1000-mile tour to Scotland and back… on a pair of Monkey bikes
WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY: Steve Chall
What a lucky lad I am – my wife Alex’s passion for bikes matches my own. Even so, I was surprised when, for her ‘special birthday’ she said she’d like a tour of the Pyrenees… on Honda Monkey bikes. A long ride on inappropriate bikes sounded like a great idea – a tour on our ‘proper’ bikes would have made much more sense but doing something daft occasionally can be good for the soul.
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That was all before Covid, which of course put pay to any possibility of foreign travel. So, what could we do instead? Neither of us had ridden in the Lake District or Scotland before, largely because we’d been put off by the potential for rain and midges. But Scotland on Monkey bikes had a certain appeal so we planned a route, booked hotels and bought two new Monkeys.
The trip started on an overcast Wirral day, and after a quick photo stop by the Liver building we headed for our first overnight stop in Ambleside. The following morning we woke up to lovely weather and set about conquering the Wrynose and Hardknott passes. Wrynose was first and the steepness of one of the uphill sections became apparent when we pulled into a passing place to allow a car to pass in the other direction. The brakes on the Monkeys held fine, but Alex’s bike began to slide steadily backwards, wheels locked on the gravel covering the steep, narrow road. Thankfully, Monkeys are light and she was able to regain control just before she and the bike reached the edge of the Tarmac and a sizeable drop. Heart removed from mouth, we soldiered on. In fact, we whizzed up and over the summit of Wrynose and down to the bridge, where Hardknott Pass begins.
Hardnott was both steeper and more challenging and the uphill hairpins on broken Tarmac were a bit of a challenge. But the Monkey bikes seemed perfect for the conditions and I found myself laughing out loud inside my helmet, so entertaining were the little bikes. In fact, we were going so well that we caught up with a 5-litre Audi Q7, driven by a young driver who seemed to be relishing the challenge as much as we were. He soon realised that he was seriously slowing us down so pulled into a passing place to let us by. We sped up to the summit and pulled in for a breather and a giggle, waving to the Audi driver and exchanging smiles as he passed.
After conquering Hardknott, we allowed the TomTom (set to ‘winding road’) to take us on a route through the Lake District and our next overnight. The roads we followed were very narrow, often hilly and mostly devoid of other traffic. In fact, some of them were very much off the beaten track – not ideal for a proper bike but perfect for the Monkeys. We experienced some beautiful scenery in bright sunshine and wondered why we had never been to this lovely area before.
That night we stayed at the Buccleuch Arms in Moffat, joined by close friends to celebrate Alex’s birthday. The place is a biker’s paradise run by a family of riders who go to extraordinary lengths to look after their clients – they even arranged for a VR46 birthday cake to be delivered.
Next morning, armed with a route to our next destination (which Dave from the Buccleuch had offered to put into my TomTom), we set off for Oban. Following beautifully winding roads, we ventured up to Wanlockhead, the highest village in Scotland at 467 metres, before travelling for miles along mostly single-track roads towards the ferry for Dunoon. It’s difficult to describe the beauty of the scenery on these hilltops and moors. The little Monkeys continued to be a giggle, handling brilliantly on flowing roads and scampering over rougher terrain with unstoppable eagerness. At Gourock, a quick ferry hop over to Dunoon saw us on our way to Oban where we enjoyed a beautiful view of the bay and surrounding islands.
It was great to see the reactions of the groups of ‘proper bikers’ who we shared experiences with in lay-bys and at petrol stations. Our little bikes always raised a warm smile – some even said they would love to do a trip on a Monkey bike.
Now we were heading for Skye, and after we left Oban the sat-nav took us on some very twisty and narrow lanes over the top of a mountain before reuniting us with the main road heading west.
We would never have chosen or even found this route without the sometimes frustrating foibles of electronic navigation, but the miles that we covered through a vibrant green landscape, where sheep and cattle seemed surprised to see us, was one of the highlights of the tour.
Alex and I spend much of our motorcycling life in and around Snowdonia, and the scenery in my native Wales is stunning, but the mountains as we headed through the Highlands, on to and across the Isle of Skye, were just awe-inspiring. Awesome is an overused word, but the scenery here deserves it. Just as important, the mountain views were complemented brilliantly by open, undulating, well-surfaced roads. Perfect for big bikes, but also really entertaining on the Monkeys, which steadily climbed the long, steep hills before quickly reaching the national speed limit downhill, taking fast, flowing bends as well as most of the bigger bikes. There were no chicken strips left on those chunky tyres…
Despite long days in the saddle the little bikes were proving surprisingly comfortable to ride, even over a decent distance, though we did make a brief rest break at the lovely Eilean Donan Castle. More chats with other bikers, exchanging tales about our respective Scottish adventures, which all of us were pursuing in one way or another.
Two nights on Skye allowed us a full day to explore the narrow, single-track roads around the north coast of the island. And since we were this far north, it would have been a shame to miss the infamous Bealach na Bà pass which leads to Applecross. So, after riding back across Skye and its bridge to the mainland, that’s exactly where we headed.
We’d become used to the little bikes tackling steep and winding roads without drama and the same was true here, the only downside being delayed by other traffic. Who would take a motorhome over a narrow mountain pass like this, particularly when the signs clearly advise against it? Anyway, over we went to Applecross, stopping for a photo at the top, returning along the same route to double the fun.
Our list of mountain passes completed, off we went to Fort Augustus for another two-night stay. Too much of this leg was spent on the A835, which is too wide, too straight and too boring for a bike that cruises at 50mph, and that’s when the journey started to get tiring. The following day we restricted our saddle time to about five hours to give us a bit of a rest. Heading over to Aviemore took us back on to some really entertaining roads and we switched the TomTom back to a winding road route to Fort Augustus. A brief stop alongside a small picturesque river and then up and over a moor, where the only vehicle we saw for miles was servicing the windfarms which sit high on this wilderness.
After a few photos and we rode back over to Fort Augustus for a pint, chatting to a lovely retired local, sitting in his regular spot with a single malt and jug of water. I told him about the route we’d just followed and showed him our map, which didn’t show the roads we’d ridden. The old chap mused and said: “Aye, there’s no name for that place, it’s just The Moor. Nobody really goes up there.”
Later that evening we met a group of AA engineers from Cornwall, also heading south after having done Land’s End to John O’Groats. Next morning we left a few minutes before the ‘AA pirates’ (as we christened them), riding down Glen Coe towards the Dunoon ferry. Each time we stopped for fuel or food, the pirates arrived moments later, bemused as to how we’d managed to keep up the same basic pace as them. Great bunch of blokes, another fantastic memory and a good reason for a group photo.
Further south, we retraced our steps to Moffat and then Ambleside, before arriving home, tired but thoroughly enthused by our experience. Of course, the most important question for Alex was, did the Monkey bike trip make your special birthday special? And of course, it had. What a truly lovely ten days.