Mountain-biking Harris's Postman's Path
After years of thinking of excuses not to, Cicerone author Peter Edwards finally tackled the Postman’s Path on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides
For five whole years I'd been meaning to tackle the Isle of Harris' Postman's Path loop on my mountain bike. Widely regarded by mountain bikers as one of the most spectacularly located and challenging routes in Scotland, my excuses for not getting round to riding the loop had piled up against the fact that I actually live at one end of the Postman's Path in the wee coastal village of Rhenigidale.
Injury, illness, work, general busyness, challenging weather and two energetic Labradors had all provided excuses over the years, but finally a visit from my old mountain-biking sidekick, Andy Dodd, combined with an unseasonal bout of excellent weather, meant that the excuses were now out the window.
As the route is a loop it can be cycled in either direction, although there is plenty of 'hike-a-bike' involved on some unrideable steep climbs and very rocky sections. However, being a bit of a coward the question for me was: which direction would involve fewest death-defying descents?
In his marvellous Cicerone guidebook, Mountain Biking in West and North West Scotland, the estimable Sean Benz recommends riding the route in the clockwise direction as he's clearly stronger, fitter and much more heroic than I could ever hope to be.
Indeed, if you're considering riding this route yourself and are not sure whether to cycle clockwise or anticlockwise, then you must ask yourself whether you want to be like Sean Benz or whether you're a complete chicken like me.
The most renowned feature of the Postman's Path loop is the Scriob (pronounced skreeb) – a Gaelic word with various meanings including 'slide', which seems the most pertinent translation when you look across Loch Trolamaraig to the zig-zagging path plummeting from 200m to sea level in just over half a kilometre!
Given that I would obviously exercise my veto on attempting such a ridiculous descent on health grounds, it made sense to ride the route anticlockwise from Rhenigidale, thereby avoiding the also death-defying but way-too-long-to-walk descent from the top of the Scriob if cycling clockwise. Furthermore, my wife and a couple of friends had reported a substantial path collapse on the Scriob, witnessed a few days earlier when out walking the Postman's Path. That sealed it then: anticlockwise it was!
Long, tough road climb
The appointed morning arrived after several days' dry weather, and a hard frost meant that the often-boggy terrain would be about as firm as we could hope for at this time of year (late October). A long, tough road climb out of Rhenigidale at the northern terminus of the Postman's Path, past a series of lochans beneath the northern flank of our local mountain, Tòdun, was followed by what should have been a break-neck descent to the settlement of Maraig, strung around the head of the eponymous sea loch.
However, the road was glazed with a thick rime of frost in the sheltered bends and cuttings on the western side of the mountain, so we squeaked our way gingerly downhill, brake levers firmly gripped.
It was an exceptionally beautiful morning and we enjoyed trundling along the loch edge road to pick up the old drovers' track climbing steadily from Maraig to the pass at Bràigh an Ruisg between the summits of Sgaoth Àird and Stràthabhal.
Although the old track is metalled with stones it can be boggy in places, but today the frost worked in our favour and we managed the long, steady climb without losing traction on the often-slippery surface.
Descent into Glean Lacasdail
The zig-zag descent into Glean Lacasdail was exhilarating without the added benefit of scary bits, although it was notable that Andy arrived at the floor of the glen in half the time it took me. The watery expanses of the Lochannan Lacasdail, with The Minch just beyond, were lit up by the morning sun as we pedalled along the lochside track, bunny-hopping intermittent stone culverts and negotiating muddy sumps.
After politely weaving our way through a herd of sceptical-looking copper-coloured cows we emerged onto the Tarbert–Scalpay road and zipped down the tarmac to the western end of the Postman's Path proper at Urgha.
At the start of the path a warning sign flagged up the landslip on the Scriob and advised cyclists to dismount on the descent: advice that I had every intention of observing.
On many occasions, while walking the path from Urgha to the top of the 270m climb at the bealach on Beinn Tharsuinn, I'd contemplated the 2km of rocky track and thought: 'Yeah, that's do-able on the bike.' However, confronted with the reality existing outwith my delusional imaginings we managed somewhat less than a third of the climb in the saddle, stop-starting our way up hill as traction abandoned us and our wee legs begged for mercy.
It was really hard work, but eventually we made it to the bealach, marked with a sizeable pile-of-stones cairn, and re-fuelled with some fig rolls like true elite athletes.
The view north and east from the bealach is truly remarkable: a huge vista of land, sea and sky embracing north-east Harris, Loch Seaforth, south-east Lewis, The Minch – adorned by the Shiant Isles – and the mountains of Scotland's western seaboard.
The top of the Scriob
Once we were done contemplating this magnificent scene, we began the exciting descent on single-track path to the large pile-of-stones cairn marking the top of the Scriob. This was a lot of fun and we both managed to stay on our bikes, which is always a bonus.
To my surprise I did manage to ride down some of the Scriob, but I did chicken out of most of it, unlike Andy who only chickened out of some of it. The photos here give some idea of the exposure, but as you'd imagine it's even airier on the ground.
We got down to the beach at the head of Loch Trolamaraig without mishap, having edged round the landslip, and soon began some on-off hike-a-biking to the top of the climb on the opposite side of the loch.
Thereafter, we roller-coasted our way along the incredibly beautiful Postman's Path to the ruined settlement of Gearraidh Lotaigear. Before continuing along the last section of path we paused above the ruined croft houses and looked down to the limpid waters of the sea loch below.
The unmistakable fin-backed roll of a dolphin breaching the surface of the water caught my eye then suddenly there were 20 or more cutting this way and that, evidently in pursuit of a shoal of fish. A spectacular reward at the end of a beautiful, if challenging, ride.
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