The origin of an idea for an adventure has to blossom. Instead of enlightenment, it came to me from a chat to my mum. I was aware of the route being created at the end of 2015. Marc Beaumont christened it with a nonstop journey of the 500 miles and 10,000m of climbing in under 36 hours. It was Christmas time and sitting around in my parents’ living room, we watched BBCs’ Countryfile program which had a feature on the NC500. Mum was so enthusiastic about how nice the route would be, I thought why not. Looking up the trains to Inverness and excitement of seeing some snow, I was booked to go in April.
This was my first time on the sleeper train, and the apprehension of the journey ahead set in as the train pulled away from London Euston bound for Scotland. Even after a beer I struggled to sleep. Nodding off at some point I awoke to glance out the window, strangely it looked very familiar. It was defiantly Scotland, but then looking closer I even remembered the road as we hurtled past. It was the Cairngorms National Park of which I had completed the Cairngorms Loop, a bikepacking route a year earlier. Then Aviemore came into sight, next moment I awoke and the train carriage was empty. We had arrived, leaving me panicked, changing into riding clothes, leaving a tub of chamois cream behind which I had luckily split it into two tubs. I rode around Inverness unsettled, then a coffee shop saved the day. I reset my systems with a coffee, and after eating three bananas in a row I donated my left over train nibbles to some hikers then set off with ten days before my train home.
Inverness dissolves into countryside instantaneously unlike the engulfing London spread. Soaring through the Scottish landscape passing Muir of Ord onto Dingwall. This is where I would join the A9, one of the only major roads in the area. I peddled frantically with traffic passing at seventy miles per hour. This did make the miles pass rapidly and soon I was resting at the stunning Loch Fleet assessing the thick rain that was coming my way. The elevation had been kind to me up to this point, so with rain set in, slugging up the climbs towards Helmsdale was tough. I was hoping for a perfect coastal camp, on the OS map I saw potential gold mines. I had to find a way to cross the train line which was cutting me off from the coast. As I turned off the main road I accidentally ended up in the garden of a grand house with peacocks surrounding me. Down a small track I was fixed for Lothbeg Point. I was rewarded when I arrived with an out of season campsite with an open toilet block. I pitched up as close to the sandy beach as I could. Such a beautiful spot that had to be enjoyed peeping out of my tent as the elements weren’t settling down.
Overcast skies loomed above as I commenced the considerable day to take me up to Scotland’s top east corner, John O Groats. The climbs through Helmsdale and Barriedale felt like a rack and pinion railway, just my legs set in winching me to the top. I broke down the route mentally into 10 mile sections. I looked upon the delightfully detailed OS map to a point on the coast labelled Whaligoe Steps. I arrived to see just houses on the side of the road, no signs just cars hurtling past. I found a track behind though a farm and came across the steps. Riding down the first few, I then realized I would not want to carry my bike fully loaded back up. I laid my bike on the grass at the top and set off down the steps carved out of the cliff. The view unfolded to expansive sea cliffs surrounding me, sea birds flying above. The spectacular sea crashed onto the rocks of the 19th century herring fishing port. I scrambled about and discovered a ribbon of water flowing off the top of the 250ft cliff, growing into a breathtaking waterfall crashing into the sea. I continued past the town of Wick and found myself on very quiet artery roads with deer galloping across. Arriving at John O Groats in the dark, I quickly took the obligatory photo of the sign post and found a camp site for the night. With a dry evening I sat cooking dinner with the flashes of light from the Light Houses of Duncansby Head and far into distance of the Orkney Islands.
Vast clear skies encompassed the low lying landscape whilst I was blissfully riding west with a tail wind towards Dunnet. After exploring the Flagstone quarries, I was having a lie down break next to the road when a police car pulled up. It looked to them like a car had knocked me off, and asked me why I had picked a spot opposite the Dounreay nuclear power station. I was unaware of this and was recommend to relax at the next beach, which didn’t have the most relaxing sign stating that the area could be radioactive. Peddling fast onwards towards Melvich the climbs came thick and fast. I started to see the horizon dominated by the Munro mountain ranges of the east. The landscape unfolded to vast boundless Scottish valleys. With a stunning red sky I rounded a corner to reveal Tongue Bay. The view down the Kyle of Tongue towards the mountain systems of Ben Loyal and Hope were truly magnificent. I stayed at the hostel for the night before I headed off into the wilds. I turned up to a mansion and was told I had the run of the place all to myself and she just left me the key.
Waking up feeling fully rested and all recharged, the morning brought a 250m climb over to Loch Eriboll. Ben Hope, the most northerly Munro of Scotland, dominated the landscape. I sailed with a tail wind along the side of the Loch, only to turn at the bottom 180 degrees to be faced with an invisible brick wall of wind. I was in my lowest gear on the flat, winching along towards Durness on the north coast. The sun showed itself and with the pure turquoise of the sea set upon the perfect sands, I felt like I was in paradise, let alone Scotland. This area held one of the sights I was most looking forward to, Smoo Caves. The spectacle did not disappointment me, with the gapping mouth of Britain’s largest sea cave, joining to back cave system that had been carved out by the fresh water of the surrounding land. I read a sign about a boat trip, and felt like treating myself. I found a guy on the beach sitting by a fire. Not sure if he had had a few too many whiskies but aboard a rubber dingy we entered. I had so many questions but the noise of the water crashing down and his thick Scottish accent hindered me. My original plan was to spend the night in a bothy next to Cape Wrath, Scotland’s upper west corner with its name deriving from the Norse meaning of turning point. This wild spot is also used by the military as being the only place in the northern hemisphere to test a thousand pound bomb. When the military are training, you do not enter. I was forced to peddle south and turn up along the coast to the south of Cape Wrath, towards Sandwood Bay. The bay has been written about by Robert Macfarlane as one of the only true wild places of Britain. Wilderness for about 4 miles before entering the sand dunes onto the beach, with wide sands and waves crashing into the 65m sea stack of Am Buachaille. I found a Loch for water and started to get ready to pitch camp. The wind had been relentless and pounding on my ears for hours, so got in a bit of a tizzy. But solving the solution of how to use pegs in sand, with huge boulders in each corner of the inside of my tent, I started to relax. The sun, a perfect sphere traveling down dissolving the clouds to pink hues, hit the ocean drawing my perfect evening to a close.
Arising on an isolated beach is the most ideal way to begin the day. I traveled out onto the quiet roads and came upon the Old School Restaurant. Here I filled myself with a full Scottish breakfast, the watery porridge I was having when camping just wasn’t cutting it. Fully fueled I was crossing the loch strewed mountain landscapes of Sutherland. The vista across to the Quinag mountain range with the v shape of Loch Glendhu and Glencoul below me. This is where I came off the official route again to seek out a night in a bothy. An amazing off road track lead me down the Gleann Dubh valley to the end of Loch Glendhu where my nights bothy sat surrounded by steep sided mountains. I arrived early in the evening and had plenty of time to mess about with axes and saws, trying to create fire wood for the roaring fire I had planned. Post dinner, I wandered the surrounding area when suddenly I heard a movement. I stopped in my tracks to see five deer dashing across the rocks in front of me. I looked to the mountain side and like stars, the longer you stared the more deer and stags you could see, a sight I will cherish forever. Back to the bothy I made a fire which created more warmth from the pure exhaustion of keeping it going more than it provided. When it was stable I whittled away the time reading through the bothy book of others experiences in this incredible place.
Morning came and neither my mind nor my body was functioning. I set off on the track back out of the valley, I found myself quickly at Kylesku Restaurant where with a coffee and fish and chips, I regained some momentum. Whopping climbs came and went as I progressed to the coast at Lochinver. I sat there eating provisions from the local shop planning my evening ahead. I wanted to make it to the coast of the Summer Isles but the steepest climbs of the trip so far confronted me. The evening sun appeared out of a very overcast day. The scenery grew into what looked like goliath peaks surrounding me, a true illusion due their craggy geology which summited them to just over 600m. I descended to Altandhu where a campsite was marked. I booked in at the pub not passing up the opportunity for my first beer of the trip. I savored the amber nectar as a spectacular sunset cast over the Isles.
I woke up to blue skies, but I was more surprised to come out of the shower block to the sight of it snowing and settling. The surrounding mountains had icing sieved over their tops and it created this postcard version of the highlands. Traveling along Loch Lurgainn was spectacular, fast roads led me onto the costal ferry town of Ullapool. After a quick sandwich interrupted by snow showers, I found myself on the major road crawling up a steep climb. Cars passing at 70mph added to the drama of the blizzard situation. Peeling off to seek out the Corrieshalloch Gorge, I rode down straight onto the bridge. It was then I got the full view of the 60 meter drop below me. I braked suddenly and the bridge swayed, not my best idea. Traveling higher and higher in altitude I arrived into the snow line where the temperature dropped. The descent brought with it a hail storm. Panicked, I wasted time on a whim following a sign to a bothy which lead to nowhere. Arriving at Little Loch Broom, I wanted to wild camp but the weather was saying otherwise. A sign saying Hostel filled me with joy, but deflated very quickly when they said they were full. I was pondering on my next option outside where upon two ladies unpacking their car asked what I was up to. It turned out the Perth Mountaineering Club had fully booked, but they knew they had a few spare beds so I spent the evening sipping whisky hearing all their climbing exploits.
I carried along the undulating coast line towards Laide. It had been a tough morning and another sign promising food, coffee and wifi appeared. I stormed around the village consisting of a dozen buildings to no avail. I went into the post office to ask where the mystical restaurant was, the answer was it had closed months ago and that somebody should take that sign down. Luckily the post office did have a good selection of nibbles and he offered to make me a coffee. We chatted outside on the bench for an hour or so. I spoke about my first bothy night and he loved it as he maintains the local bothy, Shenavall. Stories flowed of the nearby Gruinnard Island, which was used for experimental germ warfare and has been sealed off after being contaminated with anthrax. He also introduced me to a book, ‘Scottish Hill Tracks’ which has detailed maps and description of all of the drover roads and tracks around Scotland. They don’t all appear on the OS map due to Scottish Outdoor Access code. I then rode past Loch Ewe which was instrumental during the Second World War as an assembly point for the Arctic convoys. At points you could walk across the bay without touching water due to the number of ships gathered. After a quick visit to the Gairloch Heritage Centre, I was riding along Loch Maree towards Kinlochewe, which was my original destination but Torridon was calling me. The most spectacular area of the highlands with Munro Mountains surrounding you from every direction. I was thrilled to be riding through its epic contours, arriving at Torridons’ youth hostel for a well earned beer sitting in awe of the view with snow showers still dusting the scenery.
Moody elements accompanied me whilst I skirted the edge of Loch Torridon. Horrific head winds joined the steep ascents, as my course of movement changed from heading west to south that was it. The power of the prevailing wind was at its full strength and I had to dig so deep. At one point I lied in a ditch just to get out of its constant battling. After the torment, I made it to Applecross, where after a well-earned pub visit I was confronted by the largest climb of the trip, Blealach na Ba. Starting at sea level the pass topped out at the summit of 625m, with gradients of 20%. I started off steady, but realized all these Scottish mountains had modified my legs. I summited with only one stop, and that was due to brutal side winds that blew me off course. Exhilarated I went tearing down the other side, hitting over 50mph, Hope Pro4 hub screaming. This being my last night of the trip I wanted a sense of celebration, After being disappointed in Strathcarron, and the elements being unrelenting, I phoned Gerry’s hostel which was another ten miles away. He said they were closed and recommend another place ten miles further on. With the sound of dismay in my voice, he asked was I traveling by bike. After confirming this he changed his story and said I must come and stay with him. After breaking the ice I found out he had bike toured the world for three years. The whiskey flowed by a roaring open fire, thankfully not one I had built.
Cruising down Strath Bran with a tail wind, I barely peddled east back to Inverness. I arrived to Muir of Ord with time to spare before my train, leading me to the local whiskey distillery of Singleton of Glen Ord. Six pounds got me a guided tour joined with samples of the whiskey they produced, I left feeling with a very warm glow from the inside out. I rode the last remaining miles back to Inverness station with one final gift from Scotland in the form of a soaking.
Such a beautiful way to discover the Scottish highlands and discover new places. I recommend it to all, and next time I would work in even more off road sections, there is a lot more to uncover. Thanks to all the people I met along the route, such lovely encounters. Finally thank you to the millions of years of geology that has created such a magical place. I have already plans to go back.