The North Coast 500 (NC500) Adventure: Part 3.1

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The trip is finally upon us, and after about 6 weeks of excitement, the adventure begins. I had packed the car up the night before, with all that was left to add was a few bits of food, and ourselves.

Day 1 – The road North

Our alarm went off at 4.45am and after a quick shower we set off from home at around 6.15am, with our first stop off being McDonalds for a coffee, accompanied by a sausage and egg McMuffin (don’t judge us!). This was the only way to start the adventure, and hit just the spot.

We made our way North and reached Scotland before most people had finished their breakfast, but this gave us time to stop along the way, and enjoy the scenery. Today’s destination was Loch Ness, and our first campsite was Loch Ness Bay campsite, but we were heading via Glen Coe, and as the weather was glorious, we wanted to make the most of the day up in Scotland, not in our beds!

If you trust the weather forecast, it had given us some fantastic sunny days for the first few days of our trip, but I didn’t get too excited having spent far too many days in Scotland watching weather only to be disappointed, or ecstatic in some cases that the forecast was wrong.

The sun was shining though and we were enjoying a lovely late summer’s day, and we had soon reached Loch Lomond, where we stopped to have a stretch by the shores. I was last at Loch Lomond in April, walking Munros with my friend, JP, and the weather then was definitely not like this. After a short stroll and some sun on our faces, we got back in the truck and continued up the A82, towards Crianlarich, where we stopped for some lunch.

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We headed up North, adjacent to the West Highland Way, which I did a number of years ago, in similar conditions in 2008, when my friend and I enjoyed 5 continuous days walking with every day over 30 degrees Celsius, which is something I don’t think Scotland has experienced since. My wife was hearing all our stories from our trip all those year’s ago, many of which she has heard dozens of times apparently – I forget!

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As we reached Rannoch Moor, I had to stop and take in the views, as I have never seen it so still and in such fantastic sun light – unbelievably stunning. We ventured down to Loch Etive, down the road now famous (busy) thanks to 007, but a road I never tire of driving. Glen Coe is one of my favourite locations in Scotland, although I do prefer it under the cover of snow, when the crowds are much smaller, and the roads not so busy. As we continued through this stunning glen, past the crowds of people in the laybys, we soon reached the iconic Ballachulish bridge, which always provides a spectacular backdrop.

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We filled up with diesel in Fort William, at the supermarket and made our way up Glen More, passing Loch Lochy, and just over half the way up Loch Ness, before taking the A831 towards Drumnadrochit, where our first campsite was located. You will noticed that we have already detoured off the planned NC500 route, before we have even started this section of our trip. We decided we would prefer to visit Glen Affric, rather than Inverness and remain out of the cities.

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Also, you will notice that we are doing the trip anti-clockwise, starting with the East coast, and whilst contrary to most guide books, I wanted us to end on the West coast, which I believe is more dramatic and what I think of as the proper Highlands. There are no areas that are ‘ugly’ or not scenic, but I just personally prefer the West coast, and so this is how we planned our trip.

 

Night 1 – Loch Ness Bay campsite

The campsite was very well kept and the staff friendly, but similar to my trip to Luss, on Loch Lomond in April, we spent the night only a few yards from the A831 road, which whilst not as busy as the A82, was still noisy enough to ensure a disturbed sleep! I should have learnt my lesson from last time…

It was my wife and my son’s first night in the roof tent, and I can confirm that one person was definitely more excited about this experience than the other – I will leave you guessing which one that was. There is only so much excitement a 2-year-old can handle, and so after a while of playing peek-a-boo with us from up high, he dropped off to sleep, so much so we could hear him snoring from below (he gets that from his mother 😉).

We awoke at around 6.45am thanks to our little human alarm clock, to a glorious day with a big blue sky, which gave us more confidence that the weather forecast may be accurate and we would enjoy some much-welcomed nice days on our trip. After a couple of strong coffees, some breakfast and a shower we were ready for off for (proper) day 1 of the NC500, which would take us up the East Coast to Wick.

I will do a separate blog post, offering more details of our roof tent accommodation, in the next couple of weeks, but I think getting the first night under our belt, definitely helped my wife relax about what lay ahead and the nerves of spending the next week ‘on top of my car’ eased, which was good (for me).

The campsite was clean and tidy, but just a touch noisy when under the cover of canvas, not that our neighbours probably heard a peep in their luxury motorhomes. I think my wife, Hannah, was slightly jealous of their more comfortable set-ups.

Day 2 – The East Coast

As I mentioned above, our first port of call after leaving the campsite was the short journey to Cannich, and into Glen Affric, on what was an unbelievably sunny day. We headed up the picturesque valley to the dam and then on past the loch to the car park at the end of the road, which was surprisingly busy (or perhaps not surprisingly busy, given the stunning day we were lucky enough to have). I had never previously been into this glen, only seeing photos on social media from others lucky enough to have visited, so whilst we only had a short wander from our car, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about – but it was soon clear, as the scenery is spectacular. It was no surprise that we spotted a few cheeky campervans who had sneaked a night in this stunning location, and who could blame them with nothing but nature to disturb them.

Retracing our path back to Cannich, we continued up to Beauly, Muir of Ord and then over the Cromarty Firth to Tain. Seeing the wild seas on such a glorious day, ensured most of our conversations seemed to be around how beautiful the area was. Being someone who likes a wee dram, we had to stop at the Glenmorangie distillery for a quick wander round. We sadly couldn’t go inside, as we had the dog with us, but it is a very attractive building and expansion was underway to add a modern glass section to the old traditional buildings, which will look amazing if the architectural drawings fixed to the construction fencing are anything to go by.

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We crossed the Dornoch Firth, heading North, stopping at Dornoch and Golspie, which were lovely – full of character, and it wasn’t long before we reached Brora. It was here that I wanted to retrace my footsteps from when I was a young lad myself, and walk across the golf course to the lovely beaches on the other side, but George had decided that he was ready for forty winks, and was in a deep sleep. We decided not to wake him, and had to chalk the walk at Brora onto the ‘must come back and see/do list’, which I suspect would be ever growing throughout our trip.

The afternoon was getting away from us in spectacular fashion, but we didn’t mind with so much to see along the route. As we reached Helmsdale, and saw the harbour, I suggested we seek out a fish and chip shop, which from my vast experiences enjoying fish and chips – go hand in hand with harbours. After driving down to the harbour, and navigating the one-way system through this lovely little village, we headed up a street which looked more promising….and there it was, the chippy! My child-like excitement was hard to contain, as I wandered into the establishment, only to discover perhaps the busiest fish and chip shop in Scotland. Customers outnumbered folk in the street by 10 to 1. This was a good sign.

Eventually, after a long wait, which I didn’t mind, I had collected the goods, and we did the ‘done’ thing and headed to the harbour to enjoy our fish supper. It is fair to say George was very excited (nearly as excited as his dad!), but the wait was more than worth it! Helmsdale was clearly used to catering for those similar to ourselves, with picnic benches on by the harbour. On such a stunning evening, we had to take stock at our fortune, which had not only secured a lovely supper, but also provided a stunning backdrop and fantastic weather. This could not be beaten…with the icing on the cake being the world’s biggest portion.

A moment we didn’t want to leave, or at least I didn’t, but it is fair to say that my hunger was well and truly addressed, as we continued north up the A9 towards Wick, only stopping briefly at Dunbeath.

Night 2 – Wick Caravan and Camping site

We arrived at Wick Caravan and Camping site on what had been our first official day on the NC500, and what a day it had been – hopefully the following days would live up to the same standard. The campsite was busy, but we arrived late evening, and were greeted by the lovely Site Manager, who was so welcoming. She gave the most thorough briefing on where to park, and some of the local attractions, and catered for every need. As we had no prior accommodation booked, we gambled and only called the site when we were a few miles away, and the Manager’s helpful nature, led to my wife saying how lovely she seemed. Great first impression.

After setting up camp next-door-but-one to another Mitsubishi L200 with a different style of roof tent set-up coincidentally, I got our own camp set-up quickly so we could let George get his much-needed beauty sleep. I cannot tell you how much he enjoyed being in the roof tent, which made my day (every day)! Once wee man was settled, I set up the wood-burning stove to provide some heat for Hannah and I, as we enjoyed a beer (and whiskey chaser) for me, and a glass of wine for her (obviously)! I treated myself to a nice single malt for the journey, which I purchased in Fort William, as it isn’t the same buying it in England…

After a lovely evening, we hit the sack.

Day 3 – Hitting the North (East) coast

We awoke to a glum looking day, after a relatively windy evening, which isn’t a surprise at the top of Scotland. After a quick mooch round Wick, we headed to the Old Pultney distillery, which was closed, as we had already lost track of days…it was Sunday! Heading North on the A99, the bleakness of this part of Scotland was made even more apparent by the low cloud, and the dramatic waves crashing against the East coast headlands.

Our next stop was John O’Groats, a place I had been many years ago, and underwhelmed me then. Whilst it had received some investment, it continued to underwhelm me all these years later. I may be doing it a dis-service, but it did very little for me, in the same way Land’s End didn’t and feels like the place that people visit just to, dare I say, tick it off. Ironically, George had very uncharacteristically decided to have an early nap, such was the excitement going on outside of his window. Even the brightly coloured buildings that had been built since my last trip did little to engross me, but it is very possible that it is just me…

For the first time we were heading West, the direction we would continue in for the rest of the day and into tomorrow. Our destination this evening was the North Coast Touring Park, just before Melvich, and we were aiming for a more leisurely day after quite a late finish the day prior. The landscape was beginning to change as we approach Mey, where we obviously stopped at the Royal Castle – the Queen Mother’s favourite residence.

We parked up, and unloaded the troops, and planned to have a walk round the castle, which was very under-stated for one of the Royal residences, but in the same sense had a grandeur about it. We headed in to get our ticket, where we were informed our little four-legged friend would only be able to go in the first garden area. At the best part of £20, we decided not to go in, and instead walk around the outside area, which was the only real option without going in separately, and as we had spent a lot of time in the truck, we didn’t want to leave Susie in the car as we went inside. The view out towards the Pentland Firth was something special, and it was easy to see why it was such a special place for the Queen Mother. The cloud which had been ever present throughout the morning was starting to lift, with just a few bits hanging on in there.

We decided to call at Dunnet Head, where I had watched Puffin’s many years ago. I was not so lucky on this occasion, and instead had to settle for Guillemots instead, but given the wind which had picked up dramatically, I am not surprised that the local wildlife was laying low. We found a short dirt track about a mile back along the B road, where we pointed the truck at and headed a short distance down over rough terrain – pointing the bonnet of the car towards the open sea. It was here where we had some solitude surrounded by small lochs, away from the people who were enjoying John O’Groats and the Castle of Mey.

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We decided to put the stoves on, with one boiling some water for a much-needed brew, and the other cooking some, wait for it, hot dogs! Hannah had decided what we needed on this trip was hot dogs for lunch…very traditional. After much bemusement, I quietly enjoyed my hot dogs, but obviously played this down to the wife, but just a look from her suggested that she could tell that I had, along with the speed that I ate them! Looks can tell you a lot about what a person is thinking after the thick end of 15 years together.

After a hearty lunch, and a nice walk around some old Land Rover tracks with fantastic views over some beautiful lochs, our next stop was Thurso, one of the main towns along the North coast. We didn’t spend long here, and continued West towards Scrabster, the village which is synonymous with its harbour, which was of strategic importance during the Second World War, where it was the base for a ferry operation taking military explosives to Scapa Flow. Nowadays the settlement is thankfully more renowned for its role in the fishing industry, and its ferry port. The ferry leaves Thurso bay on a daily basis and heads towards Stromness, on Orkney.

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Scrabster did not disappoint and was a hive of activity, with the harbour full of different vessels, of all sizes – from small fishing boats holding 1-2 people, to day cruisers, yachts, all the way up to commercial fishing boats of huge proportions. We wandered around the units on the harbour, which are the gateways to Europe, where the fish leave these boats and head onto menus across the continent within hours. Something that you don’t always think about when you are enjoying a meal out in a nice restaurant.

After an enjoyable hour or so, on a lovely day, we continued West towards Melvich, where we would spend the night at the North Coast Touring Park.

Night 3 – North Coast Touring Park

As had become the norm now, we arrived without any prior booking, which is a luxury that you can only get away with outside of the Summer season. On arrival, we could see that there were a few free pitches. I wandered into the Halladale Inn, which is the pub located on the site, where I had a good conversation with the owner, who was very welcoming. She said we could choose our pitch and gave us the lowdown of the facilities (currently being modernised), along with a status update since they had bought the site just over a year ago. It was clear that they had invested in the place, and continued to do so, with clean pitches, a lovely park for the kids, and generally a well-kept site. There were a team of joiners outside building what would be the new toilet facilities which were not yet open, but you could see that the owners were doing it right and making it a pleasant environment to spend a night or more.

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The site was located only a mile’s walk to the beautiful beaches of Melvich, across open fields, and the pitch we chose took full advantage of these views. The site is a credit to the owners, who have really taken the time and invested the money to get things right, and I am sure it will stand them in good stead, ensuring they have a successful business for the coming years. I would highly recommend the site if you are ever in the area.

After we had got set up, it wasn’t long before the site was full, with campervans and motorhomes electing to stop for the night. With a pub on site where you can get a nice meal and drinks, it shouldn’t have been a surprise really. Next to us, was a lady on her own in a Volkswagen Transporter campervan, which was a lovely van indeed, and caught my eye. She was very pleasant and made a fuss of George, who was a similar age to her grandchildren. We presumed she was travelling along until her husband (we presume) arrived on a bicycle and was on the penultimate stage of the Land’s End to John O’Groats bike ride, aged 77 years old. I thought this was fantastic and really so inspiring, and after a few more conversations with the couple we found out they lived in Wigan, where I was born, and are only 30 miles from where we live now. A small world.

The next morning, we were heading in different directions, and so we wished each other a fantastic trip and said our goodbyes.

 

The following days of our trip will be in my next blog.

 

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