My first visit to the Scottish highlands was back in 2012 where I ventured to the north east and stand as many a tourists have done at the post in John O’Groats… This however, was only the beginning…. Scotland had left something with me that burned inside like a 18 year old single malt whisky…
It was the following year and during a quiet period of work and I was having a terrible bout of insomnia, and restless days. I didn’t know how to relax or what to do with myself. One night, I woke up and as I usually did, fired up the MacBook in a hope that the screen would send me back to sleep, my usual outlet was google maps, looking back in all the places in the globe I had visited in my youth.
Im not sure what made me do it, Im not sure why I started to look for it…. But I ended up looking in the United Kingdom… My sole thought…. How far could I get away from where I was right now. Where could I just get in my car and drive to and not have to think about turning around for as long as possible. I started searching and Scotland was tho obvious direction, but where…. John O’Groats where I had been the year before with all the tourists standing and wanting their photo taken…. No, I wanted to escape…. And then I saw it…. Looking at the map of the highlands I noticed the little road heading out west from John O’Groats…… Winding its way though Thurso and keeping going….. on and on… Where to???
A small village out on the North West point of Scotland, as I followed the google street view it felt like I was heading out across a wild frontier that was still yet to be claimed…. The Beaches, the mountains, the wild long roads heading into… Nothingness. I’m not sure what happened next, but in under an hour just before 2am in the morning….. I had packed my usual camp gear and checked the car, and was off….. The North Coast 500 was calling.
The journey to the far north starts off easy enough….. You set off thought the streets you know.. past the little corner shop at the end of the street, under the railway bridge you would usually go under while commuting daily work and even getting to the motorway where occasionally you head to go see friends that you may not have seen for a few weeks or go on a business meeting with clients….. But there is something, different and its hard to put your finger on it. Firstly its the dark zone… That time of the night that is at its most black. 2:30am isn’t exactly the most busy of times of day, the roads are empty, the streets are void of all life, except maybe the odd urban fox using the shadows to glide silently between cars and gardens.
What really is different is knowing that even when an hour into your journey after getting out onto the motorway, you haven’t even dented the bulk of the journey yet… The sat nav has estimated the trip to take you fifteen hours and thats with no stops, breaks or traffic….. This is a long, long road trip. And there is that little moment in hour 3 when you start thinking, was this really such a good idea.
Its when you pass Manchester is when things start to pay off… The urban sprawl and light pollution gives way to clear open roads and soon you’re whizzing between the hills of the lake district that are being lit up by the first slivers of light from the morning sun.
The first pit stop is Tebay at about 6am. The first light giving way and showing the lake district off as the ducks wake up and start their conjoined assault on the morning breakfast travellers. Hoping to get some rich pickings of dropped bacon rolls… The two hour break is enough to get coffee, food, and a power nap… then its back on the road again.
The next leg, takes me over and across the border and in some senses… the toughest park of the route up….. Very long straights of motorway, 7 hours into the drive and you gotta keep your eyes peeled….