Aneela's Dirt Craic Hero

Aneela's Dirt Craic:The Bikepacking Project

April 18 — 2019 | Scottish Highlands

Craic (/kræk/ KRAK): Scots Gaelic for ‘news’ and ‘chat’

Aneela's Dirt Craic is an unfiltered, distinctively Scottish column rehashing the comical and sometimes tumultuous mountain bike adventures of our Juliana Ambassador, Aneela McKenna.


Remember those surly years? Looking back to when I was a teenager, I can’t imagine the grief I must have given my poor Mum. I was the stereotypical, rebellious, up to no good, out of control teenager that was desperate for independence.  

Boy-chat took over everything. Pyjama parties were no longer cool. Hair straighteners were my new best friend in my single-minded quest to be ‘fanciable’ by the opposite sex.

It was a time in my life when I was on a bit of a roller coaster. There were lots of emotional and physical changes going on. I didn’t know I was making that transition from childhood to adulthood.

Our goal is to help build the skills and confidence of these young girls to do something beyond their perceived capabilities.

I’ve recently been working with a group of young girls who are at that stage in their lives (11-13 year olds). As a collaboration between Go-Where Scotland, the Adventure Syndicate and the local high school, our goal is to help build the skills and confidence of these young girls to do something beyond their perceived capabilities. We believed a backcountry bikepacking bothy expedition would do just that - far away from the hair straighteners and home comforts (and pressures) of everyday life.

When Lee Craigie first put the proposal to the pupils back in November I saw fear in their faces: “what would this be like?”, “what if I get lost?”, “would I starve?”, “where will I sleep?”, “will there be wifi?”.  I also sensed the excitement in the air.

In the lead up to the expedition, the young girls worked on their mountain bike skills and fitness and took part in workshops to learn the essential skills for a bike-packing expedition.
They were inspired by Lee Craigie and Jenny Graham who rode 230 miles off-road through storm ‘Gareth’ from Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, to the school in the Scottish Borders. All the while the girls and boys of the school matched their miles with after school rides and lunchtime bike sessions.

On the morning of the bike-packing expedition, we all met at the school.  The girls were ready with their kit laid out on the classroom tables. I did a quick inspection. The girls packed exactly what they were asked to bring - no hair straighteners.

… weighing up the survival benefits of this gigantic bag of marshmallows against their sheer volume and packability in our minimalist bikepacking bags. They came with us.

Mrs. McKaig (their teacher) on the other hand, brought the biggest bag of jumbo sized marshmallows and two big packs of chocolate digestives. The girl's faces beamed. I was less impressed, weighing up the survival benefits of this gigantic bag of marshmallows against their sheer volume and packability in our minimalist bikepacking bags. They came with us.

Jenny Graham arrived soon after me with all the kit and food shopping. She laid the food on the table and asked the girls to take four ziplock bags and to fill them with items for dinner, breakfast, lunch, and snacks.

One of their fears about the expedition was they would ‘starve’. One of the girls, Victoria quickly realised this wasn’t going to happen. She strode straight across the classroom and rubbed ‘starving’ off the whiteboard list of ‘things we are worried about on this trip’. Jenny had in fact brought enough to feed an army.

A handlebar bag, saddle bag, and a front pouch were given to each girl.  With a little help from one another, they managed to get everything they needed into their bags and onto their bikes. They were all set for their first ever bikepacking bothy adventure!

As we set off, a torrential downpour had us huddling together for shelter but no one complained. In fact, if anything, it was an early test of the group’s resolve. Nobody backed down. We were all ready for this.

Everyone was glad to be riding their bikes and to know this big adventure was underway. Off we went up through an ancient woodland forest, inching our way onto the open hill and away from civilisation.

Halfway into the ride, a long dirt track climb stood between us and our bothy home for the night. I could tell everyone was getting weary. It was time to break out the sheep impersonations, mannequin challenges and a big bag of jelly snakes to top up the energy levels.

High on jellied candy and buoyed by the flowiest singletrack descent, we rounded a clump of trees, and there it was - our beautiful little bothy in the middle of nowhere. Not just a bothy, this was a posh bothy with toilet and running water. It was the perfect introduction to bothy life for these girls.

The girls got familiar with their new home. Soggy bike gear was swapped for cosy pyjamas, camping mats and sleeping bags were rolled out, and everyone was starting to settle in.

With no TV, mobile phone reception or iPads to distract us, our evening was spent making our own fun.

Lee gave a demo on how to light a stove, then each of the girls cooked their own meals with their newfound skills.

We played card games. Some of the girls enjoyed the freedom of this new open space, running around outside and scaring each other in the dark. Others fetched dry sticks for their marshmallow ‘smores’*.

It was getting late and the sugar highs were fading. The girls were tucked up in bed and we contemplated the day’s events. These girls embraced the challenge with gusto. They recognised when one of their peers was flagging and supported one another through the challenges. We saw their independence grow.

At six am we were woken by six hungry glow worms. The girls had hopped downstairs wrapped in their bright orange sleeping bags, eager for their first bothy breakfast.  

Porridge and cereal bars were on the menu, washed down with hot chocolate topped with those big fluffy marshmallows Mrs. McKaig had brought along.

Fed, watered and primed with marshmallows, the girls made light work of getting the bothy ship-shape before our final leg home. Floors were swept, the fire was emptied and rubbish was bagged. It was time to go.  

This was the furthest these young girls had ridden and the return leg had its ups and downs. There were struggles at points but the girls never gave up and kept pushing on. Not one of these feisty females complained. For each, it was a personal challenge and they wanted to accomplish what they set out to do.

I saw Kasia pull out her phone to check Strava and her face was beaming with joy. She couldn’t believe we’d covered over 20km. It was by far the furthest she’d ever ridden.

Reflecting on their highs and lows, it was apparent the girls learned a lot from the whole experience: teamwork, friendship, independence, and resilience. In Isla’s words:

I found some points of this trip difficult, but it’s amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it

I wonder if my adolescent transition would have been easier if I was encouraged to be more adventurous.

I hope and believe each of these young girls will take away something positive and lasting from the experience. I know I did, and I do every time I venture off into the wilds.

No doubt, each of them will have their own struggles to deal with as they cross the threshold into adulthood. I like to think they’ll draw on this experience, and many more like it to find strength when they need it.

The same goes for us all. Taking on new challenges is healthy. I think Victoria says it better than me:

“It was the best weekend of my life because I learned that all I needed was confidence”.

Aneela hosts her next bikepacking adventure in September 2019 with fellow Juliana ambassador Anka Martin - take a wee look at the Soul Trails Scottish bikepacking adventure.

About the Author: 

Aneela is a partner and guide of Scottish MTB tour operator Go-Where Scotland and proud Juliana Ambassador - whether she’s leading tours in the incredible landscapes of Scotland or rallying people to swing a leg over the saddle, Aneela is passionate about encouraging people from all walks of life to love riding bikes.  #RideMòr

Read Aneela’s monthly musings from her off the beaten track bike adventures; distinctly Scottish rides for adventurous spirits.


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