First week in May: Some decisions are easy. I woke next morning to the wind howling around the tent. It was blowing directly from the direction in which I would be travelling. Given that my fitness was not where I wanted it to be, I made a snap decision. I decided to completely miss the section over and around the Applecross peninsula. Chicken? No, I had ridden over Balleach na Ba previously, pulling a trailer, and it would not be a fair challenge right now. But why put myself under all that strain when I could head for Kinlochewe and the Torridon National Nature Reserve via a less taxing route?
It felt correct straight away, so that is what I did. I sneaked out of the campsite without a sign of any owners or other occupants. Packing up felt a little awkward, it always does until you do it a few times and get a system that works for you, but I was on the road shortly after 9.00a.m. The main road to Achnasheen was busy and vehicles of all shapes and sizes whizzed past me. Thankfully, they were all courteous and considerate, helping me to begin to relax and concentrate on pedalling into the stiff breeze.
I could have avoided all of this as I had been offered a lift up to the far north, to Thurso, from a friend who lives there. The reason I refused was because of my love for the west coast. How could I come this far and not say hello? Starting in Thurso would have meant missing the west coast completely, something I just couldn’t envisage. It was one of the highlights of my Round Britain trip in 2011 and my next tour the following year. In 2012 it was in Scotland where the sun finally came out, rescuing an incredible wet tour and banishing for good any thoughts of quitting that had built up slowly inside me as I made my way around the coast of a sodden Ireland for roughly six weeks.
My legs felt heavy, although I knew that would improve with time and patience. I just sat back and pedalled gently, never trying to increase speed. The wind might well have been stronger than me, but I refused to get drawn into battle, preferring lower gears and less effort to struggling for an extra 2kph and wasting large amounts of energy. I knew that forcing the issue now would take affect in a week or two, and I was determined to stay on the right side of exhausted, at least until I felt I could recover from bigger efforts.
The wide-open valley and moorland had little to stop the wind’s howling game. It was cold, freezing upon waking, and occasional hailstorms bombarded the area all around me. I was glad to have packed for winter, pedalling along in a fleece, hefty shell jacket, buff around neck as well as on my head, waterproof socks and winter gloves. My legs wore stretch windproof and showerproof trousers, ideal for this inbetweeny time of year.
The scenery was harsh moorland, the kind that only looks warm and inviting in sunshine, with patches of grey rock, some wet, with a variety of subdued camouflage colours. A few deer roamed around in the middle distance and a river babbled along. At least I presumed it did as I couldn’t hear it with the wind blasting in my face. The view kept transforming from rather drab to full-on stunning as the sun came and went along with the hefty showers. It felt so good to be back here, the air so crisp and fresh, the mountains soaring up into the clouds. I didn’t even need to breathe in. I could just open my mouth and let nature blast air down my throat with the same force as a pressure washer. My flag waved manically at approaching cars. Slow down, slow down, it appeared to say, without a word spoken. The fact I only had a short half flag, thanks to the airline losing the other half, probably saved its bacon.
Achnasheen was a let-down. The café I used to frequent on motorcycle trips was closed down. It seemed ironic given the increased volume of traffic that comes this way. I guess most of it slavishly follows the North Coast 500, as it’s now called, and misses this section of road completely. What a shame. It always felt like an oasis in the wilderness to me on those stormy days of past motorcycle tours.
It was at least sunny now. If you could manage to escape the wind it was pleasant, and in Scotland, that always feels like a bonus. The frequent alternative is extremely wild and wet, often without a view at all. I found a small picnic table by a pond and sat down, pretending it was warm and sunny but internally pleased that it was simply dry. And that’s how it was for the rest of the day. Blasting wind and uphill riding made for a struggle until finally, the road turned downhill, all the way to Kinlochewe. What a blessing. I still didn’t travel fast, but it took little effort to complete those last few kilometres.
Be warned. Kinlochewe campsite has five tent pitches. Best book before leaving, just as I hadn’t! I got lucky and a pitch was procured just as it started to throw it down. Four pegs and a pole later, my tent was up enough to put the panniers and other equipment inside while I stayed out to finish off the other pegs. And so a home was created almost instantaneously, one I crawled into and out of, to sort my inner tent. A brew heated up on the stove as I slowly unpacked. It is such a luxury to be able to sit up properly and cook inside with no danger to life and limb. This little tent was burrowing into my affections already and we still had four more weeks together.
I didn’t move the next day. I just fancied staying put, tempted by the beautiful Whistle Stop Café just around the corner. I didn’t want to rush away, especially given the windy, cold and damp weather. Stopping is something I need to practise, otherwise I end up riding every day without taking the time to look around properly. Old habits die hard but I was determined to take my time on this trip. The mountains were shrouded in mist and hail fell regularly and hard. Patches of snow clung to the mountain sides, doomed to melt shortly as spring arrives in the area. Beinn Eighe dominates this area with its own visitors centre (well worth seeing) and people flock here to walk its rocky flanks. From the valley the mountain looks incredible with reddish-rock towers and steep aretes that come and go as cloud cover moves around. I was happy now to watch from the valley, without the need to stand on its summit that once dominated my life.
As a young man, rock climbing ruled my world. I couldn’t look at a cliff without trying to work out the climbs that worked their way up its flanks. Which were the best lines to climb and what grades were they? When we went walking on wet days we would almost always find ourselves walking over many summits at a time in Snowdonia or wherever else we happened to be. Which were the least accessible? Those would be the ones we headed for. We were driven with high energy and I was particularly intense about my relationship with the hills. Everything I did was about improving my ability to rock climb, even though we had little knowledge of how to train back then. It led to some injuries that required surgery and perhaps eventually to my downfall. I never learned to be relaxed about climbing. I had to find out how to do that elsewhere. I have never lost my love of the hills, having walked up many hundreds over the years. But after getting ill my whole energy system changed and hill walking, like mountain biking, seems to be too hard for my mind and body.
Moving away the next morning I headed for Gairloch, a place I had often passed through but had never really given the time of day. The wind howled around me, trying to spoil the day, but I howled back with internal laughter at its efforts to spoil my journey. Some years ago I was told there is a fabulous beach campsite in Gairloch. Today I would find out. It was so much fun cycling alongside Loch Maree. The choppy waters lapped at the mountain side and clouds hid the upper regions of the hills from view.
Once past the loch, the terrain changed. Twisting roads snaked their way through verdant flora. I was getting close to Inverewe and its famous tropical gardens. They only exist because of the Atlantic gulf stream, a ribbon of warm (warmer) water that allows exotic plants and trees to thrive here. The subdued colours of the mountain terrain gave way to splendid greenery and turquoise sea. It all adds up to giving you a sense of being somewhere Caribbean. The only give-away was the cold wind which seemed more determined than ever to stop me in my tracks. Gairloch comprises a few local shops and houses and a small harbour full of the usual fishing boats and their accoutrements. After being blasted all day I arrived at Big Sands campsite where I hunkered down, protected by a sand dune. I did take a walk around the campsite and down to the beach, but the violent, whistling wind made it a short trip, one during which my skin was nicely exfoliated by the blasting sand. I didn’t use the onsite restaurant, but sitting by my tent, eating food of my own making, was pleasure enough.
Over the next two days I continued to Ullapool. The scenery was breathtaking, as was some of the riding. The wind continued blowing in my face and I got used to it. The ride past Gruinard Island, where English scientists decided it would make a good testing ground for anthrax, sits amongst an astonishing backdrop. Even given the fact that low cloud was obscuring the hilltops, my jaw was almost constantly on the floor. The translucent, blue water seemed to wave at me: ‘Come on in, the sea’s lovely.’ I resisted, concentrating on getting to where I was going. It’s so picturesque, but that didn’t stop the testing and of this dreadful potential weapon. Gruinard island is out-of-bounds to people to this day as a result of this.
I stayed at Laide (no jokes about getting Laide, thank you) last night, sheltered by fir trees in anticipation of the section to follow. I vaguely remembered a long section over moorland where I had been glad the weather was kind when I rode around the UK coast in 2011. Today I seemed to ride uphill an awful lot. Maybe I did or maybe it was just that hills take an age to climb and moments to descend. Either way, I now entered that area of wide-open moorland containing huge peaks and valleys leading goodness knows where. It seemed to go on forever with just one thin, ribbon of tarmac leading me toward my destination. Always uphill, always blowing, it took what seemed like an age before I rounded a corner to find the impressive Falls of Measach, a tourist spot you really should all go and visit.
From memory, it consists of a 150 metre deep gorge that is so narrow it’s hard to believe. A viewing platform juts out over the edge, allowing you to take a look at the falls and to feel like you are floating above the water below. To get there you have to cross a swing bridge with a slatted walkway that gives views straight down to the floor of the gorge.
I desperately needed food and, as luck would have it, parked next to the entrance to the gorge (which is free) was a burger van. Not any old burger van but one that uses high quality local produce and makes fabulous burgers and chips. From here all would change. It was now mostly downhill to Ullapool alongside the stunning Loch Broom. I met a couple who had decided to ride the North Coast 500 having not cycled before. They bought all their equipment new and set off. They were finding it tough going, but they were still smiling and that’s what matters.
Glad from the respite from the wind I tore down the hill reaching speeds of around 65 kph. It was life affirming and made me feel free of all restrictions. I tootled along the last few kilometres into Ullapool and made my way to Broomfield campsite, one of my favourite and much visited places. It isn’t the quality of the campsite, although that is excellent. Its more its proximity to everything I need in one neat package, the town centre. Good cafes and a great pub are aligned with some of the best fish and chips ever down at the small harbour. The ferry from the Outer Hebrides comes and goes regularly, as do the campers on the site. I can spend time here and fell right at home. It feels oddly cosmopolitan, with many different nationalities milling around. It is the gateway to the far north, my favourite part of Scotland and the destination for the next part of my adventure.
Until next time………………………….