Friday, 8 September 2017

Riding The Hebridean Way

We're home, busy getting back into familiar, and less familiar, routines - this year seems to be one of those where the weather saw 'September' come up on the calendar and promptly flicked a switch! Sitting in front of a log fire with drab, autumnal rainfall outside, it's hard to believe that last week we were on the very edge of the United Kingdom, in relative warmth, if still a little damp at times. The unfortunate reminder is that the car boot still has panniers in it which need unpacking...

We left it properly late this year to hatch our plan for the summer, last year's bike theft having put paid to plans we had for 2016. As ever, it's been a year of change, with bigger children, new kit and new skills to accommodate. This time, with Thomas Ivor elsewhere, it was just the four of us, with the trailerbike rigs we shook down in Denmark back in May. Without the luxury of a trailer's 'boot' to stow bulky items in, we had to find a way of carrying a suitable tent for us all, in just panniers.


Late in the day (as in, we only really decided for sure once we were already on the M6!) it was unfinished business that drew us back to the Outer Hebrides, where we'd had to bail out half way through our journey in 2014 thanks to sunshine bringing strong headwinds as we made our way up the Uists. Could we make it all the way up the archipelago this time, with the girls out of their trailer and on their own pedals?

Over the next little while we will tell the story of our expedition, what we did and how we did it. We have kit and destinations to review, and as always, advice and opinions along the way about adventuring with children and the particular things that matter to us.

Can a four year old on a trailerbike rack up 200 miles in eight days, in all weathers, over wild terrain? Too right they can. Stick with us to find out how!

Friday, 25 August 2017

Vatersay - Barra(bados)

I woke because I heard the zip on the tent open. I sat bolt upright, who’s that? Tom’s space next to me was empty, and I could see his silhouette through the inner tent. I relaxed back into the warmth of my sleeping bag, content that it wasn’t either an escape bid by one of the girls or a stranger come to tell us we had pitched in the wrong place.

I had woken twice in the night, because it was chucking it down. In the morning light, all of our stuff had remained perfectly dry, and for now, it seemed dry outside.

Terra Nova (1) - (0) Hebridean weather

Tom was by now rustling in the panniers in the vestibule. Hearing the sleeping mat squeaking against the groundsheet, and knowing that I was therefore awake, he stuck his head back in through the inner to wish me good morning. The girls were still sound asleep.

“What are you up to?”, I say, hoping that the rustling is a precursor to breakfast. “I’m going to do some filming and take some photographs,” says Tom. Ok, I admit at this point, I’m a bit disappointed about the breakfast, but so far, this is par for the course.

“And I’m going for swim”.

Wait a minute. Rewind. What?

“You’re going for a swim? Are you crazy?” He grins at me (what kind of an answer is that?) and disappears.

As I step out of the tent a few minutes later, I have to admit that the beach is beautiful and the blue water does look inviting. Then I recollect again that we are in the Outer Hebrides, and that inviting-looking blue water is the North Atlantic, and probably freezing cold.

Down on the beach, Tom is stripping off. He gestures to me, and holds out the camera. I grab it and point it at him, still wondering whether he is actually going to do this. “Lars Simonsen, this is all your fault!”, he yells, and canters off into the breaking waves (inspired by our Danish friend’s early morning swimming antics on our recent trip to Denmark). He has to run in quite a way before the water gets deep enough for any swimming. Surely he’s going to turn around? No, no, he’s actually in the North Atlantic. I hope the girls stay asleep. I don’t want to have the argument with Ruth which will naturally ensue if she thinks she has missed out on a swim. At the actual beach.

The swim is (predictably) quite a short affair, but Tom professes himself ‘refreshed’. He looks chilled through, and grabs a few extra layers before continuing his filming expedition, this time armed with Ruth’s waterproof camera.

I go back to the tent, where I can hear the first signs of the girls stirring. Ruth is first awake, and she has remembered exactly where we are and the promise made last night that we would have a trip to the beach in the morning. I get her clothes out, strategically handing her the ones she wore yesterday to get sandy, and layering on top her waterproof trousers to try to keep her warm. I leave her shoes and socks in the tent - no point getting those full of sand. Rhoda is next, and then we are off to the shore, ready to play and explore.

There is no-one else around, at all. We have the most beautiful beach, right outside our tent door, and it is all ours.

This is what it’s about.

We leave our trail of footprints on the pristine sand, being the first people there. Rhoda’s tiny little feet are dwarfed by the yeti prints Daddy leaves in his wake. We write our names in the sand. We paddle in the little breaking waves at the water’s edge. We look at the seaweed and the shells. It is idyllic.

Tom snaps away. And then Tom is fishing Rhoda out of the water. She has disobeyed the instruction to hold hands, jumped over a wave and fallen flat on her face. She’s in no danger, she isn’t hurt, but she is soaking wet. 

Time for that breakfast then, and a change of clothes for Rhoda!

The best of the weather seems to have gone too, and we are mindful that as wild campers, we don’t want to spoil the beauty for others by leaving our tent stuck in the way. The girls are not happy. They don’t want breakfast. They want to play. I bribe them with the promise of stroopwafels and milk, and they reluctantly trail along behind us back to the tent.

By the time we have washed hands and feet, eaten and changed Rhoda into dry clothes, it is clear that the good weather is well and truly behind us. The rain has started again. Blast - the tent will now be wet going back into the panniers.

I deflate sleeping mats and compress the sleeping bags back into their panniers. The kitchen gear (which Tom 'washed' in the sea) is stowed, and we now can barely move in the tent. The vestibule is full of bikes and panniers. We debate what to do next. We know that the tent’s inners can be stripped out from the fly, and we might get the groundsheet out dry. Is it going to be worth the hassle when we have to reassemble it all? Or is it better to have the comfort of knowing that the inners at least, will be dry when we have to pitch the tent again tonight? The theory is that we can just drop the whole of the tent’s interior, but we have never done it. If we accomplish it, leaving just the fly and the poles, we can have everything else packed and hung on the bikes, keeping us out of the wet (and consequently keeping everyone warm) for longer. We decide to go for it.

We launch into a sing-song of our anthem for the trip: “Oh, pack it in your panniers” (to the tune of the 'Hokey-Cokey'). Another of those surreal moments - what else would we be singing on a Hebridean beach in the pouring rain trying to shovel as much as possible away still dry?

We put the tent inners in… (dry!)
We pull the ground sheet out…. 
Contort ourselves to fold it and we shake it all about. 
Everything is dry except the pegs and fly 
That’s what it’s all about….

Oh! Pack it in your panniers… (repeat until blessed)
With only the poles, pegs and fly sheet left, there is nothing for it but to venture outside. We wheel out the bikes, task Ruth and Rhoda with helping to collect the pegs and set about dismantling the last remnant of shelter.

We are wrestling the wet tent when a cry goes up from the girls. They have just spotted Noel, Clem and Steff approaching on their bikes. They have been for a ride to the end of the road, having had lunch and had just arrived for a visit to the beach.

We agree that we will meet them shortly at the Vatersay community cafe next to the beach, where we are about to head for lunch and drinks and leave them to explore. First though, we have an appointment with the end of the road in Vatersay, so that we can say we have ridden the whole way. We are only a few hundred metres short, so it doesn’t take long. The end of the road is not particularly exciting, as ends of the roads go. The road terminates in a T-shape, surrounded by houses and a sentinel telephone box. We turn and head back (checking that Strava has definitely captured the moment - after all, if it’s not on Strava, it didn't happen!) the way we have just come and stop at the cafe.

We are struck by what a lovely facility it is for such a tiny island. There are showers, toilets, water and facilities for campers to use, with signage directing those with camper vans to a suitable place to park up. The cafe is lovely and warm, serving a tasty and reasonably priced menu. We haven’t got a huge amount of cash with us (still accustomed to paying by card wherever we go, this is a constant battle for us to remember that paying by card might not be an option out here!), but we manage to order food and drinks for all of us. Ruth is particularly insistent that she wants soup. She is not disappointed.

Steff, Clem and Noel rejoin us just as we are finishing up. We compare notes on our camp spots - we seem to have fared well, as they found their chosen beach quite windy overnight, where we have enjoyed relative quiet (apart from the heavy downpours). We explain that we are planning to stop in at the Co-op again for food before riding up the west side of the island, and then onwards past the airport to the north of the island to see the bits we missed last time. We agree to ride together, and look in the direction we are about to set off, already knowing that before very long we have to climb back over that rather large hill that we had to push up yesterday, but this time in the pouring rain.

Cycle tourists in the rain always elicit sympathetic looks in cafes when they leave. When you have three children in the group, sympathy is mixed with incredulity - “you can’t seriously be going out in that?” We remind ourselves that the rain won’t last forever (especially out here, where half an hour can transform the weather from hideous to gorgeous or vice versa), and zip the children into their waterproofs. We aren’t going to get anywhere if we don’t get going!

In spite of the precipitation, the climb doesn’t seem quite as bad in this direction. Ruth and I are last up again, having been distracted by passing the crashed plane from WWII on the hillside and views out to sea of fishing boats and little sailing boats bobbing about. The ‘Ruth pedalling while Mummy pushes’ technique is tested again and comes up trumps.

After a quick stop to restock (and obtain more cash) at the Co-op back on Barra, we are soon on our way again. The road is comfortingly familiar from our last visit. A new campsite has opened, but it is only a couple of miles away and we soon pass it, deciding that it is too early in the day to stop.

We pass the old Manse that we had looked at sadly last time, apparently still empty. Empty buildings always leave me sad - particularly those that have once been homes. This time is no different - I think again what a waste it is for such a lovely house in such a lovely place to have no family to call its own.

We had our eye on a particular rest spot in any event - the one we stopped at on our last visit where the now infamous 'extreme breast feeding' shot of me feeding Rhoda under a tarp was taken. Last time, we had settled down on a well appointed bench for a snack and a drink and the weather had suddenly turned squally, and Tom had chucked the tarp over me and Rhoda to keep us warm and dry. This time, the weather was improving, when we stopped for snacks and a recreation of the shot. Rhoda is rather larger than the last time! I’m not sure quite what Clem and Steff made of all this -we showed them the original shot so that we didn’t appear to be total nutters.


Reaching the turning for Traigh Mhor, we hit the most enormous swarm of midges, turning us into cycling ninjas, swatting them off our skin, spitting and snorting them away and wiping them out of our eyes. Evil, evil midges. Riding through a cloud of them with no warning is particularly mean - for the first couple of seconds I thought it was raining again until the skin on my hands started turning black as the corpses of those that had come into contact with the deet that I had applied earlier built up. Riding along the coast, we hadn’t been plagued too badly, but at the turning for the Ferry, the weather improved and the wind and rain subsided, the midges were coming out in force. We pushed on towards the airport. It was the wrong time of day to see a plane land, but the views were every bit as spectacular across the bay was we remembered. Last time, we hadn’t cycled up this part of the island. Tom and Thomas had had a tour by car from the owner of the campsite we stayed with, and I hadn’t been this far at all.

We reached the tiny airport, with its miniature facilities. The baggage reclaim is housed in what can only be described as a bus shelter. Literally, the bags are passed from the plane by hand to a bus shelter. That is the baggage handling facility. We didn’t have any suitcases, but (possibly taking being likened to luggage on the back of the bike a little too seriously) soon Ruth and Rhoda were taking turns along the baggage belt.

We toyed with whether to wild camp, or to go to a campsite. In the end, the soggy start to the day, sandy children and bodies covered in midge corpses meant that the idea of a hot shower and an indoor cooking area won out, so we headed off to Eoligarry and the signed campsite at Croft 1, with the single track road turning into two gravelled ruts as we continued along it.

Putting the tent up was a rather more involved affair with the inners detached. While Tom rehung the inners, I slung the tarp over the bikes, as more rain was forecast, but we needed the vestibule space to get our panniers back in some semblance of order after our unorthodox departure.

Poor Rhoda’s face full of midge bites left her looking like she had a dose of the measles. The lady at the campsite said even the local kids at the nursery she worked at were covered. Tom and I endured a miserable evening of itching caused by the previous night’s bites, and tried to avoid collecting any more. The forecast rain arrived as we were turning in for the night, so we hoped that might at least mean they would be kept at bay for the morning...

To be continued...

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Odyssey from Oban: the beginning

We had been here before, at the CalMac Ferry Terminal in Oban, three years previously.


Ringing the changes as we posed by the departure board to recreate the shot we took when we stood in the same spot, Tom and I mused that: 
  • we now numbered four, rather than five (Thomas Ivor being away enjoying a summer holiday with his mum); 
  • we had two little girls proudly riding their own trailer bikes, rather than a four month old baby and a nineteen month old toddler; 
  • the “old faithful” trailer was no more; the bikes were not the same ones, having been stolen and replaced in the interim; 
  • we had gained two new pairs of panniers; 
  • we weren't carrying nappies (hurrah!); 
  • the only surviving cycle kit from the original trip were the panniers, bar bags and Tom’s rear brake rotor; and 
  • Tom and I haven't changed a bit [*disclaimer - this bit may not be entirely true...*]

Last time, we had set off with high hopes and, thwarted by strong headwinds, had cut short our trip at Lochmaddy. This time, we had a far better idea of where we were going, places we were keen to revisit, places we had missed last time that we wanted to explore, and a whole lot of local knowledge bestowed by our generous host from the night before (including a hand drawn map of highlights and camp spots for us to visit on Barra). The forecast also promised a prevailing wind from the south for the majority of our trip. We were optimistic, and Tom in particular was determined: this time, we would cover the whole of the Hebridean Way.

The good omens were stacking up: thanks to the kindness of the new friend we had met and stayed with the previous night, we had secure parking for our car, and had managed (with only one slight hiccup) to get everyone and all the kit to the quayside, the car back to its parking space and Tom back with us in plenty of time for the ferry. The slight hiccup was failing to unload the water bottles when we unloaded everything else from the car. With some seriously inventive stowing technique, Tom cycled back to the ferry terminal from Connell carrying no less than six bidons about his person. Probably best not to ask where they were stowed....

Tickets for the ferry purchased, we also had a spare hour to make the most of proximity to the seafood stall on the quayside for lunch. This is one of the best bits of holidays by the sea - seafood more plentiful and tasty than anything we can get at home. I set off with Ruth for a first foray, and Ruth meant business. She had, in her pocket, three coins totalling four pence, and she meant to buy us all dinner.

The staff at the seafood cabin were brilliant - a lobster was extracted from the chiller cabinet for Ruth to examine at close quarters and to marvel at the pincers (held fast by elastic bands). I was only frustrated that I hadn't brought my camera with me to capture it!

Ruth can now identify for herself crab, lobster, scallops, prawns and mussels, and on seeing the pictures on the menu made a few requests of her own, her eyes decidedly larger than her tummy! The staff let Ruth "pay" with her money (whilst quietly taking the real payment from Mummy) and solemnly gave her the "change" (including her original three coins).

We went back to Tom and Rhoda bearing freshly cooked scallops in garlic butter, a very generously filled prawn sandwich, a similarly generously filled smoked salmon sandwich and a portion of freshly cooked mussels. The scallops and mussels didn't last long. Tom and Rhoda went back for a second go, and came back with dressed crab, a pot of prawns, more mussels and more scallops. When you know that in the evening you'll be cooking over a camp stove, you make the most of good food when you find it!

The time to the ferry departure had ticked away easily, and we gathered the uneaten sandwiches and retrieved the bikes and luggage from the rack. In the queue for the ferry we spotted another family of cycle tourists, and the girls were delighted to see a child conveyance they recognised - a Weehoo! In day to day life, we meet very few cyclists attempting anything like what we do, especially with children, so we were delighted to say hello. Ruth and Rhoda, in the inimitable way of children, decided that they had a new best friend. Instantly.

We boarded the ferry and the girls were already disappointed that our new friends had to park their bike on the opposite side of the ferry! During the crossing, we chatted with Clem, Steff and Noel and found that they were intending on a circular route out and back from Oban.

The weather for the crossing was kind, (unlike three years ago when Ruth was spectacularly sick in the canteen shortly after polishing off a full meal), and we had our only minor mishap when Rhoda lost her footing and barrel rolled down a flight of steps, giving herself a significant bruise to her shin. The first ‘first aid moment’ of the trip was dealt with by judicious application of an ice pack and some chocolate buttons, and Rhoda was soon back to looking out the windows with Ruth and her binoculars and playing noughts and crosses in her notebook (new game of the trip, requiring some surreptitious parental manipulation to get Rhoda to achieve the occasional win, since she generally wasn't all that bothered about whether her three noughts or three crosses were actually in a row, and was pleased with herself for taking a turn and drawing a nought or a cross anywhere on the page).

We unwrapped the sandwiches from Oban for a snack, supplemented by a bottle of Irn Bru for Tom (when in Roma…), two fruit shoots and a cup of tea. We’re so rock and roll. Rhoda also asked for a hot chocolate, and was surprisingly patient about letting it cool down.

The girls made friends with a dog and its owners, travelling in the pets area by the staircase, and enjoyed much enthusiastic patting. Ruth and Rhoda seemed surprised to see a dog on a boat- the idea that pets might travel on the ferry hadn't occurred to them.

As we approached Castlebay, we took the girls up on deck so that they could enjoy the view of the eponymous castle as it came into view. Tom and I took a good look at the beaches on Vatersay as we passed, as we were planning to head there to camp for the night. The weather was dry but the cloud hung low over the hills as the ferry made its way in. We were glad that we weren't starting out on the big climb up out of Castlebay to the east this time, as it looked like the road was disappearing right into the cloud.

Instead, when the ferry disgorged, we paused to let all the cars set off on their way, before heading down to the Co-op to stock up on food and water. A motor home beeped and its driver and passenger waved as it passed us- it was the couple with the dog. Ruth and Rhoda waved back exuberantly.

On our last trip, we hadn’t been over the causeway to tiny Vatersay. This time, we were determined to start at the very bottom of the Hebrides, and that meant tackling the only climb marked on the OS Map with arrows to indicate its sharp gradient profile. We set off with the brave (stupid?) aspiration of slogging up it without pushing, with Steff and Clem along too. I was soon in my granny ring, wishing I had changed the cassette for one with more teeth, when a local lad on a road bike passed us with a cheery wave. My heart sank when he stopped about fifty metres further on to get off and push - if he couldn’t cycle up it on an unloaded road bike, how were we to fare slogging up there fully laden on touring bikes, towing the children?

As it happened, I needn't have worried. Tom made it at least as far as the cheery local chap before abandoning: we cycle tourists are clearly made of tough stuff! Ruth and I stopped for a quick photo of the ferry as the climb offered a lovely view back across the bay. Ruth was astonished at how far away and how little the big boat that we had just left looked, and proudly got her own camera out of her top tube bag to capture the moment for herself. We stowed everything away, and I braced myself to push the bike up the remaining 12% slope to catch Tom, Steff and Clem.

It was at this point, that Ruth proved herself to be rather a smart little cookie. “Look Mummy, I’m helping!”, she announced, determinedly changing her gears and starting to pedal. And she wasn’t kidding - the bike lightened measurably as I pushed it, our pace quickened. I was rather ashamed that I hadn’t even thought to ask her to pedal as I pushed - I had just assumed that because the going was tough, she would want to rest. This was the first lightbulb moment where I realised that Ruth had her own ambitions for this trip, and she was not planning to be a mere passenger. I looked at my baby - a baby no more, and was awestruck at the strength of personality she is already exhibiting. As we neared the top, Tom saw the effort she was making and called out praise and encouragement for her. She dug in even more, visibly proud of herself.

The gradient eased as we neared the war memorial at the top of the climb, and we caught Tom and Rhoda, who had stopped to wait for us (Tom had beaten me to it, despite the “help” from Rhoda only consisting of her usual backwards pedalling). Ruth’s disappointment that Steff, Clem and Noel had gone faster than us was very vocal. She wanted to ride with our friends, and if Mummy wasn’t up to it, she was single handedly going to propel us to catch them up.

What Ruth still has to learn is that whilst we may well not have been as quick on the way up, all that extra weight does have its advantages on the way down! With minimal effort, we were soon freewheeling down the other side with gathering speed, gravity doing all that was necessary to catch up the gap, and the wind soon swung in behind us too.

We whizzed along a little further with Steff and Clem, over the causeway, before they decided to turn off to find a camp spot. We had already determined upon heading to one of the two beaches at the end of the road (depending upon which way the wind was blowing), so we carried on, swooping down quiet roads, and passing a group of ladies on road bikes at the side of the road, who looked as if they were about to set off having fixed a roadside mechanical.

When we reached the beaches , it was a really easy choice of where to pitch - one beach was sheltered, the other was facing the full force of the wind. We pushed the bikes through a gate and up a path over the dunes towards a stile. We could see a couple of people already there, and when we reached the top, we saw a large teepee already erected looking out over the sea. The people we had seen as we laboured up the dunes were unloading large quantities of cushions and duvets into the teepee, the sort of romantic looking camping gear that is hugely impractical - quick to get damp and slow to dry, heavy and cumbersome. Then there was all their kitchen paraphernalia - it looked more like moving house than camping! We looked back at the six bags on each of our bikes, and once more wondered why anyone would think they really needed so much STUFF just to spend the night in a tent.

The ladies on road bikes that we had passed a couple of miles back arrived and came to take in the views. They stopped to chat, the girls’ cuteness factor having attracted their attention. They were travelling light and bright - a group of friends from across the UK reunited for a summer cycle trip (but no camping). They also watched the performance with the teepee. As they turned to leave, Tom and I decided that we would find our camp spot further up, and we strolled along looking for a nice flat patch big enough to take the tent, ideally not visible from the road or the houses beyond.

We think we did rather well with this one:

We even managed to get the tent up and all our gear inside before the midges really descended. The new Alpkit tent pegs found purchase in the sandy ground, no problem. Money well spent. Tom did the honours with the cooking and braved the midges, whilst the girls stayed zipped in their inner tent and I inflated sleeping mats and shook out sleeping bags to loft. This was the bit of the day the girls liked the least - whilst the midges swarmed outside in the shelter of the tent, the girls were cooped up when they really just wanted to run around. It was already getting dark, because it was already early evening when the ferry arrived. We promised Ruth and Rhoda a proper beach trip in the morning, scoffed our pasta, and heard the first drops of rain start to pit pat on the fly sheet.

Tom looked at me - “Do you think we can get the bikes in here? It would be a shame to get everything soaked on the first evening of the trip.” Only one way to find out! We piled the panniers down either side of the vestibule, and brought in first the two trailer bikes (laid to try to avoid damage to the derailleurs and to avoid the drive trains coming into contact with the tent inners), then my bike, and finally Tom’s bike. Everything inside! It was certainly cosy, but we had no problem creating a route from each inner to the tent door, and with the girls already tucked up in their sleeping bags, the vestibule space would only be wasted overnight whilst we all slept. Tom and I were ready to escape the midges by battening down the hatches in our inner tent.

Tom sat up and downloaded copies of the memory cards from each of the cameras, and soon the glow from Tom’s phone and head torch were the only lights we could see. We are always struck by how dark the darkness is when you are away from the urban light pollution. Both of us tend to fall asleep quicker. Tonight, we could hear the waves lapping on the shore and could snuggle up into our sleeping bags while the rain poured down knowing that all our gear was inside the tent. Bliss. We would find out in the morning whether the tent had lived up the big promises TerraNova made about it - nothing like a dose of sideways Hebridean rain to test how waterproof your tent really is...

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Bothying at Cadderlie - When cycle touring becomes night hiking!

I have never before stayed the night somewhere without having any idea where I was. Our trip to Cadderlie was therefore a first in more ways than one!

We did our research before we set off: we had the map, the GPS co-ordinates and a reliable account that the run in to the bothy was a 3.5 mile path that we would be fine to cycle along to get in, once past the loose stuff round the back of the quarry.

Unloading the car as darkness closed in, I was reminded of why we had stayed the previous night in a Premier Inn (me: dear husband, I do not want to arrive after a six hour drive in the pitch dark to a derelict hut dragging tired children and all our sleeping and cooking gear with me, especially when eldest daughter is still recovering from the illness that saw her have a ride in an ambulance to A&E just a few days previously!)

It was raining, but the book suggested a walk in of only an hour or so. Cycling three and a half miles, we thought, even with a hilly route, we could do in half an hour, but despite best efforts to arrive before dark, we were to be thwarted, and we successfully missed all of the scenery that we had been planning to enjoy as we walked in.

Shortcut to two hours later. We are standing on the path, in the rain, wondering just how much further the bothy is. Ruth is taking our picture, for which I at least manage to smile gamely:

There has been very little "cycling" in - this was a slog - dragging loaded, heavy, recalcitrant bikes along loose, wet, steep gravel paths (and on some stints, hanging on for dear life to make sure that the bikes didn't hurtle down the loose, wet, steep paths without us!). We have therefore made much slower progress than the expected timings for walking in, instead of cruising along on our bikes.

After three miles of trekking along the path, we began looking around expectantly. Are we nearly there? Tom decides it's time to consult the GPS to see where we are relative to the co-ordinates we need for the bothy.

What a blow - the co-ordinates confirm our fears. We still have a mile to go and Rhoda is on the verge of nodding off in her seat and falling off. The jelly baby rations make their first appearance of the trip to keep morale up! What could be better encouragement to a three year old to stay awake than the promise of sugar?

Nearly three quarters of a mile further on, we come across a large gate, closed across the path. The head torches and our bike lights reflect back at us from eyes belonging to unseen creatures. Just 400 yards short of the bothy, we encounter an entire herd of rather large 'heeland coos'. The sign on the gate informs us that this is a working farm and asks walkers using the path to keep the gate closed.

Flashing our head torches in one another's eyes now, Tom and I have a brief exchange of glances. Too late to go back (no way my aching back and shoulders would cope with the return journey without a rest). Do we pitch the tent right here on the path and just crawl into it and admit defeat? Farmers don't leave bulls in fields with public paths across them without warnings, do they? Those coos have mighty big horns. Could we even pitch the tent here? The ground is very compacted - we'd never peg it out. We could probably see the blasted bothy from here if it weren't well after bedtime.

We elect to do what any responsible parent would do. "Ruth, can you go and open the gate please?" Ha! That will sort it. A herd of heifers is no match for a toddler who's not had her tea yet.

Ever the gentleman, Tom ventures first into the field, Rhoda back on the bike for the last push. Ruth slams the gate shut, jumps on her bike and I set off gamely behind Tom. "Are there any lions, Mummy?", ponders Ruth aloud. I stifle the urge to giggle. The indistinct shapes around us start moving. And mooing. I reassure Ruth that there are no wild lions in Scotland. No, darling, no tigers either. Ruth is satisfied. Mummy and Daddy hold our breath - what will a field full of cows make of a family of cycle tourists turning up in the pitch dark and tramping across their field?

Not a lot, as it turns out. They moo, and they bravely run away.

Next problem - how do we see where to turn off for the bothy? We peer off to our right, looking out for any posts, waymarkers, or paths. The torches don't illuminate very far. We recalled the description of the walk in - cross the burn, over a wooden bridge...

We hear running water. It has to be close! Is that it? We pause by a stream and scour the area for any sign of a path or a roof (or a welcoming gleam of light from anyone already there!). Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Naff all.

Tom looks again at the GPS. It should be 100m to the North and 300m to the east. We press on. Louder sounds of flowing water, and , is that the bridge? This one is bigger. Much bigger. There's a post... We stop. Nope, that's just a post. Wait, there's another one! Sensing he is the only one with a shred of hope left, Tom sets off on a solo reconnaissance mission.

WE FOUND IT! Mummy cannot see it. Mummy is sceptical. Ruth is hungry. Rhoda is nodding off again. HONEST, IT'S RIGHT THERE! Tom shines everything we own in the direction he is pointing. I can finally make out the shape of a building in the gloom.

There is a path. It is wet, muddy and rather squelchy. Remembering that the last time Daddy offered Mummy help navigating boggy ground, she ended up thigh deep in mud, whilst Daddy kept his feet dry, Mummy is more than happy to let Daddy go first.

We find the door, and open it (when we later look back at our arrival footage, this bit is vaguely reminiscent of the 'Blair Witch Project'). We have shelter. And we have it to ourselves. We bring in our gear and have a quick look around. Tom sets about trying to get a fire lit to warm us through, as our coats are sodden. We peel off wet layers and hang them to dry on the hooks on the wall.

Time to crack out a celebratory stroopwafel each for two tired little adventurers. Rhoda gets a second wind and wakes up. Ruth watches the fire lighting with interest. There is disappointing news on the fire front. There are stacks of kindling, newspaper and copious supplies of toilet roll, but a sad couple of logs and no coal.

This was the first bothy I have arrived at where the previous visitors had apparently made no effort to leave any fuel for those following them. Dead wood lying everywhere, there turns out to be nothing to cut it with.

We cook a hasty meal of pasta on the Jetboil (thank God for the speed of the big Jetboil) and get the girls' bedding set up.

When I turn around triumphantly with a hot meal, I find Ruth curled up and asleep in front of the fire. We rouse her and persuade her to eat a little before we tuck her into her sleeping bag. We hear nothing from either Ruth or Rhoda until morning - they sleep the sound sleep of little girls who have had a big adventure.

Tom and I sit in the living area and look out the bothy book, before we go to bed. There are some very "inventive" entries, and a couple of recent ones warning of less-than-timid mice. We are therefore extra careful to put away all of our food and cooking gear, and to hang up all of our bags well away from the floor.

I then spend a fitful night imagining marauding hordes of mice gnawing through packaging and mice crawling across my face. None actually do, there is no sign of any mice anywhere the next morning. On the other hand, one creature that surely has had a midnight feast is the tiny but fearsome midge. Rhoda's face is covered, Tom has been bitten liberally around his hands, ears and back of his neck and I am sporting a few too. Ruth hasn't a single one.

Daylight reveals to us for the first time where we actually are. It is still raining, and the views across the loch are less expansive for the rolling cloud over the mountain tops, but still pretty breathtaking. Out of the window, we can see the herd of coos that we encountered last night meandering around the bothy, and a fairly well trodden route shows their habitual track to the water's edge.

Tom goes out to look for more firewood, and to refill our water bottles from the burn using our new water filter. That should be enough to keep us healthy, but for good measure we also give the water a blast from the Steripen to give any bacteria a neutering. It doesn't taste bad.

We all put on our waterproofs and head out for a walk. Exploring, we discover that we are in fact, somewhere really rather beautiful. The views out from the bothy are stunning (even in the rain). The burn next to the bothy is also very beautiful, and is an internationally recognised and rare geological feature. The sound of the cascading water is glorious.

The midges by the water, however, are pure evil, and are unperturbed by the Jungle Formula repellent. We retreat to the bothy to decide what to do next.

Having undertaken such an effort to get to the bothy, and comfortable within it, we debate the merits of trying to stretch out our stay to another day. Water is no problem, but we only brought food rations for an overnight stay. We have (as always) a stash of extras, but not a huge amount, and there is no fuel. Any wood we collect now will be sodden and not really ready to burn immediately. We contemplate sending Tom out on a solo mission toting empty panniers to bring back food and fuel, but it is a decent ride to the nearest place, and he will be gone for several hours if we take this option. With the rain falling, the girls will soon be fed up of being cooped up. The bothy is equipped with a library, but the titles it stocks are a little mature for a 3 and a 4 year old.

We therefore pack up our things, and decide to head back to the car. The journey back takes nowhere near as long in daylight as it did last night - we make quicker progress across the loose sections with the confidence that daylight brings (especially the downhill parts!) and pause to enjoy the views out.

We encounter only one person during the whole of our trip, and he turns out to be a certifiable nutter. I say encounter because he was hidden in the undergrowth (we didn't ask what he was doing) and proceeded to offer (unbidden) a detailed account of his entire life and the plot of a self-published book he was writing, set in the future after we have colonised Mars, invaded the Netherlands but seceded from Scotland, and involving various members of the Royal family in acts of unspeakable perversion and debauchery (working title, "Good f***ing, my liege, Good f***ing", naturally). I ended this particular encounter (having blundered into it only after Tom and Rhoda had been captive for some minutes already) by saying "Girls, close your ears. Nice to meet you, but we're leaving now. Goodbye!" We may have just missed out on first reading the of next literary blockbuster to come out of Bonawe - we will never know (but I'm ok with that!).

Racing another incoming shower, we return triumphantly to the car, and mobile signal, to find a text message received late last night offering us a bed with a friend nearby - the whole expedition had been undertaken when we had an offer of a warm, dry, midge free bed for the night! Our first adventure of the trip under our belts, we bravely decide to see if said offer still stands, 24 hours on...