A SCOTTISH JAUNT - PART TWO
JOHN'S NORTH COAST 500 CONTINUES
No story of travel in Scotland can be recounted without reference to the weather. This was day two, and I'd been riding in dry and warm conditions. This was the brief period when many areas of England were grilled in temperatures approaching thirty centigrade and above. The temperature reading on the bike showed mostly in the low twenties. Not always sunny but comfortable enough for touring. How long would it hold as I made the miles further north?
The NC500 route goes through John O'Groats, so it would be daft not to stop for a peak. A number of other bike riders were of the same mind, and there were the inevitable car-borne travellers seeking their selfies at the signpost. It's not a particularly attractive place. A circle of gift shops and restaurants, and the jumping off point for visiting the Orkney Islands. It's not the most northerly point of the UK mainland. That distinction belongs to Dunnet Head a few miles along the coast and reached through a series of small roads if one is in an exploratory mood.
I explored - if it's a road where the grass and weeds are pushing aside the Tarmac all the better. I stopped at a small rocky bay where the ruins of a once harbour were still prominent and in the silence, as I hung my helmet on the bars, I could hear cries from the sea, like anguished mournful ghosts seeking release from torment. It was the sound of baby Harbour Seals letting their mothers' know they were still around. I moved across the stones and pebbles to get a closer view, but not only were they too far away but well disguised, slobbed out on their rock platforms.
Apart from the craggy shorelines, this area around John O'Groats and the main town of Thurso is quite flat. It's further west, beyond the nuclear installation at Dounreay, that the Highland landscape unfolds. It's surreal passing this nuclear 'industrial estate' on the edge of the UK. It was decommissioned as a power plant in 1994 and the clear up with ever spiralling costs continues - a legacy it shares with other nuclear plants dotted around our coastline.
It's 170 miles from John O'Groats to my next stop, Ullapool on the west coast. Mostly on single-track road, where, without exception, four-wheeled vehicles pulled over to allow me and the bike to pass. In fact, there is space for a bike and a car to pass without hindrance, but, like me, people driving were in no hurry. At several points along the route, I was leap frogging with an old Aston Martin, one of a number of classic sports cars I came across, attracted to the isolated grandeur of Highland roads.
The majority of bike riders were BMW GS mounted. I know these bikes have a sure-footed reputation for handling, but they were bound to feel on the heavy side in this environment. Especially those equipped with the full panoply of luggage and equipment. My Aprilia Mana is a nimble motorcycle, and I'm a minimal packer when travelling, so the top box and storage capacity in the false tank gave me adequate space.
The Mana is equipped with a clutchless transmission. What people like to call twist and go. It's more sophisticated than that as there are three 'mode' settings; Sport, Touring and Rain. Then, should you miss changing gear, there's a manual change utilising a button, plus a gear lever if the left foot needs exercising. I love it, especially as it's linked to an 850cc vee-twin unit that rumbles away beneath. Touring mode is the way to go through the Scottish Highlands.
I was on the road for nine hours this day. Which has to be the whole idea of the NC500. Relax into it. Stop. Listen to the silence. Watch the changing light as the sun and passing clouds brush mountain tops. Gaze down on deserted pristine beaches. Pull into one of the handful of small villages, take a coffee and let the rest of the world go away.
Ullapool is a small but cosmopolitan town on the west coast. Music town. The pubs and hotels all promote evening gigs, and it's the ferry port for Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides. I was checked into The Ceilidh Place, one of the most civilised hotels in the world. It has its own extensive bookshop, regularly adopts and raises funds for charities, has a nice informal feel, a busy restaurant and bar, and hosts regular music gigs and concerts. It was set up in 1970 by the Scottish actor Robert Urquhart.
June is the month when it never gets dark in the far, far north. I'd intended to have a day off the bike before continuing the NC500 route via Gairloch, the spectacular Applecross peninsular and Kyle of Lochalsh to cover the 516-mile route total. The weather turned overnight, low clouds and light rain. I used some time to move the limbs walking the town and around Loch Broom. Then my meteorological optimism got the better of me as the cloud lifted and some feeble sunlight showed through, so I made short journey up the coast to the wonderfully named village of Achiltibuie overlooking the Summer Isles.
The weather worsened. More rain was forecast, accompanied by the wind and low cloud along the west coast. I've travelled over the famous Pass of the Cattle to Applecross and across the bridge to the Isle of Skye on a previous trip in less than ideal weather conditions, and the experience is one of endurance rather than enjoyment. Nothing wrong with that, but why spoil the riding memories of the previous few days. I made a shortcut back to Inverness.
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