(*Photo Credit – Carlton Reid; @carltonreid)
As autumn creeps in, signaled by the mess of leaves falling from the trees, there’s a glowing, golden colour to the trails, which calls for one last big ride before the snow sets in. On the night the clocks would change, it was time to plan a Scottish bothy adventure and make the most of British Summer Time. With sunny skies forecast on the East of the Highlands, the plan was to tackle the lengthy ascents to Glen Avon from Braemar, bringing us back to Glen Derry and the Linn of Dee.
After a night camped in the van, our morning start was delayed somewhat by missing kit mishaps and a reluctant Reverb post, resulting in a trip to nearby Ballater to make certain there’d be no mechanical mysteries on route. By chance, an old work colleague and friend had started work in the local outdoor store and kindly lent me a ThermaRest – a must for a night on the stone cold floors of any bothy retreat.
With hindsight, this stalled start played a helping hand in our first day’s mission towards the Fairndoran bothy. Nestled within the glen, almost 40km from our starting point in town, it’s a true mountain hideaway that’s been freshly fitted with a gleaming new stove. A bothy stay without a fire just doesn’t feel quite right. We’d soon find out that the later start left us riding towards a stunning sunset; a picture-perfect end to a long day in the saddle.
Stood between our bikes and the evening stop was a substantial incline on 4×4 tracks. Beginning in Braemar, there’s a short stint on the tarmac before turning into the Invercauld Estate. Weaving through the forest, we took the obvious track upwards, which would rise unyieldingly for the next 8 km or so. I relish a climb and was treated to a spicy summit ascent over 5km, the kind that appear vertical from a distance! I dug into the pedals and smashed my way up the hill, reaching a peak of 745m. For my efforts, I was rewarded with QOM Strava title and a stunning Scottish scene to boot.
Views reach all the way across to the Cairngorms National Park, and we took a pit stop to quiz the patches of heather safely guarded on the summit and soak in the scenery – a worthwhile prize for our hard efforts. A rocky ride downhill took us past a rather posh, newly erected shooting lodge, where we stopped to peer in at the stacks of wine and local beers laid out for the lairds.
Soon after we left, we met with a singletrack trail that offered a somewhat rougher, more playful route around the side of Loch Bulig. Sadly a little short-lived, it ran out before too long and brought us back to the main track again, but not without a customary river crossing to wet the feet of course. Later on, we’d find out that the dangers of this river can be feisty and fierce- sometimes fatal – but thankfully it was simply a splash and we were on our way to the final climb into Glen Avon.
Make no mistake; the last 10 kilometres are weighty with effort! Once more, we rode upwards, a steep kick to start the last leg of the day along the river Avon. Daylight became dusk, fading in rhythm with the energy in our legs. Only the sound of the rushing river and the cries of rutting stags as they chased deer on the hillside could be heard. Seeing these majestic and gracious creatures makes any suffering worthwhile; we stopped to try and capture photos as they framed the ridge of nearby summit surrounding us. Sadly, without a professional lens and some skill, it was lost on my cheap camera. Shaky legs made way for the necessary munching of a macaroon – Scotland’s answer to Kendal Mint Cake – and with a sugary surge of energy, we were only a corner away from the small bothy sat by the bank of the river.
Pulling in, a lone walker had made bed for the night and our team effort had us build a roasting fire by candle-light, followed by a tasty risotto treat bubbling on the gas stove. As is customary, we’d made best use of my bottle cage and carried a small bottle of port, along with a selection of cheese and oatcakes – no better way to feel suitably Scottish as we chatted into the dark.
Huddled in my FINDRA merino layers, eyes peeping out of my cozy sleeping bag, we made camp on the wooden floor of the bothy for the night. With bellies full of food, there was a resounding and sated sleepiness that filled the room and soon we’d nodded off as the fire burned its last log. Waking up to the fresh, chilly air, I battled a little to emerge from my cozy cocoon. Coffee and a hearty porridge breakfast marked the start of the day and by 9 am; we were on our bikes and making headway towards to the Ford of Avon.
Slow, steady and slippy is the best description for the path that leaves the bothy. As you reach the river, all that’s apparent is a faint track, maimed with boggy patches and boulders. There was little for it but to haul the bikes on our backs and negotiate the rubble and heather on the hillside. Whilst I tend to always like to ride my bike, there’s a reward in the hardship of carrying and on a morning as clear as this, there’s no sadness in being able to take in the views of this truly remote trail. An hour or so passed and with only minimal mileage covered, peeking out ahead was a tiny wooden refuge. Feeling the need for a pit stop after the laborious jaunt, this hobbit-like shelter was hidden partially by piled stones; a place I can imagine in the depths of winter takes a beating from the elements. Not today. We sat munching our Soreen loaf, chatting and reading the amusing writings that decked the inside walls.
The final stretch to the finish at the Linn of Dee makes way for more pushing, but in the surrounds of Glen Derry and glorious sunshine, this was no terrible task. As we passed Cairngorm Mountain, we looked up the Hutchison Memorial Hut, another on the must-do list of bothy nights. From there, our focus was solely on the singletrack laid out in front; a freely flowing trail that led us through pine-covered forest floors and past the abandoned and sorry-looking Derry Lodge.
Following the final 4×4 track to the car park, we stopped a moment to look at the rushing water at the Linn of Dee, before tired legs and hungry bodies enticed us back to Braemar, a coffee and cake stop waiting to reward us and finish off the perfect bothy weekend adventure.