FIRE

Bicycling (South Africa) - - Water -

YYou learn other things on a seven-day bike tour across the Scot­tish High­lands. You learn that if an on­line de­scrip­tion of a bothy reads ‘No fire­wood’, when you ar­rive at the bothy – which is sit­u­ated against a grassy hill­side, with­out a tree in sight – in­deed, there will be no fire­wood.

And if you wish to warm your aching body and dry your sod­den shoes, then you should gather the fallen branches you en­counter kilo­me­tres away from your lonely bothy and strap them to your pan­niers.

We learn this les­son af­ter the fact.

Yet even with­out a fire, in this bothy we are over­joyed. The sparse shel­ters, which once served as lodg­ing for farm fam­i­lies and sheep herders, were aban­doned dur­ing the ad­vent of the in­dus­trial age – and al­lowed to turn to ru­ins as Scot­land’s ru­ral in­hab­i­tants mi­grated to the cities. So there’s a cer­tain irony in our ex­cite­ment, a hun­dred-plus years later, to travel from the city to this re­stored stone hut.

We gig­gle as we ex­plore the two large rooms – one for sleep­ing, an­other for cook­ing – and lay out our sleep­ing pads on the earthen floor. In the ab­sence of fire­wood (or peat, the coal-like fuel source that grows in the High­lands bogs), we drink whisky to warm our­selves. It’s the burn­ing of peat to dry the malted bar­ley, we learn on our whisky-tast­ing tour of Scot­land, that im­bues the bev­er­age with the unique, smoky flavour for which it is renowned (or re­viled, de­pend­ing on who you ask).

Glen­goyne is his­tor­i­cally dis­tilled with­out peat, and we eas­ily reach the bot­tom of the bot­tle. Then we pass out. In the morn­ing we wake to blue skies, put on our still soggy shoes, and re­turn to the West High­land Way, pedalling up and over a moun­tain pass on a cob­bled road built in the 18th cen­tury.

At a ski chalet on the far side of the pass, we try hag­gis (a Scot­tish sta­ple made of sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs), and then take a trail par­al­lel­ing the busy A82, coast­ing through the Glen­coe Val­ley, cran­ing our necks in be­wil­der­ment at the soar­ing gran­ite peaks.

We’d in­tended to make it to a bothy near the town of →ort Wil­liam that evening. But even with the sum­mer sun­light last­ing un­til nearly 10pm, we run out of time. Dur­ing our week-long ride across Scot­land the sun never seems to set fully, with twi­light last­ing well past mid­night. This ben­e­fited us when track­ing down both­ies late into the evening, but also led to ca­sual morn­ing de­par­tures, putting us up and out on the trail each morn­ing by – as we joke – ‘the crack of eleven’.

Af­ter abort­ing that evening’s bothy hunt, in­stead we hop the last ferry across Loch Linnhe, with a plan to wild camp that evening. The prac­tice is com­mon in Scot­land, where free­dom-to-roam laws pro­tect the pub­lic’s abil­ity to cross pri­vate lands and even spend the night on them, so long as the prop­erty’s own­ers aren’t dis­turbed.

On the ferry, a lo­cal man points us to an in­let where a moun­tain stream feeds the loch, and then traces a line along our map – “I’d sug­gest you camp up there,” he says. We fol­low his in­struc­tions and find a small meadow sit­u­ated next to a wa­ter­fall with a view of Ben Ne­vis, the UK’s high­est peak.

The sum­mit of Ben Ne­vis, they say in Scot­land, is clear only one day out of ev­ery 10, and to­day is one of those days. As the sun sets on the moun­tain, the rock face of the round sum­mit glows in red hues.

That night, be­side the rum­bling wa­ter­fall, we warm our­selves with a fire.

Hav­ing be­come ex­pe­ri­enced bothy hunters and Scot­tish wild campers, we greet the morn­ing with con­fi­dence. In →ort Wil­liam, we pick up the Great Glen Way, which runs 127 mostly gen­tle kilo­me­tres along a se­ries of placid lochs (in­clud­ing the fa­mous Loch Ness). So great is our con­fi­dence that be­fore we em­bark on the sunny ride, we sam­ple some malts at the Ben Ne­vis Dis­tillery and grab a bot­tle for that evening. We even crack open a six-pack of lo­cal craft beer, sip­ping as we pedal be­side the lochs.

When we reach the tiny vil­lage of Aber­chalder, where we in­tend to bothy that evening, Nick pulls out his phone and snaps a photo of a dirt road he no­tices slic­ing up the face of an abrupt hill­side, sim­ply for the rea­son that this road ap­pears to be per­haps the steep­est road he has ever seen in per­son.

“Imag­ine if we had to go up that!” Nick laughs.

Then we pull out our map and at­tempt to lo­cate the bothy. Even­tu­ally we come to the cer­tainty – though we wish we weren’t so cer­tain – that the bothy is lo­cated be­yond Nick’s hill­top.

DIN­NER BY CAN­DLE­LIGHT IN GOR­TON BOTHY. LEFT: NICK COOMBES STOKES THE FIRE AT GLENBUCK BOTHY. BE­LOW: THE AU­THOR AT SUARDALAN BOTHY.

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