Ullapool is an oasis. Having travelled through the highlands, or around the coast following the Wester Ross trail as I did, you arrive in this quaint little town snuggled down by Loch Broom. It has an untraditional grid-pattern of streets and a working harbour that any Cornish village would be proud of. The houses next to the harbour are old cottages with views up the loch to the mountains beyond. The further back you go from the harbour, the more modern the dwellings.
But it isn’t just a pleasant place to be. It has shops where you can replenish your stocks of food, outdoor equipment, and almost anything you require. Pleasant pubs and cafes help refresh your energy and the Fish and Chip shop by the harbour is one of the best I’ve ever used. If you go out of midge season it’s a pleasure to sit on the well-kept, flat, grassy campsite and watch the ferry come and go from the Outer Hebrides. I’ve been on this ferry during another trip and the view of the mountains further north of Ullapool is breath-taking, but not quite as much as seeing whales alongside the ferry as we approached the port.
From the sea, Ullapool appears as a small dot of a place, squeezed in among mountain giants. You get no idea that this port has its own palm trees and lush vegetation, due to the presence of the Gulf Stream. It saves those surprises for when you disembark, or roll into town on your trike.
I know the town well. There isn’t that much to find out. But I feel comfortable here and always look forward to visiting the Tea Store Café, the place where I once met a friend from Dorset by complete coincidence and where I have often whiled away a couple of hours during bad weather.
The other aspect of Ullapool that I love is that it sits just south of my favourite part of Scotland, an area that I believe to be unrivalled in its beauty and wilderness. I can kick-back, recuperate, and look forward with an excitement that builds to a crescendo when I leave. It works every time and I can never get quite enough of being there. When I leave, another stay is etched into my mind and despite its size it takes on an importance that seems out of proportion to what it actually is. Perhaps best of all, Ullapool is a place where my mind can switch off from decision making. It knows I won’t just pass through. It expects me to stop, and when I do, it, my mind shuts down and relaxes, a rare occurrence.
Recharged, I have made a set of new plans I will ride straight to Scourie, avoiding the Aasynt Peninsula. As beautiful as it is, it harbours many steep, long hills, and my legs didn’t feel ready for that sort of a challenge. Once again, I have ridden it previously and saw no point in hammering myself for the sake of saying I had done it again. The direct route would prove hard enough, and the scenery of my chosen path is stunning in a different way from the coast around Clachtoll and the beautiful white beaches around there.
With a longer day to Scourie and then a short day to Durness, I knew I would be on the north coast in two days. I had already decided to take another rest day at Durness. I simply can’t ride through and not stop. I have a great deal of history here, from motorcycling around the coast to cycling around the UK coastline. It is an idyll, and one I want to enjoy. Making all these decisions set me free mentally. I was staying within my limits and enjoying every mile. That might sound an odd thing to say but it hasn’t always been the case. I felt more grown up during this tour than ever before. I was looing after my mind and body every step of the way.
The ride to Scourie is one that will make you gasp. Not necessarily because of the big climb over the hills between Skiag Bridge and Unapool, but more because of the constantly improving scenery. It is simply spectacular. I won’t attempt to describe it because some things are best left for you to discover, but believe me when I say no matter how many times I come this way, it always leaves me breathless for all the right reasons.
With around 80km to cover today and many climbs both short and steep, long and well graded, you feel you’ve earned your dinner by the time you reach Scourie. Here you will find a shop, cash machine, a hotel and a lovely campsite that always manages to feel intimate, however busy. I could sit and watch the sea here for days. In fact, I have done that before when I sat mesmerised by my surroundings for two days.
This time I was taken by something else: a group of sea kayakers who had hauled up in the bay for a well-earned rest. They were hoping to round Cape Wrath at the weekend when the forecast was for less wind and swell. Until then they were sitting it out here, re-energising and resting their tired bodies.
I didn’t stay longer than one night. If I had stayed another it still wouldn’t be enough, and the pull of Durness was too much. I eased my tired body out of the campsite, pleased that I had decided to go the ‘easy’ way yesterday. Today my route would rise and fall all the way to the north coast where the Irish sea meets the North. Despite only being around 48kms, the route has several shortish, graded climbs. They occur in the first 20 km and left me feeling I had made a big effort in a small distance. The guys I met on road bikes a couple of days back passed me again, stopping to say hello this time. It took them a while to figure out how I had got ahead of them when they were obviously considerably faster than me.
I should add that each of their wives were driving motorhomes that they would stay in at night. That’s a long way removed from me, Kermit and a small tent but would prove to my advantage later on. They were planning to stay at Durness as well, so we were guaranteed to meet again soon.
Somewhere between Scourie and Laxford Bridge, my phone rang. I usually put it on silent when I cycle, but I must have forgotten, luckily for me. It was my friend Jon, calling from his home in Thurso to see how I was getting on. Jon plays the tuba and travels around schools and festivals playing during the summer. His chosen transport is an Ice trike and he pulls a sizeable trailer that was also designed and made by Ice in Falmouth, Cornwall Take a look at https://www.innertuba.org.uk/ to find out more about his adventures.
After a long chat, during which it was decided that we were doomed not to meet during this trip, we said goodbye and wished one another well with our various adventures. Jon had rung to offer support having read my blog where I stated I was struggling prior to leaving. I felt buoyed up from our conversation. I set off in the barren lands that lead to Durness on a narrow, single track road that seemed infested with motor homes, rather than the more usual midges. I know which of the two I would choose. Motorhomes all the way, if for no other reason that their occupants almost always give me a hearty wave and a grin as the pass in either direction.
For several miles you drop down and down, your reward for climbing up and up earlier on. The landscape at this point is bleak, a huge area of bog with a couple of houses that have the appearance of clinging on, rather than being home. The mountains soar, their rocks shimmering brightly with the water that flows over them from previous rainfall. There appears to be little life, other than a few sheep that appear as dots of cotton in the distance.
Eventually you climb once more, and bingo, there is Durness, appearing as another sanctuary from the wild landscape. It also has shops, cafés and cash machines. The shop is excellent, if a little pricey, and a few yards further along the road you will find Sango Sands campsite. Do stop overnight and be sure to walk to the far end of the campsite to view the beach. Some leave without registering that it exists, a foolish mistake as it is as perfect a white beach as you will find anywhere. The turquoise sea with regular rollers washing the shores is exquisite.
But be warned, this is no place for the faint-hearted. It is often windy and today was no exception. Last time I was here, I helped others pack away broken tents with my Swiss neighbours who were touring with their children on motorcycles, from 4:00 a.m. The families who were most affected were glad of the help as the wind tore into their homes, breaking poles and threatening to blow them away. It was so strong that six adults had to remove a peg at a time and fold the tent as we went. The children sat on top of the fabric, acting as ballast and laughing at how much fun they were having.
Back to now. My favourite spot, the only sheltered one, had been taken and I had to wait a day before I could commandeer it again. There is a camp kitchen on-site. As shelter from the storm and warmer due to cooking, it was proving popular in the gale that now raked over the site. I prefer cooking in my tent to the crowded kitchen, as did my neighbour, a man who had survived prostate cancer and loves running ultra-marathon type races. We spoke on several occasion during the time I was there, and it was thoroughly enjoyable.
A little later I bumped into two road cyclists who had now passed me twice. They invited me to the pub and had I not fallen asleep trying to stay warm in my tent, I would have gone. It wouldn’t be the last time I saw them. They were planning to leave the next day while I would be resting and exploring. If you ever come this way, be sure to visit Smoo cave. You don’t have to get the boat. You can use the walkway on days when it isn’t too rough. It is wholly spectacular.
There were two contrasting forecasts. The BBC said the wind would ease while my Met Office App said it would get worse. Eenie, meenie, miney, mo, catch a squirrel by its toe (a red squirrel up here). I had to decide. Leave in 50km winds or gamble and stay a day. I gambled, stayed, went to the pub to eat and drink a few beers. It was wonderful, right up to time I was ready to leave when the wind increased to gusts up to 60kph (at least). As if that weren’t enough, it turned into a south easterly ensuring it would blow full in my face for almost all of my next day, a 60km ride to the middle of Sutherland. I would be heading for Altnahara, a lonely town hiding away in the most deserted area I have pedalled into. But that’s another story.
Until next time………………….