To paraphrase Charles Dickens: It was the best of fun, it was the worst of fun…
Back in the years when I did more fishing, Loch Etive was one of my favourite haunts. There was an easy place to launch at Taynuilt, across the loch from Bonawe, and if the fishing wasn’t up to much (which was unusual), I would sometimes take the boat on a scenic trip to the top of the loch and back. I was also aware of a track running up the west side of the loch from Bonawe and had once gone along it for a couple of miles to reach a shore fishing spot. The OS map shows it continuing all the way to the top and I was intrigued at the possibility of doing this by bike. The trip would be about 12 miles, with a stop for lunch at the top of the loch, then returning the way we came. Colette liked the sound of it, so we planned it for the next sunny day.
After an early start, we reached Bonawe about 9.30am and set off through the quarry, with a brief return to the car by me when I realised I’d left it unlocked. The path to the top of the loch was signposted from here, which was a good thing, although the loose gravel surface through the quarry was tricky for cycling.
About half a mile or so later, we left the unsightly quarry behind and followed a reasonably surfaced land rover track, which undulated northeastwards close to the side of the loch. With full sunshine, the day became warm, and we stopped briefly now and then to admire the views over the loch to the steep mountains on the other side.
At around four miles in, we arrived at Cadderlie, where there is a bothy. We decided to give it a quick lookside and as we snooped around, a sleepy looking camper emerged from the bunk room. We said hello then left him to get his breakfast sorted as we needed to get on our way.
We cycled on for another couple of miles, when we reached a junction. There was a signpost for Dail Pier via swing bridge, which was going to take us off our chosen route. However, the map showed it was just a short diversion, so we went to check it out. The path narrowed as it approached the bridge which ran over a fast flowing stream. The bridge itself looked quite new and certainly pretty sturdy, so we rode over. It didn’t so much swing as bounce, and stopping half way across gave a lovely view of the stream tumbling its way down the hillside.
Beyond the bridge there was a track leading across a meadow full of wild orchids to the cottage that was Dail. When we reached the cottage, the path seemed to disapper. We were still a good hundred yards or more from the shore, where we could see no signs of any pier, so we decided to leave it there, and retraced our steps back to the junction.
Following the path, we moved further away from the lochside and further up the hillside, through woodland. At about 11.15, we came to a fairly substantial concrete bridge crossing a river which cascaded down across wide rock slabs. We decided to pause there for a break, where I boiled up some water in a tiny kettle using a tiny spirit stove and made some fancy instant cappucinos, which we drank with Colette’s homemade pecan and date flapjack. It was a beautiful spot to pause and have a rest. If we had any inkling of what was ahead of us, this would have been the time to turn around and head back to the car. However, we carried on in blissful ignorance, feeling good that we were already well over halfway to the head of the loch.
Further on, we reached an unexpected fork in the road, with the right fork leading down towards the loch and the left one, looking a bit more overgrown, continuing upwards. The latter path was marked by a signpost with a green arrow, so we chose that one. This was where things started to get more difficult, despite it turning out to be the correct choice.
As we progressed, the road surface became less and less suitable for riding a bike. The track was strewn with rocks generally between brick and football sized, often overgrown with ferns and bog myrtle on the sides and with steep little drops into fords which stopped you in your tracks. There were also some very steep slopes that were hard to push up and impossible to ride down. I was prepared for a bit of this, but it was much harder than I had expected, and we could only rarely get onto the bike and pedal for more than 20 yards or so. This really was a hiking path, not a biking one.
Aside from the hard work involved in dragging a bike through this terrain, we were going too slowly to evade the insects, so we were continually brushing off biting flies. We tried using the bog myrtle as an insect repellant, and Colette thought that the area she rubbed with the plant got some protection. I put some in my helmet and in my socks; at least it smelled nice.
We pressed on, ever hoping that the path would get better, but it just gradually got worse and worse. The surroundings were beautiful, but the task in hand was demanding more and more of our attention. We thought about turning back, but the knowledge that we were not so far from the head of the loch kept us pressing onwards, especially when it finally came into view.
Then after over an hour and a half of continually slugging our bikes along, the path just ended abruptly, like some kind of sick joke! But looking further ahead, I could see a fence and a gate in it, further down the hill. Looking more closely, we could make out a very faint path leading down to it through the vegetation. So we wheeled our bikes down through marshy ground to meet up with the gate.
After going through the gate, we were now not far from the shore. The path ahead was a mixture of rocky puddles and bog, making going along the shoreline look like a better option. After dragging our bikes to the shore, we initially pushed our way along reasonably easily, and Colette shouted out that we’d sped up to 2.5 mph! Unfortunately, that didn’t last long, as the gravel gave way to rocks and then boulders, stopping us in our tracks.
The only good thing was that we could now see a pier just a few hundred yards ahead, where I knew we went back onto proper road. But unfortunately there was nothing for it but to carry the bikes over the rocks and get back to the marshy track to complete the final section. Exhausted though we were, we somehow managed to squelch our way through the bog, round the perimeter of the pier fence and onto some cyclable road. Some mild euphoria ensued, which helped us cycle as far as a nice grassy spot to finally sit down for lunch at about 2.45pm.
Both of us were too tired to eat, but somehow managed to get most of our bashed-up tuna sandwiches down. We were also past worrying about drinking stream water and filled up our empty water bottles with peaty water from a nearby burn. By this stage, I’m sure we weren’t thinking straight either, due to our excessive exertions in the baking sunshine, but we had some choices to make.
I would have rather stuck pins in my eyes than undertake the reverse route, which left a couple of options; 1) to head for Taynuilt via the path on the other side of the loch, or 2) to cycle up Glen Etive and go to the Kings House hotel, where in either case we could abandon the bikes and find some transport back to our car in Bonawe.
We decided to investigate the former option, and after one false turn, managed to get ourselves over the River Etive and onto the return path. The river was just spectacular where we crossed it at the bridge and we paused briefly for Colette to help a frog cross the track. I then cycled up to a cottage where a van was parked and spoke to the joiner who was doing some work inside. I asked if he knew what state the path alongside the loch was in, but he didn’t know, as he was only doing some work there. All he knew was that we had to take a new path around the perimeter of the house, as the old right of way had been diverted to give the occupants some privacy.
That seemed a bit excessive considering that the route must be so seldom used, and it certainly wasn’t easy getting the bikes up and round on the new path. When we got back to the proper track, it looked promising to start with, but we were only cycling a short way before we came to more boggy and excessively rocky ground that necessitated pushing the bikes again. After a short while, we came to a bridge over a small river. We were tired and hot and the water looked very inviting, so I went down to cool off. Colette managed to fall into a hole on her way down, and the look she gave me said “enough is enough”.
We had gone far enough down this track to know that it wasn’t going to get any easier. Even if we had the energy, it was doubtful that we would get to Taynuilt before nightfall. Add to that the fact that we had no mobile reception, and continuing seemed like a recipe for disaster. So we made our way back to the cottage and disturbed the joiner again to ask if by any chance he was going past Oban on his way back. He was going to Glencoe, so I said thanks anyway, we would just cycle to the Kings House and find some form of transport from there.
So we retraced our tracks back to the main road and continued cycling up towards the top of Glen Etive, trying to expend the minimum of effort as we went. The views were magnificent, but the enjoyment was slightly tainted by the feelings of stupidity about how I’d got us there. After a while, the joiner’s van caught up with us, and he asked if we would like a lift to the Kings House. Oh yes please!!!
So Colette went in front and I was in the back with the bikes and the rest of the tools. Andy the joiner introduced himself and asked whether we’d rather go to Glencoe with him, as we might be able to get a bus from Ballachulish to Oban. It certainly made more sense to do it that way, rather than go from the Kings House. After getting to Glencoe, Andy even let us leave our bikes in his storage area to keep them safe till we could come back for them. What a nice young lad he was, and we are so grateful to him for getting us back to civilisation.
After stowing the bikes away, we went over to the Glencoe Inn to ask for info on buses to Oban. Our idea was to get to Oban and get a taxi to Bonawe from there. The receptionist was very helpful, and when she had trouble finding a suitable bus, she phoned a local taxi driver to find out how much he would charge to take us. We were surprised how reasonable the cost was, and he would be able to take our bikes as well. That was such a relief! We had about 45 minutes to wait, so we had a nice bar meal in the adjoining restaurant. I’d have loved to relax with a pint, but there was still a long drive ahead of us and I was very tired already…
The taxi driver picked us up on time and we headed off, with a stop at an ATM in Ballachulish to take out some cash for the fare. We had a lovely sunny evening’s drive down towards Oban, enjoying the views and Colette chatting with the driver, reminiscing about all the places we passed on the way. We explained that we were actually going to Bonawe, which wasn’t a problem, and we arrived at about 7.30pm. Unfortunately, we managed to misplace the money that we needed to pay the fare, and it took a good 5 minutes searching till I found it wedged in a recess of Colette’s rucksack. Blame the tiredness!
Based on my previous experiences of driving back after a long day’s fishing, I had some energy drinks waiting for me in the car, which combined with some uptempo music CDs kept me well awake for the trip back, and we arrived home, safe and sound, just before 11pm. Phew! Huge thanks to all who helped us get home, it was quite an adventure.