Sunday, 21 June 2015

Unknown Roads- Baby's First Attempt At Travel Writing

I’m not a travel writer. I’ll give you my ass-ignorant ill-considered on videogames, movies,  books,  and automobilia, whatever trash is on my mind, or half-assedly turn out a short story or grossly exaggerate my plans for novels, but I never tried that noble genre that people actually like to read- travel. There’s a good reason for this- I studiously avoid travelling anywhere for any reason. My sincerely held belief is that everywhere on the Lord’s earth sucks ass, and going anywhere to experience the local suckiness is a waste of valuable time and resources that could be better spent on doing nothing at all. However! I sincerely enjoy motorcycles, and because they have wheels, travelling is a necessary function of using them. So when a trusted associate of mine informed me he was planning a camping trip with some trusted associates of his, I promptly invited myself to ride up and join them for a day, and since this has now happened I will, in fact, write something about the experience for you.

My associate assured me that I would be welcome to join in, but that the intended destination, Loch Morar, was too far for a mere jaunt. Consulting the map, I found this was true- it was about 150 miles, which meant a round trip would be a 300 mile day in the saddle. My poor ass quivered at the thought of such punishment- this would, after all, be my first ever proper long-distance two-wheeled tour. Overnight, then. I’d bungee a tent and some beer and the less essential stuff to the back, ride up and camp with the boys, then return the next day. Far better idea.

However, it did raise issue of cargo. My newly-acquired 2003 Suzuki SV650S, the steed for this mission, had only one small storage space beneath the passenger seat, big enough for the toolkit and a small bottle of Pepsi at a push, so creativity would be required. The instruction manual for the throwover panniers I was able to dig out of the garage was apologetic straight away, whining about motorcycles being a “hostile environment for luggage”, but with inventive use of the straps and hooks provided I was able to affix them fairly securely. The tent was another story- a huge relic of the seventies that my father dragged out of some dusty spider den in the attic, the monstrous thing had to be perched on the pillion seat and optimistically wrapped up with bungee cord and hope.
The route, complete with quite optimistic estimated travel time.

Things got easier when my contact revealed that poor weather conditions had kiboshed the camping notion, and that the team had retreated to a house to which he had a family connection and accordingly keys. The bulky tent was immediately ditched, and the panniers and rucksack more readily carried were filled with what I deemed myself to need (beer, junk food and a sleeping bag). At this point, I was not at all concerned by the ominous phrase “poor weather conditions”. Later, I would be.

The route, at least, was simple. Pick my way across Glasgow city and get on the A82, then follow that up and up and up all the way to Fort William, passing Loch Lomond and Glencoe on the way, then hop on to the smaller A830 towards Mallaig until reaching the town and loch both named Morar. Fast roads and killer scenery all the way. North, north, and some west, into some proper Highland shit, through places with names like ‘Achallader’ and ‘Ballachulish’.

It was windy and drizzly as I prepared to leave, but not at that point frighteningly so. I backed the bike down the driveway, zero’d the trip computer and checked the luggage hadn’t already fallen off, and set out. I got across the city of Glasgow without incident, no mean feat in itself, opting to cross the river via the Clyde Tunnel rather than Erskine Bridge due to the wind. I passed Dumbarton with little more than drizzle, but as I approached Loch Lomond the rain really started. Really, really fucking started. It’s an unpalatable truth of all outdoor activity that even the best waterproof gear is eventually permeable, and rain this hard found the cracks in my own outfit in mere minutes. Worse, the combination of rain in the air and on my visor was nearly blinding, and water was standing on the road, decimating grip and concealing potholes. Bunched up with tourists and trucks, I trooped on through the downpour.

It rained hard the entire length of Loch Lomond, and that’s a long damn loch. Very cold and very wet, I broke off the main route to stop in the village of Crianlarch. A vile mini-mart coffee reinvigorated me somewhat as I tried to dry sodden gloves with a public bathroom hand-dryer, and, sheltered in a bus stop, I tapped out a text to mother that glossed over the full horror of the weather.

Despite the load of luggage and my flabby body, the punchy Suzuki climbed past Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy without a murmur of complaint. Acquired only a couple of weeks previously, the SV was my first large capacity bike, with my previous 125cc machine only sold the day before, and it was refreshing to ride a bike with this kind of easy torque. Even in top gear, opening the throttle gives an urgent surge of acceleration, and above about 6000RPM things start to go quite bananas as you approach the redline at 11,000. Attack-mode high revving wasn’t appropriate, of course, but at a cruise the chilled out 650cc v-twin motor sounded great and ran better, happy to sit on most of the sweeping A82 in fifth or sixth gear, only once attempting alarmingly to grab a mythical gear in between. As I moved onto Glencoe,  weather soured once more, spoiling the magnificent road and scenery somewhat and adding challenge to the constant task of passing dawdling tourist traffic without obstructing the occasional very enthusiastic big-BMW touring bike as they passed my dawdling ass.

Christ, there were a lot of big BMWs. Slowed up by traffic after Glencoe, I pulled into the McDonald’s at Fort William for a well-deserved cheeseburger and startlingly decent coffee behind an R1200GS, and it’s easy to see the appeal. The ultra-rugged Paris-Dakar design with heavy duty weather protection and inbuilt hard luggage openly declares its unburstable long distance ability. I hear they have heated damn seats- for rider and passenger! They call these (and their many imitators) “adventure bikes”, and their drastic overcapability for what a normal rider needs has made them a huge sales hit. For the kind of ride I was doing, that’s the tool to have, all right- but for the kind of budget I have, the SV is a more realistic (and, it was turning out, perfectly capable) choice.

Knowing I was getting into some real Deliverance type backwoods shit from there on, I topped up the tank before I left Fort William, though the high-gear open road cruising was not thirsty work. I wasn’t sure what the final leg would entail- I knew I’d be following signs for Mallaig but not going all the way there, and my father had advised that his recollection of the A830 was of a very narrow, very country road. The reality was a little different. The road had undergone some renovations in the (many, many) years since Dad had last traversed it, and was now a wide, smooth highway sweeping up the coast with branches out to various villages en route. Aside from the still iffy weather conditions, the only hazard came from the death defying overtaking antics of locals- when a tiny hatchback and large van simultaneously blazed past me as I progressed at an indicated two over the speed limit, I knew they were not fucking about.

Eventually I found the exit for Morar, which turned out only to be before Mallaig by about two miles. The weather had relented, and I rolled into the quiet village in some very pleasant evening sunshine a mere two and a half hours later than planned (most of which could be attributed to my lengthy stops, but I value the skin on my body enough to reduce my pace in such hellish conditions). The boys welcomed me as a hero, partly because my sodden clothing betrayed my trials, but mostly because I had beer and they did not.  We ate and drank and I recuperated in the really very pleasant house, and I found that my trash bag luggage waterproofing system had been, surprisingly, one hundred percent effective. As we watched a ridiculous Ray Mears DVD, I took a moment to reflect on what had been a tricky day- a long, wet ride through unfamiliar places, and realised I was already looking back fondly, and looking forward to the return leg.

After a few hours of fitful (and according to the other chaps, very snorey) floor sleep, Wednesday brought clear skies and dry roads. We tidied the house and convoy’d over to the lochside for a quick walk; the SV’s easy handling allowing me to dodge cyclists, sheep, and sheep shit on the narrow single-track. With the sun shining, the sweeping A830 back to Fort William was the kind of road a biker dreams of, and I got the hammer down enough catch and pass the rest of the guys despite their headstart- though given they were in a rented Vauxhall, that was perhaps not some Tourist Trophy shit. I was under the impression we’d be rendezvousing for lunch, but the bastards passed straight by while I waited at the supermarket, bleating that they had to get to car back to the rental place on time. No matter, I realised. With a dry and sunny Glencoe ahead, the ride home was going be magnificent- and so it proved.

And the real truth is that the ride is what’s important. My first ever tour, though a reasonably short one, was a blast despite the very worst efforts of the weather. As obviously, unmistakably awesome as a top of the line BMW is, “adventure motorcycle” is something of a redundancy. Any ride is an adventure- any bike is for touring, especially one so user friendly as my SV650. And while there are pastimes other than touring a motorcycle, I’m confident that none can match the feelings of freedom and exploration coupled with the simple thrill of riding- so, I don’t give a fuck about any of them.


  1. Here I'll have you know that's a 90s tent - the 70s ones blew away on an earlier trip...


  2. Good read. I wonder if an an inline 4 would have remained on the road in that weather.

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