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Bicycling (South Africa) - - Water -

YYou learn things about your friends on a seven-day bike tour across the Scot­tish High­lands. You learn that your friend Sandy has a deep and heart­felt love for his home­land, for its fea­ture-film-wor­thy land­scape (“Crap scenery, eh?” he likes to joke), and its cul­tural ec­cen­tric­i­ties.

You learn this be­cause as you push your bag-laden bike up a 20-plus-per-cent dirt grade, you’re kind of curs­ing Sandy.

At a gro­cery store in →ort Wil­liam, an­tic­i­pat­ing a flat, easy day ahead, Sandy had stocked up on Scot­tish junk food: jars of Branston Pickle, fruit short­bread and fig roll bis­cuits, bags of dry-roasted nuts, midget gum­mies, Irn-Bru (the →anta of Scot­land), and pack­ets of ‘crisps’. We’d di­vided the guilty plea­sures among our pan­niers, and now we’re lit­er­ally bear­ing the weight of Sandy’s af­fec­tion for Scot­land.

Yet for as much as Sandy iden­ti­fies as Scot­tish, he can­not live in this coun­try. He grew up in a for­mer min­ing town out­side of Glas­gow in the 1980s. When the Scot­tish steel plants be­gan to fail and lo­cal in­dus­try tanked, ado­les­cent gangs flour­ished. Kids like him, who dif­fered from the norm be­cause they rode BMXs and lis­tened to punk mu­sic, be­came easy tar­gets. He vis­ited the US for the first time af­ter thugs smashed a bot­tle over his head. Af­ter he was stabbed, he left Scot­land for good.

Other things you learn, you learn about your friend Nick, who has to stop dur­ing your tour to take medicine, be­cause he some­times suf­fers from dizzy spells; be­cause, you learn, he has a can­cer­ous 5cm tu­mour in­side his skull. It af­fects his me­mory, too. But he does re­mem­ber when doc­tors drilled a hole in his skull to ex­am­ine and biopsy the tu­mour, and then told him that be­cause of its lo­ca­tion near sen­si­tive ar­eas of his brain, they would not be able to re­move it.

Nick is per­haps the strong­est mem­ber in our group, and mid­way through our trudge up this hill, he throws a leg over his bike, and – with an an­i­mal howl – be­gins ham­mer­ing up the wall-like gra­di­ent.

We learn soon into our trip that Dean is the weak­est rider in the group, and we are okay with that be­cause Dean is okay with that. In his post-BMX life he’d run marathons and achieved other feats of en­durance, but over the last year he’d done lit­tle more than bikecom­mute a few kays to town and back. When Sandy in­vited him on the trip, he al­most de­clined. But two weeks be­fore we left he thought, You know what? No kids. No boss. I’ve set up my life for ad­ven­ture like this. I’m in.

He wills him­self along, wel­com­ing a push to reach the top of a long climb or a bit of am­a­teur physio treat­ment on his aching knee, and proves that the mind is in­deed more pow­er­ful than the body.

Af­ter an hour of huff­ing and heav­ing to the crest of the hill, we de­scend into an un­in­hab­ited val­ley, where some­one points ex­cit­edly at the Glenbuck Bothy, a two-story struc­ture draped in golden light.

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