This is the third and last part of Katie Palmer's story on her North 500 trip with her husband Ian.
The West Coast
Heading South, we stopped off at Scourie to walk the dog on the beach. Within minutes, an enormous white tailed eagle swooped down and landed on a rock just a few metres away. Basking sharks and a whale were also ticked off the wildlife-spotting list during the trip!
Our next camping spot was going to be Clachtoll just under the Stoer peninsular, famous for its 60m high sea stack the ‘Old Man of Stoer’. We had fond memories of a tranquil, quiet campsite from years gone by so were a little surprised to find it had grown massively into a super-busy, family site with motorhomes as far as the eye could see. Another sign of how the NC500 has changed things.
We had time to squeeze in a quick mountain bike ride before dinner around the many small lochs to the East of the bay. Cycling back along a tiny singletrack road, we were overtaken by several loudly revving sports cars and at least 8 massive motorhomes before passing a tiny cottage with a large homemade sign in the windows reading ‘GO HOME NC500 YOU ARE KILLING OUR COMMUNITIES’!
Top Gear has covered the route and as we discovered, you can hire sports cars from Inverness especially for taking on this ‘driving challenge’. Large motorhomes are also causing grief to the locals as many are hired with drivers unaccustomed to handling vehicles of that size in those conditions. Travelling in convoy, not pulling in to allow overtaking and being unable to reverse into small passing places, these behemoths are making everyday road travel a nightmare for year-round locals. On top of the damage done to roads simply not made for this volume of traffic, residents dread the increase in litter and even human waste that is the inevitable result of an inadequate infrastructure (not enough bins and public toilets to cope with these numbers of visitors).
Sat on our bikes, it felt easy to be scathing, but let’s face it, we would be soon be back in our own camper van (albeit a small one) following many of the same road sections. We were having such a good time but the thought of adding to these problems didn’t feel great.
Keen to head off ‘The Route’ again after the Clachtoll crowds, we followed the smaller roads towards The Summer Isles and pitched up at the campsite in Altandhu. It’s a prime sea kayaking location for exploring the multitude of tiny islands that are sprinkled throughout this part of the coastline.
The next day was forecast to be high winds and double drops all day but the worst of it managed to hold off until lunchtime, allowing us the chance to quickly climb the legendary Stac Pollaidh en route to Ullapool. The 600m high peak seems daunting from below but it’s a straightforward path and an easy scramble at the top with unbeatable views.
Getting back to the van minutes before the rain started, we headed to Ullapool for a fish and chips lunch and a re-stock of supplies before continuing to Gairloch, our stop for the night. Whilst there, we had a run out to the Fairy Lochs, a collection of tiny lochans and also the final resting place of an American B-24 bomber plane, which tragically crashed into the rocks on its homeward journey at the end of WW2. The wreckage remains strewn across the hillside and in the lochs making it a somber but fascinating place to visit.
In much improved weather, we headed for Torridon the following morning with a plan to hike out to Craig Bothy (once Britain’s most remote Youth Hostel) for a night. We brought our tent just in case the bothy was already occupied but it was such a beautiful night, we opted for a tent camp anyway. Down by the shore we made a driftwood fire on the stones of the beach and watched the sun go down as two deer strutted on the cliff tops above us. Magic!
The next day’s drive from Torridon to Applecross (taking the coastal road) is one of the most scenic you could hope for, with views across the water to the islands of Raasay and Rona and the spectacular Cuillin ridge on Skye. The old coffin road between Kenmore and Applecross (10 miles of superb winding singletrack) makes for a spectacular trail run or MTB.
It must rain in Applecross sometimes, but seemingly never when we visit. Even before the birth of the NC500, it’s always been a popular destination but despite the hot weather, the campsite was pretty peaceful and chilled. Highlights include ‘Britain’s best singletrack’ (according to Ian) from the village to Sands and back, kayaking in the bay and lunch at the famous Applecross Inn.
Speaking to the owner of the little art/gift shop, it seems Applecross has suffered a greater number of less-than-respectful tourists visiting since the route was launched. There is a decent public toilet on the front but people have been choosing to relieve themselves in various indiscreet locations across the village as well as leaving litter and lighting fires in dangerous places when wild camping. It was a great relief to hear her say that locals are still happy to welcome visitors as long as they behave like civilized human beings. It goes to show that with just a little forethought (Can I safely drive on this tiny road? Is my chosen camp spot going to annoy the people who live here? Where will I go to the toilet whilst I’m staying here?), it is possible to enjoy this absolutely unbeatable road trip without adding to the problems.
If you travel thoughtfully, you’ll still get the famous Highland welcome that has drawn us back to this part of the world for so many years.