“Why would you want to cycle 500 miles…and in weather like this?” the motorcyclist asked as I sheltered, shivering a little, under a small marquis at the side of the Lochcarron Hotel. “I’m not entirely sure” I replied. I wasn’t (well at least not at that point).
It was day 2 on the NC500.
I’d spent a sleepness night under canvas and had already turned back after horizontal rain blasted me backwards. It felt like cycling into a hard wet wall. I was starting to question myself. Then….another cyclist in cycle shorts and appearing unafraid of the weather rode past. It seemed as good a time as any to set off.
I bid the motorcyclist goodbye and headed off. The rain seemed temporarily to have stopped. The hills began almost as soon as I left Lochcarron.
I knew it was going to be a long day. The legendary Bealach Nan Ba awaited and then a campsite at Torridon. I met the other cyclist at the top of the hill out of Lochcarron where we both had the same idea of losing some layers having swiftly overheated climbing hills.
I recognised her straightaway as having been in the Inverness Hostel and then in the Lochcarron Hotel the night before. I’d thought her a walker by her lean, wiry build.
Introductions over I immediately started to admire her bike – a Shand of all things! We headed off at a similar pace chatting en route. The Shand was a birthday present and she was doing the ride to celebrate a special birthday. I felt almost distracted cycling beside a Shand and had a gentle laugh to myself as Fiona asked if the hill out of Lochcarron was the Bealach. “Don’t think so” I replied.
And then we were at the foot of the legendary Bealach. I’d watched a road race on tv on it and thought how incredibly impossible it looked. Yet here I was…on a bike (Orbit not Shand) I’d bought for £50 and strapped up with 2 huge paniers containing well..just heavy stuff! Two road cyclists got on their bikes from their car just at the bottom. I admired their light, beautiful frames…. Still it was just a day trip for them…a life trip for me!
There are lots of theories of cycling…lots of techniques…but really it’s just a matter of sitting back, turning the pedals and talking yourself through the following mantra “I can only go forward, just one more turn, the bike doesn’t go back”…over…and over…and over again. Soon the movement becomes almost hypnotic. This climb was much helped by the hysterical car drivers. Hysterical at cyclists going up such a thing. An old white haired lady with thin hands put them together in a prayer gesture. Some rolled down their windows and shouted well done. Others just laughed in that knowing way.
Probably about 1/6 from the top the gale force wind picked up and the wall returned. We had to get off though pushing was harder than cycling. The roadies passed us at the top – we’d overtaken them earlier – can you believe it! It must’ve been the triple ring. From the top things opened out though it was too windy to stop. In fact a bit scarily so as we were blown across the road. So down the other side..and the inevitable issue of my back brake not operating as it should…or really at all..oh well. Too late to fix it now.
Down, down, down…and then sunshine at the delectable Applecross. Lunch was soup at the Walled Garden. Then back on the bikes for what we thought was the easy bit! It wasn’t. The hills continued, and continued. Fiona said a few times “we just can’t get out of 30s”. It was true. We rolled into Torridon tired but happy! I was savagely eaten by midges while putting the tent up. They’ve suddenly taken a liking for my forehead having managed to limit themselves to my hands and legs before.
Food was a bar meal. Shelter a windy night at the free campsite next to Torridon Hostel.
Highs – the Bealach, the lovely conversation with a guy from the bbc who shared the love of bike touring – the true joy of being on a bike is surely being able to chat to strangers while cycling!
Lows – the endless hills to Shieldaig and beyond – worse than the Bealach. The dodgy back brakes- overrated to have front and back brakes anyways!
And then it was day 3 on the NC500.
Morning began with a fantastic ride along to Kinlochewe. The mountains of Torridon on either side. I felt like I’d arrived! Cycled into Gairloch and met Fiona outside the Spar as I consumed a takeaway coffee and ate something (anything!). Chatted to a couple who said Scotland had changed so much in a few years. I agreed and didn’t – like most things with me I guess! For me Scotland had kept that feeling of utter remoteness, of simplicity. We were to reflect on this many times during the trip.
At some stage, I don’t know when Fiona and I started to cycle together. And it was truly fab! It’s always hard to put your finger on how, and why, and when, such decisions are made. Or maybe they’re not made. Instead they just are.
This day we were passed by porsches. Flying past us – all the colours of traffic lights. Overtaking each other like kids. NC500 attracts more than cyclists it seems.
We passed Gruinard Bay. That place which was once a testing place for Anthrax. Somehow unlikely in such a remote setting.
Up and down. Up and down. Names of places like First Coast (I’ve just googled it as wondered if I’d imagined it and it comes up as “very remote rural”). Second Coast. At one point some goats. A long ride into the small hostel in Dundonnell nestled at the bottom of that behemoth known as An Teallach. I’d climbed it in one of my other lives. The couple who ran the hostel told us they’d started it as a diving hostel and then he fell in love with the mountains. They’d enjoyed the creation of the NC500. It’d brought them many cyclists though more solo female cyclists than any other! We reflected also on that a lot during the trip. What was it made so many female cyclists love the joy of the road alone or in gentle isolation?
We ate a meal cobbled together of pasta, some pesto, a little tuna and some cake of some sort.
Highs – food after a long day on the bike
Lows – that climb out of Gairloch – did no one ever think of building a Scottish town at the top of a hill rather than the bottom.
Day 4 on the NC500
A nice climb out of Dundonnell after saying goodbye to our delightful Italian roommate. A friendly girl with a map of Scotland slowly marking each road she’d travelled with a permanent marker! We reached Corrieshalloch Gorge. Time for a snack. Fiona joked with the warden in the National Trust to put on a “brew”. It met a stony silence.
We rode on to Ullapool. After a few negotiations to send my tent back to Inverness (love you D & E Coaches + the delightful woman in the cafe who let me use her phone + the lovely woman in the charity shop who took my tent to the bus!) we had some lunch – hummous and bread I think under a tree in the rain. Again our conversations with locals had touched on the positivity of the NC500 – the cafe folks had never had a busier year though there were worries too. Drivers racing to do as long a stretch as possible on the single track roads being one of them!
Then we headed on. Beautiful bays followed. Abandoned houses. Coves where I felt like donning my cossie for a swim. (Doubtless to be eaten all over by midges…like that one time outside the tent in Peru…..)
Remoteness again our friend.
At Lochinver we ate almost an entire packet of shortbread between us. It’d been a long day. The sign said 3 miles to Achmelvich. Couldn’t be so hard! Another town set at the bottom of a hill. So strange. Couldn’t we just move some of them to the top. Probably some of the hardest 3 miles ever. Up…and down….(no!) and up…and down. Eventually we arrived. All hills were forgiven by the warm welcome at the hostel by the fab Dutch warden. Truly delightful she made me glad we still have hostels and quaintness and quirkiness. The whole world hasn’t been swallowed up by a magnolia coloured idyll. Herbs provided, lovely conversation with 2 sisters – one of whom shared our crazy love of bikes.
Highs – laughing at the “brew” comment. We reflected on it later. Maybe she heard it 100 times a day or maybe too much cycling has caused us to be delerious!
Lows – those 3 miles to Achmelvich! Felt like 2003.
Day 5 on the NC500
Short cycle to Scourie. Stopped at the lovely Kylesku Hotel for coffee . Felt a bit under dressed for such a nice place. Often the life of a cyclist! Lovely curved bridge on way out of Kylesku. A few climbs but nothing like the days before. Arrived at Stonechatts B and B in Badcaul. Met by Rocket Ron. A character if ever there was one. He’d once been a top mountain biker he told us cycling through the night in the US. And that story about the tiger in the car. Stay if you want to know it!
The view from his B and B is truly wonderful. The French would say “ca fait carte postale” – that makes a postcard! Hills stretching out right across the horizon, boats easing in and out from the shore, a bench positioned to take it all in.
He took us to the Kylesku Hotel for dinner. It was truly delicious. We met the owner who was lovely (just saw her on Landward a few nights ago using the RBS mobile bank!). On the way back we had to play a game about countries. Something about ones which started or ended with something. We were doing not too badly. The only problem was that the game ended once the car ride ended. So, in what I suspect might be true Ron style he drove faster and faster to avoid losing out!
I could probably write a book about Ron but I’ll leave you to stay at Stonechatts and experience it for yourself!
Day 6 on the NC500
Early start after a cooked brekkie by Ron. Met a lovely Dutch couple in B and B who’d been coming to Scotland each year for 20 years. They loved it. She said it was even beautiful in the rain. Maybe she was right. We reflected on that comment a lot in the next days and in their love for Scotland. It was in their hearts expressed through their shining eyes.
We said our farewells to Ron after he insisted on showing us his mountain bike and oiling my chain. A curious mixture of power and fragility in one person but with a heart of gold. Stay at Stonechatts and you’ll know what I mean!
This day brought a cycle up and over Ben Hope and Ben Loyal. Suddenly geography seemed to click in my head. We’d have to get over these hills some way! No longer did I see hills as something you’d approach (perhaps in a car) and climb up. No were climbing up and over all these mounds left in our wake!
The scenery here had a starkness and remoteness. Vast. Somehow it felt like we were always on a high plane above the rest of the world. I’d travelled this way many years back in another life. At one point on the high plane before Tongue I pointed out to Fiona an abandoned cottage I’d photographed on that trip. I said to Fiona how the light had been shining on it the last time I’d been there…
At that point, and I joke not, the sun came out and suddenly the cottage was basked in the same light that I’d loved in that other life of mine. I’ve got the photo to show you if you don’t believe me!
It was a hungry day on the bikes. I’d broken the seal of hunger early and nothing could seem to keep me going!
And then that descent into Tongue. Somehow the wind still against us. In Scotland you can cycle 10 miles one way with the wind against you, turn and it’s still against you! The spit of land leading into Tongue felt magical luring us into a new place and our home for the evening.
We got to the Spar. Dash. Closed at 5.15! I reflected back to that conversation in Gairloch – Scotland hadn’t changed that much. And I loved it for that!
We bumped into an end to ender on a bright blue bike (I’d recognise this bike in John O’Groats the next day)! Think I’ve got a problem! He’d done 100 miles that day and was just looking for somewhere to stay. He had that slightly spaced look that comes after a long cycle.
Rations depleted Fiona and I thought of a plan B! Some fresh eggs by the side of the road provided a bit then we got some potatoes and butter from a lovely couple who were selling the eggs! It all works out in the end!
We stayed at the creatively restored Poor House Hostel in Tongue which had been the original Poor House. I don’t think I’ve ever actually been happier to see cake in my life as I was when I saw our 2 huge slices of walnut and coffee cake sitting on the table in the Hostel.
Highs – cake, big cake
Lows – the closed Spar and the belief that it was downhill for 3 miles before Durness – Ron you were having me on!
Day 7 on the NC500
Breakfast over we started our cycle to John O Groats. The scenery was flattish, less stunning. We stopped in Dounreay to buy some supplies. It seemed somehow strange to have a little village so near the nuclear facility. We passed through Castletown with its lovely sweeping beach. Yet more abandoned buildings. In another age these had been really different places with people, life, community. We arrived at the Seaview in John O’Groats in a heavy mist. I recognised the blue bike in the shed. Dinner was fish and chips in the warm bar of the Seaview. Adrian of the blue bike came to join us. He’d just finished the end to end. He seemed slightly deflated as people often are at the end of the challenge (I’d sympathise with this a few days later!). We chatted about his route and the pure joy of cycle touring. A lover of bikes he had a number of frames which he just moved the components about on for different rides. He worked in the IT industry and had a sadness when he spoke about going back to his desk in a day or 2 after a LONG journey back to Cheltenham. At one point a drunk man played 2 of my favourite songs on the jukebox..in succession…”Everywhere” Fleetwood Mac and “Fisherman’s Blues” The Waterboys. A drunk Canadian woman came to tell us some tales of her family heritage in Orkney. She was taking the boat over the next day.
Highs – the fish – it was delish
Lows – the sadness of abandoned buildings
Day 8 on the NC500
Morning saw us at that John O’Groats sign with all the different distances to different places. It’d also changed since my last trip in my other life. It’s now hugely expanded with lots of lodges by a company called “Natural Retreats”.
We cycled on to Wick where I used the public toilets which, in the nicest way, would be great for a crime scene in a movie. If you’ve been, you’ll know what I mean. If not, just go! We bought some pies in a local bakery. We asked a woman pushing a pram for the road out. She told us she’d “no idea”. It seemed funny in a place with one road in and one road out and someone who was clearly a local….
We cycled on. The scenery was more brown, more flat, less spectacular. We stopped at the Whaligoe Steps – a set of stone steps leading down to the shore where, in another time, herring girls had hauled up the catch. We had a coffee in a house bought by a woman who’d moved up from London. I couldn’t help but be amazed by the attraction of such remoteness and the labour of love some people take on. We talked about spices and recipes.
From Latheron Junction on I started to fear traffic again as big trucks joined the A9 from Thurso. I was relieved when we made it to Helmsdale. And that person was telling the truth when they told us that when we saw the sign for Sutherland it was all downhill! We stayed at the friendly and warm Bannockburn Inn. That evening we chatted with the barmaid who told us about how some of their local gold had made its way into the Olympic Medals! At least that’s what she’d believed when they went off panning from school!
Highs – the pie
Lows – none really
Day 9 on the NC500
It felt like day 9. You know that feeling when something you love is coming to an end. Traffic was a bit busy and it seemed like a long cycle into the Nigg Ferry. In fact, it felt as if the ferry shouldn’t actually be there at all. I’d learn later that the semi submersible ship berthed in the Cromarty Firth was on its way to load the damaged rig in Lewis. The “Hawk” seemed otherwordly compared to our scenery of these last days. It was a delight though to arrive in Cromarty with its historic little streets and warm looking shops. It also looked different from when I’d been here in my other life. It seemed more developed but in a nice way with lively local businesses painted brightly and shining clean! We stayed in the Cromarty Brewery property owned by the local trust and drank some Cromarty beer. When in Cromarty….
Highs – discovering the Nigg Ferry where it didnt feel it should be
Lows – not having more time to enjoy Cromarty
Day 10 on the NC500
Last day. A shortish cycle through Cromarty stopping in Fortrose for a quick coffee and then cycling along the side of the A9 into Inverness. A small altercation with a motorist in Inverness brought me back to reality with a bang. We stayed again at the Inverness Hostel. It seemed friendlier this time around and a bit less chaotic. I felt like Adrian now. At the end of something great.
Highs – achieving it – little old me cycling all these miles on my old Orbit I’d bought for £50!
Lows- was it really over!
A few reflections:-
It’s probably the most beautiful route I’ve ever done. The sense of remoteness, of time standing still, seeing houses abandoned, imagining what went before and what will come…
To use the words of a song by King Creosote:- “and my eyes cramming too much in”.