Monkey Run Scotland

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~1,700 words

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Last modified: January 29th, 12,023 HE

From Che Guevara to the Hell’s Angels, the association between motorcycles and (often masculine) freedom is a long-standing one. Who doesn’t fantasise about abandoning their responsibilities and riding off into the sunset as far as their two wheels will take them?

I’m not immune to such a draw and, when the Adventurists solicited brave souls to apply for the pioneer instalment of the Monkey Run Scotland back in 2021, I put my name down. Alas, it was not to be, and I soon forgot about it.

Until, the next year, they sent me an email announcing a second instalment would be taking place in 2022 and I had an option for early registration. I passed the idea around various friends, all of whom declined (often less-than-politely). Finally, I suggested it to my little brother, not really expecting anything to come of it.

Foolishly, he said yes.

And just like that, we were committed to riding a pair of very silly bikes from beyond the northernmost tip of Great Britain, down the Scottish Highlands and on to an island in the Inner Hebrides.

But first, we had to learn how to ride a motorcycle.

Our Chariots-to-Be

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We would be riding on Skyteam SKYBONGOs, Chinese-made monkey bikes with a pair of whopping 49 cc engines and all the horsepower of a fat dog.

Biking Boot Camp

That engine capacity makes the bikes mopeds in the eyes of the DVLA, so as we both had full car licenses we could get away without having to do a fully motorbike driving test. All we had to do was complete Compulsory Basic Training (CBT), a one-day familiarisation course that starts with you operating a stationary bike, builds up to pootling around a set of tires in an industrial estate parking lot somewhere and eventually has you going for a little ride around the local area with an instructor.

In theory, there is no pass/fail for CBT; in reality, an instructor can decline to mark you off as competent, which feels very much like failing a test. As it happens, I booked my CBT for a 125cc bike and didn’t have much of a problem with it. Max flubbed his first attempt, but succeeded with a different instructor on a second a mere week before we were due to head to Orkney.

Pre-antics

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I drove and he rode up from our respective cities to met in Lancaster, where we stayed the night before continuing to drive up to Glasgow Airport. There we left our car and boarded the world’s noisiest plane to Orkney, meeting our first fellow Monkey Runner in the process. We eventually arrived by unexpectedly offroad taxi to the private estate on which the camp had been erected, first met the bikes (still being assembled when we arrived) and made the most of the free bar.

The Adventurists

Over the next couple of days we familiarised ourselves with the (pathetic) capabilities of the bikes, with most people managing to snap off their rear-mounted licence plates within a couple of hours. We explored the western half of Orkney, stumbled into some sort of bagpipe-rich event going on in Stromness and found time for everything from tug-of-war to competitive whisky tasting.

And we’re off

The Adventurists

Arranged at the house of the estate owner, we were marched out of the ground by a band of pipers. What isn’t captured in this video is how difficult it was to go so slowly behind them, or the immediate multi-bike crash that occurred seconds after the video ends.

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Being as we were currently on an island, there was a natural bottleneck in the form of the two ferry routes to the Scottish mainland. Tickets were in short supply due to the confluence of several festivals on the island that same weekend, and my efforts to pre-book the earliest and closest ferry had been thwarted by Max booking his trip for the wrong day. As a result, we had to get a late afternoon ferry from the opposite site of the island and were left we several hours to kill on Orkney itself.

Eventually we did make it over and settled into our first night in Thurso.

Team #Swamparse

Together with Dominic, the guy we had met on the plane, we also spent most of the pre-antics handing out with Michael and Sara. The three of them had been more successful with their ferries and so were camping a ways ahead of us, so Max and I made an early start the next day to catch up with them, which we did near Coldbackie Bay.

The gallant heroes of Team #Swamparse

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The gallant heroes of Team #Swamparse

We started following the North Coast 500 motorcycle route, and soon found that everywhere in the Highlands is struggling with staffing. Everyone we asked seemed pretty unanimous that this was the result of Brexit, but the end result was that hotels were only offering food to guests and every other cafe was closed.

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We did eventually find an open cafe with a lovely view of a loch, and ended up wiping them out of just about everything. We were also running low on fuel and decided to make a detour to Lochinver, through what the cafe cook helpfully informed us was known as the Wee Mad Road. The name was apt, and the rollercoaster-like trail was probably the riding highlight of the whole expedition.

Us, stuck in a traffic jam that (for once) we weren’t the cause of.

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Us, stuck in a traffic jam that (for once) we weren’t the cause of.

We found fuel just in time (having coasted down every hill we could to save it) and settled into our campsite for the night.

Mountains of Madness

Dad ‘n’ lad

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Dad ‘n’ lad

Sara had a hostel booked in Fort William for something Harry Potter-related so shot off, leaving Michael, Max and me to continue on the NC500. Unfortunately, after we were a couple hours into the only road around, we found ourselves stuck in an unmoving line of traffic. Eventually I got fed up and noticed little to no traffic coming the other way, so I shot ahead to the front of the queue to see what was going on, whereupon I found out that someone had exploded rocks all over the road and nobody knew how long it’d be until they were cleared.

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In the end we were there for several hours in the hot sun, making friends and exploring the local area (which, in retrospect, was unwise to do in my ski gear). We eventally got to our destination for the night and ran into a couple of Dutch friends we had made at the road closure, so we had dinner together looking out over a bay.

Islay-Bound

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We decided to dip slightly into Skye to be able to say we did and then met up with Sara in Mallaig. We headed back to Fort William, stayed the night and set off early the next morning.

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We were getting a lot of contradictory information regarding available ferries to Jura, and eventually realised that our last reliable option that would get us to Islay in time to still visit the distilleries before they closed meant getting off pronto.

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After a heart-pounding, if utterly ridiculous, race against time, we made it with only a few moments to spare. Once we were on Islay, Max and Sara decided to take it easy whilst Michael and I went exploring. We started with Bunnahabhain distillery, who were happy for us to take make pictures with our bikes in silly places. We picked up several free samples for the road and then I got knocked off my bike by a truck on the way back up the cliff, bashing up my knee and elbow (but saving the whisky bottles).

We then went over to Bowmore where we finally found a pool table, as well as some nice pizza.

Jura

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We headed over to Jura early in the morning and rode past most of the other riders, who had spent the night partying at the Jura Hotel, as they were still staggering around hungover. Despite initial successes, I think the fall the day before had knocked my confidence and I fell off several more times, finally shearing off my clutch handle. I struggled valiantly on, manually pulling the cable to engage the clutch and pushing along in first year, whilst ahead Max also crashed and shattered his handlebar.

The results of my peat bog-diving escapades.

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The results of my peat bog-diving escapades.

Finally, we arrived at the end of the road, where we were given the option of attempting the final 5km stretch of hilly peat bog with our bikes, or ditching them there and carrying on on foot. Max and Sara set off on foot whilst I tried to carry on, but gave up pretty quickly. Michael and several others decided to carry on with their bikes, and before long we were passing them as they regretted their decisions.

I ended up carrying Michael’s armour for him, which I also regretted as I realised how heavy and cumbersome it was, whilst Max made it to the end and came back with a bag full of possible life-saving water. I stopped to help a few people pushing their non-starting bikes up a mountain before heading on. Gradually, everyone trickled into the finish line.

We all congratulted one another on a job well done, and then cracked back on with the free bar.

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