The Africa Twin was packed and I was off once more. The average speed vultures preying on the A9’s zombies were avoided, as usual, by following the far more enjoyable Blairgowrie, Glenshee, Lecht route north to Carrbridge. I know I’m way past broken record stage, but this road is a cracker. The sections that stand out being the swoopy Glenshee rollercoaster, up the Cairnwell pass to the Glenshee Ski centre, and the mini-Alpine switchbacks of the A939 to the Lecht. I had a plan in my head, albeit the plan belonged to Egor. I was meeting him, Faithir, Smillie, Fergus and Snake at John O’ Groats where we’d spend the night before getting the ferry from Gill’s Bay over to Orkney.
I had all day to get to Groats. After a brief stint on the A9 from Carrbridge to Allness I headed inland to Bonar Bridge rather than following the coast road up through Brora to Wick. This decision was rewarded with near empty roads, the initial gorge like twists and turns opening out after Bonar Bridge to a smooth, fast flowing, tree lined, swinging pendulum blast to Lairg, where the road once again changes. This time it takes the form of a rough skinned, bumpy old single track snake with the occasional spots of gravel dermatitis. These single track roads are my favourite, rarely lined with anything but open moorland and rocks, occasionally hugging rivers or lochs and more often than not pretty empty. Big traillies like the Africa Twin are phenomenal instruments to dissect a serpent like this. The larger diameter wheels and longer travels suspension disposing of the bumps and lumps while the off-road orientated chassis takes the twitch out of the arse when you encounter those patches of gravel. Holding a gear and rolling the throttle back and forth gives a relaxing, nearly brake free ride while allowing full examination of all ninety three and a half of the Twin’s stallions.
I followed the snake all the way to Altnahara where I stopped for lunch, hiding from the drizzle in the phone box while I cooked my boil in the bag Hot Pot on the Jetboil. Orally satisfied, I carried on north, turning off along the side of Loch Naver towards Bettyhill. I really had to concentrate as I navigated over the gravel strewn, moss covered surface this wee stretch had. I stopped for a look around the Grumbeg ruins, an area that was devastated during the Highland Clearances before popping out on the North Coast Road at Bettyhill.
The North Coast road is one of my most favourite stretches of tarmac in the country, taking you from the barren Caithness cliffs of John O Groats, to the wonderful, white Sutherland sands at Durness. Today I was only riding a short section, but I was still buzzing as much as I was the first time I rode it fifteen years ago. The Bettyhill to Groats run takes you along some seriously fast, smooth sweepers to Thurso before tightening up a touch past Dunnet beach and into the small village of John O Groats. Arguably the run in to Groats from the east coast side is scenically more dramatic but who cares, the sun was shining and I was stoked. What an awesome days ride I’d had.
I thought we’d be camping, but the guys had sent me a text I’d picked up earlier saying we were going to stay at the bunkhouse at the Seaview Hotel in John O’Groats. At £25 for bed and breakfast I couldn’t really argue, despite it being a sizable boot to the arse of my tight budget. The Winton Massif’s bikes (our tongue in cheek bike gang) were shining in the sun outside the Bunkhouse. Snake had his Harley, Faithir was on his BMW R100GS PD, Ferg was on the 1150GS that I once owned, Smillie on his 1150 Rockster and Egor, the trip organiser, on his R1100s. Indeed, we looked quite the motley, bad-ass crew. I’m sure all the locals were sure we’d bite the head off chickens and roll about in dog shit.
Instead, we opted to have a beer accompanied by a nice big cigar before heading in to the Seaview for some food. I had told Egor not to worry about booking the ferry as we’ve always just rolled up in the past. Egor had thought we’d be getting the early morning ferry (aye, right) but as we never got out our pits till after 9, the morning was spent looking around John O’Groats and the surrounding area, with the usual sign post photos taken and a visit to Duncansby Head and the sea stacks there. We were joined by Ferg’s pal Mikey on his XT Tenere. I’ve spoken to Mikey online as we have a mutual interest in Honda C90s and it was good to shoot the shit with him. Snake headed home and the rest of the Massif all rode to Gills Bay together, only to be met with the news that the ferry was full. Shite. I spoke with the staff at the small ferry terminal. It would be the Captain’s decision if we could squeeze the bikes on, but it wasn’t looking good. I explained it would only be four bikes going on the boat, it was only Faithir, Egor, Smillie and myself that were heading over to Orkney but teeth continued to be sooked and “I dunnos” muttered. We had pretty much made our minds up that we’d be getting the later ferry straight to Stromness from Scrabster when we were told there was space for us. I even had to beep my horn to Faithir as he’d begun to ride away. The four of us shouted quick goodbyes to Ferg and Mikey and roared up the pier to board the ferry.
The crossing from Gills Bay to St Margrets Hope on the Orkney Mainland only takes an hour or so and means you get a stunning run over the Churchill Barriers up to Kirkwall. This was Egor and Smillie’s first visit to Orkney so they stopped off to visit the popular Italian Chapel. Faithir headed straight to Stromness Campsite while I took the back road past Scapa Distillery. Orkney is rich in tourist attractions and over dinner that night we formulated a plan. Egor and Smillie would spend three nights at Stromness, which would be their base as they explored everything they could on the Mainland. Faithir and I would also spend two nights at Stromness, with a night in between over on Hoy. “The Mainland” in Orkney terms is the big main Orkney Island, while Hoy is the second largest island in Orkney, south west of the Mainland. So far the Orkadian weather hadn’t been kind to us. It had rained almost constantly. The soggy weather accompanied by temperatures rarely breaking into double figures meant our bike kit was given a good workout as Faithir and I rode to Kirkwall to stock up on stuff we needed for Hoy, my trusty old TCX boots beginning to feel a bit damp around the toes.
As we sailed from Houghton to Lyness on Hoy we got speaking to some of the locals from the small island. There told us about all the work that was being done on Hoy for the 100th year anniversary of the Battle of Jutland. Hoy will receive lots of VIPs and dignitaries for the ceremony. One local said “Every time you see a TV camera there’s some guy with a paint brush just out of shot. It’s like fucking North Korea!” Lyness is home to the museum for Scapa Flow and the war related side of Orkney. The museum is free and is a few meters from the ferry terminal. We were meeting Smillie and Egor at the museum the following morning so we skipped through Lyness and headed up to Rackwick.
Out of Lyness, Hoy feels like is hasn’t changed in 50 years. The single track roads have sagging, crumbly edges and the population is minimal. We rode north up the east side of Hoy, the damp weather staying with us along Hoy’s solitary east coast road, the clouds obscuring the top of the hills as we cut across to Rackwick on the west side of the island. At Rackwick the bothy is clearly signposted and you can see it from the road. It was a bit further down than I thought it would be. We rode the bikes down the track to the bothy as far as we could, before leaving them at the gate and unloading our stuff. It took several trips across the marshy ground to carry the stuff we’d bought in Kirkwall the quarter mile or so down to the bothy. This included all our food, 25 kilos of coal, a big bag of firewood, cameras, beer and our cooking kit. By the time it was all at the bothy my feet were soaked, my old boots finally submitting to the rain, marsh and puddles.
The bothy itself was pretty fancy as far as bothies go. It had a stove for heating, a big table at one end and was fully stocked with coal, firewood, peat and firelighters. There’s a separate wee room with a toilet attached and a sink with running water. The views around the bothy are stunning. The bothy sits nearly on the beach between two giant cliffs. You can walk from Rackwick over to the Old Man of Hoy, a famous sea stack, once considered unclimbable and now a destination for climbers and even base jumpers. I didn’t make it over to the Old Man, instead Faithir and I sheltered from the rain showers indoors, venturing out to watch the gannets and take in the views when it was dry. We had nearly everything we needed but it looked like there may be another bothy toilet disaster. We had minimal toilet roll. Shite.
Unable to hold off any longer I headed to the toiled to answer Nature’s call. I was enjoying my sit down when I saw a shadow pass the toilet’s small frosted glass window. “Where the fuck’s he going?” I thought, assuming Faithir was away somewhere. I heard him come into the wee room then the toilet door opened. “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING? I’M TRYING TO HAVE A SHITE!” I roared at who I assumed was Faithir. There in the doorway stood a black collie dog and a man holding a giant toilet roll. “Sorry, I didn’t think there was anyone in here. I’ll just leave this here.” He put the bog roll on the window sill and left. I couldn’t help but laugh.
I finished up and went back to the bothy to tell Faithir about my encounter. There sitting in the bothy was the Toilet Roll guy and his dog. What an ice breaker! His name was Jimmy, he looks after the bothy with his dog Diesel. Jimmy was great craic. We shared our beers with him and our cheesy biscuits with Diesel as we spent the night listening to Jimmy’s stories about Hoy. It was a great privilege to spend some time speaking with him and learn about the place from his wealth of Orkadian knowledge.
The stove had done a great job of drying my boots overnight. As we packed up Jimmy and Diesel came down to see us off and suggested the cafe at Moaness would make a good place to grab breakfast. Jimmy was right, the cafe gave us a good feed before we rode down to the museum at Lyness, stopping to speak to the people from the RSPB who were trying to spot sea eagles that were nesting in a cliff that was covered by cloud. The sea eagles eluded us but the next creatures we were looking for should be easier to spot, Smillie and Egor. We found them lurking around the Scappa Flow museum, a superb attraction that’s well worth the visit. Sure enough there was a guy out the front painting all the old guns and other bits of machinery. A choppy sail back to the mainland resulted in Egor getting a good soaking from a particularly strong bow wave so it was back to Stromness campsite where Faithir and I re-pitched our tents and everyone got warmed up with a shower.
Over dinner that evening we discussed our options for the next couple of days. We’d be sailing back over to Gills Bay the following day so we had a few options of places to stay. After some internetting we discovered there was space at Ullapool Youth Hostel, ideal. We had a nice run back down the Churchill barriers and down through Caithness but by Brora the rain was back as were my wet feet. Precipitation prevailed till we popped out on the west coast, Suilvan looking good with its cloudy cape. The A835 from Ledmore to Ullapool is always a spirit lifting pleasure, the stunning scenery matched by a phenomenal stretch of tarmac, despite my sodden feet sapping all my heat I really enjoyed my ride down to Ullapool. Parking up outside the hostel, I ripped all my stuff off the bike and burst into the hostel surprising a few walkers as I started whipping all my wet gear off and drying myself off in the hall. Faithir and Egor rolled up shortly after and we got into our room, picked beds and dumped gear. Checking our phones revealed a text from Smillie. He’d really toiled with the weather and had got a bit lost on the way down the road so planned to carry on south. Wet kit was left in the Hostel’s drying room before Faithir, Egor and I had a wander around Ullapool, taking in a few pints and a curry before listening to live music at the Ferry Boat Inn. The following morning a full Scottish breakfast set us up for the run down the road, which for me meant a sunny blast to Inverness before nipping off at Carrbridge and over the Lecht and Glenshee, avoiding the A9’s Dawn of the Dead drivers. Have I ever told you how good that road is..........?