A BROMPTON ON THE NORTH COAST 500
Sports cars, motor homes teams of cyclists bent on a challenge ... the North Coast 500 has a special attraction, so it was only a matter of time before Mark Jacobson too it on ... on his Brompton.
The headwind pressed determinedly against me, impeding my progress, despite the road being fairly easy. Strath Bran leads from Garve to Achnasheen, this day into the stiff breeze. I had started from Contin, my overnight camp since leaving the train at Inverness the previous day. First stop came at Rogie Falls, a most spectacular series of rocky drops. At this time of the year, salmon should have been a-leaping, but regrettably not while I was there.
Although my intention was to camp that night at Applecross, having surmounted the Bealach na Ba, on reaching Lochcarron by 2 pm I decided I would struggle over the pass, stopping instead at the Wee Camp site, leaving the pass for the next morning.
Away early, the sunshine and wind had not reappeared. It was a calm, grey and misty day. I had previously ridden the road around Applecross in 2000 on an unladen Brompton. Today I rode with full load but a lower bottom gear, so hoped to find it manageable. Yes, I did push in two places, for a total of 1/3 mile, as I had done in 2000: the final part is only 20% but by then the legs are tired! Near the top an approaching vehicle pulled into the passing bay to allow me to proceed but a following one came straight for me: I fell off while stopping suddenly and that driver almost ran over me, rushing on without stopping. Fortunately, no harm done.
Having warmed my very chilly body on tea and cake at the Applecross Inn after my descent through the clouds, I then followed the coast road around to Shieldaig, where Nanny's Cafe provided a late lunch. Because of the midges, I chose to camp at neither Shieldaig nor Torridon wild sites, so pushed on to Kinlochewe, hoping to stop at the Caravan Club site there. Arriving at 4 pm, the wardens were out until 5 pm. As there is only a very small grassy patch, instead of waiting their arrival for permission to camp, I pushed on the Gairloch, knowing the road to be good and fast along Loch Marie, except for the final few miles, especially after a local had called the nearby wild site 'midge city'!
Reaching Gairloch in light rain, with midges galore, the tent went up rapidly and I departed to the neighbouring Bistro for shelter and sustenance: it is not often that I cover over 80 miles with more than 2100 m of height gain in ten hours!
Next day I actually felt good! It is a hilly ride to Ullapool, the worst being the climb up from Gruinard Bay. I was overtaken by individual unladen cyclists who turned out to be on a Red Lantern Holiday Tour. As they stopped at the summit for support van refreshments (what, while hot from the climb, in the breeze?), I overtook them. Much later, the seven gradually caught up with me. Finally they were fully ahead and stopped outside Maggies' Cafe, just before Dundonnell, asking for me to join their group photograph! Two lived close to the Brompton Factory, and another demanded to know how old I was, as he wanted assurance that he also could ride well in old age. Cheek!
In Ullapool I met up with Fraser for tea. He agreed that the Bealach na Ba is not quite as difficult as the coast road to Kinlochewe; in fact he said the height gain from Lochcarron to Applecross is a mere 700m, while from Applecross to Kinlochewe it is 1400m! I went on to Ardmair to camp as it would give me a start for the day following.
Leaving Ardmair next morning, the sun shone: five miles out the gear cable broke. I do carry spares so set to replacing it. However, what with the old cable sticking in the anchor bolt by the wheel and the midges which needed fighting off, I lost that tiny bolt! Unable to find it amongst the gravel and grasses, I folded the bike and carried my kit across the road where I stopped the first vehicle to come along, a motor caravan owned by two cyclist! They kindly took me back to Ullapool. There is no bicycle shop there and, although the hardware shop would have small bolts, there seemed to be no way to drill a hole through to capture the cable. Arranging for the shop to received a package on my behalf next day (Saturday) I then phoned Brilliant Bikes who not only had the part in stock but would send it out immediately for me. This arrived by 10 am next morning, and by 11:30 am I was back on the road, passing the point of mishap 27 hours later! My trip had not been ruined!
The NC500 route is essentially a motorists' route: leaving the A835 at the turn for Achiltibuie is a better cyclists' option. Further on there is a single track lane heading northwards to Lochinver, making for a more scenic cycle route. The Lochinver Larder gave a really good Cullen Skink, as well as free Wifi, there being no phone signal. This late lunch completed my earlier sandwich snack and I rode on to Clachtoll camp site, the final few miles traversing really barren rocky terrain. This has a beautiful setting, just off the bay and the evening breeze kept any midges well away.
Travelling the coast road northwards from Clachtoll is possibly the most scenic part of the whole route (excepting for the Bealach na Ba, if the sky is clear to Skye). However, this is a seriously up-and-down road, the single track dipping and climbing many times along a spectacular coast-line. If you have the time available then the diversion to the Point of Stoer is well worth making, but do allow half a day for this! The next camp site is at Scourie, if that is your choice: my intention was to make Durness if at all possible. Being a Sunday, the Secret Garden cafe at Drumbeg was reached too early, but the next at the Geology Museum at Unapool was not open, despite the later time. Incidentally, the 17 miles from Clachtoll to the A894 took about 2.5 hours, with a certain amount of pushing, particularly out of Gleann Leireag, a long and steep climb.
There are hotels at Kylesku and Rhiconich for sustenance, but I had stopped at Scourie for a light lunch. When cycling the single track road from Rhiconich to Durness in 2000, I only met about 5 or 6 vehicles; this time, following the excellent marketing of the NC500 as a tourist route, I must have met at least a dozen convoys each of 5 or 6 vehicles, necessitating frequent waiting in the passing places.
NC500 was developed in 2014 and since then been marketed for tourism.
An excellent waterproof pocket map is published by Yellow Publications at £3.99 www.yellowpublications.co.uk
An interactive map can be found at http://www.northcoast500.com/interactive-map.aspx
Camp sites used:
Contin: Riverside Chalet & Campsite, Contin, Strathpeffer, IV14 9ES, tel. 01463 513599
Lochcarron: Wee Camp Site, Croft Road, Lochcarron, IV54 8YA, tel. 07876 642355
Gairloch: Gairloch Caravan & Camping Site, Strath, Gairloch, IV21 2BX, tel. 01445 712373
Ardmair: Ardmair Holiday Park, Ardmair Point, Ulapool, IV26 2TN, tel. 01854 612054
Ullapool: Broomfield Campsite, Shore Street, Ullapool, IV26 2UT, tel. 01854 612020
Clachtoll: Beach Campsite, Clachtoll, Lochinver, IV27 4JD, tel. 01571 855377
Durness: Sango Sands Caravan & Camping Site, Durness, IV27 4PP, tel. 01971 511726
Next time, in part two, Red sky in the morning, shepherd's warning!
PUBLISHED DECEMBER 2016