A Pandemic Pause in the Scottish Highlands

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Seeking a break from lockdown life in London, Jonathan Kambskard-Bennett headed up to Scotland for a weeklong solo bikepacking trip last summer. Find his story of using hike-a-bikes to help forget the news cycle and his reflections on how riding has helped him through the pandemic here…

Words and photos by Jonathan Kambskard-Bennett (@jkbs.bike.ride)

It’s been a strange year, hasn’t it?

A year ago I’d already allocated all my annual leave for various two-wheeled plans over the summer months, but COVID-19 had other ideas, and slowly but surely I’ve watched each trip status switch from “looking unlikely” to “cancelled.” Now it’s winter again, and it feels like we’re right back where we started. Life in London has slowed to a stop just as the days are reaching their shortest.

It’s easy to lament the missed opportunities of 2020 and whine about the eternal uncertainty over which regulations may change at some unspecified date. By now, the relentless speculation over what the next few weeks or months may look like seems normal. But, looking back, my overall feeling last year was one of gratitude.

Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms

I feel bad even saying it out loud, but despite the global misery, there have even been elements of pandemic life that I’ve quite enjoyed. I like working from home and I haven’t had to deal with my two least favourite parts of the day: the ride across London every morning and evening. I now have an extra 80 minutes in my day that isn’t spent breathing in car fumes and dodging rushed drivers while trying to stay alive. With nothing else to do, I’ve used the time well and rekindled my interest in hobbies that I’d long since dismissed, blaming my busy lifestyle. I also did all the textbook pandemic activities, such as baking an ungodly amount of banana bread (although my sourdough career never made it beyond a failed starter), created workout routines involving only the miscellaneous furniture in my living room, and starting a herb garden on the fire escape.

Best of all, I could always ride my bike and explore. In the UK we never had a restriction on time for exercise, so I made it my mission to explore as much of my surrounding area and ride as many new roads as possible. Even cycling in central London became a pleasure in the height of lockdown. I have never seen our streets so quiet—and I doubt I ever will again.

  • Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms
  • Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms

I’d speak to friends who complained about feeling claustrophobic. They said they craved a change of scenery, that they wanted some respite from London’s monotonous grey or a dose of green countryside. I could relate. Our little flat suddenly felt tiny with five of us permanently inside, and I had to stay composed when someone beat me to the one bathroom we all shared for their morning shower. First-world problems, I know. But on the flip side, I was getting a long cycle out of London at least once a week. I’d pack some food for lunch, ride out into Kent in search of new trails, and then head back in time for tea.

In very un-London fashion, we actually befriended our neighbours; a group of lads sharing the flat below. In the summer, we sat outside drinking on the driveway, our flat on one side of the gravel and them a few metres across the drive from us, ignoring the strange looks from passers-by.

Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms

I caught one of my neighbours in a bad mood one afternoon. He’d been made redundant, one of many people I knew losing jobs thanks to the pandemic. He didn’t fancy his chances of finding another advertising job in the current climate and couldn’t pay rent without a salary, so he was moving out of London to his parents, to keep his head down “until this all blows over.” I felt guilty admitting that I was also moving out, but out of choice–to a larger house down the road with an actual garden. Like many, my priorities had shifted and I was tired of living without any outside space. I could afford an upgrade to the bedroom I’d been renting. The irony was that the pandemic had actually made me richer by closing all the pubs and preventing holidays. If you take pints out of the equation, there’s only so much a man of my basic taste can spend on bike parts.

  • Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms
  • Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms
  • Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms
Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms

By late August we had some respite from all the restrictions. After checking it was okay to do so, I made a very last-minute decision to drag my bike up to Scotland with me. Why Scotland? Well, it’s the closest I can get to big mountains without travelling abroad. The Highlands are a very long train ride from London, but that seemed more sensible and responsible than risking a trip overseas.

I’ve been fortunate enough to go on a couple of long rides in Scotland during recent years. The first was a ride across the country in the middle of winter (although I didn’t feel so lucky at the time), and the second was spent touring the famous Highland Trail 550 route.

  • Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms
  • Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms
  • Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms
  • Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms
  • Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms

Strangely, it first occurred to me that Scotland might be a nice place to go bikepacking during a chance encounter in Utah, of all places. A van pulled over when I was cycling in the desert on a roasting July afternoon and the driver offered me an ice-cold bottle of water. If you’ve ever cycled Utah in July, you’ll know that’s something you don’t refuse. My generous new acquaintance led mountain bike trips around the area and had cycled extensively in the region. But when he heard I was from the UK, his eyes lit up. “Oh man, I’d love to get over there for a trip. I’ve always dreamt about bikepacking in the Highlands. Scotland looks incredible.”

Scotland is indeed incredible. From Fort William, where I disembarked the train after my long slog up from London, you’re all on your own within half an hour’s cycle. By the time darkness was falling, I’d pitched my tent in a valley that I had all to myself. It was gorgeous.

But despite its beauty, Scotland can be a pain in the arse, especially when the midges are out. On this particular evening, there wasn’t even the faintest breeze as dusk fell and they were out in the millions. The idyllic first camp wasn’t quite so perfect all of a sudden. I dived into my tent for some respite, but this was the first time I’d camped in a while, and I didn’t quite manoeuvre fast enough to prevent dozens of midges from joining me inside. In a desperate rage, I sprayed repellent all around the inside to try and kill them. As an asthma sufferer, that wasn’t the smartest of moves. Not long after, I was subsequently back out of the tent gasping for fresh air after clogging up my lungs with DEET.

Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms

Scotland is a tough place to tour off-road. The Highlands can be deceptively remote, and the weather is volatile even in the middle of summer. This was the perfect combination for me. I’d spent months feeling trapped inside my flat, and now was my chance to roam free, stock up on fresh air, and experience some proper mountain weather.

As it turned out, the first few days of riding were a walk in the park. Normally when I go on a holiday with my bike, I bite off far more than I can comfortably chew and spend much of the first few days feeling sorry for myself and complaining about my lack of fitness. On this occasion, thanks to all my lockdown riding, I was pleasantly surprised by how strong I was. The weather was beautiful. Suspiciously bone-dry. Despite the lack of wind to keep the midges at bay when I stopped to read my book, everything was plain sailing.

  • Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms
  • Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms
  • Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms
  • Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms
  • Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms

It was too easy. My whole year had been too easy. I wanted my feathers ruffled but even the hike-a-bike sections were pleasant in the sunshine. After a couple of tranquil days, the wind finally started to pick up. It whipped itself up overnight from a gentle breeze to a forceful wall that blasted down the valley and rattled my tent. By the time I reached the mountain pass between Tomintoul and Braemar, it was a full-on storm. The dirt road was too steep to cycle, and with the rain pushing me backwards it was a long walk to the top. At the top, visibility was reduced to just a few metres. I was soaked through from hours in the rain, shivering as the water penetrated my inner layers. I stopped to relish the moment in its full misery. This was what I’d been looking for.

Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms

I’d spent too much time feeling guilty about how easy my pandemic life was while watching news of people struggling around the world. All I wanted was a little taste of suffering, the manageable type of pain that feels like a distant memory within a short while of the moment passing. Sometimes it’s okay to be a masochist. I could have spent my annual leave on a beach in the South of England working on my tan. But sometimes it’s nice to feel alive rather than just comfortable.

After a week of riding, I was finished exploring the Cairngorms. I was knackered, filthy, and bruised from clumsy falls. Having avoided the news throughout the ride, the pandemic seemed like an abstract thing of the past. The mountains you ride over don’t care about a virus. Nor do the trees that lean over trails or the streams you wade through. The Highlands don’t even care what season it is–Mother Nature will still kick your arse for no good reason other than that you are there, and that she can.

  • Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms
  • Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms

Hopefully, the storm that is COVID-19 will eventually pass and we can then ride our bikes in far-flung places without worrying if we remembered to pack a face mask. But until then, I’ll stay very grateful that I managed to squeeze in a little getaway to one of the world’s most beautiful corners, during an otherwise bonkers year.

Scottish Highlands, Cairngorms
Jonathan Kambskard-Bennett

About Jonathan Kambskard-Bennett

Jonathan Kambskard-Bennett developed a love for two-wheeled exploring while cycling 50,000km around the world. Since then, he’s tried bikepacking at pace – completing TCRno7 – but is most happy touring at a more leisurely pace, preferably off-road. He’s London based and very conscious of the fact that you don’t need to travel far to find an adventure. Follow him on his website or Instagram @jkbs.bike.ride.

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