Sunday, 26 July 2015

Orkney and Ullapool camping week

It had been a long time coming, but eventually RT and me finally managed to get away for a week on our own.
Leaving on Friday the plan was to get to Orkney by the Saturday spend a couple of days exploring Orkney and then meander home down the west coast over two or three days.

I was planning to get on the road early on Friday and get up to Inverness, but by 10 o’clock on Friday the bike was still not packed.  In a bit of a controlled panic the bike was loaded in record time and I was heading north on the new Forth Crossing, in the rain, at 11:30.  By the time I got to Kinross and joined the motorway heading for Perth the rain had cleared and there was a glimmer of blue between the clouds.  I got off the motorway after crossing the Tay and picked up the A93 for Braemar, this would see me passing Glenshee where I planned to stop for a quick break and a bite to eat.  The miles flew by and I was making good progress along the sweeping turns, until the rain came back on, slowly gaving way to mist that eventually reduced the visibility to 30mph.  I crawled into the Glenshee ski center café wet and cold!

After getting fueled up with soup and coffee things looked a bit brighter, even the rain had gone off.  The rain stayed off for the rest of the day but as soon as I got back on the road the mist came back in on the wind, again reducing speed to 30mph!  The mist started to clear as the road started to drop back towards sea level and soon enough good progress was being made once again.  In good weather this will be a stunning road.

Pressing on to Bridge of Gairn through the spectacular scenery I took a left onto the A939 and pick up the road for Tomintoul.  Why have I never been here before, what a cracking road.  The few miles before and after the Lecht ski center are just amazing.  It is like someone just drew a grey line through the hills and the sweeping twisty road looks like it shouldn’t be there at all...amazing.

Tomintoul came and went so I decided to head for Nairn through Granton on Spay and Dava.  The lowland Spayside scenery here was amazing.  The road meanders along rivers, beside small lochs and through beautifully lush areas of woodland.  Slow progress was being made as I was just enjoying the beauty of what I was riding through.  After Dava things got rugged again with the highlands taking over once again.  Too soon I was in Nairn.  I had a quick comfort break and then back on the bike for the final trudge along the A96 and Inverness for the night.
This is the first time I have travelled this road, I have been up and down the A9 going top Orkney over 100 times.  I never though to explore different options, I always just wanted to get to Orkney ASAP.  I can see another night in Inverness, just to ride the road again in better weather!
Inverness dawned bright and it was still dry!  First stop of the day was to be the Skiach services at Eventon for a full cooked breakfast.  The one and only on this trip.  Skiach was always a milestone stopping off point when heading north, so why break the habit? The breakfast is still great.
With fuel in me and the bike it was time to continue north on the less boring bit of the A9.  Well some of it is OK.  The section of road leading to the mound has some great sweeping bends and is always good fun to just be smooth and fast on.  The sea views looking out from Golspie, Brora, Helmsdale and Berriedale are amazing when the sun is shining on the North Sea.  There are some nice sweeping sections of road and of course the Berriedale Braes.  Not so good on a loaded RT when you are following a truck that is going slower than you can go in first gear, don’t drop it now (I didn’t by the way).  From the Berriedale Braes to Wick the road is good quality and there is hardly a bend that can't be taken at less than the legal speed limit.  Passing busses, trucks and groups of LeJoG cyclists was a pleasure with the sun beating down on me and the North Sea to my right.
I pulled into Wick and had a quick pit stop.  I got off the bike and had a quick drink and a wander around.  Not much to report as I only stopped for 10 minutes for a quick drink and a wee walk around to get the feeling back in my butt.  Leaving Wick, I picked up the A99 and headed for John O Groats.  Why I don’t know but I did.  I went once and vowed never to go back, it’s a national embarrassment.  Anyway I pulled of the main road and headed down to the harbour, turned the bike round and headed for the ferry at Gill’s Bay.  I didn’t stop and I won’t be back!
I must have just missed the rain, the mist rising from the road must have come from a heavy rain shower, my luck is improving!  However a couple of miles before Gill’s Bay I was coming out of a corner just easing on the power and the back end slid out quite a bit, well, enough to get my inside foot off the peg!  I thought this thing was supposed to have traction control!

Anyway the bike and I stayed upright.  When I was turning into the ferry terminal I noticed a lot of wind blown sand at the junction, so I am assuming that is what caught me out on the earlier corner – wet sand.
Gill’s Bay ferry terminal isn’t much to write about, a booking office, café and a boarding ramp.  Well it is all you need really...
As I had already booked and paid before hand, I gave my name to the Pentland Ferries guy meeting the incoming traffic and he simply handed me my boarding cards and directed to the head of the queue.
I only had half an hour to kill before loading started.  Just as well as there is very little local to the terminal, don’t plan to get here too early!
The loading ramp and the deck of the Pentland Ferries boat were soaking wet, but the steel has a good non-slip coating and boarding was drama free.  RT had plenty of padding put over the seat before the ratchet tie down and two rope lashings secured her to the deck.  The loading guys were superb, very diligent and they couldn’t have been more helpful.

The Pentland Firth was flat calm as the ferry made it’s way to Orkney past the lesser islands of the Pentland Firth.  It passed a couple of the islands so close it was easy to see the seals that had hauled themselves out of the water and were enjoying the sun on the rocks.
Entering Hoxa Sound the WWII battery ruins and Widewall bay on the right, Flotta oil terminal on the left signal that we have arrived in the Orkney Islands.  I have real mixed feeling as we pass these landmarks.  I have not been to Orkney for seven years.  But for twenty years, since I was eighteen years old I have been going to Orkney for three weeks, or more, weeks every year.  Diving was as addictive as motorcycling for me; and Scapa Flow was my drug of choice.  Over the years I fell in love with the place, having spent the best part of two years on the Islands over a twenty year period.  I felt like a kid on Christmas morning, I could even feel it in my chest.  Either that or I was having heart attack!

First on the boat however, means last off…
I wasn’t having a heart attack and as I rode off the ferry onto the islands it truly felt like I had left my life on the boat.  I didn’t care about all the traffic in front of me, I was just going to go with the flow and enjoy the relaxed mood I was in.  Orkney is always like that for me, the world could end and I wouldn’t know about it…truly bliss.
Leaving St Margaret’s Hope, I turned left and headed towards Stromness.  I passed over the Churchill Barriers, through Kirkwall and onto the campsite at Ness Point in Stromness where I will be based for the next three nights, more about the roads later.
The Ness Point campsite is flat and the ground takes the pegs easily, I got hard standing for the bike and a pick nick table next to the tent.  There was next to no else on the site either, result!  Camping on Orkney was a bit of a risk, I have had some atrocious weather up here in the past, but I wanted to see if my old, beat up body would let me camp again.

View from the Stromness campsite
Another view from the Stromness campsite
With the camp set up I headed back into Stromness to get supplies.  Stromness has changed little over the years, there are some new buildings around the harbor area. These are modern, but fit in well with the older parts of the town.  I’m glad to see the cobbled main street has not been touched and the whole street has not changed at all. 

Maybe camping was not such a good idea, the first night on Orkney it lashed down with rain and the wind got up to about 30mph.  Earplugs helped out and I got a great nights sleep and better than that, the day dawned dry but windy.

I managed to get on the road mid morning with a plan to head for Burwick.  Burwick is basically as far as you can go by road from Stromness.  Heading out of Stromness I headed for Orphir and Houton, this road gives a great view over Scapa Flow as you crest the rise in the road before you drop back down to Houton bay.  The road then twists away from Scapa Flow past the intriguingly named Waulkmill Bay.  A few miles later Scapa Flow appears on your right again and you follow the edge of the Flow until you pass Scapa and into the outskirts of Kirkwall then start heading south for Ronaldsay Burwick.

Continuing south out of Kirkwall you pass the Highland Park distillery, drop in for a quick tour and a sample if you wish.  Not for me, the smell, never mind the taste, makes me feel queezy!  How dare I call myself a Scotsman…
Amazingly there is now 7 or 8 miles of dead straight road until you get to St Mary’s and the first of the Churchill barriers.  Barrier one takes you from the mainland onto Lamb Home, location of the spectacular Italian chapel.  Built by Italian prisoners of war from a Nissan hut and materials at hand, it is truly spectacular.  I am an atheist even an antitheist and the religious significance means nothing to me, but this is always a place I visit when I am in Orkney.  I always think of it as a humbling symbol of what can be achieved in times of such desperation.
A few twists and turns over Lamb Home and over Barrier 2 gets you onto Glimps Holm.  The ride over Glimps Holm is over in a couple of minutes with nothing much to write about, until you peel into the final left hander the leads you on to Barrier 3.  As you leave the bend the beaches and the block ships of Weddell sound appear on your left.  This is one of the best views on Orkney.  The rusting hulks of the block ships stand in stark contrast to the white sand beaches and the clear blue seas that spread out before you.
Continuing south onto Ronaldsay (North and South) the road twists it’s way towards Burwick.

Burwick is deserted now, I’m not sure if there is a ferry still comes here from John O’Groats.  I had a quick rummage around and headed back to Kirkwall on the same road I had come.

I stopped of in Kirkwall for a quick snack and picked up an OS map for tomorrows beach hunt.  Getting back on the road I headed for Finstown with the intention to head for Birsay Bay.  At Finstown I tracked down the turn off for the A966 that takes you all the way to Birsay Bay.  What a road it is, long sweeping turns followed by scenic straights with the sea to your right and the low mountains of the Mainland on your left.  Nearer the bay the road hugs the edge the fresh water Loch of Swannay.  Five minutes later you are parked up Looking at the Brough Head and Birsay Bay.
Leaving Birsay, it is small winding back roads all the way own to the Bay of Skaill.  This would be fine, but once you get off the main roads the amount of cow, sheep and horse shit on the roads is frightening.  This slowed me down considerably after being surprised a couple of times by ‘deposits’ on blind corners.  Never mind, at least the scenery was still stunning.  Bay of Skaill looked amazing as usual in the late afternoon light and the sound of the sea gently lapping on the sand and pebbles would put you to sleep.  I then rode down the side of Loch of Skaill following several carloads of tourists and past the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness.
Back at the campsite I cooked up a quick lamb curry and headed into town for a beer with a couple of old friends I had bumped into earlier.

Bay of Skaill
Orkney day two was to be a beach day, not sunbathing just on the hunt for beaches…
This is where the only problem with Orkney comes in.  You spend a lot of time on the same roads.  From Stromness to Kirkwall there are two options and I have covered them already!
From Kirkwall instead of heading for the Barriers this time, I headed past Kirkwall International Airport (yep, International!) heading for Skaill (the village this time, not the bay – that is on the other side of the Island).  This is a great wee road, it sweeps round 60mph corners and the surface is great and you can see far along the road to the next bend.
First beach was Newark Bay, haven of peace and tranquility…
Newark Bay
 Just five minutes from Newark Bay is Taracliff Bay, more white sands and crystal clear waters…
Taracliff Bay
All this tranquility had made me hungry so I headed off for a bit of luxury lunch.  I picked up another shit covered back road to St. Mary’s and headed south over the Barriers and back to Burwick.  Just before Burwick I turned off the main road and headed for the Tomb of the Eagles.  I was not looking for that though, I was looking for the Skerries Bistro.  Five minutes from the main road and I had found it.  Steamed Halibut and a view, what more could you want.

A slow ride back up to Kirkwall to have a chat with another friend from the diving days saw the time heading for five o’clock.  I got back on the bike and headed for Stromness again, but I took a quick detour to take in the sights and sounds of the cliffs at Yesnaby.
Yesnaby looking south
All day I had been thinking about Yesnaby and if I would even go there.  Yesnaby is a ghost that has been haunting me since the death of a friend a few years ago.  For over an hour I walked round the cliff tops and sat on top of the gun emplacements, emotions and memories of Yesnaby past sweeping over me like the sea breaking on the shattered rocks at the base of the cliffs.   I left a permanent reminder of friendship and when I left Yesnaby I was a happy, smiling man very much at peace.  I supose this is what our American friends call closure?  Right enough of that, back on the road…

The cliffs at Yesnaby
I got back to camp and had a quick snack supper; I was still full of Halibut from lunch.  I tidied up a bit as I would be packing to leave in the morning.
I turned in and slept the deep sleep of a contented man, looking forward to the ride to Ullapool in the morning.

My last night in Stromness look back towards the town
I managed to get the tent down and the bike packed in half and hour, I thought it would take much longer.  I rode into town, got a roll on bacon from the bakers.  The girls in there still recognised me as well!
I was getting the ‘big boat’ back, the Northlink ferry.  I got my boarding pass and was once again was directed to the head of the queue.  A couple on and identical RT to mine pulled up behind me, I said ‘hi’ and got ignored.  Hope they enjoyed the rest of their trip…

90 minutes on the Ferry saw the Hamnavoe docking at Scrabster, I read my Kindle all the way over.  I have lost count the number of times I have been on this ferry crossing, so feet up and relax.

Much to my annoyance the petrol station on the west side of Thurso is now a Lidl, Aldi or something like that.  The hunt for petrol only took ten minutes and I was soon on my way heading for Durness.

I never saw another car between Thurso and Tongue.  Sweeping along the A836 the views out over the sea to your right are amazing.  Every now and again you come around a corner to the vista of a stunning beach or a small river estuary.  The areas around Strathy, Armadale and in particular Bettyhill are just breathtaking.

At tongue I picked up the A838 and headed for Loch Eriboll and Durness.  Just outside Tongue the causeway over the Kyle of Tongue offers dramatic views of the mountains to come and views back down the Kyle to the open sea beyond.
Moving on and heading for stunning Loch Eriboll through the mountains it is to much to take in, I had set the Drift camera up on the bike at Thurso so it would run for 6 hours to record the awesome scenery from there to Ullapool.  I should have known better… I didn’t take many pictures as I had it all on video, righ?  Wrong, read on.
Loch Eriboll is stunning, the single track road is designed for bikes.  The road is narrow, but the visibility ahead is generally good and the road surface if good.  The biggest problem is trying to concentrate on the road while drinking in the stunning scenery all around you.

The video from Loch Eriboll should be here, when I took the photo below, I took the chance to check the video camera.  Alas, a stray wasp had smashed in to camera 3 minutes out of Thurso obliterating the video and cracking the lens - bollocks.

From here to Ullapool I was on a bit of a downer, the out of action video camera was anoying me.  I should have checked it sooner, the part I didn’t have on video was probably one of the highlights of trip.
I pressed on still enjoying the views, but concentrating more on the riding.  Pressing on down the twisty roads the RT still handles well, despite being a big heavy bike and being loaded up as well.  I stopped once more before Ullapool to stretch my legs just north of Kylesku and a final snap.
The road from Kylesku to Ullapool is a rapid, great road surface and easy to read.  Progress was definitely being made here.

Once I got to Ullapool I quickly found the campsite and paid for a pitch.  I got the tent up, had a quick shower and shave, then headed down into the town for fish and chips by the sea!

I was the only bike on the campsite when I arrived, however when I came back from dinner there were several bikes parked up and pitched near me.  Two Germans were touring Scotland, a lost Englishman and a Dutch couple touring Europe for however long it took!

I think the first ones in must have seen my bike when they arrived and pithed up near me and it just grew from there.  I was sitting outside my tent, picking wasp out of my Drift camera when the other bikers started coming back.

Josef, one of the Germans came over to say hi.  It turns out his bike was festooned with 4 Drift Stealth cameras and he had a couple of lens replacement kits with him….what’s the chances.  £30 and a lens kit changed hands.  The six of us gathered around as I was fixing my Drift and sat for the next two hours talking about travelling, bikes and general nonsense.  I must work on my German language skills!

When I got up the Germans and the Dutch were already away. I was sleeping with earplugs in again and slept until half past nine!  What time did we retire the previous night?  The Englishman still looked lost, despite me giving him my spare map.
Today was either the second last day of the trip or a long last day.  I would make my mind up when I got to Fort William.
First stage for today was to Poolewe and then down Loch Maree to Kinlochewe.  The roads were once again empty, the surface amazing and I was enjoying the ride on the long and fast sweeping bends of the A832.  The sight of Slioch over Loch Maree on your left as you carve round the sweeping bends is amazing.  Kinlochewe came all to soon, but I did need a quick stop for a drink and a pee.
Heading onto the A896 heading for Shieldaig let me take in the stunning Torridon area.  A lot of this road is single track and with all the recent rain there was a lot of loose rubble on the road, also trying to keep and eye on the road in this stunning scenery is just a hard as avoiding the run off!

Out of the hills the road is a mix of single track and normal two-lane road, some of this is once again great riding road.  The wider parts are full of long sweeping bends that pull you in and the singe track sections are tight and technical, not ideal ground for and RT but still great fun. 

After the last of the twisty bits passing Lochcarron I find myself on the A87 and like a moth to a flame I am drawn to Eilean Donan Castle.  Well if you are in the area it is the law, is it not?
Speaking of the A87, it is one of my all time favorite ‘big’ roads.  Sure it’s not twisty and technical, I’ll leave that to the power rangers, but this is my kind of road.  I love fast flowing roads like this and could spend all day on this kind of road.  Great surface, loads of passing opportunities and great scenery as well.  The uphill section leading to the cairn garden overlooking Loch Loyne is, in my oppinion, especially good.

The next stop for me was the Commando memorial, but first the boring parts of the road down the side of Loch Lochy.  This was made a bit more interesting as there was a few boats passing and the swing bridge was opened to let them through.  A big thank to the woman who gave me a mouthful of abuse for filtering down past about 30 cars to the head of the queue, the guy at the front was fine about it.  Soon I was at the commando memorial.

After a quick stop at the commando I headed down towards Fort William, I had decided that I was going to get a B&B tonight rather than camp.  I was half way down the golden mile having a walk around when I decided to head for home that evening.  It was a beautiful evening the sun was shining on the loch and Glen Coe was bound to be stunning.  I decided to head for the Kings House and have dinner.  Glen Coe was amazing in the warm evening light, the traffic was light and what was there was slow and easily passed.  I Pulled into the Kings House and had a very tasty steak pie and veg, relaxed for 15 minutes and then walked back out to the bike.
This fellow had made his way to the car park looking for his dinner as well.

There is not much more to write about the ride back home from the Kings House, it was uneventful, apart from the traffic cops at Lochearnhead (the only ones I saw in 1000 miles) and the lashing rain just as I got on the motorway at Stirling.

The RT was great throughout.  The panniers are not designed for camping, mind you when they designed it they were probably think more about hotel touring.  The seat is also a pain, literally.  The ergonomics of the bike are great I could go all day, the seat however is only good for about 90 minute stints.  The padding seems very soft and I am getting a numb bum after about 90 minutes, 10 minutes off the bike and I am fine again and ready to go.  I am going to look into this, as I want to decide when I stop, not the bike.

This is how the days panned out:
Day 1:  Home to Inverness, 177miles, running total: 177 miles
Day 2: Inverness to Orkney, 158 miles, running total: 335 miles
Day 3: Exploring Orkney, 137 miles, running total: 472 miles
Day 4: More exploring Orkney, 108 miles, running total: 580 miles
Day 5: Orkney to Ullapool, 145 miles, running total: 725 miles
Day 6: Ullapool to Home, 310 miles, final mileage: 1035 miles
Camping wise I bought some new gear:
Coleman Tatra 2 tent:  Easy to put up and pack away, fits in an RT pannier, stable and waterproof
Exped Synmat 9LW:  Easily the best £100 I have ever spent on camping, so comfy it is amazing
Snugpak Traveler 2 Sleeping bag:  Packs tiny, warn enough for 6C with just undies and a T shirt
Helinox 1 chair:  Again money well spent, comfy and compact it fits in a pannier with the tent
Yellowstone pillow:  Just buy one - £7 comfy and again packs down tiny

Trusty 10 year old Trangia with gas burner, I like to cook when I am on the road

Pont of Ness campsite, Stromness, Orkney: £7.20 a night, flat pitches, good hot showers (20p) for ten minutes, very clean, small lounge area with WiFi & vending machine.  I'll be back

Broomfield Holiday Park, Ullapool: £8.00 per night, flat pitches, free hot showers, very clean, 5 minute walk into main town.  Been before and I'll be back again.

If you got to the end, thanks for reading it all, a lot of it was indulgent but I couldn’t make it much shorter and make it worthwhile for me.  I hope you enjoyed it.