Saturday, January 28, 2017

The year ahead and a guide to Scotland.

Because I'm a bit lazy with the whole writing a blog thing we'll start this look forwards by looking back. Sort of.
Back in September, to celebrate his retirement Faithir hired a nice house up near Achiltibuie for a weeks holiday. I rode the Africa Twin up taking in Glen Quaich in Perthshire on the way. It's a great wee singletrack road that runs from Amulree to Kenmore on the banks of Loch Tay. If you're heading north from the Edinburgh area and have the time, it's definitely worth the detour.

Africa  Twin on the way to Glen Quaich

Africa twin Glen Quaich

Glen Quaich

The week was spent chilling out doing holiday stuff and going out on the pushbike with HB. I took the chance to get out on some nice spins on the bike too. Achiltibuie and the surrounding area makes up the Coigach peninsula which is just missed and no more by the North Coast 500 route. (more on that later) Luckily for me this keeps my favorite part of the Scottish mainland relatively quiet, especially when compared with the wee villages north of Lochinver. A big traillie is the ideal companion for these roads, long suspension flatting out all the bumps and relaxed geometry taking the twitchy arse out of the gravel patches. I had a few runs up to Lochinver and round Loch Assynt as well as visiting Scourie and nipping out to Oldshoremore to scope out the camping area for future trips.

Africa Twin on Ullapool Road

Road to Ullapool

Africa Twin with Suilven

Africa Twin with Suilven

Africa Twin Assynt and Coigaich

Passing Place and Suilven

Africa Twin at Kylesku

Africa Twin Oldshoremore

Africa Twin Summer Isle

Reiff, Scotland Sunset

Reiff, Scotland Sunset

sulven from Achnahaird

Knockan crag pano

Africa Twin and Suilven

Africa Twin,  Suilven and Canisp

Suilven

A week after our holiday in Achiltibuie I chucked the tent on the Africa Twin and headed away for a few nights camping. This time I met Faithir at Pondside Campsite, a great wee quiet site just outside Lairg. From there I headed to Applecross to meet HB while Faithir went to Raasay where him and Smillie were going to stay in the hostel. I had a great run following part of the NC500 from Ullapool to Torridon before a foggy climb over the Bealach Na Ba to Applecross. I had expected the road to be busy, lots of people had mentioned that the traffic had got a bit crazy since the birth of the new tourist route, but I had the usual long stretches of world class scenery and roads to myself.

Pondside Campsite, Lairg

Pondside Campsite, Lairg
Great crack with the other folk staying at Pondside Campsite

A832 views

gruinard pano
NC500 views.

Loch Maree

Bealach Na Ba sign.
The start of the Bealach Na Ba. It's NOT called the "Applecross Pass", its the Bealach Na Ba.

bealach na ba

misty bealach na ba pano

The Belach Na Ba may have been misty and damp at the top but thanks to its microclimate, Applecross was basking in the sunshine. This is quite a common phenomenon in Scotland. The bad weather hangs on the hills while lower down all is nice. Applecross is sheltered by Skye's Cullins, the Torridon Hills and the Applecross hills that the Bealach Na Ba crosses. HB and I treated ourselves to a meal in the Applecross Inn and a night in a Wigwam, which saved having to pitch the tent. 

Applecross campsite

Our third and final night was spent at Tobermory on Mull. I took the Lochaline ferry over via a wee detour around the Morvern coast road. I met Faithir and Smillie at Tobermory hostel. They'd really enjoyed they're stay on Raasay. I'll have to get my arse over at somepoint. Not long after, HB arrived and we all headed out for a cracking Chinese/Indian meal followed by a few beers in the Mishnish.

On the wauy to mull

tobermory pano
Tobermory

A few weeks later I was off again. this time there was no tents needed. Aidan, Faithir and I had booked a wigwam at Skye Forest Gardens just beside the Armadale ferry terminal, a wigwam at Applecross and one of Tim's huts at Sunart Campsite in Strontian. I fancied getting to Skye a bit earlier so came up with a plan to head up to the secret bothy after work. I had figured I would get to the bothy in the last of the light. I was wrong. By the time I got on the road to the bothy it was getting dark. Riding a motorcycle in the dark in remote areas of Scotland is not recommended. You may be the only person around for miles but there are plenty large animals with poor road sense ready to loup out in front of you. I slowed my pace right down as huge, grand stags wandered across the beam of my headlight. At the bothy my headlight picked out a huge bird of prey that had been sitting by the bothy. It was massive! I think either a Golden Eagle or an Eagle Owl. The wingspan was six foot easy. Through one of the bothy Facebook groups I knew there would be another couple of people staying the night, which I was glad to know. It would be pretty boring and a wee bit spooky spending the night there on my own. I rounded the corner to go in to the candlelight and say hello but........
Darkness.
No one was home.
I got a wee fire going, lit some candles and cooked my tea. A beer had burst in my pannier so I dried everything out, reminding myself once more to put some sort of buffer between the metal pannier and the cans. I read some book as my wee woodpile quickly dwindled, resigning myself to a lonely night when I heard voices. In walked Joyce and Keir, seasoned hill walkers who were no strangers to bothy living. They'd brought a big bag of coal which really kept the October cold at bay and we had a great night chatting around the fire. 

Keir at the bothy.
Keir at the Bothy.

After a quick breakfast I said my goodbyes to Joyce, Keir and the bothy and headed off. Once back on the road I noticed than in the previous night's darkness I'd completely missed a flock of yellow sheep. I had loads of time to get to the ferry so I stopped whenever I wanted for photos. The roads were empty, the sun was out and the scenery was absolutely stunning. Scotland in October offers some of the best motorcycling in the world. For long stretches I was the only person on the road. Any traffic I caught up with was easily passed. It may be a little cooler but the autumn air is clear, giving amazing views of the stunning colours that time of year has to show.

bothy pano

Melgarve

Melgarve

Yella sheep

Speanbridge road

At the ferry I discovered there had been some changes to the service, the larger ferry was being used elsewhere so the Armadale to Mallaig crossing had a smaller boat. Luckily there was still a wee bit room so I booked myself and Aidan and Faithir on. They had said they were going to leave early in the morning so they should be here for the one o'clock ferry. I got some lunch and supplies in Mallaig and waited for them to turn up. One o'clock came and went with no sign of Aidan or Faithir, so I boarded the ferry over the sea to Skye. 
Skye Forest Gardens is a great, but slightly off the wall place. It's based around being very eco friendly so there's composting toilets, lots of ducks and other wildlife kicking around. We've stayed there before but never in their wigwam, which has a prime spot overlooking the ferry terminal. I gathered firewood and had a good wander around the place. There's lots of wee hides and things where you can watch birds, otters and other wildlife. Being close to the ferry terminal meant I could use the Wifi and keep in touch with the missing halfwits. It turned out that they had stopped for ages at Ballinluig Motor Grill for a rake of food. The four o'clock ferry was full so they rode round the long way, eventually rolling up at sixish.
As I said, October is an amazing time to tour Scotland, but it does get a bit cold at night. We headed to the local pub for a feed and got in a wee pool competition with the locals. A good night all round. 
Skye Forest Gardens

skye forest gardens

Skye Forest Gardens

skyeforestgarden


Another stunning autumn day accompanied our short ride from Skye over to Applecross. This time the Bealach Na Ba was clear allowing me to get some nice photos. We had our usual visit to the Applecross Inn where you can always be sure of a good laugh to go with the great food and drink.


Belach ne backhair

africa twin bealach na ba pano 1

africa twin bealach na ba pano 2

Bealach Na Ba


The next day it was back over the still clear Bealach Na Ba and on to Strontian. We done our usual stop in at the Waterside Cafe for breakfast before taking the long way round Loch Eil and Loch Linnhe. We stay at Tim's campsite (www.sunartcamping.co.uk) all the time, it was good to see him again. Tim is also into bikes so the usual bike discussion was had before another pub meal was enjoyed. It got pretty cold that night, while out taking a photo of the frost on the bikes I seen the Northern Lights. Braw.

Bealach Na Ba
Faithir on the Bealach Na Ba.

Bealach Na Ba

Africa Twin Scotland autumn

Africa Twin Scotland autumn

Ben Nevis

Corran

Sunart Campsite, Strontian.

Sunart Campsite, Strontian.

Northern Lights at Sunart Campsite

Sunart Campsite, Strontian.

Sunart Campsite, Strontian.

It was while riding home after this October trip I decided to write a wee guide to touring Scotland, especially to try and give a few tips and suggestions to you if you're new to biking or touring by bike. 
Scotland has a lot to offer. Stunning scenery, blue seas, white sandy beaches, amazing roads, world class food and drink, remote wilderness and that feeling of isolation, like you’re the only person for miles. When I speak to people about travelling through Scotland however, the same questions and statements always crop up. “It always rains! Where are the best places to go? The midges will eat you alive! Are you riding the NC500? I’m riding the NC500! What’s wild camping? When’s the best time to go?” The answers and responses us Scottish bikers hear to these questions and statements can range from the informative, through comical, to compete nonsensical. I’ve been riding around Scotland for years so this is my attempt to provide a wee guide to riding Scotland while giving away some of our more remote destinations.

Africa twin Buachaille



Where are the best places to go?
Unless you’ve spent the last wee while living in a cave, you’ll have heard about the North Coast 500 or NC500 for short. The NC500 is a very popular tourist route that follows the coast from Inverness up to John O’Groats then over top of the country and down the west coast. It’s a great route and a good base for a Scotland trip. In my opinion its best done anti clockwise from Inverness, for all the information you need have a look at www.northcoast500.com. I’d give yourself three to four nights to ride the whole thing. Sure, it can be done much faster but you’ll appreciate the time to stop and take in the sights and the odd detour here and there.

Bealach na Ba with the Africa Twin

 Arguably the most talked about part of the NC500 in motorcycling terms is the Bealach Na Ba, the road to Applecross. This 11 mile single track road is the third highest road in the country and has been compared to alpine passes due to its hairpin bends. I’ve heard loads of people saying how much they are looking forwards to riding this infamous road using words like “nailing it” but…….. Maybe I’m wrong, or just saying what everyone else is thinking, but the Bealach Na Ba is a shite riding road. It’s got loads of blind corners, it’s pretty busy and it just doesn’t have a good flow. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ride it, you definitely should, but it should be approached in a “take in the scenery” manner rather than trying to set any speed records. My advice to anyone planning a visit to Applecross is to actually stay at Applecross itself. Sitting outside the Applecross Inn getting the craic with other travellers over a pint while watching the sunset before heading into the Inn for some tasty local seafood is hard to beat. I always feel sorry for the folk who have to head back to their accommodation over the hill just as the banter at the pub is getting good. There is a good campsite at Applecross which has Wigwam camping huts and static caravans for hire. These should be booked in advance. If you fancy staying in the Applecross Inn then you will need to book that several months in advance. There’s also a hostel opened up, I’ve not stayed there but it gets good reviews.
So you’ve ridden the Bealach na Ba and got the bug for these twisty, remote, single track roads. You’re wanting a bit more, possibly some of this “wild camping” you may have heard about. It’s legal to camp anywhere in Scotland as long as you don’t damage anything or disturb anyone. (see https://www.visitscotland.com/accommodation/caravan-camping/wild-camping/ for more guidelines) Here’s a few suggestions.

Winton Massif Close to the Edge 2014

Kinloch Hourn
About five miles north from Invergarry on the A87 there is a turn off signposted Kinloch Hourn. This is a 22 mile dead end, single track which at the end of lies Kinloch Hourn. Scenically this can match any other road in Scotland. No one finds themselves at Kinloch Hourn by accident, there’s not much there apart from a farm building, a car park and a small designated camping area. If you are planning on camping take some fuel for a fire in with you and you’ll need £1 per person for the Gamekeeper. Only build fires in existing firepits and don’t cut down live trees. In the farm buildings there is a small café, if you ask nicely the owner might leave the toilet in the outbuildings open for you.

DSC_5160

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Mull

Ardnamurchan/Mull/Morvern
Starting at Strontian follow the A861 west to Salen then the B8007 to Kilchoan and Ardnamurchan. There’s plenty wild camping opportunities along this stunning road which changes dramatically the further west you get. There’s also a great, biker ran campsite at Stontian with camping huts and a drying room if you’re kit is wet. There’s another campsite at Kilchoan, it’s worth visiting the Ardnamurchan lighthouse too. From Kilchoan you can get the ferry to Tobermory on Mull. Mull is a great island to visit, the ferries are subsidised and therefore cheap. There is a great mix of roads, scenery, wilderness and communities to visit. The road from Tobermory to Dervaig is rollercoaster fun. From there you head to Calgary, where there is an approved wild camping spot just beside the public toilets. The road carries on round the coast, dramatically hugging the cliff. Once you’re done exploring Mull get the ferry from Fishnish to Lochaline heading back to Strontian but take the turn signposted Kingairloch B8043 for another spectacular coastal route.

drumbeg loop pano

Africa Twin and Suilven

Africa Twin Summer Isle

Africa Twin Stac Pollaidh

Kylesku/Drumbeg/Lochinver/Inverkirkaig/Achiltibuie
The Kylesku/Drumbeg/Lochinver section of this route is part of the NC500 and for me the best scenery in Scotland. The NC500 takes you out of Lochinver along the A837, but for the more adventurous there is the single track road to Achiltibuie via Inverkirkaig. If you enjoyed the Drumbeg to Lochinver road you’ll love this. Follow signs to Achiltibuie and do the Polbain/Altandhu loop around the Coigach peninsula. There’s a great campsite beside the Am Fuaran pub. You can also wild camp in various spots, just stick to the code. Follow the road signposted for Ullapool. Another stunning single track road that takes you right under Stac Pollaidh. I’m told it’s an easy climb if you’re feeling fit.

Glenelg and Strontian trip.

Glenelg and Strontian trip.

The Glenelg to Kylerhea ferry.
There’s a junction on the A87 just south of Dornie, home of the famous Eilan Donan Castle, for Glenelg and the Glenelg Ferry. This is a unique way to get over to Skye and a cracker of a road into the bargain. The Glenelg ferry is over 40 years old and by using it to get over the narrow crossing you’re helping to conserve a piece of history. The road up on the Skye side is equally stunning and the whole trip is only about 20 miles. There also a great chance to see Sea Eagles and other wildlife. If you fancy staying, the pub at Glenelg will let you wild camp beside the loch as long as you eat in the pub.

The A9
If you are midway through planning your trip and you’ve included the A9 from Perth to Inverness in your itinerary then I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to change your route. The A9 has nothing to offer. It’s full of average speed cameras which turn the drivers on the road into zombies, dead eyes fixed firmly on their speedometers. They toil to look out for each other never mind a happy biker heading out on their travels. Trust me, while my suggestion may add an hour or two extra on to your journey you get rewarded by riding one of Scotland top routes over our highest road. From Perth follow the A93 to Blairgowrie and through Glen Shee to Braemar. From Braemar carry on the A93 heading to Ballater but take the turn signposted Tomintoul B976 (A939). This goes over The Lecht, Scotland’s highest road. There’s a café in the ski centre at the top. From Tomintoul follow signs to Carrbridge and Inverness. You’ll only have to do a short stint on the A9, keep an eye out for those average speed cameras and zombie drivers.

When’s the best time to go? It rains all the time! The midges will eat you alive!
Midges and weather seem to be people’s big concern when planning a trip to Scotland, with lots of advice to come up in April and May before the midges wake up hungry. While this is true, the weather in April and May is a huge gamble, the hot sunny days are heavily outweighed by the colder wet weather. My favourite time is later in the year. September and October can be really rewarding, with a lot of the tourists gone it can feel like you have the whole country to yourself, the trade off being it can get a bit colder at night. June, July and August is Scotland’s busy season for tourists and midges so pack midge repellent. The best thing to get rid of the dreaded beastie is a good breeze as they can’t fly when there’s wind blowing. If it’s still then try Avon Skin So Soft but a midge net/hat is the best defence. A good campfire can help too.
Rain is usually inevitable, but nowhere near as bad as it’s made out to be. Some parts of the country are much worse than others. The area around Fort William and Skye seems to be the worst for rain with the East Coast being the driest. The North West can be pretty changeable but when it’s good, which in the summer it often is, it’s really good. Lots of places have “microclimates” going on. I’ve came over the top of the Bealach Na Ba when it’s been wet and cloudy while at the bottom Applecross is basking in sunshine. The most important thing to deal with whatever weather Scotland gives you is a positive attitude, but waterproofs are a close second.

Where to stay?
For me, camping is the best way to see Scotland. Wild camping gives you a great freedom and even the proper campsites seem to be in the best spots. Camping huts, Wigwams and hostels give an affordable, slightly more luxurious option but while you can usually just roll up to a campsite you’ll need to book these in advance. Hotels and B&Bs will need to be booked in well in advance and can be very expensive in high season. While the NC500 is proving very popular accommodation along the route can be sparse. Don’t make the mistake of just turning up expecting to find a bed only to be told that the nearest vacancy is 70 miles away.

IMAG1226

Glenelg and Strontian trip.

Winton Massif Close to the Edge 2014


What to take?
If you are planning to camp you’ll need a good, strong tent. People may go on about Scottish rain, but it’s our wind that destroys tents. I’ve seen it happen on several occasions, especially on the North Coast or on some of the islands. Get yourself a good self-inflating sleeping mat and a decent sleeping bag. These don’t have to be super light efforts that pack down to the palm of your hand as long as they’re comfortable and warm. A camping pillow is nice, but you can always use your clothes. If you’re planning on eating out you won’t need a stove. My luxury item is a jet boil, a compact, highly efficient but very expensive stove which is ideal for making your morning coffee. A camping chair is nice but if you can tough it you can use a pannier as a seat. A tarp makes a great shelter if the showers start. I always find the best thing to have in my panniers is space. That way I can pick up stuff I want on route.

Anything else?
I think I’ve covered everything without giving away too many spoilers. Before you head up do plenty of research. If you want to ride the really popular routes like Glencoe then try and get there midweek. Give yourself plenty of time, what might be a 40 mile stretch of road might take you well over an hour to ride. You’ll get away without a GPS but take a map. Pay attention to the signs on the single track roads and watch out for confused drivers diving into the wrong passing place.
Whatever the weather does, enjoy yourself and when you get home remember to tell everyone it pissed down the whole time and the midges were terrible, we don’t want everyone coming up here.

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I drivelled on for long enough now. I have some big plans for the coming year, but I'll tell you about them later. Here's a few photographic clues....

C90 tyre change

C90 adventure

Sherco fork seals

ZZR burnout


Mike.