A pal of mine, Neil from Edinburgh and I had a midweek bikepacking adventure in and around the hills above Grantown on Spey,. Neil and I had agreed on a microadventure as inspired by Alastair Humphreys, ie. travel, explore, eat, sleep, travel and return all within 12 hours so Neil could get a train back to Edinburgh the next day.
This was to be our second trip out together, the first had been a two day 100km, 1500m of ascent trip with myself and another pal, Ian. We rode from Kingussie to Loch Morlich for the night then after a couple of climbs on trails near Nethybridge before travelling back across to Kingussie. Neil had never done any bikepacking before and I obviously hadn’t put him off on this trip! Bikepacking – what is it all about? For some it is all about going as far, as fast and light as possible through some of the most remote terrain. For others it is the chance to combine backpacking and biking hence the name. Nowadays you don’t need to carry your gear in a backpack, instead use dedicated bike luggage which cleverly attaches to the frame, seatpost or handlebars of your bike. This makes for more comfortable riding and no bouncing panniers or rattling frames. For me the attraction is the journey with the planning, exploration, time out from ‘normal life’, connecting with nature and riding through spectacular scenery.
So after a coffee and a blether at my house Neil and I loaded up our bikes and headed towards Broomhill Station to spot the Strathspey Railway Steam Train. A careful crossing of the busy A95 then leads to some delightful, but steep singletrack up into the pines before dropping in swooping and whooping turns into Dulnain Bridge. The first few kilometres on a loaded bike can sometimes be a little edgy, especially after a train journey but Neil rode the trails with panache. The weather had been great here in the Cairngorms National Park for weeks so our tires made a lovely crunchy sound as we rode along the side of the Dulnain River. We could have stopped and set up here for the night easily, there was fresh running water nearby, plenty of trees to rig up a tarp, views through them to the hills and nearby some interesting farmland. But I wanted our bivvy site to be further up in the hills with a grandstand view of The Cairngorm Mountains, so a little more climbing was in order. I probably also wanted to ride a bit further on my brand new Brothercycles 29er bike which I had just finished building the night before.
Given that this was after all a microadventure Neil and I had both gone for a seatpost bag and frame bag arrangement, as we did not have a lot of gear to take. Over the last couple of years I have been using bike luggage from WildcatGear who are now based near Perth, just down the A9. Their kit is strong, durable and well thought out. With consideration about how much kit you really need and what items can make a difference it is surprising how little gear is needed on a bikepacking trip. Dinner was going to be cooked on the hill. We had my JavaDrip coffee maker and the plan was to ride into town early in the morning for breakfast. I took enough layers and an insulated jacket to make the evening comfortable in a lightweight sleeping bag with bivvy bag under a tarp.
So we climbed up and away from the roads and trails until we reached that perfect spot I had checked out the week before. There was a ruined building just off of the path which was shelter from any cool north winds which were forecast and importantly, a small wall which I could rig my tarp to. Recently I have started using a Trangia stove again, but with one with three interlocking plates that form the base instead of the usual aluminium pot stand arrangement. The burner and these plates take up little more room than a small digital camera and I love the peace and quiet that burners like this cook with. This meant we were able to enjoy the late evening bird calls and have a blether over a small dram. Fried rice with onions and chorizo tasted brilliant as we sat on the wall watching the the setting sun pick out the ridges and corries of The Cairngorms. For dessert we were treated to some real, fresh honey from my father’s bees on oatcakes – luxury! Later on we watched some showers and darker clouds appear both down the Strath and behind us to the North! The tarp and shelter of the ruin did the trick and in the morning despite a few showers Neil and I were both dry.
At 0430 in the morning we were treated to a cloud inversion in the glen along with the rising sun slowly picking out The Cairngorms again and warming us up as we enjoyed our coffee and more oatcakes with honey. The ride into town starts with a fast descent on estate gravel roads that have a couple of steep hills that demand determination and courage to keep the speed up in order to get over the top. You also have to have skill to corner a loaded bike as you blast down into the next corner. After this excitement there is a rising traverse above Glen Beg with great views across to The Cromdale Hills and Bynack Mor which is never out of sight for long on this trip. As Neil and I approached a field with sheep and their lambs we slowed down and slowly rode past them as the Right of Way passed along the side of their field. After 0600 now so there were the odd signs of life as folk went about their business of feeding livestock or heading off to work. As we reached the road at Dreggie I led Neil down a couple of steep short cuts that add a lot of interest to an otherwise easy freewheel to the Dava Trail. We’d plenty of time so I suggested a wee detour along this old railway line to the Forres road and the gatehouse of Castle Grant.
As planned we rode into town just in time for the Co-op to have opened. Back in a more urban environment, if Grantown on Spey can ever be called that (!) Neil managed to sweet talk us the first warm and fresh pastries of the day. We enjoyed them, sitting on a bench at the Square before heading our separate ways at 0730. Neil and I agreed that 28km and 280m of ascent along with the riding, views, weather, good food & company this was a successful microadventure.
blog by Jim Sutherland, nineonesix-guiding
more photos on nineonesix-guiding at flickr