The far north of Scotland feels like a staging point for crossing the Atlantic. As I stood watching rollers crashing on the white beach, having not rested since they left America, I felt a sense of wonder at this world that we occupy. The gentleness with which they caress the shore today belies their power. I watched as a surfer carved his way along the roller’s face, one hand dipping in the wave as though they were holding hands. He was enjoying the energy it was about to spill along the beach in a hissing, bubbling, sigh.
There is a battle going on here as the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea collide, often violently. Huge rollers often crash onto the shore, creating a craggy, broken coastline. When the sun returns, the beach shimmers. You stare in disbelief at the eye-catching white sand, and the opaque waves look mystical and other-worldly. You can almost see through them into another secret world. If a mermaid popped up, I wouldn’t be at all surprised, as everything here is both enchanting and beguiling.
I had been here many times before and felt as though I was almost part on the scenery myself. Further out the sea was roaring, covered in large whitecaps from the wind whipping it up into frenzy. My thoughts turned to tomorrow’s cycle ride and if I would have to battle the strong and gusting wind that currently blew offshore. I read two reports. The Met Office said the wind would increase, which was hard to imagine, while the BBC said it would decrease somewhat. I chose to listen to the BBC.
Next morning it was howling. Met office, 1, BBC, O. Memories of trying to leave in strong winds and having to return in 2012 bounced around in my mind. Should I, or shouldn’t I? I decided to go for it and see, with an open mind to the possibility of returning. I had originally planned to go as far as Dunnet Head, but I have ridden this route several times previously and the pull of heading south into unknown areas was more appealing that retracing old steps.
The plan was to ride forty miles to Altnahara in the middle of Sutherland. Rumour had it there was a campsite there. At around 60 kilometres, given the strength of the wind that would be blowing straight up my nostrils, that would be far enough with a loaded trike. I set off more in hope than with any great belief that I was realistically leaving for good. I was pleasantly surprised when I found a little shelter as I headed for Loch Eriboll. Having expected the wind to blow me to a standstill, I just slowed down to avoid wasting energy by trying too hard and kept pedalling.
The further down the loch we proceeded, the harder it blew. I didn’t mind because I knew it would make ascending the far side and the hills that lie in wait there, much easier. I arrived at Hope, a tiny hamlet on the north coast, with some still intact. Then I saw the short, steep hill that I needed to climb to reach my turning towards Ben Hope and Loch Hope. So much hope, and it all disappeared as soon as I turned into the breath-taking wind.
Forward progress was suddenly curtailed. The tiny, single-track road was leading me, very slowly, into a seething cauldron where the strength of the wind could only be described as violent. Occasional sheltered stream beds were littered with cascades of primroses and bluebells, basking in the shelter they had found. I was still going faster than I would have been had I been walking, so I clung to that as a positive. After ten, interminable kilometres, a large motorhome appeared at the roadside. It was visibly rocking from side to side and as I approached, a head suddenly appeared from a leeward window, enquiring as to whether I could drink a cup of coffee.
I hardly had to say anything as the grin that came over my face spoke for me. Inside, the van swayed more violently as I settled into talking to the owners. As we sat getting to know one another, there was a sudden loud noise, the kind you get when you drag a large sheet of metal along a road. Looking out of the window, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Kermit, who was fully-loaded, was being thrown along the road like a small piece of flotsam. End over end he tumbled, making awful noises that I immediately associated with serious consequences.
In that moment, my world collapsed. Everything I had was attached to Kermit. I was sure he would be broken beyond repair by the violence of this act of God. I could have burst into tears, but I chose not to. The conversation over tea and biscuits came to a sudden end as I leapt up to go and confirm the damage I imagined had happened. I was suddenly not hungry or thirsty, only interested in Kermit.
Another cyclist who was passing had seen it all and stopped. He said he had never witnessed anything like it and that today was the hardest cycling he had ever done. Given that he cycled across the U.S.A last year, that was quite a statement. Together with the owners of the motorhome, we turned Kermit back up the correct way. A mudguard was smashed to pieces and the flagpole broken. I took a look around, still in shock, but apart from those minor things, Kermit had come out of it well. I checked the handlebars, expecting them to be bent, but they were not. The derailleur was fine too. I felt I had been lucky. A word of warning. Had I been using my Veltop, which you shouldn’t use in strong winds, it would have been smashed to smithereens. I believe it would have been catastrophic, even if it had only been attached to the seat and not in use. I guess I got lucky.
After that shock, I couldn’t go back to drinking tea and chatting. I felt it had been a warning and the happy bubble I had been inside just burst. After saying thank you, I left, feeling wretched inside and wanting to escape. A little further along the road was the remains of a brock, a fortified house from another age. Looking around was the young chap who stopped to help me right Kermit and check him over. Having stopped to thank him, I carried on.
Loch Hope was gone as I began to climb up and over to the next valley. The roaring wind and the bleakness of the scenery really got to me, as I later found out it did to my young friend as well. There were no signs of life and the hills were covered in the scattered remains of felled pine forests. The debris reminded me of pictures of the devastated forests around Mount St Helens after it erupted in 1980. Flat trunks of long dead trees covered the hills in places. All I could do was keep pedalling within my ability. It was never going to be fast, but I would get to Altnahara at some point. In a car you would possibly hardly notice any of this. That is why I choose to ride a trike. I feel every bump, fall, and rise in the road. You become intrinsically wrapped in your environment: enmeshed, entangled, inseparable from it. It governs everything you do.
After what felt like an eternity, possibly an hour or so, I saw a car in the distance on another road. There was only one crossroads and that was at Altnahara. Relieved to arrive at what I thought was my destination, I met my young friend in the only hotel and we ate a cream tea in celebration. He then left for the Crask Inn, a further 12km, as there was nowhere to camp here and the only campsite, which was some miles away, would have been being ravaged by the wild conditions. I had said I was staying, but there was no room at the Inn that I could afford. There were no rooms at the local B and B either, and the hotelier wouldn’t let me pitch in the grounds on the nice, flat sheltered grass. There was no choice, I had to head for the Crask Inn via 12km of almost entirely uphill riding, directly into wind.
Considering I had expected to stop at Altnahara I rode steadily and without a negative thought. I watched the scenery pass and sung a few favourite tunes. Kermit seemed none the worse for his experience other than now sporting one mudguard and a floppy flagpole with a green-stick type fracture. Arriving at the Crask Inn was akin to arriving in Nirvana.
An air of peace hung over the bar. The smiling, gentle and welcoming landlady explained that the pub was owned by the Scottish Episcopal church. My young friend and I were welcome to camp in the grounds if we made a donation. We could also use the summerhouse, or the tent already pitched that was no longer required by other guests. We booked in for dinner and pitched our own tents. There’s something about having your own space that saw us both pitching our own tents. It may have been habit, but something you know at the end of a tough day feels comfortable and secure.
The welcome shower and delicious meal that followed saw the tribulations of the day fade into distant memories. All the guests and the landlady sat around a single dining table sharing large quantities of excellent food and stories. It was an idyllic, warm and satisfying way to end what had been an incredibly hard day’s riding.
Sleep came easily that night. The wind began to ease, and by morning, a combination of sunshine and lighter winds lifted my spirits further. The road showed more tendency to go downhill after I left the Crask Inn. I wouldn’t describe it as hot, but it was perfect cycling weather. After yesterdays 80km struggle, I was glad to be on short-time today. I had some friends heading up from Hampshire in their camper and I wanted to do everything I could to ensure that I met them. I would ride to Dornoch, then Dingwall, before heading back to Inverness where I intended to stay at Culloden, famous for the battle that raged there in 1746, the bloody and dramatic end of the Jacobite Rebellion.
There was a second reason that I wanted to take it easy around this part of the coast and it was simply that I hadn’t ever seen it. When I came this way on my Round Britain ride in 2011, I crossed the Black Isle to Cromarty and then took the ferry to Nigg. I was on a mission and looking around wasn’t at the top of my agenda. Now I’m older, I wanted to enjoy every mile.
With that in mind, I trundled away slowly from this lovely pub and the equally nice people that run it. The light wind was nothing other than refreshing, and the gently rising road soon turned downhill. Over the next sixteen kilometres the scenery gradually softened from extremely bleak moorland, covered in the remains of badly managed pine forests, to something softer on the eyes.
Fields, trees and a loch came into view, followed soon by a small, huddled town. Before I knew it, I was sitting with a cake and a cappuccino on the loch shore, feeling as though I had escaped something both beautiful and turbulent. Lairg has everything a touring cyclist needs, but today, I needed nothing other than a stress-free day.
Up until now, sky had been full of lenticular clouds, or wave cloud as it’s often called. It always looks ominous. Today there was little of that to be seen for the first time. The atmosphere appeared to be settling down at last. Perhaps the war was over, the last battle reaching an angry crescendo that Kermit survived by the skin of his teeth. The forecast ahead was good and in three days I would be leaving Inverness for the second time.
Dornoch was an attractive town, built of sandstone with a large courthouse and castle buildings dominating the centre. There is also an attractive cathedral, famous for being the place where Madonna chose to get married. It had a warm ambience and many tourists milled around taking in the various buildings and shops. That evening the two road cyclists I had now met twice turned up on the campsite along with their wives and motorhomes. As I was camping among sand dunes on a huge but pleasant campsite, I was invited over for a beer in the evening. As we set drinking, laughing and talking, a fog rolled in. Cold and damp, it forced us inside, to what felt palatial in comparison to my own dwelling. Comfortable chairs and a fridge. Real plates and cutlery and a selection of glasses and a double bed that descended from the ceiling when required.
It was a pleasant evening, but when the time came to return to my simple life in the tent, I felt a smile coming over my face. It was now raining hard and that was the sound I heard while falling asleep in record time. Tonight showed me that my tent and its simplicity was still how I enjoyed travelling, however challenging. Long may it be that way.
Until next time……………