Saturday, 9 June 2018

"Tonight the coldest place in the uk is...

...Altnaharra, in the northern highlands of Scotland. "
I’ve never been to Altnaharra having only hearing about it on the news, it also happens to be on the road from Lairg to Tongue, one of the few roads in the Highlands I have never ridden.  I better go and have a look then…

There is nothing better than setting out to explore new places, except leaving work early on a Friday to explore new places.  There was a fly in this particular ointment however, and that pest was the A9.  I wanted to get north and into my digs as quick as possible and as shit as the A9 is, it is still the quickest way north.

Possibly the most scenic shit road in the UK.  Ladies & Gents, I give you the A9

At just after 5pm I pulled into, the unique hostel that was to be my home from home for the next couple of nights. is a selection old style first class corridor and compartment railway carriages that have been converted to provide remarkably comfy and quirky accommodation.  The carriage I was in slept four in two compartments, the other four compartments contain a fully equipped kitchen, a lounge area and a  shared toilet and shower.  The accommodation was spotless and the beds comfy, what more do you need!

My digs for the weekend, the surprisingly good

Despite the dire warning of torrential rain and thunderstorms, I awoke to blue skies and only a few scattered clouds.

Torrential rain and thunder storms over Sleeperzzz, allegedly

After a quick coffee and a couple of breakfast biscuits I headed towards Lairg on the A839.  I got a taste of this cracking wee bit of road after leaving the A9 heading for Sleeperzzz, it continued to provide great riding around the long, fast curves all the way to Lairg.  Turning left at Lairg the road quickly changes to single track, but this single track is well maintained and cuts smoothly trough the lowlands.  This is some of the fastest single track road I have ever ridden, just as well I reckon about 200 of the days 230 miles was going to be single track.
Continuing north west passing small lochs and settlements with highland names like Altnacealgach and Stronechrubie the mountains of the west coast start coming into view through the haze hanging in the air.  This haze was in the air most of the day, so a lot of the photos from the day are quite muted.

The western mountains just making their appearance through the haze...

Getting closer to Loch Assynt the clouds started to close in and I got the only rain of the day, it was a right old storm that would stay with me past the Kylesku bridge.  I finally left it behind as I turned south east at Laxford Bridge.

Moody Ardvreck Castle and loch Assynt in the gathering storm

The rain finally giving way at Kylesku

Back on single track road heading south east on the A838 I was again surprised how good these roads were.  I would recommend getting off the NC500 for a wee while and enjoy some of these amazingly fast roads.  They flow along the shores of small lochs and cut through thin forests, all the time with good forward visability around the sweeping bends.  A far cry from the twisting and undulating single tracks of the west coast.
The clouds started to give way to blue skies again as I started to skirt the north shore of Loch Shin.  Again this is a single track road in great condition.  The road sweeps along the edge of the loch, again offering great views of the road ahead and allowing you to press on at a pace normally unacheivable when you think of single track roads.  I was caught out a couple of times in places where heavy rain had strewn some of the corners and small bridges with a fine gravel run off.  After a few of these moments you get used to reading the road and you can predict where these wee surprises are lurking.
Leaving Loch Shin behind I joined the A836 and following the signs for Altnaharra.  Passing through Crask I wonder if the place existed before the Inn, or was it named after the Inn?  The place is even called Crask Inn and not Crask on Google maps!
After a few more miles the road starts to drop down into Altnaharra, again the biggest thing seems to be the hotel!  There is a bit of a theme going on here...  Altnaharra is a wee community spread out along the road and I was through it in under a minute.  Only on the way out I though I better get a photo as this was the primary goal of today!

Looking back to Altnaharra

By the time Loch Loyal made an appearance on the right side, the blue of the loch was being matched by the blue of the sky.  Once again the single track road continued to amaze me as I pushed on for Tongue.

Blue skies over Loch Loyal

The mist was soon back though.  The cold North Atlantic air hitting the warm, moist air over the land was causing the mist to roll right up the Kyle of Tongue and then on inland up the valley.  This sea mist would stay with me all the way along the north coast past Bettyhill, until I turned south again onto the A897 just past Melvich.  It was a spectacular sight and the pictures do not do it justice...

Mist rolling up the Kyle of Tongue

Looking back at the mist in the Tongue valley

The mist continued along the north coast, you could hardly see the beaches at Bettyhill

Leaving the north coast behind, the cold sea mist once again gave way to blue skies and warm sunshine.  There must have been some heavy rain here recently, the road was awash with gravel and mud run off.  Timber operations were not making things any easier either, mile after mile of muddy truck tracks and dropped bark made for tricky riding.  Just as the road started to clear up a bit, I thought I heard thunder.  Yeah, I am sure that was thunder.  Rounding a bend just before Kinbrace the sky turned black and the the sun went into hiding.  I stopped and sealed up the vents on my bike gear as I was convinced I was about to get a world class drenching.

Thunder storm ahead...

I don't know how I did it, but somehow I managed to skirt right around the maelstrom that lay ahead.  The storm rumbling away to my right, even after picking up the A9 at Helmsdale and heading down the east coast and back to Sleeperzzz.  Only after I had been back for half an hour did the skies begin to clear.

The skies beginning to clear, I still don't know how I missed the rain!

This was a great wee loop around some new roads for me.  Yes I had some dodgy weather, but I only got rained on for a about 10 miles out of about 230 miles.  Not bad going considering I skirted round a huge storm for the best part of an hour.  The sea mist was a challenge to ride through, but well worth it just to see it.  The roads were a complete surprise.  I am used to slow, twisty and frankly poor single track roads.  These were fast, flowing, well surfaced and quite.  Not as scenic as the NC 500 roads, but well worth riding in their own right. was also a pleasant surprise.  A quirky take on hostelling, it was clean, comfy, the owners helpful and it had everything you needed.   I would stop here again if I was in the area again.

The Altnaharra loop