Walks have been walked but not described here, on this blog, which is naughty because walks of such excellence need sharing.
Caithness might be anticlimactic for North Coast 500 drivers who just want to turn the corner at John o’Groats, but there is plenty to see for anyone prepared to leave the trade route. It’s gorgeously wild.
Underfoot conditions are taxing. The best places have no paths, just many square miles of tussocky grass, heather and bog. Good wild pitches are few and far between. Inevitably, when found, they turn out to be scenic.
The coastal cliffs are spectacular and the small mountains inland have far-reaching views because of the way they rise out of a low-lying bog. I could see the Cairngorms, Orkney and Assynt from more than one of the hills. The views justify the collar work.
Strabeg is one of those bothies with plumbing. Allegedly, indoor ablutions are possible with judicious application of a bucket of water. For this reason, the collection of drinking water from the river directly below the bothy is unwise. Personally, I much prefer simpler bothies. A table by a window is all the furniture needed.
Although the bog between the bothy and the road was fairly dry, I had been lucky to get my bike through without taking a dip in the nastiest bit so I made a wide loop on the way back to the stone-walled field where sheep graze. A little while later, I was pedalling the short distance to Tongue and a convivial evening with friends.
Next morning was wet but, crucially, for the first time, the wind was on my back so I set off for Wick and the end of my circuit of the Northern Highlands. In nice weather the loop through Skerray is gorgeous and unmissable. Today, though, I just wanted to finish off my tour. Instead, the hills on the road to Bettyhill nearly finished me off. They were demanding in the poor weather.
However, after Bettyhill the hills got gentler and the weather improved. Reaching Bettyhill had been tough but the tailwind and regular snack stops, the best on a fisherman’s seat above Loch Calder, saw me reaching Watten with gas in the tank. My Thorn xTc is a substantial piece of steel. Nevertheless, the last eight miles went by at a decent lick.
I had not gone to John o’Groats, preferring to get home and finish the tour instead, which doesn’t mean the North Coast 500 is a bad ride. Far from it. It’s possibly, with the modifications I rode, Britain’s best cycle tour. It’s just that I’m not Britain’s best cycle tourist. I hadn’t prepared properly and so the route took ages. The North Coast 500 is a route for riders with miles in the legs, the section from Applecross to Scourie being likely to hurt anyone who is out of shape thanks to a lengthy succession of steep hills. But prepare properly and a ride from Inverness, down the Great Glen, out to Ardnamurchan, joining the North Coast 500 after a visit to Skye, is as good as it gets. The scenery is staggeringly beautiful and the friendliness and courtesy of most of the drivers I met was a very pleasant surprise.
My next task, one I suspect I’ll enjoy, is completing the tour properly by following the NCN Route 1 variant to John o’Groats via Orkney. At my current rate of progress, I’ll be getting back to you on that subject maybe in October.
Alarm went off at 6am and I was away within two hours. There were hints of wind but the early start paid off. Two hours with very little traffic and great views of Ben More Coigach and Stac Pollaidh. I caught up with another cycle tourer and turned west, down wind, a little later. It was a lovely ride along below Stac Pollaidh.
A fairly lengthy climb led up from the junction for Lochinver. At the top I saw the boulder I had used previously for foreground for a shot of Suilven. Then I lost all the height I had gained on the way to the foot of the next climb. That’s how the ride continued to Lochinver and beyond. The scenery was sensational. Knolls, lochans and crystal clear rivers. Not a whole lot in Lochinver. I asked about camping at the Tourist Information and then headed on, over two more fairly big hills, to Clachtoll. The campsite turned out to be pretty good and had wifi. I downloaded some podcasts and streamed some jazz.
Friday 13 May
The dreaded Drumbeg road! It was gorgeous if tough, with the climbs starting right from the campsite. Up through Stoer, down to Clashnessie beach and then back up and down to Drumbeg. After Drumbeg, which had three cafés I didn’t need, the serious climbs started. Only one made me walk. I had to stop near the bottom of a long hill to let a campervan go by and the handle bar jabbed into my nipple, which illustrated the road’s steepness. I wasn’t going to get riding again so I pushed. The land north of Quinag was sensational. Green birches in a drift across brown heather. Wood sorrel under the birches.
The main road arrived unexpectedly. I had ridden the Drumbeg road. It was lunchtime so first item on the agenda was finding a quiet spot. However, I was feeling tired and the big, sweeping, curved climbs weren’t what I needed, particularly with the headwind. Scourie took a while to come.
I wasn’t feeling great. Not eating well enough so I went to the campsite cafeteria for haddock and chips. Excellent and a good night’s sleep followed
Saturday 14 May
Despite the improved recovery regime, the day’s first climb felt hard. After that, life improved. The road seemed mostly downhill to Laxford Bridge. On the way, I cycled by a man who was walking along the road with a rucksack on his back. Don’t know why. The scenery, particularly the view of Ben Stack, is fab but there are better places to walk. The next climb went more easily than the first despite a headwind and Rhiconich arrived sooner than expected. Two men were doing up the information board, now known as a Geopod. We got talking about the area. One of the men, Murdo, had a great knowledge and really liked to talk. Probably another retired teacher. Each story we told reminded the other of another. It was quite hard to get away, as much my fault as Murdo’s. Still, I was in no rush. The climb out of Rhiconich is big but fair. The top soon arrived. On the way, I went by a man and two small children loading peats into bags. The kids had their own mini overalls, just like dad’s. A long descent past a travellers’ well brought me to a bridge and a real fight along the Kyle, into the wind. Durness took its time arriving.
In Durness I bought food for the bothy and ate a baked potato with tuna mayo. Vegetables! Oh how I missed them! The sunshine turned the sea bright blue for the ride to the head of Loch Eriboll. White waves and golden sand made the Sango beaches as glorious as ever. The hoped for tailwind didn’t materialise but the road along Loch Eriboll is mostly downhill. On the way I encountered the North Coast 500 Independence Rally. A mere 200 cars with flags coming the other way along a single track road. Luckily, they were friendly. The track to the bothy was unrideable and half of it was bog. Last year, it would have been awful but this year it was fairly dry. Nevertheless, I was pooped when I finally reached the bothy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A long, narrow, no through road leads to Ardnamurchan, the most westerly point on the British mainland. Fortunately, a ferry from Tobermory to Kilchoan makes an out and back ride unnecessary, apart from the last six miles. I left the Glen Nevis camp site with a new tent in the panniers and headed for the ferry across Loch Linnhe to Camusnagaul. In the following days, headwinds led to exhaustion. Clearly unready for Bealach na Ba, I decided on a half time break at Kyle of Lochalsh and took the train home.
Diary quotes explain what happened.
Saturday 16 April
Odd sort of a day, weatherwise, but great cycling. Ferry across Loch Linnhe also held Austin from Washington, a Cascades walker, who was starting the Cape Wrath Trail. I talked too much but he didn’t seem to mind.
Lovely pedalling down the quiet road but no leaves and few wild flowers this time. Sunny and cold in the main with an occasional cloud and some spits of cold precipitation. The main road stretch after Corran wasn’t nice because of aggressive drivers passing very close. Turning uphill on the narrow road to Kilmalieu was a relief.
Very nice, open country near a loch, an adventure centre and then a road squeezed between the sea and cliffs. I passed a female cyclist and saw great crested grebes. Kingairloch was gorgeous. I took photos of it and from it. The female cyclist was there before me, having a snack. It was her day off from the Abernethy Centre. She told me that Elastic Cottage got its name from a family which grew and grew but never outgrew the cottage.
The church is neat little thing with a bell rope dangling down the front, which must tempt all children who visit. The climb up the big hill went quite easily despite the headwind and soon I was hammering down the single track main road to Lochaline. Quite a bit of traffic and a nastyish final rise before Lochaline, which I just can’t bring myself to like, even on a second visit. Over to Fishnish on the ferry then easily down to Craignure for the eccentric campsite. Quite breezy and still fairly cold.
Sunday 17 April
Lazy day of showers. I became engrossed in Chris McDougall’s book, Natural Born Heroes, and didn’t move till lunch, which I took at the Inn. The burger was pretty good but the beer was way overpriced. Good evening in the common room with Sylvain and Thomas from France, who were determined firemakers. They won over damp kindling in the end.
Monday 18 April
The predicted headwind arrived. It was going to be a hard day. In the end I decided to go straight up the main road to Tobermory, arriving just in time for the 1300hrs ferry. But I needed food so had to get the next one. The ferry ride was entertaining. In mid channel, sea water came in through the scuppers on to the car dark, wetting much of it then returning through the scuppers.
On landing, I became aware of changes to the area since my last visit. Many new buildings. I battled out to the lighthouse, took some pictures and then set off back along the peninsula. It was hard going, up and down, past Ben Hiant, where the camping didn’t look great, to Glenborrowdale’s excellent bunkhouse. It’s good to be clean, dry and warm after such a hard day.
Tuesday 19 April
Despite an excellent evening in the Ardnamurchan Bunkhouse, my legs felt weak this morning so I dawdled along to Salen and then dawdled some more to Loch Ailort. It was lovely riding till the big road, which wasn’t all that bad, really. Sunny weather and light winds helped a lot. Very hungry, which I attribute to recovery from yesterday. Back on the Invercaimbe site after a two year gap. Big dog now ashes as is the owner’s horse and brother. She said the horse got by far the best urn.
To promote recovery, I made myself eat a packet of noodles I’d been carrying, off and on, for a year. The result was a troubling dose of heart palpitations. MSG is not good for an exhausted body. Full recovery being unlikely overnight, a rest day seemed destined.
Wednesday 20 April
Laundry done, I wandered into Arisaig to shop. Back at the campsite, I read and ate the gloriously sunny afternoon and evening away. Skye tomorrow.
Thursday 21 April
Tough day. Fabulous evening. A repeat of a ride I hadn’t enjoyed 2 years ago made worse by a stiff headwind as far as Broadford. Hills needed cycling down. Just making the ferry at Mallaig was the day’s first bit of luck but it meant buying overpriced, none too pleasant food at a little shop near Armadale. And I then didn’t eat enough which made the traditional accommodation problem in Kyle seem like a disaster. Tried cycling to Strathcarron via Plocton but the traffic was not good. Headed over a stiff hill for a campsite at Balmacarra only to discover it wasn’t open. So, evening train out to somewhere.
Eating put everything into perspective. Achnasheen bunkhouse! So I enjoyed the stunning scenery of Loch Carron with its many reefs, coves and islets and then relished the open glen above Achnashellach with its plethora of camping possibilities. No worries though as the bunkhouse is open so I’m showered and enjoying tea. Just a shame so many people spoke to me when I was hypo. They can’t have been impressed.
My old Akto was inevitably going to fail sometime soon as its flysheet was showing clear signs of UV damage but my mistake hastened its end. Regrets? A few, but mainly I was glad it had failed in Glen Nevis, near a choice of gear shops, rather than on Mull.
This had been my second Akto and I did not like it as much as I had liked the first because of the arch over the door. My first, simpler Akto had lacked this feature. Sooner or later, complexity tends to cause problems with backpacking equipment, usually at the worst possible moment, and that arch did cause a couple of problems. However, this post is about my mistake, not Hilleberg’s. Let’s just say I wasn’t completely distraught when the flysheet tore catastrophically.
What did I do wrong? Tightened the guylines before walking away from the tent. I had woken to sleet and low snow on Ben Nevis just opposite the campsite. After only two days of cycling from Tain, I did not need a rest day but I did not fancy cycling in the prevailing conditions so I sorted out the tent, put on my waterproofs and hiked into town for some serious nutrition.
At about the halfway point on my hilly walk the rain stopped and a little later the sun came out. The day warmed up and the vegetation started to steam. By the time I reached Fort William, I was wishing I had put on sunscreen. The temptation to go back to the tent, pack up and cycle down to the Mull ferry at Lochaline was not strong enough to overcome the fact that I had already paid for another night on the campsite. Instead, I had a good lunch then walked back to the campsite.
The sun had completely dried my tent and tightened the fabric and guys. The tension had been great enough to tear the black end of the flysheet almost completely off. The damage was far too great for repair. I salvaged the good bits – the poles, pegs and footprint before putting the rest of the tent into the bin. Nearer home, I would have cut the groundsheet off the previously damaged inner and retained that too but there was a limit to how much I was prepared to haul round the North Coast 500.
I hiked back into town and bought a Wild Country Zephyros 1. Perhaps not an exceptional tent but great value. Once back home, a quick scan of my Photos album revealed numerous images of my Trailstar and Golite Cave but very few of the Akto. It seems I never did take to that second Akto.
The SUSTRANS web site is not a favourite of mine. Usability, particularly on smallish phones, doesn’t appear to have been a priority for the developers. However, the OS map showed that my route was using NCN 1 into Inverness and bits of NCN 78 onward towards Fort Bill.
The first section, via pleasant lanes to Dingwall was fine but the section between Dingwall and Inverness isn’t great. It uses cycle paths beside dual carriageways and climbs long, shallow, pleasureless hills through OK scenery. Till North Kessock I was just making miles. North Kessock’s promenade and the steep climb on to the bridge were the highlights of this stretch.
Once over the big bridge, I headed for the River Ness and followed it through town. My intention was to repeat a route I had used back in the 80s down the south side of Loch Ness. Thanks to heavy traffic on the B862, Dores Road, and a damaged NCN 78 signpost things worked out a little differently.
You’ll have gathered that I was underwhelmed by the cycling so far. My opinion was to change. NCN 78 shows the Great Glen at its best and is well worth researching even if that does mean doing battle with the SUSTRANS website. NCN 78 avoids the first part of the Dores Road and I wish I had known that as the B862 was busy and fairly narrow.
Where NCN 78 rejoins the road, life improved. First a cycle path got me off the busy road and then a quiet lane took me away from the traffic. The lane brought me to a T junction where the NCN signpost had been rotated on its pole. The obvious route was back to the B862. It looked as if that way would have me in Dores in just a few minutes. But there was something about the left turn which drew me on. Maybe it would offer a quieter route to Loch Ness.
It didn’t. It climbed beautifully and brutally, through native woodlands and by the McBain Memorial Park, for about 600 feet of ascent. The top came at a cross roads near Loch Ashie, where a cold headwind made itself known. A section of moorland brought me back to the B862 high above Dores. I had no intention of dropping down to the loch, where I had been told that camping was possible. A littered pitch with fire rings wasn’t what I wanted so I headed on, towards Fort Augustus.
And I might have made it but for some roadworks. Twenty minute delays were advertised so, after an unsatisfactory conversation with the young man holding up the traffic, I pushed my bike up into a plantation. Confident that no one else would be visiting my chosen piece of forestry, I found a side track and pitched on it. Only a roe deer objected.
The condensation on my tent next morning was astonishing. Aktos used to have a reputation for internal dampness until backpackers realised the Laser was worse but I had never seen anything like this before. And the drizzle was surprisingly cold. The conditions were too much for my camera. It refused to work, unlike the construction crew, who had been audible since just after dawn. I snapped a shot of the tent with my phone and headed down to find out how long the road workers were planning to hold me up this time.
Not at all, as it happened. The light turned green as I reached the road. However, things still weren’t great. Outside the forest, the precipitation was sleety and my cycling clothes felt inadequate. Also, the road works went on for two miles. I was unable to get between the lights while they were on green and so I had to edge past big machines doing dangerous things. The arseholes on this project had not given a minute’s thought to cyclists.
At least my anger was warming me up. The weather improved and the route was brilliant. Really good scenery. I rode through Errogie and Whitebridge then up to a summit which I remembered. Last time here, a coach load of German tourists had cheered my brother and me as he just beat me over the crest.
The plunge down to Fort Augustus was great fun. I bought snacks and then headed off along the towpath of the Caledonian Canal. The riding was easy and the views were gorgeous. In a car, I have never enjoyed the Great Glen. NCN 78 is totally different. Great riding, although the person who designed the gates can’t have had any experience with a loaded touring bicycle. The gates require lifting the bicycle a good eighteen inches. I guess they had unladen mountain bikes in mind.
I really enjoyed the ride down to Caol. Heavy traffic in Fort William needed a lot of care but the last couple of miles down Glen Nevis to the campsite were quiet. The campsite has improved and grown a lot since my first visit, when a drunken Scot had called, “Lochaber no more,” once every two minutes for the entire night. The person in reception said they take behaviour seriously nowadays. Maybe they do.
My thanks to the musical excellence of Snarky Puppy and to the quaffability of Hobgoblin for making this reminiscence possible.
My first two days of biking and hiking had been enjoyable and fulfilling but two problems had emerged. The first was relatively minor and would be cured by time. The general purpose fitness regime of winter had not prepared me for cycling. The going felt quite hard and I had a few avoidable twinges.
The other problem was mechanical. The chain was locking solid whenever I tried using the smallest front cog. Back pedalling would free the chain and prevent a tumble but the absence of small gears ineveitably meant walking the more difficult hills. Money needed spending, sadly.
The nearest bike shop I knew of was in Ardgay. Half way into my Saturday ride from Forsinard to Brora I realised that I could have taken a train straight to Ardgay. As I hadn’t, Sunday was going to be a day of rest in Brora. I would also have to give up plans for looping through the back lanes to Rogart if I was to get to Heaven Bikes in time for Chris to work on my bike.
The short ride from Forsinard to the Caravan Club site at Brora was a demanding battle into a storm. Glen Loth funnelled the wind and rain at me with such violence that I had to pedal down hill. Luckily, the site was welcoming and well equipped.
Sunday in Brora was much more enjoyable than expected. Brora has an interesting history, including coal mining and the inn provided a satisfying Sunday lunch. I walked back to my tent over the golf course and spent the afternoon reading a Sunday paper. A good quality rest day, even though six or seven miles were walked.
Finally, on Monday morning, after four days, I pedalled along the A9 on the genuine North Coast 5oo. You can have too much of a good thing so I left the official route at The Mound and took lanes directly to Bonar Bridge. The climb, up a small, wooded valley, past an inland fulmars’ colony, was gorgeous.
Diagnosing my bicycle’s problem was complicated by confusion over big cogs at the front, big cogs at the back and big gears. Eventually Chris was able to replicate the problem when he rode up the only hill in Ardgay. He was impressed by the potential of the jamming chain to cause injury, but he had identified the root of the problem. A spring in the rear mech had given up.
As he was unable to fit a new mech until the following day, Tuesday, I bought a return ticket home. Next morning, I was back and the bicycle was working perfectly. My gears were ready for Bealach na Ba. It was just a pity about my legs! The train journey might have been inexpensive but it was lengthy so I contented myself with pedalling to the nearest campsite, two miles short of Tain.
Ice on the tent in the morning and what looked like a good day. My early start was soon halted by a very boggy water course. I managed to get across by stepping on stiff, rushy tussocks. The small stream was almost completely hidden by a green carpet which offered nothing fit for standing on for quite a few square metres, rather like the bogs of Dartmoor.
Feith Fhuaran was the next obstacle. My cowardly crossing of a stream too wide for jumping involved crawling on mossy boulders. It worked. A little later I reached the bealach between Morven and Small Mount. My upward route wasn’t the best but clambering over large, conglomerate boulders is always entertaining. The view of a great deal of not very much grew as I climbed. I could see most of Caithness and most of what I could see was moorland.
The beginnings of a corrie give Morven a steep north face and a hint of a summit ridge. My phone was suggesting four bars on the summit so I attempted texting friends but each text needed two goes at sending before it would whizz off into the ether. My ascent route would not be the best way down so for the descent I headed east from the summit and then curved round the south side of the big hill. This kept me on grass all of the way back to the haggy bealach.
I paddled through Feith Fhuaran on the return leg as my Inov-8 Roclites were wet through. Grimpen Mire was tricky again. After lunch, I packed the Akto and headed back towards The Glutt. The track which had caused some difficulty the previous evening when I was shattered turned out to be easy with some sugar in my blood. This time it was the estate road from Dalnawillan Lodge to Lochdhu Lodge which caused problems. A dozen or more large, deep puddles stretched right across the sandy road. At each, I had to dismount and carry my bike round. However, after the spectacular Lochdhu Lodge, the surface improved and cycling became easy.
My Anker power pack had gone flat because I used it to charge the phone while the phone was using GPS to track my route, a lesson learned. I needed to recharge the huge battery and none of the camping looked great from the dirt road across the Flows nature reserve so I decided to make for a B&B in Forsinard. Climbing Morven and cycling from Gobernuisgeach to Forsinard was a long day by my standards. Another cracker, though.
Quite why anyone would want to cycle the A9 when the remotest part of Caithness is blessed with many miles of fast dirt roads is beyond me. I rode 46 miles of easy estate and nature reserve tracks getting to and from a wild pitch on the north side of Morven, the highest hill in Caithness.
Sadly, the quiet lane from Wick’s Tesco to Watten is currently closed for construction of a cable which will take electricity from the area’s many scenic windfarms to join the national grid in Macduff. I had to use the Castletown road, which is busier. Once at Loch Watten, I stopped for a snack and saw an otter. It saw me and wasn’t phased at all. The otter just carried on fishing.
At Westerdale my route crossed the Thurso river at a rapid. I left the B870 on a narrow lane across a moor. The lane passes a small cemetery and a lodge before turning to dirt at a car park. Just a short distance along the dirt road, near Loch More, a white-haired man stepped round a Saladin armoured car with his arm out. I suspect that if I hadn’t stopped he would have grabbed me and caused a pile up. He asked where I was going. As I was on a right of way, this was none of his damned business, but I decided to be polite.
He said a missile would be tested in 30 minutes. I volunteered to wait if he was being precise about the 30 minutes. He admitted he wasn’t. He tried to persuade me to go a different way. Only getting the map out persuaded him that there was no alternative. Finally, he let me go after telling me repeatedly to stay on the estate road. As I was riding a standard Thorn touring bicycle with 4 panniers, that was my intention.
Maybe 2.5km later I reached the targets, which were less than 3m tall and still being adjusted. Whatever the missile was, and the white-haired man had been patronising when I asked, it was almost certainly intended for use against vehicles.
So, having missed out on any explosive excitement, I passed the wreck of Dalnawillan Lodge and headed on for The Glutt, which appears to be the current heart of the estate. The sandy road from The Glutt to Braemore is good for cycling but I was starting to tire. The final stretch to Gobernuisgeach from Lochan nam Bo Riabhach, along parallel ruts in the heather, was troubling. The bothy was locked and a gentle shower made the footbridge slippery. After a mere half hour of low blood sugar faffing, the tent was up and a brew was on.
It had been a ride of incredible character across moors of a remoteness found in very few other parts of these islands. The ride ended at a lovely wild pitch, miles from any other human. The otter and the missile nonsense added to a day I am unlikely to forget.