Back on mainland Scotland | Driving the NC500

It was a bit of a shock arriving back on the Scottish mainland after 6 weeks in the northern isles. But it was September now so we were hoping the busy season was over and the crowds of people had gone back home…we were wrong. Our plan was to drive along the famous NC500, a scenic road that loops around north west Scotland. We drove this road back in 2014 after we spent the winter season working in the highlands. We just had a little tent and we wild camped along the way so this time we were travelling the route in Helga which will be luxury.

The ferry got us in just before dinner time so we wanted to find a spot to camp straight away. There were so many motorhomes on the road so we took a few tiny roads in the hope that we’d find a place to camp without any neighbours. We lucked out and found a single parking space at a little harbour. There were two seals thrashing about in the sea and many more lounging on the rocks nearby. Suddenly the mainland didn’t seem so bad after all.

The next morning we woke to sunshine…we haven’t experienced that feeling in about 6 weeks and we wondered if it had been like this the whole time on the mainland and the northern isles were just cloudy. We set off west along the northern coast and soon made our first stop at Dunnet Head. It was quite a long and windy road that didn’t seem worth driving once we arrived. There didn’t seem to be any hikes in the area, just a lighthouse which marked the most northerly point of mainland UK and a view across the sea to the island of Hoy in Orkney. The car park was already busy when we arrived and we were shocked to see some people had set up two large tents in the carpark!!! In actual parking spaces! It was already about 11am and they clearly had no intentions of packing up any time soon. This is not how you wild camp! We walked around a bit of the headland for a different view of the lighthouse and after five minutes we were very happy to leave the area.

Our next stop was Peedie Sands beach which involved a short walk along the cliff tops to reach. As we peered over the edge and got our first view we were instantly impressed, the beach was gorgeous with calm turquoise water lapping the shoreline. There was just one dog walker on the beach when we arrived but he soon left and we had the place to ourselves. We decided to go for a swim as it looked like such a tropical paradise. I think the key to swimming in Scotland’s frigid water is to start in the coldest water up in Shetland and work your way south. The only thing that puts us off swimming in the sea is being all salty afterwards, I really like to wash the salt off me but the water looked too good to say no to. Luckily as we started drying off Craig noticed a trickling noise, it was a sort of waterfall dribbling off a rocky wall with just enough water to stand under and have a rinse.

The weather soon clouded over but we continued the scenic drive. The road conditions were horrendous, it was so beaten up with potholes. Then the two lane road would suddenly narrow to one lane without warning and the passing places were basically pits in hell. Poor Craig wasn’t enjoying the drive at all as he couldn’t look around at the view because the road involved so much concentration, especially when hooligans drove too fast.

Near the village of Tongue was Varrich castle and a sort of causeway across the sea where we got our first proper view of the mountains. I’d seen from google earth that this inlet area had beautiful sand banks rising out the aqua water so we headed up the road a bit for a higher vantage point. We got a sample of how nice it could be but without the sun shining the sea colour didn’t pop.

The next morning we woke super early so we could try and get first dibs on a washing machine and we succeeded. So after the laundry and a spot of breakfast we did a short walk around Smoo Cave. We must’ve visited this spot in 2014 as it felt very familiar. Not very impressive by our standards mind you, especially considering how busy the place was with tourists.

Luckily the next stop was much more successful as we headed to the vast beach at Balnakeil. It was a beautiful stretch of beach, I can imagine it looking like a little slice of the Caribbean when the suns out but today it was a strange sight with a herd of black cows walking along the white sand. It reminded me of India where cows roam freely and happily. We walked along the sandy tracks through the headland and got some pretty views of the beaches and a little sandbank.

After Balnakeil the road headed south west and we didn’t have much of an idea of things to see along the way. The mountains were gradually getting bigger though so we had a look online for hikes in the area. We discovered a mountain called Ben Stack, which, as far as mountains go was a very easy climb. As I browsed the map and looked from google earth I discovered another area of mountains slightly north, one was called Arkle and it looked much more interesting as it was made of glistening white quartzite, making the top almost look snow-covered.

So we parked up in the trailhead carpark, ready to do the hike first thing in the morning. As dusk approached we spotted two stags outside our window!! One was quite close to our van so I quietly snuck outside to get a few photos. The stag waded through the shallow river and occasionally looked my way…good job we’ve spent a lot of time with otters recently as I have perfected my statue pose. I did have some extra challenges though and that was the ravenous midges. I was kind of hoping they’d of all died off by September but the mainland is still very much thriving with them. We’re really excited to see the rut this autumn and this stag gave us a little taster of things to come. Albeit he didn’t make any noises he was pulling the typical face they do during the rut when they roar. Then we spotted another male approaching him, it was much smaller but he seemed like a cheeky bugger, taunting the older one. So of course the older one had a stand off with him which was really exciting to watch and eventually the little one wondered off, rather unfazed.

We started our hike the next morning which led us through the valley for quite a few kilometres on a dirt track. It was going to be a long old walk, 17km and over 700m incline, but that was still a pretty small mountain by Scottish standards. The path headed towards a patch of forest, passing between two huge boulders where a lush green rowen tree hung over the trail. The branches held the most vibrant red berries and it was lovely to see so much colour, we really love variety so this was a good change after the northern isles. Something we haven’t had to deal with much on our travels so far is ticks but it seems like we’re very much in their backyard now. The problem was they were so tiny, like a bloody grain of salt, we were wearing sandals so we had a few around our feet trying to climb up to higher ground.

Soon enough the climb began, the weather was a bit gloomy and cloudy but the rain was holding off so we were happy hikers. We were the only people on this route and after a few hours we arrived at the top. A fairly wide ridge line headed down and back up the mountain so we continued to the end. The pass was a strange rocky area with big square slabs of rock and gaps between each one…Craig saw this as an opportunity to play hide and seek. The gaps in the rock were surprisingly good for the game and he managed to stay totally hidden from me.

The mountains reminded me a little of Canada, way less grand and impressive, but the pure, white rocky top made the mountains seem more like mountains than hills. After we finished walking along the ridge and turned back the bad weather rolled in. Cloud surrounded us and blocked all the views while rain hammered down. It didn’t stop raining the entire way back so we must’ve been hiking in rain for about 3 hours. I tried to stay positive at the beginning but the dirt road went on and on, I looked like a drowned rat and soon enough I was a rather grumpy hiking companion.

When we got back to Helga we decided, heck we’re already soaked we may as well have a nice dip in the river beside our van. So we chucked our wet gear into our little bathroom and ran down to the river for a dunk. It was only about 4pm yet the midges were out already and this time with a vengeance. My god we couldn’t escape them, if my head was out the water they were swarming me. We ran back to Helga with a trail of them following me. So many of them seemed to hide in my hair which I discovered when I dried it and my towel was covered in midge carcasses. We managed to get ourselves sorted and sit down to enjoy a hot chocolate which we never do. We even had some marshmallows so as Craig passed me my hot chocolate I did what I think most sane people would do, I put a couple mallows in my hot chocolate. Craig looked at me in horror “what are you doing?!” I explained that that’s what people do…and he said “fine you do yours like that but I’m toasting mine” and he proceeded to turn our gas stove on and char a marshmallow directly on the flame, which I must admit looked way better than my soggy mallow bobbing in my drink like a boat lost at sea.

As we sipped our drink I looked out the window at the plague of midges swarming the outside of our van, peering through our windows like sick perverts. It’s a good job there weren’t any majestic stags outside tonight as there was no chance in hell we were going to open our door and let them in.

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