Bealach na Ba

First, two confessions

I’ve been a very silly boy.  My screen looked so good after cleaning that I sprayed the same cleaner on to my keyboard.  The keyboard now looks wonderful but crucial keys no longer work.  Firing a spray containing water and solutes at an unsealed keyboard is very silly.  I should have known.  Please learn from my mistake.

Then my old keyboard and newer iMac refused to pair.  Today, they changed their Bluetooth mind.  I don’t know why but I’m glad that I will not have to buy a new keyboard after all.

The second confession concerns my ride around the North Coast 500.  I should have restarted from the train station at Kyle of Lochalsh.  However, I was unsure whether I was fit enough for the climb up Bealach na Ba, Britain’s highest road pass.  Also, traffic had been unpleasantly heavy between the Kyle and Plockton before my half time break.  To the north of Plockton is a spectacular lane high above the sea and beneath an impressive cliff but I had ridden from Plockton to Lochcarron two years ago and decided that compromising the ride up Bealach na Ba with a second viewing was not worth while.  I restarted from Strath Carron railway station.

Will the circle be unbroken? No.

The diary

I eased up the climb out of Lochcarron with a stop to change to less warm clothing being needed half way up. The descent to Loch Kishorn was pretty and rural, a contrast with rocky Beinn Bhan opposite. I munched a bit of pork pie and then started off up the big hill. Initially, the gradient was kind so, despite the traffic, I was able to enjoy the climb. Boy, was there some traffic! Motorbikes, camper vans, more camper vans, cars and a few cyclists.

Bealach na Ba
In need of a polariser on Bealach na Ba

The road steepened when it entered the corrie but was still rideable. Big rock walls framed the view back down to the sea. The zig zags near the top proved rideable so, to my surprise, I ascended the highest pass in Britain without having to get off and push. To complete an excellent day, I needed only a safe descent and a pitch for my tent in Applecross and these were duly delivered.

The Clyde Valley bikers arrived on big, loud machines. First an advance guard and then hoards. Then my guts decided they objected to something I had done to them so they bloated and demanded several trips to the bog. Then the wind picked up and rain hammered the new tent. Somehow a decent kip followed but the puddles round the tent this morning should not have come as a surprise. Unlike the bikers’ pre-seven start to the day.

Sunday 8 May

As I wheeled my bicycle through the campsite everyone seemed to want to talk. The atmosphere was very friendly. One woman warned me that the coast road would be as difficult as the Bealach and she was not wrong. I headed south to investigate the shop, which turned out to be shut and quirky. Someone’s garage had been converted. It reminded me of the little shops on the side of people’s homes in the Philippines. Heading north was initially pleasant. I photographed Sand, where a TV programme had been made and headed on into an increasingly hilly landscape. A knot of vehicles scattered across the road had me worrying about an accident but it was just a bunch of tourists photographing Highland cows.

Careful cropping so this looks like a remote location for filming

The road climbed to a rushy lochan where I stopped for a snack. Inevitably, a tourist car stopped to see why I had stopped. There is no solitude in tourist country. I can hardly wait to get back to backpacking from one wild pitch to the next. Rounding the corner to go beside Loch Torridon, the road became taxing. Plunge down to a bridge and the drive to someone’s home then back up a one in five to regain the lost height. Over and over again. A couple of times, I found myself roughly 500 feet above the sea with no recollection of a climb that might have got me that high. Luckily there were trees as the wind was now a headwind. Unluckily, there were trees so every descent needed care. A campervan could have been hidden behind the foliage. Leaves on trees were a stark contrast to the canopies when I had started this ride.

The Applecross to Shieldaig road undulates a bit

Eventually, Shieldaig arrived. The single track ended, allowing cars to hurry by without waiting for a passing place. Sadly, the shelter from the wind had gone and the wind was strengthening. Torridon would be enough. No way was I going to battle that wind up the glen. I pitched and went for a meal at the inn. OK food. Good service, and a pay off next morning, when I actually felt energetic.

Monday 9 May

The headwind was still blowing. I decided to use bottom cog and ease my way into it. The tactic worked. I pulled over for every car and took some photos, although I was already too late for the best light. The sky was cloudless blue. If Spring had arrived yesterday, today is Summer. The Whistle Stop cafe was irresistible even though I could feel the effect of eating real food yesterday evening. The tea was leafy and came in a pot with a strainer and the scone was excellent so I was almost happy to pay over £4 for my snack. They also provided me with the Telegraph to read. A dashed good cafe.

The Torridon Road
The Torridon road

After changing into shorts, I set off for Gairloch. The ride beside Loch Maree was quick now that the wind was on my back. A climb brought me to roadworks which advertised a 10 minute delay. I spoke to the young man with the stop / go sign and warned him that I would be slower than the cars to clear the roadworks. I also mentioned the incident on the way to Ft Augustus and he said the workers there were arseholes. “You’ll get more respect on this side of the country.” And I did. The descent after the road works was gorgeous and quickly dropped me into Gairloch. I stopped at the pier shop to get money from their machine and for an ice cream and then headed up over the hill to the rest of the town. I called in at the information centre and at McColls as much to get out of the heat as for any other reason. Then I climbed up and over to Poolewe, with its big rapid where the river enters the sea. Up and over to another branch of Loch Ewe and then up and over again to Aultbea. Not much to stop me at Aultbea so I pressed on and came to a halt at a campsite on the beach at Laide. Very well tended and friendly.

A proper bike
A proper bike for touring

First shower stone cold. The pilot light had gone out. Rinsed clothing and got it nearly dry in a spin dryer. Fabulous evening with views beyond Quinag.

Tuesday 10 May

Hills over headlands made the start seem tough. Bit of a headwind too. After Second Coast, the scenery became beautiful, thanks to woodland. A big climb from a river wasn’t the one I could see from the Laide campsite. That was much bigger and curved round directly into the wind. The big descent past the Northern Lights campsite almost needed pedalling down and the ride up Little Loch Broom was very tough. I stopped by some woods for a snack and then headed up the day’s biggest climb. Once out of the trees, the wind became horrible. Great views with pure white snow in the corries standing out against a blue sky but the slog ruined it. Finally Braemore arrived. My phone’s GPS claims I got near 40mph. Unlikely, but it was a nice descent and there was just enough wind on my back to bring Ullapool into view quite quickly. Soon, I was pitched and scoffing fish and chips.

I had a rest day in Ullapool. You can get enough of fighting into a headwind on a hot day.  Met a Swiss guy on the Cape Wrath Trail having a day off thanks to a swollen Achilles’ tendon and a cyclist having a day on the bus to get his rear wheel repaired in Dingwall.


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