The North Coast 500 (NC500) Adventure: Part 3.2

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Day 4 – The Proper North Coast

After a hearty breakfast of bacon rolls, and coffee, we were set for the day – with everyone in good spirits. There was a misty start to the day as we continued West along the A836, with our first stop being Strathy Point. Whilst no doubt a scenic spot, we were relatively underwhelmed by this stop, but that may have been due to the wind and the mist. After a full-on morning, George, was already asleep and it was only 9.30am!

After a few minutes here, we continued with the wee man well-away in the land of nod. It was nice just to relax and enjoy the scenery together as we drove, after a busy morning. Sleeping in the roof tent whilst extremely enjoyable, is not the most relaxing start to the day. Packing everything away, cooking breakfast, chasing George and general camp life, and it led to Hannah questioning our sanity…again. Why were we not just in a nice cottage, and having a relaxing time? Where is the fun in that though….right?!? Ok, just me then.

We drove through Bettyhill and up to Tongue, and it was here that we were planning to take a detour away from the NC500 for half a day. This literally was a trip down memory lane for me, and took me back almost twenty years to a childhood fishing with my dad and enjoyable, outdoors family holidays in our trusty touring caravan. Since my mum passed away, you treasure those memories all the more, and realise that these were literally the good times – the three of us, and the dogs exploring the Highlands.

We headed South, down past the very beautiful Loch Loyal and on to an area we knew very well, Altnaharra. I felt so blessed to be back here with my own perfect family and to be able to share such happy memories, whilst creating our own. What made it even more special was the unbelievable weather we were enjoying, which was nothing short of a miracle in late September in the Highlands. After spending twenty minutes on the almost ancient park by modern standards, in the village centre, the midges appeared for the first time, but not ‘proper’ Scottish midges…this was child’s play for us! George enjoyed his time on the park where his dad had played a couple of decades or more before.

Hannah had made a friend, in the form of a nice, friendly ‘old boy’ in the village, but his dogs were more intrigued by the visitors making all this noise in the sleepy village. After disturbing the peace, quite literally, we headed up alongside Loch Naver, and to the caravan site I used to frequent as a young boy. It had literally not changed, which is such a good thing, I cannot explain. The sun was shining, and we decided to have our lunch whilst we watched the foresters hard at work – with George enamoured by their machinery up on the hill side.

It was here that George started to show an interest in my binoculars, which he immediately wanted to play with. These were quite an expensive purchase, but I did have some binoculars in the glove box that I got free when we joined the National Trust. These were now George’s binoculars and would remain close to his hands for the next week!

After a lovely lunch, in literally the most perfect setting, I was gazing towards Ben Kilbreck over the loch, when I saw a herd of deer, which was literally the icing on the cake! I sat George on my bonnet and we watched the deer together for a good ten minutes. Now I know that at the age of two and a half, he didn’t know where he was looking, but that moment was really special for a whole host of reasons that I could never do justice in words.

After a hearty lunch, and a fantastic hour, we reluctantly had to leave and head back towards the NC500 ‘official’ route. We had a couple of options in where we headed, but opted to follow the ‘C’ road over stunning open countryside past Loch Meadie, and Alltnacaillich, which was absolutely marvellous scenery. We had negotiated some heavy traffic along this single-track road, in the form of Highland cattle, which George was very intrigued by as they looked wearily through his window!

We continued on towards Ben Hope, one of the 284 Scottish Munros (Scottish mountains over 3000ft, 914m, in height). As an avid hill walker, and a self-proclaimed ‘Munro Bagger’ – this was one that I would come back to conquer, as I didn’t think it was fair to leave my wife, and wee man in the truck, whilst Susie (my dog and walking companion) scaled the most northerly ben! However, what an unbelievably beautiful drive alongside Loch Hope in such a scenic environment – one you would never get tired of looking at.

As we passed the car park, at the foot of Ben Hope, the big Munro towered over us in impressive fashion – dominating the skyline. It is always a good thing to have a reason to come back to a place, but as if I needed even more of a reason to re-visit this area, but if I did, Ben Hope gave me one that’s for sure.

We headed up towards Hope, on the A838, and on towards Eriboll – one of the most stunning sections of our trip. The drive round the shore of Loch Eriboll was literally breath-taking, but no matter how many times I stopped, or how many photos I took, literally none of them did the area enough justice to satisfy me. The rugged and stunning mountains guard the bay, in such a dramatic way and the road disappears ahead, such is the grandeur of the area. It is a cliché, but we could have parked up and enjoyed these surroundings all day, however, I am not sure George would have been too happy about us doing this!

So, we continued along the West side of the Loch, heading due North along the A838, passing the very popular Smoo cave before arriving at Durness, our location for the evening. Tonight’s campsite at Durness was….Sango Sands, in Durness.

 

Night 4 – Sango Sands campsite

We drove up to the campsite, which can only be described as a mass sprawl of caravans, motorhomes and the like seemingly in no particular pitches, and to say it was busy was an understatement. I nervously wandered into the office to see if they had some spare pitches for us, and the lady basically told us it was a free for all and that we could find a pitch of our choosing.

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We were looking for a more sheltered spot, with the wind being rather ‘fresh’, and us living in the roof tent on top of the truck, however the site is located above a beautiful beach with stunning cliffs, so the pull to park up overlooking this magnificent view was just too much in the end. We pitched up literally 10 meters from the edge of the cliffs, but whatever happened with the wind during the night, it would have to be serious for camping here not to be worth it – what a view!

I set up camp and got some tea on for us, while Hannah took George for an explore around the site. It was a great end to another good day on the NC500, and as bed time approached for George anyway, we popped him up into the roof tent, and obviously where George goes, Susie the dog follows…but on this occasion both were flat out asleep within minutes. The air doesn’t get much fresher than this though to tire you out – no matter what age you are.

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Hannah and I got a drink and wandered to the bench overlooking the bay, which was conveniently located about 20 metres from our pitch, so we could have a drink, take in the views all whilst keeping an eye on the tent…perfect. It is fantastic being so close to the coast and all you can hear is the unrelenting waves crashing into the shore.

After a good night’s sleep in less windy conditions, we arose to an overcast day, but looking at the forecast this would soon change into another nice day. As we packed up, and had breakfast and a shower, it would normally have been sad to leave such a place, but we knew more stunning scenery lay ahead, such is the grandeur of this stunning country. The site is not that special in all honesty, in terms of its facilities, which I would say were just ok, however with such a stunning location, you don’t seem to mind, so we would definitely come back to this site.

 

Day 5 – The Proper North Coast

We headed off, once again following the A838, but this time South West, with our next stop Sheigra, where we hoped to walk to the absolutely stunning Sandwood Bay. We followed the road through a desolate landscape that was dramatic, if not slightly bleak. The mountain of Foinaven, standing at 911m stands prominently to the East and signalled our point to turn off the A838 for a short while, and onto the B801 through Kinlochbervie and onto Sheigra.

An absolutely stunning area with some beautiful cottages tooked away along the coast line, overlooking Loch Inchard which is the home to some salmon farms which sit prominently in the centre of the loch – and no doubt a source of local jobs.

It was at this point that George decided he would have a sleep, as if timed to perfection, indicating that he didn’t fancy the walk (being carried most of the way!) to Sandwood bay. As we pulled into the car park, we toyed with the idea of waking him, but decided against that suicidal move – instead leaving this walk to the unbelievably wild and attractive beach for another trip – preferably one when I don’t have to carry the wee man.

There were plenty people in the car park which made me feel that we were missing out all the more, but we could not complain as we had a lovely drive ahead on towards Scourie, a place that I had spent many a holiday when I was not much older than George. We had toyed with the idea of staying here, as we had planned to walk to Sandwood Bay, but as this didn’t happen, we decided to get more miles under our belt today.

When we arrived at the small Highland village, we had a small drive round some of the places where I had some very fond memories, such as the caravan site and the harbour across Scourie Bay. It felt as if time had stood still as very little had changed in all these years, or so it seemed. I am sure if you asked a local, they may have different views. After a trip down memory lane, we called at the local garage/shop, which housed a diverse range of products, as you come to expect in these remote areas. I always like to buy something, so I added some fishing tackle to my small collection – apparently red and silver are the best local colours when spinning for trout, so I was reliably informed by the lady working in the shop.

After receiving a ‘oh, what have you bought now look’ from my wife, which was again communicated without the need for any verbal words spoken, we got back on the road heading south onto the infamous Kylesku Bridge. An unbelievable feat of engineering, in an even more impressive location, which was only surpassed by the herd of deer that we enjoyed watching feed down by the river bank – and all in the sunshine. What more could we ask for?

There are a number of strategically placed viewing points along this stretch of road, and whilst situated closely together – each offers a different perspective on this beautiful area, so we stopped at each one…. for research purposes only, obviously.

It wasn’t long until we were turning off the A894 and heading West, following the coast, which sits prominently over Loch a; Chairn Bhain, which flows into Eddrachillis Bay. There were some lovely little spots along this coastline, which were tucked away and void of people – which was perfect! We hadn’t had any lunch at this point, but Hannah had researched about a small café / candle shop (shed) which was in Drumbeg, so we decided to stop and have a little wander round. The sun was still shining, which really brought to life this quaint little hamlet.

We parked the truck up, and wandered down the road, and it was literally one of those moments you wished wouldn’t end. We were sat in the glorious sunshine, surrounded by lovely countryside, with not a sound to be heard. It was deafly silent. That was the case until George arrived, and as with most two-year olds, silence is never enjoyed for long. In order to try to recreate said silence, we bought a coffee, and more importantly a scone, with the mandatory clotted cream and jam, which helped keep the little fella quiet for at least three minutes. The place was called The Secret Tea Garden, but also ‘Assynt Aromas’ which was the candle shop aspect of the small business. I must admit I am no candle lover, although do live in a house that could be mistaken for a candle shop, thanks to my lovely wife, but they had done the café extremely well. This was obviously made much more appealing thanks to the Scottish weather. The sun shines on the righteous, as they say…not often on us though!

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After a lovely coffee and scone (is it pronounced ‘scone’ or ‘scon’, a debate for another time…), we enjoyed the rest of our drive round to tonight’s destination, Clachtoll Campsite. Visit Scotland do a lot of promotion around Achmelvich Beach, and so we had set our minds on staying there, however, it doesn’t allow dogs, which seemed strange, and so at first we were disappointed by this fact, but we would soon forget all about that, in what would be an unforgettable evening.

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Night 5 – Clachtoll Beach Campsite

We arrived at the site, on a glorious Scottish evening, to be greeted by some very welcoming chaps, who seemed very accommodating. After a good chat, I established that it was their first week running the site, since purchasing it, and were keen to make a good impression – which they unduly did.

We were directed to our spot, which was a few hundred metres from the beach, but on an elevated position which offered the perfect vantage point from which to enjoy such a location. After getting set up the roof tent, and having the mandatory beer, it was time to put my money where my mouth was, and don my swimming shorts, as I had been threatening to go for a swim in the sea all week, given the glorious weather we had been enjoying. There was no better time.

We headed down to the beach, which became even more appealing the closer we got. Small, compact and in the sun, possibly one of the nicest beaches I have been to anywhere. Along this trip, we have been lucky enough to enjoy beach after beach, all of which were breath-taking in one way or another, but this one is top of the list for me. A definite must-stop location if you are planning a trip around this area.

Anyway, enough prolonging for one story, it was time to enter the water, which would usually fill me with apprehension if cold, but the sun just lured me in, and it did not disappoint. What an unbelievable way to end another day on a fantastic trip – we had been truly lucky with the weather, which was unbelievable for late September – and midge free! 😊

I swam up and down the bay, just paddling in all honesty, but that didn’t matter for me – it was truly liberating and the water, whilst not hot, was just warm, and helped make it bearable. The dog was very jealous on the beach, so of course she joined me in the sea, barking with excitement, and that just left two on the beach, Hannah and George. It wasn’t quite warm enough to introduce a two-year-old to, so George climbed on my shoulders and stayed dry, above water level. There was zero chance of me getting Hannah in, so I didn’t even try.

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After about twenty minutes, we exited the water, which I could have stayed in for another twenty minutes, but we still needed to get tea on, and get the wee man ready for bed. I was on cloud nine after the swim, and enjoyed another cold beer in the sun, whilst having tea. Nothing could top this. Or could it….?

We looked around and noticed a couple of people with binoculars looking out to sea, which we didn’t think anything about, but being intrigued, I got my binoculars out, which instantly my shadow, George, copied getting his out (holding them the wrong way), and I noticed there was a school of whales swimming leisurely out at sea. This was literally the most amazing end to an unbelievable day, which none of us (except George, at two) would ever forget. We enjoyed watching them swim for about 45 minutes, when it was bed time for the little lad (and his shadow, Susie) who had enjoyed a day full of excitement and adventure.

So, after the (ever so) slight disappointment of not being able to get into Achmelvich, because of the no-dogs situation, we couldn’t help but feel there was an element of fate to it all, as it led us to enjoy a wonderful evening. In addition to this, and in retrospect, Clachtoll Beach, for me anyway, was even nicer than Achmelvich when we compared the two, as the latter is somewhat ruined by some very elderly caravans, in very questionable conditions alongside the road, which you drive alongside to reach the beach – ram-shackled is the word. Enough of that though, as the beach was lovely, although didn’t have the magic of Clachtoll…. You do find you get very picky when spoiled with such lovely scenery, which makes you look down (only a touch) on some areas over others.

 

Day 6 – The Road to Ullapool

After a lovely night’s sleep, we had some breakfast, whilst executing the usual morning routine of packing up, and shower time with the wee man, before continuing on our trip. After a brief stop at Achmelvich, we pressed on to Lochinver, where we noticed a nice little coffee shop. If you haven’t noticed yet, we do enjoy a nice coffee, and the opportunity to enjoy one without getting the stove out and boiling the kettle was too great. We had a quick ride around the harbour, Hannah nipped in to get us a coffee, and we continued on our way towards Loch Assynt.

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I had been to Assynt as a teenager on an outdoors trip, which involved a group of lads, mountain biking, walking Ben More Assynt, and camping in the shadows of Ardvreck Castle, something that is no doubt prohibited these days. Fond memories for sure.

As we headed towards the great Loch Assynt, the clouds were moving in, and the weather turning unsettled, which really did add a dramatic element to this landscape – not that it needed much help in this area. The views down the length of the loch are unrivalled and if seen in isolation, you would be in awe, but as I said earlier, when you have enjoyed so many great days of stunning scenery, you become a bit complacent with it all, and it is just ‘another’ beautiful landscape.

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Having said that we thoroughly enjoyed our drive, stopping only to go and explore around Ardvreck Castle, an area, I knew very well, and remembered as if I had been last month, not 15 years prior. George enjoys a castle and so plodded on, splashing in the puddles along the way…it’s the simple things. We got a great photo of him stood by the ruins of the castle, which is now in a frame at home – priceless.

After a nice wander round, the wind got the better of us, and forced us to take refuge back in the car, as it was accompanied by a beating rain at this point. This was probably a good thing, as Susie seemed far too keen on chasing the sheep or splashing in the loch, neither of which would have ended well…

After the pit stop, we continued south on the A835, with our next stop being Elphin, very fleetingly, as we saw there was a small country fair on in the village market. As is expected, the definition of fair in the Highlands is 6-8 stalls, but we enjoyed them all the same. Again, we wanted to sample the local produce, so bought a strange mix of items, which included: some venison (which was delicious), a few pictures (for in a frame at home), and a bottle opening made from deer antler (for me). We like to support independents when we can, and it is important that these traditions continue, unlike many that seem to die out through the generations. Having felt like we had done our bit, and bought some nice items in the process, we continued on to Ullapool with no stops in between.

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We arrived at Ullapool (another) very special place for me, sorry I keep saying that, but it’s true! My mum used to love this little Scottish town, and we stayed here a good few times – watching the CalMac (Caledonian MacBrayne) ferries sailing up Loch Broom, at all times of day and night. We were staying tonight at Broomfield Holiday Park (a caravan and camping site), which is where I used to stay all those years ago, although this time I would be bringing my own family back with me – something very rewarding about that for me and nice that my own family are enjoying our own little adventures in some very special places.

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Night 6 – Broomfield Holiday Park

We got the camp set up relatively early evening after picking up some shopping from the local supermarket. We decided to take full advantage of a night in a ‘real’ town, which was something that we hadn’t had for a few days, and went for a drink in one of the local pubs, and then picked up a curry from a (very expensive) local Indian…the price must just indicate the monopoly they hold on the local area! 😊

Before enjoying this, we had a good walk around the town, and watched the ferries coming and going, and their was a marquee on the harbour, ahead of the annual rock festival, Loopallu (Ullapool spelled backwards), which was due to take place in a few days’ time.

We were heading back to the campsite, when we spotted two seals splashing around on the shores of Loch Broom. We watched them for a good fifteen minutes, before they vanished into the dark depths of the sea loch. Walking back with George was a joy, he was excited as he had seen seals, deer, whales and dolphins, which was exciting enough for an adult, but unbelievable for a two-and-a-half-year-old!

We arrived back at camp, and sat outside to enjoy our treat tea curry, and had no sooner finished it, when a few of those little blighters turned up…yes, that’s right – midges! We thought we would be safe in the last week in September, and had been very lucky all holiday, so we couldn’t complain (too much). Thankfully by the time we had put the wee man to bed and washed the dishes, they had gone thanks to a nice breeze coming off the loch. We were only pitched thirty yards from the loch, tucked away by the tall banking, which served as insurance in case of strong winds during the night. You can’t take any chances in Scotland, as the weather can change in an instant…but on this occasion didn’t do thankfully.

After a good night’s sleep, we enjoyed a nice cup of coffee and look ahead to the next leg of our trip, which was from Ullapool to Shieldaig, which would turn out to be one of our favourite spots on the whole trip.

 

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

 

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