Friday, 25 August 2017

North Coast 500

I've lost count the number of times I have done the various bits of the North Coast 500 over the years, but I have never done the whole official route.  I came close once, doing it anticlockwise, but I missed the Lochinver & Clachtoll loop.  The guys I ride with started talking about a long weekend away and the NC500 seemed to keep bubbling to the surface, so a date was set.

 On the run up to departure date the weather had been frankly, shite.  Amazingly on the Friday of departure the weather was dry and bright as I headed to Stirling to meet Andy.  Colin had to pull out as all leave had been cancelled at his work due to the chaos caused by the Edinburgh festival.
Fuelled up we left Stirling heading for our first stop at Fort William, with the compulsory stop at the Green Welly.

Heading north through Callander the sky was growing darker by the mile and by Lix Toll the rain had started to appear on the visor.  By the time we reached the Green Welly it was well and truly on, with pools of surface water loitering on bends ready to pounce.

A muddy Green Welly car park

It was tourist central at the Green Welly, it was heaving.  The carpark was a muddy mess, so we just stopped where we could.  After a quick comfort break it was back on the road for Fort William.
Climbing away from Tyndrum on the A82 the rain slowly began to ease off, the hills on the right of the road looked angry and foreboding in the dull light struggling to shine through the heavy cloud and shroud of mist.  Making the most of the dry spell we made good progress through Bridge of Orchy passing the tourist traffic, bus tours and lorries and onto Ranoch moor before the rain came back on again.  This time it was on for real and it would stay with us until Fort William.  Nipping past a gaggle of Rabbies tour buses at the Meeting of the Waters Viewpoint the traction control reminded me how wet it was!
The rest of the run to Fort William was wet and uneventful.  The only fly in the ointment was the traffic from Corran to Fort William was unusually busy as Corran ferry had run aground!
Arriving in the rain and hungry we tracked down some shelter at the side of Morrison's.  Half an hour off the bike and a Morrison's sandwich we were ready to go.  The rain was also ready and accompanied us to Inverness, all the way up the side of Loch Lochy & Loch Ness.  Despite it's best efforts the rain did little to spoil the A82 along the sides of the lochs.  There was a lot of tourist traffic but the road is ideal for getting past the camper vans and buses.  The long sweeping right handers are ideal for lining up a pass and it was easy to keep a good speed up without having to behave like a loon!  The only nasty section was at Alltsigh, when the rain became biblical and there was more standing water than road and the rain looked like it was falling on a pond.
Inverness was heaving as we tired to negotiate our way to a petrol station.  The big RT is good for about 280is miles to reserve, but Andy's tiger want a drink after about 180.
Fuelled up we picked up the NC500 for real and headed for Achnasheen.  Once we got off the main roads and onto the A832 the rain started to ease up and finally went off, for a wee while.  It was nice to finally get some clear roads and barrelling through the seeping curves of the A832 was just what was needed after 4 hours of constant rain.  Soon we passed through Achnasheen and were heading for Lochcarron along the A890, again another sweeping road with great views ahead and awash with sweeping curves.  Passing through Lochcarron the rain, once again, made its return.  My thoughts were now turning to the Bealach-na-Ba in the rain, wind and mist then camping in the rain at Applecross.
Andy wanted to stop at the Bealach-na-Ba sign to set up his video camera.  I had a smirk to myself as I watched him trying to get it all ready in the pouring rain, with his helmet still on and visor down.  Yes, the rain was that bad.

Setting up the Drift in the pouring rain

Andy made me go first as he wanted video of a bike going up the Bealach-na-Ba.  So, off we went in the pouring rain.  As we carved our way up through the hairpins and passing places the wind began to pick up.  Soon a rolling mist joined the party, but no matter how bad the weather is the rugged beauty of the Bealach-na-Ba never fails to take my breath away.  By the time we got to the top all you could see was the road.

The mist rolling over the summit of the Bealach-na-Ba
Nothing to see here - the summit of the Bealach-na-Ba
Leaving the viewpoint we started to ride down the other side towards Applecross and amazingly the sun started to poke through the clouds.  The clouds continued to clear as we rode down towards Applcross.  Finally the clouds cleared and the view over the water to Raasay and a blue sky made all the rain worth while.
Unfortunately the camp site was a we bit 'swampy' but we managed to find a couple of dryish pitches and put the tents up in warm sunshine.  By the time we had the tents up and the rest of the gear unpacked the sun had dried the bikes and bike gear off completely.  Result, no spending the night in the tent with soggy bike gear!  It was high time for a well deserved pint, or two, and a meal in the Applecross Inn.

The sun came out in Applecross!
Saturday dawned dry and bright, despite a couple of rain showers during the night.  By the time we were ready to start packing up the sun was well up in the sky and had dried the tents out.  After packing up and having a quick breakfast we trundled down to the self service fuel pump by the shore.  Fuelled up we took to the coastal route to Shieldaig.  5 minutes out of Applecross there was a better camp site, wild camping on the shore with a view over the sea to the hills of Skye in the distance.  Next time I am up this way I know where I will be pitching up.
The single track road gently climbs up and down, more or less following the coast.  Sometimes sweeping inland for a few miles, but always with a view over to Rassay, Rona and the mountains of Skye above them in the distance.
After passing Shieldaig we picked up the A896 for Kinlochewe and the scenery starts to become more rugged as we headed into the mountains.  This is one of my favourite stretches of road in the UK.  The stark mountains rise on either side of the glen as the fast flowing road sweeps along past streams and small lochs.  Much of the road is single track, but the forward visibility is good and the road surface is excellent.  Far to soon we take a left at Kinlochewe and head for the coast past loch Maree on the right with the impressive Slioch on the far side of the loch.
A scenic car park at Charlestown helped make the decision that  it was time for a quick pit stop.

Charlestown pit stop
These chaps on Monkey bikes left Applecross before us in the morning, so they must have stopped somewhere along the way.  They were still making great progress!  The were already camped up at Durness when we arrived.

Monkey madness on the NC500!!

Back on the bikes we pressed on for Ullapool.  The excellent A832 sweeps down to the shore at Gairloch and climbs inland heading for Poolewe.  The road sinuously climbs, dives and twists its way past the beaches at Laid and the oddly named First and Second coasts.  Once Little Loch Broom appears on the left the road calms down for a few miles and follows the smooth shoreline of the loch.  As the loch fades away in the mirrors the road starts to twist its way alternately through the tree lined valleys then wide open moor until you end up on the main A835 and the scenic run down into Ullapool.
Ullapool was tourist central, again.  Eventually we got the bikes parked and we wandered down to the front and I had a very tasty venison burger in the Frigate Cafe.
Amazingly the rain had stayed off so far and it was really starting to warm up.  After fuelling up the bikes it was a pleasure to get moving again, cutting through the cool sea air.  The weather stayed with us and unfortunately, so did the tourists.  The A835 & A837 weas heaving with campers and caravans.  Thankfully the road has plenty of passing opportunities as it carves through the ever changing bleak moor and eroded rugged mountains of Assynt.  The road finally got quieter as we passed Ardvreck Castle on Loch Assynt as a the slower traffic turned off to avoid the hilly and twisty single track after Lochinver.  The run down to lochinver was a high speed dash along a well surfaced road lined with streams, small lochs and low lying hills.  Just as well we made the most of it as the single track B869 was about to throw the twistiest, hilliest 22 miles of road I can ever remember riding.
Progress was slow along this stunningly rugged piece of road.  It is full of blind corners, blind summits, massively step gradients along with a smattering of suicidal wildlife and sheep.  It was a great bit of road to ride, testing you all the way, but around every corner there were sights like this to greet and distract you...


After a quick stop for a photo at Clashnessie we finished off the rollercoaster B869 before crossing the Kylesku bridge and heading north for Durness.  The tourist traffic had once again joined us and the run over the bleak, but strangely beautiful moor, was a bit of a chore.
Arriving at Durness, the Sango Sands camp site was heaving.  After a couple of tours of the site we found a couple of pitches and got the tents up, amazingly once again in the sun!
Still full of Venison burger a quick trip the the local store for snacks & supplies saw me through what became a cold evening!

Sango Sand at Durness, surely one of Scotland's most scenic camp sites...
Sunday started soggy after a few longer showers during the night.  I managed to knock the worst of the water off the tent before I packed it away, so at least I would have one more dry night.
Andy headed for fuel at the self service pump at the Spar, I would wait until Wick as the big RT returns about 300 miles to the tank when touring.
No sooner were we out of Durness and we were stopped in our tracks by the stunning Ceannabeinne Beach...

Dragging ourselves away from the blue skies, white sand and crystal clear sea and continued east.  As soon as we were on our way again Loch Eriboll block our way and we followed the single track road around the flat calm crystal clear sea loch.  As we were climbing away from the loch after the novelty of having a single track road to ourselves for a dozen or so miles Andy got a fly in his eye, we had to stop.  I have to say, he can pick the places...

Not a bad view when your mate is picking dead fly out of his eye

Turning east again the A838 sweeps along over moorland with glimpses of Ben Hope far away on the right.  We caught up with some traffic as we crossed the causeway at Tongue, any excuse for another photo.  Although I don't think this area is as awe inspiring as Torridon, is is certainly photogenic!

Ben Hope from the Tongue causeway
 We decided to head for Thurso for lunch on the A836.  The road is a mix of twisty single track and normal carriageway road until you get to Reay.  It is still good enough to let you pass the slower traffic and still enjoy the smooth curves as the road carves along the coast.  Occasional a stunning beach appears between the shore and sea on your left.  Soon we were pulling into Thurso and a quick carry out lunch from Lidl filled a hole.
As we were this for north we decided that a quick detour off the NC500 route to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the UK, was in order.
Just before the turn off for Dunnet head, the Dunnet beach is hidden from view by large dunes.  It is worth having a look at the beach and if you are lucky, the kite surfers.
Turning off the main road it was back to single track again for the 10 minutes to Dunnet Head and the lighthouse.

That's as far north as you are going on the mainland

Then a quick blast to an absolutely heaving John O' Groats...

No, I don't know who the blue head is...
By this point we both needed fuel so we headed for Wick down the A99, an uninspiring but fast piece of road.
After fuelling up it was onto the A9 and down the east coast for a stop at Alness for a coffee.  Folk moan about this bit of road as being boring and it is, after you have just ridden up the west coast and along the north coast.  On its day though with the sun shining on the North Sea on your left and the road twisting is way through parts like the Berridale braes and the hairpins further south, I like it.  There are some nice villages to pass through as well.  It is also a fast road and it's easy to make 'progress' and passing is easy, even through the long well surfaced curves.  Crossing the Dornoch Firth the smell of the Glenmorangie distillery filled the air as we passed through Tain.
Pulling into the Skiach services for a coffee our old friend, rain, greeted us.
After coffee and cake, the rain was well and truly back with us.  The run to Ullapool was not going to be pretty.
Leaving Skiach the sky was now slate grey, the rain was getting heavier.  The sky over where we were heading looked even more foreboding.  We peeled off the A9 heading for Dingwall, Garve and eventually Ullapool where we would be camping that evening.  By the time we passed through Dingwall the rain was bouncing of the road.  Thankfully the A835 is fast and flowing and most of it has been recently resurfaced.  The next 40 miles were just a dash through the driving rain passing everything in sight.  As we started to ride down the side of Loch Broom the rain finally started to ease off.  Thankfully, by the time we pulled into the camp site the rain had gone off.  The sky suggested that this wouldn't be the case for long though.
After a mad dash getting the tents up in the dry we wandered down to the front to get dinner.  Fish and chips were the order of the day, along with more rain.  Back at the camp site the midges joined the party, so we retired to the tents.
I spent the evening with the Outer Hebrides maps, as I am heading there tomorrow, while Andy is heading home...

The North Coast 500 is well worth 'doing'.  A lot of folk have been complaining about traffic, prices and camper vans!  I didn't think it was that bad.  Yes it was busier than a few years back, but we always got pitches for the tents.  There were no big convoys so the slower traffic must have been letting others pass, if you are on a motorbike that isn't a problem anyway.  The roads were in better condition than I though they would be, again because folks have been saying that they are not up to the volumes of traffic.  Prices have always been higher up there, but I don't think it is any more expensive than any other tourist destination.
I don't know if I will do the whole NC500 again, but I will certainly continue to visit all the roads on it...

Andy's Tiger and my RT