Bart and I had an idyllic few days in Torridon but when the midges set in, we decided to spend the second part of our holiday further east. Since Bart first came to Scotland a few months ago there is one thing that’s he’s really fallen in love with and that’s our herds of wild deer. So when we headed to the Cairngorms I was hoping to have an extra special surprise in store for him.
Before I tell you the story of our Cairngorms trip, perhaps I should tell you the story of Bart for any readers who didn’t follow my previous blog, the bicycle diaries. During my two-year world cycle trip from 2010 to 2012, I was cycling into New Zealand’s Mount Cook National Park when another touring cyclist pulled up on the road beside me. A tanned, fit Belgian man with sexy cycle shorts, a crop of wild, silver hair and a gorgeous smile. We hit it off instantly, as if we’d been friends for many years. Of course fate would have it that I was cycling south and Bart was cycling north! Despite that, he changed his plans and we had a lovely week cycling and camping together before he had to catch his homeward flight. We kept in touch then met up again in Istanbul for a great adventure cycling through the winter mountains of Turkey and Greece. Towards the end of my two year trip, as I pedalled over the Alps, I was intercepted by Bart in his campervan and we spent two months cycle touring and trekking there. Then, after my world cycle trip ended, I joined Bart in the Canary Islands to help him work on his rental properties. We’d had a lot of fun together over this time but it was when Bart first came out to Scotland in March this year that our relationship blossomed. Perhaps the beauty and romance of the Scottish landscapes played a hand! Or maybe spending freezing, grim nights in a tent huddling together for warmth!
Before this starts to sound like a Mills and Boon novel, let’s get back to the Cairngorms. We spent our first day in Aviemore stocking up Bart’s campervan with groceries, eating coffee and cake in town and then working off the extra calories with a bike ride through Abernethy Forest and Ryvoan Pass. On our second day we climbed Ben Macdui via the Fiacaill Ridge which I’d never done before. The ridge is a bit of a mountain legend in Scotland and hairy men in bothies will go misty-eyed as they talk wistfully about it while stroking their beards. As we approached, the ridge looked quite daunting but in the end it was a fun and easy scramble. By now we were hankering to be out in the tent again so we loaded our packs with overnight gear and jumped on the bikes for a trip to the Cairngorm plateau.
The Cairngorm plateau is a unique place in Scotland being a high, sub-alpine, semi-tundra moorland. The mountains here lack the pointed shapeliness of those in the west but the Cairngorms have a very special atmosphere, a sense of space and wildness and many dramatic glacier-sculpted corries and steep-sided glens. The plateau itself is an ancient landscape - being so high, it was largely unchanged by the destructive ice of the glaciers. Up here there’s some unusual wildlife such as the snow buntings we saw on Ben Macdui which look like large, white sparrows. There’s also an animal that harks back to those ancient times. If we were to find it, I knew Bart would love it.
We cycled out through the Rothiemurchus pinewoods on fast dirt trails and then bumped along the rough track up Gleann Einich. The bikes were hidden away in deep heather and we started to climb the narrow path high above the waters of Loch Einich into Coire Dhondail, one of the many corries that form the scalloped edges of Braeriach. Light rain fell and a rainbow formed over the loch. The path zig-zags steeply up the back wall of the corrie and at the top pops out on the plateau. Bart and I think alike on many things but we had a small disagreement at this point. The back of the corrie was covered with a near vertical wall of old snow. It was June so we weren’t carrying ice axe and crampons. I thought that the snow was soft, sugary and not dangerous. Bart thought it was hard, slippery and that any mistake would send us accelerating to the bottom to be dashed to pieces on the rocks below! After a bit of discussion, we nervously crossed the narrowest section of snow. Our hearts were pounding and not from the love of each other!
Safely across, we climbed the final section onto the mist-shrouded plateau and there before us were the animals I’d hoped to show Bart – the reindeer! Thousands of years ago reindeer were native to Scotland but as climates warmed after the last ice age their populations dwindled and died out. This small herd in the Cairngorms of about fifty animals was reintroduced in 1952. The reintroduction was largely an experiment but they thrived in this place which is much like their native home in Scandinavia - the climate is similar, the vegetation is like that of the Arctic tundra and Ikea's not too far for those must-have soft furnishings. The herd is semi-wild in that the reindeer live natural lives out here in the mountains but there are always folk down below keeping an eye on them.
After our reindeer encounter, we pitched the tent on a high shelf above Loch Einich on a grey, grim evening and blethered the hours away until bed. Goodness knows what we talk about on these long evenings in the tent – probably stories of adventures passed and dreams of ones yet to come. The next morning we unzipped the tent to dense banks of clouds billowing up from the loch but by the time we’d had breakfast and packed up, the weather was clearing. So we trekked around the rim of the great corrie that holds Loch Einich, gasping with awe from the top of the sheer, rock cliffs that plunge down to the water. We picked off the modest peak of Sgor Gaoith before finding a steep route down through the rocks and scree.
We were soon trekking along the quiet shores of Loch Einich, marvelling at the mirror surface of the water. After a picnic lunch on the beach, we retrieved our bikes from the heather and fairly flew back down the glen. As we arrived back at the van in Glen More, a few heavy drops of water splattered on the road.
I was delighted to turn to Bart and say “Looks like rain, dear”.
Start/finish: Glen More
Map: OS Landranger 36
Route: From Glen More take the Old Logging Way bike route opposite the shop/café and follow it towards Aviemore as far as the north end of Loch Morlich. Pick up the dirt road to Rothiemurchus Lodge turning off to the right at the signpost for the Lairig Ghru. Continue to Cairngorm Club Footbridge, cross it and keep cycling west to Gleann Einich. Cycle up Gleann Einich (one easy river crossing) and before you reach the loch, hide your bike in the heather and take the uphill path marked by a stone cairn which tops out on the plateau. There’s no trail at the top but follow the high rim of the huge corrie that holds Loch Einich round to the Munro, Sgor Gaoith. Retrace your steps a little way to find an indistinct route down the back wall of the corrie above the end of the loch. Be sure to find the right route down as there are steep crags here. It becomes a more firm path and is marked on the map further down. Return to your bike via the shores of Loch Einich and retrace your outward cycle route.
Tip: If you fancy a morning coffee before you start, head to the café inside Glen More Shop – it’s got a great view of the bird feeders at the back where you can get really close to red squirrels and the local birdlife.