“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”
It’s been a while since I lost myself in the north west Scottish Highlands of the North Coast 500… to just fill the car up with fuel and drive, no real plan or agenda. But just see where my thoughts and ideas take me. Durness is always a given as the start point, that far north west point that is as far away from anything you can drive from, pitch a tent over looking a desolate and deserted beach, and just, stop….. No phone signal, you’re too far away from anything for it to matter, you couldn’t get back to it that day even if you tried. Forced detachment…. and it’s bliss.
A bag of logs, tent, hip flask of whisky and a newly acquired “Woobie” were the ingredients. After parking up the car and walking the short distance to the camp spot I had reccyed via Google Maps (Actually Apple Maps as the resolution for satellite imagery is far better than the current Google satellite images…
A storm that had been lingering in cloud formations started to look like a scene from Ghostbusters and I made sure the tent was up just in case the heavens did start to try and tell me the 16 hour drive here had been utterly stupid. Luckily though the sun dance jig I had done just prior to leaving seemed to be holding its charm and only after a light sprinkling of rain that didn’t effect the small camp fire, it began to break up overnight.
The following few days, i was lucky enough to see some of the most stunning Scottish nights, Mornings, Days and Evenings I have ever seen in the 7 years I have been travelling and exploring the west coast. With temperatures during the day reaching close to 29 deg centigrade, and night times it never ducking below 10 deg, it was sheer bliss, also in the rare and almost unheard of moments, the Midge were somewhat, excluded from the party. The smidge I had with me on standby that I had picked up from Odin Tactical didn’t need to be deployed at all. However the decision to not use it towards the end of the trip came to bite, quite literally… Ticks are right little buggers. 🙁
Heading south my next port of call was a small secluded shoreline on the edge of Loch Bad a’ Ghaill. Pitching up and setting about getting food, boiled water and tent set up, but as the weather was some of the warmest and clearest id seen in a long long time, I spent most of the evening just wrapped with the woobie under my butt to protect me from the cold sand, and enjoying the flicker of warmth from the campfire with the stars shining and showing one hell of a night time display with (aside from the campfire) zero light pollution. True real dark sky that is impossible on the south coast.
Coming the morning, it was time to push on… Applecross was next on my possibles and with weather like we were having, a sudden desire to sit and enjoy some fish and chips while overlooking the bay became a huge draw. But not before a special stop off…
Packing up and heading south, you come across the main port and fishing town of Ullapool. Ullapool is a village of around 1,500 inhabitants in Ross and Cromarty, Scottish Highlands, located around 45 miles north-west of Inverness. Despite its small size it is the largest settlement for many miles around and an important port and tourist destination. And there is a particular food stop was in the mood for, first though breakfast and Coffee and Cake at the Gallery Cafe situated above North West Outdoors. If you’re road tripping or wild camping, its the perfect quick stop for caffeine and also pick up any camping items you might have either forgotten, or re supply.
Next door to this, is the gem of the highlands. The Seafood Shack has become a hot location for passing foodies and lovers of some of the tastiest sea food take away you can get. My option that morning (after dealing with the queue of people also waiting and wanting their seafood fill) was a half lobster and claw with salad and potato…. Sitting out in the sun, eating fresh garlic lobster listening to the hustle and bustle of the port was a very welcome change from the campsite cooking I’d had for the last couple of days.
Arriving at Applecross is always such a welcoming feeling, dashing along the coastline with the sun setting streaming in through your drivers window, almost guiding you home after winding your way through the very rugged coastline and (Long Way Round) of Arrina and its peninsular. There is a fast route which is up over the mountain of the Applecross Pass know as Bealach na Bà. But I like to do that in the morning… Technically Applecross isn’t on the official Scottish Highlands – North Coast 500 route due to the steep and narrow road up and over the hill, but if you fancy adding a stop worthy of any road trip… This is it!
Applecross has the aptly named Applecross Inn, a small but beautiful public house that offers some of the best food locally sourced and pulled from the water that day, as well as a bar that had local ales, and a shelf of spirits that would make any gin, whisky or rum snob smile heartedly. They also have which has just recently been refurbished, an American airstream converted into a fish and chip stall where you can order outside fresh battered cod and chips with a cheeky pale ale while watching the sun go down…..
Why the heck not!!!… I placed my order, chatted to the chap who was serving while my cod was getting its batter coat, and then took my seat overlooking the water.
If there is a place you need to visit while you are in Scotland and wizzing around the North Coast 500, it is Applecross. It may not be the most straight forward of places to get to, but in terms of a location that will feed your Wanderlust, you will not find a better place to escape to. Trust me.
Leaving Applecross at first light, and bounding my way up and over the Bealach na Bà is always best done with a clear head. Rising from sea level to 626 metres (2,054 ft), Its stunning views (When clouds permit) are simply breathtaking, and even just catching glimpses of the road ahead of you twisting and winding up the mountain side is enough to give any road tripping adventurer a gin on their face.
At the top is a place you can park and breath, knowing that you’re only halfway there as you now need to wind your way down the alpine decent of up to 20% you need your whits, and your breaks in full working order.
My last main location I had in my head for the North Coast 500 trip was the Isle of Skye, but more focused, Old Man of Storr. Again, this is one of those places that must be on your bucket list to do. Old Man of Storr is a popular destination for tourists and day trippers, and I’ve been up before but this time I wanted to head up there when it was a little quieter. I opted to grab a big lunch, relax and then with the fine weather we were having and expecting, I set off in the late afternoon, meaning the coaches and day trippers had long since come off the hill side. Bouncing up the main route, via the sanctuary and through ( what i like to call) the forbidden kingdom. I call it that because there are two large signs telling you that you are advised to NOT to head this route, Meh!!!!
After a couple of hundred meters you can see why, boulders some as small as your fist, but others the size of VW camper vans that have come cascading off the cliffs hundreds of feet above lay strewn around, the area. The silence of the area, (As you are now out of any wind is eery, as for the last half hour you’ve been somewhat exposed on the side of a Scottish island cliff face.
You find yourself breathing more calmly because of the quiet. And thats when you start to hear things…. hearing small rocks tumble down the cliff. Nowhere near you, but the echos rattle all around you, and you cant help but keep looking on where the hell you can run to, “Just in case” you hear something very loud, very close……
Popping out of the sanctuary, I headed up to the Monolith, strangely, having full 4G signal on my phone i thought what the heck and decided to “Go Live” on instagram. Walking up and chatting and giving a running commentary of me making it up the last hundred meters. The views….. Well, words cannot describe the view from one of the most iconic landmarks of the Highlands…. and even more so when you are totally alone, and not a soul to distract your thoughts. Sitting contemplating so many things… and coming up with ideas.
Next time, Tent… and a wild camp to enjoy the stars and sunrise that Old Man of Storr and present me. Until then, that wrapped up my easter escape to the North West of the Scottish Highlands North Coast 500…. I hope you’ve enjoyed the imagery I collected along the way, and below is a short music video of some of the drone footage collated along the way.
Author and Photographer: Guy Butler