I can see the bothy from here. It’s tantalisingly close. In fact I’ve been able to see the bothy for quite a while. Seeing it is not the problem, getting to it is. This is my second attempt to mountain bike into a bothy, I failed last time. It was all a bit embarrassing really, I went the wrong way, had to carry the bike and when finally, I managed to ride it, I fell off and was laughed at by dogs. It’s all here.https://johndburns.wordpress.com/2014/07/06/confessions-of-a-mountain-bike-novice/
This time I am going to make it, even if it kills me as, I am beginning to believe, it certainly will. The first eight miles or so were fine. I actually managed to ride the bike most of the way into Glen Beag to get to the little bothy deep in the Highland glen. All was good until the Land Rover track I was riding stopped ran into a bog. They say you should try everything once. Let me save you the trouble of trying this experience, just take my word for it, pushing a heavily laden mountain bike through a peat bog is absolutely no fun at all. It’s like trying to heave my grandmother sat on a settee, eating chips, across the Himalayas. (She was big woman, my grandmother) In fact if I had managed to enter purgatory without having had this experience I wouldn’t have been too upset at all.
Glenbeg was the first bothy I ever visited. A group of us got permission to drive down the track and walk the last mile or so to the little shelter nestling in the shadow of Ben Dearg. I was amazed at the remoteness of the place and a whole world opened up for me. I had no idea such places existed and I have been exploring them ever since. I young guy called Martin, who everyone called Tintin as a result of his remarkable resemblance to Herge’s boy hero, suggested he and I gather fire wood.
I was a bit confused when we stepped out of the bothy as I couldn’t see a tree for miles. To my amazement Tintin started digging. Quickly he unearthed a sodden piece of tree root well on its way to becoming peat.
“There!” he announced gleefully. “Part of the old forest that.”
I had known that the Highlands were once covered in forest but until that moment I never realised that in many Highland valleys the remnants of medieval woodlands lie only inches below the surface of the peat. He had found part of a tree stump cut by the hand of a crofter hundreds of years ago. I looked dubiously at the gnarled old lump of wood.
“That’ll never burn,” I told him. Twenty minutes later we were sat before a roaring fire. I had discovered the joy of Bogwood.
That was thirty years ago and since then I’ve only visited this remote place once, and that over twenty years ago. Then I slept in the hut nearby, known as the Green house, surprisingly it was painted green. That burnt down a few years ago and now only its bones remain, littered on the grass near the bothy. The little pot bellied stove, that must have warmed a generation of estate workers and hill walkers, remains in sad defiance of the elements.
Today I despair of reaching the place and consider abandoning the bike and walking the last half mile carrying the panniers. But then, I decide, I wouldn’t have got there by bike and a second failure is inconceivable. Last time I wrote of my failure and some ardent mountain bikers, scornful of the ineptitude of a sixty year old man on his first moubntain bike, informed me that I should get the weight out of my rucksack and on to the bike. I now own a shiny new set of panniers and biking has become a lot easier.
Inch by inch the bothy grows closer. As I step out of the bog and stand only a hundred yards from my home for the night, I realise I can hear a faint roar. I’ve heard that roar before and know that it can only mean one thing, a river. Perhaps I hope, the river is the far side of the bothy and I won’t have to cross it. How foolishly hopeful the human spirit is, for I can see the river, fast, furious and between me and the bothy door. Rivers like that are always between you and the bothy, I’ve never seen one that was the far side so you don’t have to cross it to get to the door. What would be the fun in that?
I’m too tired to take off my boots and just plunge through the torrent bike and all. Moments later I push open the door of the little shelter and I’m there. Glenbeg is no longer maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) and has slipped off the hill walker’s radar. The place looks a bit sorry for itself, and I wonder if I’m the first person there this year, it’s early April as I write this. The fire place has no grate so I steal the one out of the potbellied stove in the ashes of the Green house and soon sit before my coal fire drying my socks for the following day.
Hard to believe it’s twenty years since I was here. I often hear people talking about “the shrinking planet” saying that the fact you can wake up in London and be in a different continent by lunchtime means the world is smaller. That’s not true. How much of the world can you actually know? I think you can only know what you stand on, and the length of a human stride is the only real measure of distance. You can be conveyed to the other side of the world in an air conditioned tube, eat in a mass produced restaurant identical to the one you left back home. You can sit on a beach that’s pretty much like any other beach you ever sat on. I have it on good authority that you’ll also be sitting under the same sun.
We visit places, photograph them, file them away but we don’t really know them. Now that I have my mountain bike on its feet, or more accurately it’s wheels, I’ve started to see a whole new landscape. I trace land rover tracks on the map and I’m realising that the bike will give me far greater range, I go can go places I thought were beyond my reach. With the bike I can explore a new Highlands, suddenly the place feels bigger than it ever did. I live in the Highlands of Scotland so I travel about them a lot, but still I can’t grasp the size of the place. The Highlands has an area the size of Belgium. That fact is only of any use, of course, if you know how big Belgium is. The Highlands are vast. I’m semi-retired, I’m out most weeks and I haven’t scratched the surface of this place. There are still so many places I’d like to visit, I keep discovering places to go.
We haven’t shrunk the world. Each of us only has a fleeting time to explore the world we live in. Get to know the earth beneath your feet and then you’ll learn how big a world this really is.