The North Coast 500
Updated: Apr 28
So here we go, on to the final three days of the Land's End to John O' Groats journey.
We left Inverness, early, after an appalling nights sleep in a city center hostel. What with the seagulls squawking all night just outside our bedroom window and the drunken rambling of some holiday makers it's a miracle we slept at all. Nevertheless, we weren't going to let anything spoil our excitement to start the North Coast 500, something Ian and I had wanted to do for a long time. Of course, when we left the hostel it was raining but that was to be expected. We got in the car and pulled the map out expecting to get hopelessly lost on the labyrinth of one way systems that is Inverness. Fortunately for us the journey out was far easier than the way in and we found the first sign for the NC 500 in no time. Signs? We were expecting this last stretch to bring some of the most challenging map reading so far but to out delight as we kept driving there was a happy brown NC 500 signpost at every turn. Incredible. This meant that we could just relax and enjoy everything the west coast of Scotland had to offer.
We had a vague plan to end up in Poolewe by the end of day 1, however we didn't really know where it was or how long it would take us to get there, We hoped we would arrive before sunset because we needed to find a spot to wild camp and somewhere to leave the car. Wild camping had been one of those things that we thought would be really easy in Scotland but had turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. We were going by the 'right to roam' bylaw which basically says you can camp where you like as long as you don't leave a mess or burn everything down. However, in reality it isn't quite that simple - and finding a place to leave the car overnight without being threatened with clamping or towing has proven quite difficult so far. Even so, we were hopeful that Poolewe would offer us some picturesque camping spots without any hassle. Fingers were crossed.
Just half an hour out from Inverness the road started to open up and get increasingly bendy, and we saw less and less buildings and people. The landscape really started to change and we got our first glimpses at some stunning lochs and highland mountains. The road eventually narrowed into a single track and that's how it stayed almost all the way to Poolewe. Along the way we drove through high foggy mountain passes and down passed enormous estuaries that made their way out into the North Sea. Every now and again a few classic cars would pass us in the other direction or some 2 seater roadsters covered in stickers like ours! We had no idea that there would be so many fundraising rallies and events happening and it was great to see.
We reached Poolewe with time to spare and so we decided to drive to the end of the peninsula to have a look at the sea. We discovered an array of concrete bunkers dotted along the coastline that had been leftover from the second world war. We learnt that Poolewe used to be the start point for the Arctic Convoys that delivered supplies to Russia all through WW2. A voyage that Churchill described as "The worst journey on earth". I was quite taken back by the fact that places as seemingly remote Poolewe had played such a pivotal role during the war and we stayed for quite some time exploring and reading about what the men and women did during war time in the West Highlands.
After our history lesson, we attempted to find a good place to set up the tent for the night. The sun was out now and the ground was drying out, however it was exceptionally windy near Loch Ewe and we were a bit worried that out tent wasn't up to the task. We decided to head back down the peninsula and we managed to find a little spit under the shoulder of a big hill that was much more sheltered. There was still nowhere obvious we could leave the car safely and we ended up having to park it in the entrance to a nearby waterworks and hope for the best. By the time the tent was up it was almost dark, so we cooked some food and settled in for the night. What a day.
The next morning we woke up before sunrise and managed to pull ourselves out of our warm sleeping bags in time to see it. It was cloudy but the orange glow of the early morning still managed to break through and create a beautiful light on the surface of the loch. The wind had gone as well and the water, which was a stones throw away from our tent was dead still. We couldn't hear anything apart from the heartwarming song of the passing Lapwings. After many attempts we had finally got our postcard sunrise that we had been waking up so early to see! And it was definitely worth the wait.
By the time we were back on the road the sun was well and truly up and we were ready for another day of driving. The road past Poolewe just kept getting better and better, with nothing but snow capped mountains and lochs as far as the eye could see. Today we were heading for Lochinver to enjoy our last night of the trip before reaching John O' Groats! We also got our film cameras out and filled up a roll each of the stunning surroundings. About half way to Lochinver we came up behind some very slow moving cars, and wondered what was happening. Surely there wasn't traffic in the middle of the highlands. We soon discovered that it was a deer that was responsible for the hold up, someone was feeding it a carrot out of their car window. It wasn't phased one bit by all the people gathering around him, and he actually looked like he was enjoying the attention. Neither Ian, or I had been that close to a deer before and we couldn't believe how tame he was. We took the opportunity to get some shots and then carried on.
We didn't have much further to go to get to Lochinver and we still had plenty of daylight left so we took to opportunity to do some more filming. Ian was driving so I got out the car with the tripod and waited for Ian to do a drive by. I got the shot as he went passed and waited by the road for him to turn round a pick me up. After about 5 minutes I started to get a little bit worried, surely he had found a place to turn around by now I thought? Another 5 minutes passed and there wad still no sign of him and I hadn't taken my phone with me so I couldn't call. I began to think that something bad might have happened and was thinking about what on earth to do when a big white van came round the corner and pulled up beside me. The man driving quickly informed me that Ian had come off the road and wouldn't be coming to pick me up. He kindly offered me a lift to the car and sure enough the back end of the car was in quite a significant ditch on the side of the road. Luckily no one was hurt and it turned out that Ian had just badly misjudged the width of the car when trying to turn around, and beached it on it's left sill so the back wheel was off the ground. The guys with the van tried to help as best they could but it was no use. We couldn't believe it, less than a hundred miles from John O' Groats and we'd beached the car. Surely this couldn't be the way the trip was going to end. I have never been so grateful for having a trolley jack in my life, we brought it incase we needed to change a wheel or something, we never thought we'd be using it to try and lever the car out of a ditch. But there we were. In the end it was a combination of a large rock and the trolley jack that saved the day and all four wheels were reunited with tarmac.
After an eventful day we treated ourselves to a meal out once we'd got to Lochinver (not that we had any choice - no shops were open!) and a dram of local whisky each. After dinner we strolled back along the loch to the guest house we had checked into earlier on, showered off the camping from the night before and got ready for our final day of the trip!
The final day summed up everything we loved about the North Coast 500, and best of all the sky was blue and the sun was out! We tried to squeeze in as much as we could before the end of the trip and I think we did a pretty good job. We explored a cave, we finally got photos of highland cows which we had been trying to do ever since we entered Scotland, and we went for a final glorious swim in the North Sea. The water was absolutely freezing, a good few degrees colder than what we had been used to down in the west country, but that made it all the more exhilarating.
The car had a happy sad atmosphere as we realised we were on the home stretch to John O' Groats. We could see the Orkney Islands in the distance to our left and we knew there wasn't a long way left to go. Ian spotted the sign, and as we pulled up in the car park neither of us could bring ourselves to be the first one to get out the car. What a journey it had been. Sitting on the pier as the sunset we talked about all the things we had done on the trip and what we had learnt. For me, it has served as a really good reminder to get out into nature as much as possible, whether that's going for a walk, hiking up a mountain, swimming in the sea, or anything in between. It's also shown me the value of having someone to talk to about anything and everything, whether you are feeling happy or sad. I think Ian and I both have a much better understanding of what makes us happy and what doesn't and if there's one thing to take a way from the adventure it's just keep going!