The Outer Hebrides – A Bongo on Harris and Lewis pt1

by backpackingbongos

I find it hard to make decisions. Therefore with four brand new maps and a guidebook for Harris and Lewis in my possession I was overwhelmed with choice. With having never visited I was faced with a blank canvas of amazing looking places. The usual problem was that I wanted to see everything and climb all the mountains. An impossible task. In the end I went with no plans except to be at Huisinis on the Wednesday evening to meet friends. The weather would dictate my days, which it certainly did.

There is no way to avoid the fact that the Outer Hebrides are a long way from the East Midlands. This is especially the case in a campervan where travelling over 60mph equates to setting fire to a large pile of money. Setting off after work I got as far as the moors near the Tan Hill Inn before succumbing to tiredness. The following day was a blur of Highland scenery as mile after mile passed by. The highlight of the day being the Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum, purveyors of the best fish and chips in the country.

Quiraing, Isle of Skye

I had booked a ferry from Uig on the Isle of Skye to Tarbet on the Isle of Harris, the shortest possible crossing. Calmac charged me a very reasonable £70 return for myself and the Bongo. Sailing from the North of Skye would give the opportunity for a visit to the Quiraing, a place I have long wished to explore.

It was late as the Bongo climbed the steep zig zags up the single track road that crosses the Trotternish ridge. Low cloud clung to the higher slopes whilst a strong wind blew across the exposed bealach. It was strong enough to make opening the door a struggle. After an age behind the steering wheel it was with some relief that I bedded down for the night. The large parking area was deserted and I had a peaceful night.

I was woken in the morning by a clunking and scratching noise from outside. Opening the door a flock of sheep scattered, they had been using the Bongo as a scratching post. The clunking had been many pairs of horns rubbing against the paintwork.

We were the first people of the day to set out along the high level path that leads to the Quiraing. Apart from one easy scramble across a greasy gully the going is reasonably level along a good path. The wind caused difficulties on the steep loose climb up towards the pinnacle, gusts causing me to be unsteady on my feet. We were then in a magical hidden world, the like of which I have never seen before. We only made it as far as the table, a spot which is crying out for a return to wild camp. Here the wind had disappeared, although the clouds were racing above like a time-lapse movie.

Once down past the pinnacle again a combination of steep loose ground and the wind meant that I took a tumble. The only damage being a bruise to my leg and ego. Even Reuben did a panicked little slide on the scree. As I returned back to the Bongo a steady stream of people had set out from the full car park. A deservedly popular spot.

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Calanais, Isle of Lewis

The ferry crossing was bumpy and with Reuben in tow I had to go without my usual Calmac fish and chips. We were confined to the doggy area as the wind and rain outside were none too inviting. Reuben ended up being a therapy dog to a Californian woman who has a fear of ferries. She and her husband were not very impressed with the weather and on a few occasions mentioned how hot and sunny it was back at home.

The sun was shining as we arrived on Harris. The daily rush hour on the island began as a queue of traffic snaked its way from the ferry towards Stornoway. I had a moment of confusion at the first road junction as the sign read Steòrnabhagh, the Scottish Gaelic version. With good early evening weather and not enough time for a proper walk I headed towards the village of Calanais and its stone circle (Callanish is the English version).

For such an important monument I was pleasantly surprised at just how low-key it was. A small visitor centre with a free car park and the stones surrounded by a bog standard wire fence. Entry was of course free. If it was in the Lake District I would have been relieved of half a weeks wages just to get a glimpse of them amongst the throngs. As it was I was the only person there as the sun was lowering towards the west. Although the obligatory hippy did pass by on his way to a nearby van. A great place to spend half an hour looking, sitting and admiring the patterns and textures of the stones.

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Bagh Dhail Mor, Isle of Lewis

One of the pleasures of the Outer Hebrides is the relaxed attitudes toward campervans. However this is also a curse. I had been tipped off that Bagh Dhail Mor would be a great place to park up for the night. It was. The problem was that a tour bus sized monstrosity was occupying all the parking spaces. It really was a revolting piece of machinery. I squeezed the petite Bongo into a grassy spot and silently fumed that the view was blighted by something with a name like Conan the Barbarian / Conquistador or whatever very large and expensive vans are called. Maybe I was just jealous.

The beach however was superb and after the wind of the past couple of days the waves were impressive as they pounded the shore. Reuben was in his element, expanses of sand causing a malfunction in his head as he raced around as fast as he could.

Sadly from the Bongo all I could see was the gold tour bus. Even more annoyingly the owners were friendly which made it difficult to hate them.

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Beinn Bhragair – 261 metres, Isle of Lewis

A map of north Lewis shows a lochan studded empty interior, the only habitation being along the coastal fringes. There are a few low-lying hills rising from the peaty wilds. The rough and rugged Beinn Bhragair looked a perfect destination and viewpoint, climbed before the forecasted rain arrived at midday.

Peat roads lead into the interior from the village of Siabost, which is strung out along the road. The one I picked was tarmaced and accessed from a bus turning circle. Its secondary function after giving access to the peat banks was as a graveyard for abandoned cars. The rusting heaps fitted in with the sombre surroundings and sombre weather. The track ended at an ugly and even more sombre concrete building which may have been some waterwork related infrastructure. A couple worked on a nearby peat bank, one cutting whilst another stacked the bricks.

The climb to the summit was short and sweet. With the small hill rising head and shoulders above the surrounding moors the views were excellent despite the gloom. It was spectacularly bleak though, a spot perhaps best appreciated on a clear sunny day.

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Mealaisbhail – 574 metres, Isle of Lewis

The Uig hills of South West Lewis are a worthy destination for anyone who appreciates wild, lonely and very rugged landscapes. I may even go as far as saying that they were the highlight of my trip. They are accessed from the end of a road that is possibly the longest cul-de sac in the UK. I stopped off overnight at the spectacular Traigh Uige, a gem of a beach. More on that in another post as I made a second visit.

The weather in the morning was awful, hills hidden under thick cloud whilst curtains of rain swept across on a strong wind. A violent storm had swept through in the night, it sounded like the Bongo was being pebble dashed as I lay in bed. Thankfully no one was in a tent at the campsite as only the strongest mountain tent would have stood a chance in the wind. However by late morning the weather suddenly changed, within minutes grey had been replaced by blue, cold by warmth. We set off in the Bongo to the scattered community of Islibhig.

The coastal scenery on the way was spectacular, the deepest blue sea churning and crashing onto the cliffs. I frequently had to stop and stare, an area worthy of exploration on foot when I return (and I definitely will some day).

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I left the bongo at the northern end of Islibhig by what I think are military ruins and took to another peat road. This one however was slowly being reclaimed by the moor. It soon disappeared leaving us on a boggy slosh towards Loch Sahnadabhat, Mealaisbhal rising in a rocky pyramid ahead. It was a surprisingly long climb to the summit, starting from sea level we had to earn every metre. As height was gained the terrain became ever more rocky, the summit a jumble of boulders.

The views took my breath away, it was a perfect mix of mountain and coast, sunny skies and dark brooding clouds. The surrounding Uig hills although they do not rise above 2000ft are more than a match for many much higher peaks. They reminded me a little of the Rhinogs in North Wales. I had planned to climb the neighbouring peak of Cracabhal but down at the bealach the bands of cliffs looked intimidating and there are no traces of paths in these hills to show the way. With Reuben in tow I decided not to head into the unknown and take risks. Instead we headed back down to the van through a tangle of rock, bog and vegetation. An afternoon short on miles but full of jaw dropping scenery.

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Mealasta beach, Isle of Lewis

A mile before the end of the single track road on South West Lewis is the small but perfectly formed Mealasta beach. I called it home for a couple of nights, an ideal location for another assault on the Uig hills the following day. It ended up being a fairly busy spot on the first night with a couple of bikers and a cyclist pitching their tents nearby. Later in the evening a German couple knocked on my door to ask if they could park their van next to mine.

Darkness comes late to the Hebrides at the end of May and I was hopeful for a sunset. This did not arrive but there was a decent light display piercing the brooding clouds. I packed my rucksack before going to bed, ready for a longer and tougher walk the following day. I was looking forward to having a full day in the hills.

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37 Responses to “The Outer Hebrides – A Bongo on Harris and Lewis pt1”

  1. Magnificent James, awesome scenery and you certainly take some fantastic photos. Reuben looks in his element.

    • Thanks for your kind words Dawn. Reuben had a great time, although he was a bit tired by the time we got home!

  2. The scenery is just like nothing else, isn’t it? And I have to say you’ve captured all the best looking weather moments in your photos, considering the weather wasn’t the best! Tilly’s busy looking over my shoulder as I type, muttering about how she can’t wait to go back again………..

    • It is like visiting another country Chrissie. The funny thing with recording trips on a camera is that it only really comes out during the sunny moments. Must get a waterproof one to capture the horrid ones! A great place to take a dog, also Reuben appeared tick free which is pretty impressive.

  3. Great photos. Really very rugged isn’t and that sea is amazingly blue. Excellent stuff James.

    • Cheers Mark. The colour of the water in some places made it look tropical (if you ignored the cold wind and rain). On a hot sunny summers day I could think of no better place than a Hebridean beach.

  4. One of your best reports I think, full of adventure. I prefer the mainland to the islands; I felt that comparing Skye to Glen Shiel on a trip a few years ago. But driving around exploring….yes, I can see the thrill of that.

    • Thanks James. I have to say that I am the opposite, I have a bit of a thing about the Islands off the west coast. Something magical about them. Spending time exploring from the comfort of a dry van was a nice change to backpacking.

  5. Looks great james, glad you had some decent weather whilst you were all the way up there

  6. Great post, v jealous of your trip!

  7. Oh wow. I must go to Scotland as part of my adventure. Your stories are always so amazing

  8. The views are stunning and for the most part very unusual – I have never seen hills shaped like those ones! Must make a mental note to visit one day! 🙂

    • The landscapes there differ greatly from the mainland Rob. I don’t think I have seen so much rock on such small hills before. I think the best comparison is the Rhinogs. Tough going but worth it for the solitude and views.

  9. That looks and sounds wonderful James. Harris and Lewis are high on my must go to list and it’s good to see there are plenty of places for overnighting in the campervan.

    • Its a perfect place to explore in a campervan David. I would imagine that the limited spots get busy in the summer months but once you step away from the roads and beaches you are on your own. There are signs now appearing on West Harris asking for a £5 a night donation to the community trust that owns it at certain spots if you stay the night.

  10. Absolutely splendid. Took me way, way, way, way back to a visit in 1977. God that makes me feel old.
    Cheers, Alen

  11. Fascinating and I’m truly envious, a trip to do for sure. Love Skye it feels different so definitely need to get properly over the water. And yes the sea is so blue. When are you going back? 😉

  12. A damn fine read Mr B, it’s a bootiful part of the world:) x

    Date: Wed, 4 Jun 2014 18:06:02 +0000 To: lastrob@hotmail.com

  13. Great stuff as always James, and a reminder to get out to the islands as soon as possible – late August is the plan. Today we did a long day on the bikes, heading west across the flat lands of Kentucky – how is that for a contrast. Thanks for bringing a bit of home to us.

    • You are getting close to the home run now Warren. There were loads of touring cyclists when I was on the Islands. I felt a bit sorry for them in the wind and rain though!

  14. Superb. We didn’t get round quite as far as them UIg’s but they are a priority on my next trip. They look bloomin’ great. One day I want to take the dinghy and do a south-north traverse, Barra to Butt (of Lewis)

  15. Mountains by the sea are the best. On a sunny day there is something magical about the contrast between the brooding mountains and depth of blue in the sea. I also like approaching a trip by ferry, just adds to the excitement I find. One of my long held plans is a to hire a van and take several weeks traveling the length of the Hebrides, camping wild by the beaches, and walking the mountains and coast.

  16. Hi James, I’m looking to backpack out there by myself in October. What time of year did you go in? I’m not scared of the weather, but I want to try and figure out what I’m in for. Thanks, and great work on your report!

    • Hi Marco, it was May when I headed out there. October is a fine time of year to visit the Hebrides, the colours are great and there is the sound of the Stags bellowing from the hills. Just be aware that stalking takes place until the 20th.

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