I was very happy to discover that I made it to the Long List for the 2013 Bradt Travel Writing Competition. My name is on the Long List on the Bradt website.
I did not make to the final six entries who are invited to an awards ceremony in London. One of these lucky people will be announced the overall winner and they receive a holiday in Croatia and a commision to write about the trip for The Independent newspaper:
Still, I am very happy to have made it to the Long List of 21 writers selected from 200 entries.
My entry was nothing to do with cycling or Scotland, but having no other place to let you see my entry I have put it on the Cycling Scot website. My blog and website is all about travel writing and I decided to focus it on Scotland and cycling despite having travelled in other places and written about them.
The theme of the competition was "Narrow Escape". This was my entry:
Alone in the Sahara
“We came very close to being lost with no food or water” Abdul whispered to me and turned to the crackling fire, the only source of light across thousands of miles of Libyan Sahara.
The Tuareg drivers were preparing tea and I was so mesmerised by the process that I did not register the shock of what Abdul, our guide, had just confessed. Kalifa held the bashed copper teapot as high as his arm would stretch up to the sky of twinkling stars. He gently tilted a long, thin waterfall of liquid from the spout, which landed exactly into the tiny glass. He then poured the contents of the glass back into the pot and held the teapot high again to create another mini Niagara to the glass. This was continually repeated until a layer of froth magically appeared on top of the glass. It was a desert cappuccino with a distinctive bubbly texture.
“How? When? What happened?” I snapped out of my tea trance. Until now I never gave it a thought that there was a risk of getting lost. You see, I had become comfortable with the routines of desert travel. Bouncing around in our Toyota Land Cruisers, nicknamed “Japanese camels” by the drivers, became just as normal as taking the number 35 to work. A real camel occasionally running alongside the vehicles was now expected. Not seeing another human being was taken for granted.
Tea was served and Abdul motioned to the glasses and a bowl of lemon salted pistachios. Not even a tale of near death and disaster could interrupt the ceremony of tea drinking.
Today the Sahara had been an exhilarating place to be. We laughed and whooped in delight as the drivers pummeled the dunes with fairground ride jolts and Grand Prix speed. The vast emptiness and untouched beauty of the place had a euphoric affect on me. Normally a reserved person, I found myself leaping out of the vehicle at the top of a dune to shimmy to the Libyan pop music coming from Mohamaddin’s tape deck. He cranked up the volume and Abdul joined in with his snake hips, much to the amusement of the rest of the group. I felt as carefree as a child in the garden on a summer day.
I had treated the desert as a vast private playground and I loved that there was nobody around to share it. I could not wait to make the first footprints on the sand around the shores of the Ubari Lakes. These deep blue lakes were so unlikely in a land of dry yellowness. I plunged in and enjoyed feeling the coolness of the water on the surface and the bathwater warmth below my knees.
“Well,” Abdul continued, “after lunch the kitchen truck, with all the food and water, drove ahead. But we forgot to tell them where the evening camp would be. We didn’t realise this until it was too late to catch them up, so we had to...”
The gentlest humming marked the beginning of the drivers’ nightly musical performance. Omran, with his indigo tagelmust wrapped rigid around his head, tapped out the beat on the plastic fuel canister that was their drum. Mohammed had the nargileh going and I devoured a cloud of apple scented tobacco. Mohamaddin shrunk out of the fire light worried about a repeat of the solo performance he had been teased into last night. I adored this time of the evening when the drivers relaxed with their tea, smoking and songs of solitude.
“We had to guess which direction the kitchen truck went,” Abdul spoke into my ear as Omran’s percussion grew louder. “Luckily we found their tyre tracks and followed the tracks to the camp.”
I became aware of the blackness all around us, with only the fire and Kalifa’s emotional vocals penetrating it.
When I retired to my tent and snuggled under the camel-hair blanket I listened intently to the complete silence. My city ears were throbbing and working overtime to try and pick out something.
There was nothing.
I pictured myself, among endless dunes of mountainous proportions, struggling to place one foot in front of the other as the death ball in the sky beats down. Beneath me is a narrow tyre track, the only sign of humanity, which I must follow to make my escape. I gasped when I remembered that I hadn’t asked Abdul how he could be certain that those tracks belonged to our truck.
1. Always book a bike space
Most long distance routes require a booking for a bicycle. You will risk not being allowed onto the train if you do not have a reservation. It is free to reserve a space and you can book bike spaces online at both the Scotrail and Eastcoast trains websites. A list of services that require a reservation are listed on the Scotrail website. You will receive a free ticket for your bicycle reservation. Make sure that you carry this as it will be your only proof of a reservation.
2. Look for the cycle symbol on the train doors
Trains stop for about one minute at most stations so there is not long to get onboard. When the train pulls up at the station keep your eye out for the blue cycle symbol- this will tell you which door(s) to use for the cycle storage area. Some trains will have more than one area, so if you get on and discover it is full you can always try another carriage. If a train is particularly full of bikes the train guard will often pro-actively direct you to the specific door where there is available space. If your departure station is where the train starts its journey you could always turn up early to figure out where the bike spaces are and this will be less stressful than trying to do it at the last minute.
3. Don’t be surprised at how little space there is
Trains in Scotland do not have a lot of space for hefty luggage like bicycles. Most trains can only carry four bicycles. The bicycle storage areas are small and it can be challenging to manoeuvre your bike into them. It takes a bit of practice, but you soon get used to it.
4. Use the restraining belts to secure your bike
Most types of train have straps where you can secure your bike. It pays to use these as your bike could tumble over when the train goes over a bumpy section of track or a tight curve. The class 156 trains that are used on the West Highland Line require you to hang your bicycle vertically from a hook, but most of the other types of train in Scotland have horizontal storage.
5. Talk to other cyclists using the train
If you are not travelling to the end of the line it is important to speak to the other cyclists using the storage area. This is so that your bike does not end up behind other bikes when you need to get off at your stop. There is nothing worse than trying to manhandle somebody else’s bike in order to get your bike out. This is made even worse on a busy train when you are surrounded by standing passengers all waiting to get off. It is far better to make sure that your bike is on the outside of the storage area at the beginning of the journey if you know that you will be first off the train. Talking to other cyclists might even bring about new ideas for future trips and even new friends.
6. Don’t leave it to the last minute when you are getting off the train
Start to get your bike ready at least 5 or 10 minutes before your train is due to arrive at the station you are getting off at. The train will only stop for about one minute, unless it is the terminating station, in which case you do not need to worry. This is particularly important if you have panniers and other belongings to take off the train. You may also need a few moments to manouever your bike so that it can easily be wheeled out of the doors.
7. Beware of short platforms
A small number of stations have shorter platforms meaning that not all of the train doors will open. Your bike could be in the carriage of the train where the doors will not be opened! Don’t worry about this as the guard will advise you what to do when checking your ticket- you may need to move your bike to the next carriage or they might make a special exception and open another door for you. There are very few short platforms- Conon Bridge and Beauly on the Far North Line are examples.
8. Get used to old station infrastructure
You will need the strength to lift and carry your bike short distances at some of Scotland’s stations. Much of the infrastructure dates from the Victorian era and is therefore not always cycle-friendly. For example, some stations have iron footbridges that are steep and can be tough to carry a bike over. A small number of stations have very low platforms where there can be a big drop from the train to the platform- this can make it tricky to get a bike down from a train or up to a train.
9. Enjoy the old station infrastructure
Although old stations may sometimes present practical problems with a bicycle they provide an opportunity to enjoy some beautiful railway heritage. Some station buildings are incredibly pretty and none are identical, so each new cycling route often starts with a unique piece of architecture.
10. Sit back, enjoy the scenery, buy a coffee
Some of the points above might make it sound stressful using the train to carry your bike, but it is generally straightforward and you will soon get used to it. The real joy of putting your bike on the train is that you have leisure time until you arrive and the chances are that you will be travelling through stunning landscapes. When the catering trolley comes around you can treat yourself to a coffee and sit back and enjoy the view whilst dreaming about where you will be cycling when the train arrives.
More information: Taking your bike on the train guide
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.