Sunday, 27 August 2017

It's raining midges - crossing the Uists

Having spent a small fortune, we took our time to savour a later than usual start, waking as we did in proper beds with our panniers still largely packed on the bikes; our roomies, meanwhile, had left early. We were the last to leave Howmore at quarter past eleven, and even though the day was well on, boy, the midges were bad. Clouds of them outside the buildings (which we had to move between) and a shedload in the toilet. In discomfort and cheesed off, I attacked them with the air freshener to protect the few parts of me as yet unscathed, while I used the facilities.

Ironically, the weather was dry and improving, which is often what happens when we see a dodgy forecast and get ourselves under cover for the night. We posed for a picture and rushed to get moving, to give the midges a slightly harder time, setting out once more onto the (happily, quiet) spine road in very similar conditions to our previous visit. Passing the statue of Our Lady of the Isles, we remembered how a coach load of pensioners from Ayrshire stopped us and gave Thomas Ivor a big bunch of grapes, anxious that he had enough fuel for the task at hand!

Today was the point where we would start to break new ground, heading up the West coast of North Uist towards Berneray, rather than bailing out to Lochmaddy and Skye as we had to previously. The road off South Uist is really rather dour, and in our frustration at the expensive night out, the midges, the changeable conditions and slightly recalcitrant children, arguments broke out between Katie and me, mainly about pacing and every filming opportunity I tried to take being wrecked by rare but seemingly deliberate appearance of cars running through the shot!

Via a predictably unsuccessful otter-spotting stop at the causeway, we pushed ahead to the Co-op megastore in Benbecula. After the retail desert we'd been through, I was astonished to count seven tills and be able to pay with my watch for the first time in about a week! The weather, muggy and moist as it had been all morning, was warming up, and so the shopping, which had to be more expansive than usual because of the impending Sabbath and our proximity to Protestant islands, began with a round of ice creams. I cracked out the big seat pack to help stash extra shopping, thereby proving that if you can't decide between bikepacking and panniers, you can always use both.

The children were still in a funny mood when we got to Benbecula's war memorial for our planned lunch stop, previously the scene of the 'lady and the cake' incident where a man (possibly me) once dared to suggest to a lady cycle tourist (definitely Mummy) that we could "keep that cake for later". This time she was taking no such risks with her Tunnocks teacakes. Ruth proceeded to make her own contribution to a thus far rather chaotic day by wetting herself, whilst doing Vic Reeves impressions involving Jack Dee's face and a blacksmith's bum-bag. This scene may, or may not, reach the final edit of the film of our trip...

As we packed up to move on, a cyclist whom we recognised from the hostel the night before, stopped to say hello. He had done the loop of North Uist and was on his way back to Howmore. I must confess I was secretly rather jealous of the ground he'd covered - touring with the children has been a serious change of pace from going out on my road bike at home most days over the past few weeks.

Crossing the causeway to North Uist, our hearts sank as we saw a Police car in the distance, blue lights on and apparently waiting patiently for us to reach them. We debated what they might be picking on us for, but when we got to them, they turned out to be guarding a rather mysterious crime scene!

Berneray, our 'stretch target' for the day, was starting to look a long way off and Katie was in search of a toilet - a proper one, she insisted; not a cycle tourist's one. Right on cue, we waved back to a man cutting the grass at the church whose car park we had sat in to feed Rhoda and plan our bailing out move to Lochmaddy in 2014. We decided to ask him for advice about where we could go to church tomorrow, and came away having had a tour of the church (including the toilet, much to Katie's relief) and, to our collective relief, a suggestion for wild camping, not too far from the Sound of Harris ferry - within sight of the gentleman's house, it transpired.

Quite how and why, since the spine road runs continuously across the islands, we knew not, but the local traffic was palpably more friendly on North Uist; it seems to rub off on the visiting drivers. who were treating us rather more gently. Rhoda's interactions with passing cars become more smiles, waves and 'thank yous' and fewer grumpy faces for close-passing vehicles. Taking the West side of the island, it was time to crack on and hit our first new roads since Vatersay. Almost in celebration of this fact, very shortly afterwards Rhoda suddenly decided she would start pedalling forwards continuously for the first time ever. Jelly babies all round! It's amazing how, when you're touring by bicycle, your children hit all sorts of developmental milestones, and I am sure that in many cases the experiences and opportunities that are coming their way when we're on the road are directly contributory to their progress. After many frustrating trips to the bandstand, Rhoda had cracked pedalling when we least expected it - and she was loving it! 

North Uist was a stunning island not quite having the best of days thanks to the iffy weather, and the exceptionally violent midges. Mistaking one for the other, I stopped to film Katie, thinking it was starting to rain, before realising that the 'rain' was biting me all over! There were some very long straight runs, and behind us as I turned to film, views of what we presume were the mountains on the east coast of South Uist in the distance.

Whether it was the results of the effort from the pedalling, or the performing for the other road users, or both, or as it turns out with hindsight possibly a dose of the lurgy, Rhoda was flagging as the miles racked up, and we rounded the North West corner of the island. A 'nodding off session' had us rather concerned but she rallied after some jelly babies and stroopwafels. The weather was still and pleasant though cloudy, but dark clouds were rolling in and we needed to get a squirt on, find the promised camp site and get the day done with, if we were to be suitably rested for a church service and a ferry crossing the next day.

The disparity in our pace continued and in the end we decided (well, I remember a group decision; Katie is less convinced) that I would get the hammer down a bit, spend some tokens and get to the proposed camp site, so as to check all was well and get Rhoda and myself under cover before she revisited her 'can I sleep on the back of the trailerbike' game, to which we felt sure the answer was likely to be, 'NO'. Just sometimes, we miss the trailer! Rather than being constrained by tired children, in the old days we'd have been able to wrap the girls up in their blankets, get them comfortable and push on into the evening, probably making really good time. Not only does your kit solution seem to change every year, the dynamics of personal needs and the ability to make progress change so much from tour to tour, as well.

I found the road end where the man from the church lived and just as promised, there was a flat patch of grass with a lovely view overlooking the bay we'd just ridden round. I took a quick screen grab of our grid reference off the Ordnance Survey app, to help us locate it again. As it happened, Katie and Ruth had got a squirt on, too, and came in close behind. We sadly saw little of the beautiful spot we'd hurriedly pitched overlooking, because the midges got bad soon after we arrived, and apart from scurrying out to boil water and fry scallops (the location having some culinary benefits, as ever!), we stayed inside and got to bed. Rhoda was decidedly off colour; we dosed her with Calpol and got some sugar into her. I swapped inner tents and shared with Ruth so Katie, the more reliable of the two of us at actually waking when the children need us, could keep an eye on Rhoda.

I remember looking at my watch having stirred, at 0330 and apart from some rain having developed, and an aeroplane flying over, which had likely woken me, all was well again. For now, at least...

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