Operation Point Clunk North - Part 1

Operation Point Clunk North

By Johnny Parsons>

Johnny Parsons, age 41-and-a-half

Every year I try to set myself a challenge or spontaneously try something different.
I am not especially talented at any one thing, but I do like to have a go, and with enthusiasm (and a bad case of OCD, as in my case), it is surprising what one can achieve.

Lina and I had a wee nipper in March, little Valentina. This has been an adventure in itself, and we are all loving every minute of it. In June, Lina and the bairn went to Germany to visit family for a month.

So, apart from work and a list of jobs, I had an unexpected free time slot (which was a novelty in itself!) I didn’t have a fortune and set myself a £100 budget. What to do???

I have always loved travelling by two wheels (my complete lack of coordination rules out unicycling), be it by pedal power or motorised. Last year (pre-baby), I had a decent-sized motorbike, so Lina and I took ourselves off on a trip to Aviemore (Lina’s second time on a motorbike, we did 330 miles on our first day, a sterling effort for a passenger!)

Now, I have downgraded retrospectively, back to a trusty Honda C90, “The SuperClunk”. For those of you unfamiliar with these epic little machines, in essence, it is a 90cc step-thru motorbike/moped (it has 17” wheels, so it differs from) a scooter).

Honda have produced over 60 million of these little tinkers since 1958, making it the most produced machine (car or motorbike) EVER!

Nearly everybody who has ever had any connection with motorbikes will have a C90 tale.
They will have ridden/fallen off/had one nicked/sold-and-regretted-selling a C90, or had dealings with their smaller brothers, the C70, or a diminutive C50.

Why do I ride a C90? It is simple to ride (3 gears and a semi-automatic-clutch, which make a reassuring “Clunk”, hence the name). It is mega-economical, super reliable and goes forever. It has a four stroke 90cc engine producing an eye-popping 8 brake horse power means a top speed of around 45mph (flat-out and unladen). Because I love it!

Enough technical ramblings. Motorbikes do have their risks, that is a fact that I cannot deny. A small misjudgement can have very serious consequences. I was once told by an Instructor to just assume that everyone else on the road is out to kill you! Severe, but it does keep one alert.

However, (as on a pushbike), you feel more on two wheels, your senses are open to the elements. There is no protective cocoon, as in a car, but this has its benefits too & every trip, no matter how big or small, becomes an adventure!

So, mode of transport sorted. 10 days off work booked. Where to go???

As a SuperClunk doesn’t travel very fast, quiet roads are preferable (I have a full bike license and as the bike is over 50cc, legally, I could go on the motorway, but I don’t, purely for the fact that they cannot keep up with traffic, unless it is on the M1, which is normally a 3-lane car park, around these parts!)

Scotland sprung to mind!

I bought two 1962 sixpence road maps off fleabay, but didn’t plot any route; I just wanted to see where I would end up. An old map may not show all of the roads, some roads may have changed and some locations will have grown. The idea being that I would get lost and have to ask people for directions/help/moral support.

A flurry of packing and jobs that had to be done, lest the World stop spinning.

Packing, unpacking, repacking and packing again. I had 2 x 35 litre panniers and a 35 litre Airlok XTra (which would fare a lot better than the panniers!) Gearwise, I packed the bare bones I would need for 9 days camping/riding:

One man tent, 2 season sleeping bag, Numo mat (awesomely comfortable!), petrol stove, 2 pans, Gamma headtorch, Trinity lamp, a sack of Wayfayrer Meals/noodles/porridge/coffee, a pair of Walsh fell shoes, an awesome book in the form of “A Short Ride in the Jungle” (a superb story about a lone female riding the Ho Chi Minh trail, on a C90! Check it out), wet weather biking gear (so glad I did too) and that’s about it.

Aiming to be on the road by 8am and well into Scotland on day I, turned into leaving at 4:30pm and camping near Alston, in an idyllic wild location, on the moors. The trip had begun.

An 'off the road' campsite

Day II dawned dark and dismally. I was running on fumes from the off, (a four litre tank does about 150 miles, ridden gingerly), the first of many petrol/coffee stops. My trip coincided with Appleby Horse Fair, and these rustic little horse-drawn carriages were the only vehicles I overtook in 9 days, I wasn’t in a rush…

The weather worsened, as did my map reading, and a mission to get as far north as possible, took me past a soggy Hadrian’s Wall, to cloudy Carlisle, back to a limp Longtown, as far up as Galashiels, then, as the rain bounced down and back upwards, I missed a turning and went from Moffat to Peebles.

It was getting late, and despite looking for a place to wild camp, nothing was turning up. A forest track looked promising, but I got stuck in a quagmire of a puddle, that went up to and over my exhaust/shins, whilst getting stuck under the barrier. Once in to the forest, there wasn’t a patch of clear ground to pitch and dense clouds of midges meant a tarp would have been dismal, they chased me back out, I got stuck again and eventually ended up arriving at a campsite in Ayr.

Boots and gloves dripping wet (and they would remain so for some time...) A Wayfayrer meal never tasted better!

The joys of traveling on a bike

The big task for day III was to avoid Glasgow, but as most roads are designed to take one into a city, as I tried to skirt around it, I was dragged in via East Kilbride.

From what appeared as a tiny dot on my 1962 map, Condorrat was to be my nemesis, it had grown into a megalopolis of shopping centres and a motorway through the heart of it. All was going well until I found myself on the M8!!! One terrifying stretch before the next exit, at rush hour, in a monsoon. Sweet relief to be off it and finally on the road northwards. The sun started shining briefly from Stirling onwards and then back into the deluge at Crianlarich.

The highlands await

One place I simply cannot rush through is Glencoe. As one pulls on to the top of the moor and then suddenly (it always comes as a shock, no matter how many times I see it), the lone giant of the Buchaille Etive Mor appears. For years I always thought that digital cameras were the devil’s work and I stuck to film, then I sold out and now as a digital convert, it’s always a case of safety in numbers.

I always, always go through the thousands of pics after a trip, print out my favourite 100 and put them in an album, Old School! Otherwise they would just languish on a hard drive, forever. I met a chap taking photos using a Twin Lens Reflex camera; he even took a shot of me!

Glencoe is always a delight

A quick brew at Fort William and on towards the Road to the Isles. A road I had never travelled before and an absolute joy to be tootling along, on a sunny June evening, sniffing out a wild camp.

My plan was to get the first ferry from Mallaig, over to Skye and I found a sweet pitch overlooking a white sandy bay, shared with a collection of other happy campers; a mother and daughter from Ambleside en route to the rough bounds of Knoydart, a young German couple backpacking round the UK, a Scottish trio in a Hymermobile, (who invited me in to their luxurious camper for a drink, despite my stinking boots, which hadn’t dried out yet), and later on a big group of University students, having a party on the beach. The midges were present in their tens of thousands, and the headset I had packed turned out to be the best fiver I had ever spent in my life! The Superclunk continuesonwards...

Man rides bull

Up and off at the crack of dawn and over to Armadale on the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry. The chap who lashed down my bike was one of the many folk I met who had once had a C50 and a C90 in his youth.

Deserted roads in Skye led me to Sligachan and on to Portree, where I met a cool bunch of elderly Spaniards on a Eurotrip. I told them that they had fallen lucky with the weather, as they shivered in their jumpers and coats. It was the hottest day yet!

Deserted Skye roads

Over the Skye Bridge and into a chance meeting with a local cyclist, I was looking at my old map and working out a route when we struck up a fascinating conversation about all manner of things.

If I had rocked up in a 4x4, I would have probably just stopped, wound down the window, taken a photo and drove on. We chatted for an hour and I started to learn more about the Highland folk

A road that was tailor-made for the power/speed of a C90 took me around the coastline and deep into the Applecross Peninsula. My smile got wider and wider, as I chugged up the Bealach na Bà. I became aware of a noise, like a fire-breathing-dragon, chasing me up the pass. I was down to first gear and felt if getting closer, breathing down my neck. I wasn’t caught, but it was ever so close.

As I breached the summit of the pass, I pulled in and met an awesome Dutch couple, Guido and Nancy, in a monster truck of some kind. (Their exhaust had snapped as they were leaving Holland and they had substituted it with a piece of scaffold pipe!) It turned out that they had plans to go to Mongolia, so I spent 10 minutes trying to convince them to sell the truck and buy a Micra!

Almost at the top!

The last time I had been this way, I was coming in the opposite direction in the Micra (our test-out for Mongolia), at night, in winter, in the clag. So it was a contrast to be clunking along on a summer night, with views out to Skye and beyond.

As with my entire trip, I was in no rush, so the twisty-turning road around the coast was savoured deliciously. Through Torridon and arriving in Kinlochewe (30yrs after my first proper ever winter mountaineering trip there in 1984), I was the only camper in the free _ campsite, bar the squadrons of Midges who were adamant on sharing my pitch, despite all the space.
Anticipation, excitement and the midges got me up early the next morning, before I left, I had a long chat with a chap from London called Tom, who had grown tired of the rat race down the Old Smoke and had upped sticks to Wester Ross. A brave move, but one that had paid off. It is always fascinating to hear how people adapt to a completely different life(style).
I stopped for a brew in a sleepy little village and dosed for a while by the shores of Gruinard Bay.

Held catalogue shoot.

Temporary roadworks and what was to be one of my last traffic lights for some time had me gazing up at the mass of An Teallach. A ridge traverse that had beaten me twice in winter. On a clear and sunny morning, a mass of tourists had just disembarked for a 5 minute stop-off on a tour coach and were happily snapping away at anything and everything. As I chugged along the Destitution Road (or Desolation Road), I reflected on the building of this remote carriageway, constructed to give employment to hungry crofters in the years following the Great Potato Famine of 1846.
It felt a good place to be, right now, on my bike, but a lonely place to be stranded I imagined. Ullapool came as a shock!

Heading towards Torridon

It felt like I was entering a big city, but it was a good place to stock up, afore the Wilds of Sutherland: A region I had only been through once before, but a place I was very excited about riding through. A land of freaky geology and incredible mountains, with very different sounding names; Quinag, Canisp and Suilven to name a few.
The Clunk was lapping up the miles and the “Wee Mad Road” was pure joy, with breath-taking views of Stac Pollaidh and neighbours. I passed a group of German bikers all riding the huge BMW GS, scratching their heads over where their GPS was taking them.No GPS for me. In this neck-of-the-woods, my map was bang up-to-date!

The Wee Mad Road

The road gets more and more spectacular as one wanders northwards, an area which feels and looks as remote as a lunar landscape. A coffee to be savoured at Durness and then eastwards along the convoluted coastline. Headwind-tailwind-headwind-tailwind-45mph-15mph-top gear-bottom gear…

The wind had really picked up dramatically, whereas just 30 minutes earlier, the sea had been a flat calm on a hot sunny evening, I was keen to get camped up, fed and watered. A deserted packhorse bridge near Melvich did the trick, out of sight of any (albeit infrequent) passers-by. Out of the gale, Wayfayrer’s delights were enjoyed and thoughts of where tomorrow may take me… try and keep up with the Superclunk as it moves on.

An early start, I stocked up, fuelled up and brewed up in Thurso, then on to John-o-Groats.
A rather strange place, but for the purpose of the trip, our farthest point north.
I chatted to the owner of a burger van, a chap who had been laid off from his Sales job in Manchester and was now enjoying a new life, meeting all kinds of travellers, tourists and nutcases, drawn to this northern Mecca. He had a photo of Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman, on their “Long Way Down”. Very impressive, but you really don’t need a £15k BMW GS to have an adventure! The obligatory pictures were taken and then, “Operation Point Clunk South” began…

Honda C90; Best machine ever built!

I stopped for a kip in a quiet lay-by, looking out to the rigs off the coast of Wick. Pondering where to head next, I saw a sign for Lairg and thought, “Never been there, let’s go!”
There I found thee most fantastic tearoom, “The Crofters”, with the friendliest service I have ever had anywhere! I was told a snippet of Sutherland trivia: It is the largest county in the United Kingdom, with no traffic lights, nor roundabouts. I had ridden 155 miles without either.

The Strath Glass road to Cannich was a leafy tunnel of sunset light. The Clunk felt like it was flying, as we hit speeds approaching 40mph! I decided on the luxury of a campsite and a shower. Here I met an awesome German couple who had taken 14 weeks off work to walk from Dunnet Head to Lizard Point. Good luck to them.

Invergarry was swamped with Nessie tourists, so I chugged along the loch without stopping, feeling the presence of regular traffic for the first time in days. Morrison’s at Fort William was a pie-stop and then into the rain towards a very soggy and gridlocked Oban. The rain poured in sheets and the 8pm look-for-a-spot-to-sleep time had been and gone. It wasn’t really the best weather to stop at “Rest and be Thankful”, so I sped over the pass, dwarfed by Beinn Ime, somewhere, up there in the clouds.

If you ever go to Honeymoon Bridge, take mosquito nets, otherwise it might be an early divorce!

I saw a gap in the forest at the foot of the pass and dived in. The Clunk was stashed under a tarp (first time we had been more than 6ft away from each other overnight! I realised that I had started referring to the pair of us as “we” to the point that folk I chatted to, were looking around for my pillion!). Driving rain, sodden ground, muddy and dark forest, swarms of angry midges and a tent that reeked of petrol, (my bargain Jerrican had leaked, everywhere!)

It really was a moment that would not sell such a trip to everyone. Having cooked my tea, I was unsure how to eat it, as I had been battling off the wee biting midges with a headnet and 5-minutely reapplications of repellent. I somehow ate my tea, underneath my headnet and vowed to get up and off at the crack of dawn.

Kamikaze midges, millions of 'em...

Into Arrochar the next morning for a breakfast cuppa and then along the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond. Now the Erskine Bridge hadn’t been built when my 1962 map was composed, so I just headed south, which of course took me over this high rising structure (luckily with a 40mph limit, so I didn’t have the JCB effect). Glasgow was avoided much more effectively than when we were heading northwards and the riding was fairly undramatic (in contrast to the weather, which had livened up considerably), until I made a wrong turn and ended up on the M6 Southbound… I rode as fast as I could, until the next exit, where I had a celebratory cuppa at Abington services (celebrating the fact that I hadn’t died or been arrested on the M6).

The downhill miles towards the Borders, England and into Cumbria. Carlisle flew by and I pointed towards Silloth. Even though I was born and brought up in Cumbria, there is a lot of the West Coast that I still don’t know. It was cracking flags in Maryport and I buzzed southwards, gazing out over deserted sandy beaches (I was very tempted just to camp there). Bobbing inland at Gosforth, I rested my weary-but-happy head at Santon Bridge.

A dry and sunny night was a contrast to 24hrs earlier! Up, off and away early the next day, over Hardknott (claggy) Pass and Wrynose (claggier) Pass.

Clunking on to Wrynose Pass

Coming down the passes with the Clunk’s drum brakes spiced things up a bit!

I then went on a bit of a tour round memory lane, back to places where I lived as a youngster. It is always interesting to go back to places you used to know and see how they have changed (or not). The cay became glorious and bright, making the already HUGE smile on my face, even bigger. Devil’s Bridge (Kirkby Lonsdale, with a silent ‘w’) is a massively popular biker’s jaunt and in normal circumstances it could have been a little intimidating pulling up alongside the Triumps, Ducatis and the rest, until somebody asked where I’d come from (just as it went quiet), “Well, as you ask…”

With the Big Boys at Devil's Bridge

The A65 is now a long parade of speed cameras, but for this piece of Classic Japanese machinery, which loves bobbing along at 35mph, it was a case of flat-out all the way home. Home, a place I’d left 9 days and 1561 miles ago. Time for a bath!

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