Cycle touring in Caithness

The dirt road eased round a gentle corner into the base of the next climb, giving the northerly wind a chance to hurl stinging rain into my right eye.  My left eye, sheltered by my nose and by glasses stayed open and kept me on track.  Near the top of the hill, the rain eased, raising hope that this was just another prolonged shower rather than a weather front, but then the rain returned with full force.  I became aware of water seeping through my cycling shorts.  Given how cold my wet legs felt in the wind, shorts probably weren’t the best choice for such a remote location in these conditions.

The dirt road eased round to the south west.  The northerly decided not to help and dropped.  I could have taken it personally but the rain stopped and the sun found a hole in the clouds.  Warm now, I unzipped my jacket.  The dirt road curved to the west revealing a rainbow opposite the sun.  As soon as my shorts had dried, the wind picked up, clouds closed in and rain returned.

The wind, rain, sun, rainbow sequence repeated itself throughout the day.  I was slightly surprised to find that a carcass in its seventh decade can take this sort of abuse and was shocked to discover that it was fun.  Some might argue that crossing the barren Flows National Nature Reserve in conditions poor enough for cloud to be down on the 280 metre high Sletill Hill isn’t a great idea but there is only one route in Caithness which should not be ridden and that is the A9.  Everything else marked on the map is fair game and likely to be excellent.

Thanks to an RSPB Forest to Bog project, many of the trees shown on my new map had gone missing.  Caithness isn’t short of bog but it is short of trees.  Given a northerly blasting me with rain, I couldn’t help wishing that the RSPB had gone for a Dull Forest to Diverse Forest option instead of the one they had chosen.  Does bog really bring greater biodiversity than boreal woodland?  Islands in the lochs I saw a few miles further on carried the vegetation natural for this part of the world – trees, not bog.

At Forsinain, I turned south on to tarmac.  This time the wind did the decent thing and blew me down Helmsdale then up over to Glen Loth.  The tarmac from Kildonan Lodge to Lothbeg is in worse condition than the packed sand of the road through Altnabreac and is so narrow that I had to lift my four-panniered tourer off the road for vehicles to get by.  However, the estate have fenced off areas of natural vegetation, making this a gorgeous shortcut.  Aspens rattled in the wind at the foot of the 300 metre climb from Craggie Water’s gorge.  The climb’s gradient is reasonable and the view from the top superb.  I eased my way down the other side.  Although the road surface had improved, the road held quite a few sheep and a surprising number of vehicles came towards me.

The day finished with three unpleasant miles on the A9 to a pitch on the well-cared for, little campsite just before Brora.  Wind and rain continued.  Next morning, I endured the A9 until The Mound, where a gorgeous lane heads over to Bonar Bridge.  More natural woodland and a fulmar in the road.  It ran and flapped ahead of me but failed to take off.  It stopped in a puddle and let me by.  I wasn’t sure how to help it, not least because of the trees hemming the road.  They say if you can catch a bird it will die and if you can’t, it might not.  Feeling slightly guilty and wondering whether fulmars can take off from roads, I pressed on without trying to catch it.

The lane climbed gently beside a pretty river.  After three miles the trees ended and I found myself in an open valley as the rain returned.  A little further on, a sign said that the road was closed after Loch Buidhe.  Why did they make me cycle uphill for the best part of four miles before telling me the road was closed?  Unimpressed, I decided to press on.

The lane is being resurfaced and workers, most standing and watching a JCB, were dotted along it for miles.  They didn’t seem to mind a cyclist coming by and one man, who was rebuilding a bridge on his own, helped lift my bicycle over two trenches.  Top bloke!  Soon afterwards, I was in Ardgay where this stage of my tour came to an end.  The route from Watten to Forsinain is superb and, apart from two teeth-rattling miles near Loch More, the sixteen miles lacking tarmac are fine on a road bike.  Winds willing, I’ll be back.

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