just behind the top flap.  I’m not quite sure why Montane chose to stiffen this so much since I found it sticks directly out from the pack and rubbed against my neck; it really is quite irritating.  In testing I tied the handle out of the way by extending the top closure strap but I think I’ll just cut the handle off completely.  There is in fact a similar, stiffened carrying loop on the front of the pack that seems designed to secure an ice axe or walking pole, and so losing one grab handle is an easy modification to make.

The second, more minor gripe is the chest harness whose ‘Click and Go’ design allows single hand operation.  Since I ‘walk hot’, I never use chest harnesses and this one detached itself even before I even realised what it was designed for.  It seemed a weak part of the design but since I was quite happy not to have unused chest straps flapping about I wasn’t concerned.

Other features I liked a lot.  The zippable top pocket opens at the front to make it much easier for walking buddies to access a map or essential clothing, (and yes, an OS map fits easily), and there’s a neat key clip inside the lid’s internal security pocket.  There are lots of compression straps which work well and something that Montane call ‘baguette’ pockets on either side.  These are effectively a series of multi-purpose side features including an elasticated pocket at the bottom, a stretchy strip of fabric to help secure items as well as a compression strap at the top.  They’re great for water bottles of course but also wet gear, walking poles or a tripod.

 

At the base of the rucsac, just below the removable bungees, are a couple of ‘tool anchors’.  In layman’s terms, one of these is an elasticated attachment for a walking pole and the other, a similar attachment for an ice axe.  There’s also a sleeve of hard-wearing material to loop your ice axe through to secure it safely.

Finally, Montane have a  ‘Cord Lord Lite’ quick release mechanism to open and close the inside of the pack.  It’s a bit different to the usual plastic toggle and to open the pack, involves pulling the closure cord along with simultaneously pulling a short webbing strap.  It sounds a bit fiddly – and does take a little bit of getting used to – but seems to work well.

 

 

Overview

The Halogen 33 is a very useful size of pack and versatile enough for multi-activity, all-season use.  It’s packed with useful features and manages to combine these with lightweight and hardwearing materials.  Putting aside the stiffened grab handle that rubbed against the back of my neck – this can be easily removed – I found this to be a great day sack which will get lots of use.

What I liked:

  • Comfortable, even when loaded (with the exception of the irritating grab handle)
  • Easy to adjust straps
  • Zippable front access lid pocket and internal security pocket
  • Stretchy side ‘baguette’ pockets
  • Zippable hip pockets
  • Ice axe and walking pole attachments
  • Internal hydration pocket and opening

 

What I wasn’t so keen on:

  • The rear, stiffened grab handle sticks out and rubbed against my neck
  • The elasticated chest harness seemed flimsy and I have now removed this

 

The Halogen 33 is available from Nevisport for £89.99.

Note:  I am a gear reviewer for Nevisport and they provided the Montane Halogen 33 rucksac to me to review for free.  I have no connection with the company.  I have provided an honest and impartial review based on my personal experience in using it.