A BROMPTON ON THE NC500, PART TWO
Mark Jacobson continues his folding tour of the popular North Coast 500 - several years after he first rode the same roads.
Early morning and a most spectacular sunrise at Sango Sands camp site, Durness. It was not a good omen, nor a grand forecast: SE gales or very strong winds, and my way would be both south and east, as I followed the north coast from Durness to Duncansby Head, before turning southwards to return to Inverness. It would prove to be a hard day's ride.
The single track road goes all the way around Loch Erribol (Loch 'Orrible to the merchant navy crews during WWII, when this was used as a holding point while building up the convoys). Riding full into the wind I could hear nothing from behind, so I got quite a shock when, on a narrow part with deep drop-offs from the tar, a driver blasted his horn demanding that I vacate the road to allow his large Jaguar passage! It was a relief to reach the tea room at Laid where I could recover in tranquillity while imbibing some refreshment. I had been warned by a fellow cyclist that some motorists were hiring exotic motors in Inverness and then finding their hire period nearly at an end, so had to rush back within that time without consideration of other road users. Fortunately the motor caravan drivers were much more considerate, as there were many about.
Once turning the head of the loch I had some respite from the headwind and even some aid at times. The road rises and falls to the next wide loch, this time complete with a causeway across near the mouth, avoiding a long detour around it: the Kyle of Tongue leads directly to Tongue. I had been told that here is a perfect wild camping spot: at the road junction is a toilet block with possibly four level grassy places a small tent can be pitched, and next to it, the hotel. I stopped for lunch, proceeding afterwards with the intention of camping at Melvich, some 26 miles further. However, climbing out from the Kyle of Tongue I could clearly see an approaching weather front sneaking up on me from the south-west. This seemed to come on quite quickly and eventually presented the appearance of a waterfall not too far distant. Reaching Bettyhill, I turned into the camp site, pitched the flysheet and folded and covered the Brompton, Dragging my gear under cover I just escaped the deluge which struck! At least I and the gear were dry.
Later the rain eased but the breeze dropped and the midges came out to play. A head net was essential! I retreated to the hotel for a meal and relief from the elements.
During the next morning the rain eased, as did the terrain, so I made very good time through Melvich to John 'o Groats. I took my photo at the signpost but decided against using one of the places of refreshment there for lunch as the coach park had some 6 or 8 coaches parked in it. Instead I rode inland a short way to the Seaview Hotel and made a good, reasonably priced light meal, after which I revisited Duncansby Head, the most easterly part of this north coast. As it was still quite early in the day instead of camping at John 'o Groats I chose to take advantage of the light NE breeze and push on to Wick.
Proceeding next day I knew would be much easier as this north-east A99 is fairly level, apart from the deep descent to Berridale and consequent climb out. I stopped in Helmsdale for lunch, most surprised to find all three hotels closed but fortunately the restaurant, La Mirage, provided the necessary. Inside, the standard lamp was a giggle: a pair of legs wrapped in fish-net tights with red pants and a red lampshade to top it!
I had been advised by an Inverness resident and cyclist not to use the A9 south of Invergordon but to make an alternative way. As it happened, the traffic built up once south of Golspie and I soon took to the coastal lane through Skelbo to Dornoch for the night's stop.
Next day dawned grey and misty It was necessary to use the A9 for about 9 miles through Tain until able to divert through to Nigg for the ferry to the Black Isle. Despite the poor visibility along this main highway the drivers proved to be particularly careful and I had no feeling of danger. Once across on the ferry (said to be the smallest of the remaining King William ferries) the sun began to show itself weakly. The Black Isle is really just a peninsular east of the A9 into Inverness but I knew that somewhere close to that very busy highway I would find NCN1 signed. This took me clear of the traffic and passed under the trunk road to reach North Kessock and the bridge crossing into the city, where I good lunch sustained me on my way to the Bught camp site; I would be taking a train home the next day.
I was accosted at the camp site by a couple from Hull, who were using a motor home. They had seen me on several days while in the north, passing me a number of times, as they were only covering about 50 miles per day, much the same as I averaged.
It seems to me that September is a busy time for NC500: most accommodation places had 'No Vacancy' signs up. Friends who travelled some of the route in June had found far less traffic and accommodation with vacancies.
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:
Durness: Sango Sands Caravan & Camping Site, Durness, IV27 4PP, tel. 01971 511726
Betty Hill: Craigdhu Caravan and Camping Site, Bettyhill, Thurso, KW14 7SP, tel. 01641 521273
Wick: Wick Caravan & Camping Site, Riverside Drive, Wick, KW1 5SP, tel. 01955 605420
Dornoch: Dornoch Caravan & Camping Park, The Links, Dornoch, IV25 3LX, tel. 01862 810423
Inverness: Macdonalds Bught Caravan Park, Bught Lane, Inverness, IV3 5SR, tel. 01463 236920
PUBLISHED DECEMBER 2016