I’ve been riding motorcycles for around 3 years now and really fancied a try at this touring malarky – and what could be better than exploring this fabulous country we live in on just 2 wheels? A photographic phriend of mine (Mike) is also a biker and between us planned this tour of northern Scotland, with the added bonus of taking our camera gear, back in January. Google maps helped us work out the route and the mileage – here is what I hope is an accurate representation of our experience…
Our trip was set over 4 days of planned riding – each day averaging around the 200 mile mark (give or take 50 or so) and staying in hostels to keep our costs down. Setting off on the Friday morning we made our way through the all-too familiar roads in the Crieff area and it never really felt like we were on holiday until Glen Coe was in front of us. As usual the place seems to have its own weather climate and while we were standing in beautiful sunshine, it was obviously tipping it down a few miles away in most directions.
The burger van at the top of the hill was there as always so we stopped for a venison burger which provided the energy for the next leg of the journey. Also on the roads were a plethora of cyclists which seemed to be on some kind of charity event. Not a problem for us, but they were complaining about the car drivers getting too close to them while passing.
A piper was blasting out some standard Scottish tunes and posing for photographs with the tourists. I’m sure he must make a pretty penny by standing up a hill all day!
My VFR has no mounted hard luggage so I used the stop to check the stability of all the soft bags I was carrying – Oxford Sports panniers, a tail pack and a tank bag. The back end seemed to have shifted to the right but was still secure. I had even used some Oxford anti-slip material to protect the bikes fairings from scratches, but there was still signs of movement. This is a far cry from Mike’s setup on his BMW GS1200 which has it’s top box and panniers all locked to the bike and is pretty much ideal for the job. Unfortunately the same setup for me would cost £800 – donations welcome…
The next 20 miles or so provided some of the most breathtaking scenery of the first day. Waterfalls cut their way through the hills and to the roadside, mountains stand menacing all around and seem to suddenly spit you out onto valleys of sunshine. The traffic was heavy for roads so far away from anything – not a problem on a motorbike but I could see the car drivers getting frustrated with the camper vans on the winding roads with no visibility to pass safely.
With my fuel guage down to two bars the pace had to slow a little to conserve the go-go juice until the next petrol station. This was something I’d worried about in the planning stages, whether the bike had enough range to make it between what I assumed would be few and far between petrol pumps. Actually I needn’t have worried, I was pleasantly surprised by both the range of the bike and the number and location of petrol pumps. Case in point was Glen Coe. Shortly after making an effort to conserve the fuel we came across a small fuel station. It seemed to pop out of nowhere, but was obviously ideally placed for many people. This included the procession of Mark 1 Golfs which had passed us earlier in the day while stopped at a viewpoint. Luckily we arrived just before they did otherwise we would probably still be waiting for our turn to fill up now…
Oddly the pump was padlocked but the owner came out and explained that they are probably the only petrol station in the country that just starts providing fuel when you lift the nozzle. Ideal for fill-and-runs.
Our next stop was a bit more pleasing to the eye. The sight of Eilean Donan Castle is always a happy affair and if I didn’t feel like I was on holiday, I sure did now! As if you didn’t already know, this is the most photographed castle in the world and was home for the McLeod clan in the film Highlander (as well as many others). There can be only one.
Not far from Donan is the location of our accomodation for night one. Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye is home to possibly one of the most hospitable hostels (see what I did there?) in the world – Dun Caan Independent Backpackers Hostel, hosted by the wonderful Terry and Laila.
Once all the luggage was off the bikes and into our very cosy twin room (with lock), Terry advised us on a place to get some cracking photographs. The road to Torrin has some great scenery and we were spoilt for choice. So much so that we never actually made it to Torrin! Hunger took over and we found ouselves in Broadford at The Claymore restaurant, somewhere that I had dined many years ago when my wife and I holidayed in Breakish. Many things have changed and all for the better. The crab cakes starter came with a lovely hot dip and I followed them with the haddock and chips. Mike started with the mussels and has reliably informed me they were “cracking”. All very good food and reasonably priced to boot.
That night it was still light at 10 o’ clock and we were treated to a fantastic sunset over the Skye bridge. Unfortunately the stillness brought a hoard of midges so we soon retreated for the night.
Waving goodbye to Skye, we headed back over the bridge, taking a left turn marked for Gairloch. It’s a lovely wee place with plenty of history but it was to be a short stop this time round as we had followed signs to a castle ruin en-route which had eaten into a chunk of our riding time (although worth every minute).
A small climb down and back up brings you to the remains for what was probably a mighty Strome castle in it’s day. Now all that is left is a beautiful view over some moored boats.
I started to realise during day two what it meant to own a sports-tourer. While Mike was enjoying a very comfy ride on his Beemer, I was started to get pain in my shoulders and wrists. Not massive pain, but aches that I could have lived without.
Ullapool was our lunch destination and also a much needed fuel stop. While filling up, another biker pulled in and started to gesture like we knew him. Turns out it was a biker we know from the Dundee Bikers Forum. Small world!
We ate at a wee place called The Ferry Boat Inn which serves great quality pub grub. My burger and chips were spot on and Mike thoroughly enjoyed a plate of mac cheese. We only chose the place so we could part out front and keep an eye on our luggage but it worked out nicely!
It was also at this point that we realised the rain was chasing us through the valleys and had almost caught up. I started to hunt for the waterproof covers for my soft pack luggage and for the first time had to go through the hassle of fitting them. The top box cover was WAY too big and i ended up using a spare bungee cord around it to keep it from flapping about in the wind.
The Oxford panniers were the biggest pain. The covers just aren’t shaped correctly nor are they big enough to do the job effectively. So much so that within two miles of leaving Ullapool, Mike had to stop to pick one up that had flown off of my bike. Ironically, the cheap tank bag that I bought years ago from Lidl is still the best piece of luggage I own, and it was a quarter of the price of the rest!
We managed to stay clear of most of the wet stuff for a while and came out of the hills higher than expected and looking down over a huge area of sea, leading onto a large refuelling station we presume is for navy vessels. Unfortunately the rain soon caught up with us and we were riding on some lovely roads in less-than-dry condition. Even so, it didn’t prevent a stop at a bridge that seems so out of place due to the location and its size. Kylesku is located where Loch Glencoul and Loch Gleann Dubh join to form a sea passage Loch a’ Chàirn Bhàin which links to Eddrachillis Bay.
After quite a lot of miles on two lane carriageways it was a bit of a shock to be back on single track lanes with passing places. It was here, not that far from our destination of Durness that we stumbled upon a great waterfall. It was a bit of a clamber through a peat bog to get there and fatigue was starting to set in, but what a sight!
We were tired, weary and more than ready to stop for the day when we trundled into Durness. The Lazy Crofter Bunkhouse was to be our bed for the night. Little did we know how “tiny” the tiny room actually was – no larger than a quarter more of the bunk beds we slept in.
There was no chance of taking off your gear in the room and even less chance of making it to the top bunk once all the luggage had been offloaded.
That said, the facilities were well maintained (except for the fact that neither of our bed lights actually worked), the shower was hot and the common room well equipped with leather sofas.
After asking around, a Canadian staying in the bunkhouse recommended a restaurant/pub just down the road called Sango Sands. It was a large building and was obviously there to cater for the campsite next door. Dinner didn’t start until 18.30 so we had a seat in the bar but had to make a quick dash for the restaurant when we saw how quickly it was filling. I’ve never seen so many people turned away in the space of an hour!
Mike and I both had sirloin steak (cooked medium) which melted in the mouth and came with decent chips. It wasbadly let down by the token gesture vegetables that had obviously been sitting in a vat of water all day and spooned onto plates as necessary. A plate of food is only as good as the worst component – LOSE THE CRAP VEG!
Mike and I hit the beach after dinner with the tripods and cameras and waited for the sun to go down. It was a long sunset, changing constantly and outlasting the only battery that I took along with me. The large rock formations on the beach coupled with the huge breaking waves also made for unlimited shooting opportunities.
On Sunday morning we left Durness and headed into the hills on yet more single track roads – not overly surprising as Durness advertises itself as one of the few remaining locations that you can only reach by such means. There was very little traffic to contend with and we found ourselves in bright sunshine, enjoying the scenery at a very leisurely riding speed. At this stage I decided to have a little play with mounting my (very expensive) camera from the rear of the left pannier in order to capture some images of Mike on his steed. This worked out very well but my heart was in my mouth for the few minutes it took to capture the pictures. Visions of a bad bounce and bits of camera all over the tarmac filled my head!
With the camera safely back in the tank bag, we made our way along the north coast. What we didn’t realise is this meant we were also leaving the beautiful landscape behind and ended up staring at our incredibly dull flat surroundings from some equally dull straight roads.
Thurso became purely a fuel stop and it was nice to see the fuel prices starting to drop to reasonable prices once again. Durness had been an entire 10p more per litre than anywhere else in the country. This led us nicely onto the most northern point of mainland Britain – Dunnet Head.
We were greeted in the car park (after a long journey along a VERY busy one-track lane) with the sight of the large lighthouse tower and a hoard of tourists. We had heard reports of Puffins nesting off the cliffs here from a lovely German biker couple earlier in the day but I never saw any birds close up. Maybe our European friends had been carrying binoculars?
John O’ Groats is one of these places that everybody feels the need to visit when they are that far north. It was our next stop but I won’t be returning. It’s a tat-filled tourist trap with very little to offer anyone. The long-closed and abandoned hotel which overlooks the whole site projects a feeling of scabbyness over everything else.
At this point, 230 miles from home, the roads became a blur of dullness. Long, straight and un-interesting with no scenery nor even a want to get my camera out of the bag. We stayed in Helmsdale for our last night at the wonderful Kindale B&B. The decision had been made early on to use a B&B at the end of the trip for a good night’s sleep plus a nice filling breakfast to see us home. It was exactly the right thing to do! The perfectly cooked sausage, egg, mushrooms etc. all hit the spot and set us up for what was to be an incredibly wet ride back to Perth.
The only sensible route home was straight down the A9 as the heavens had opened and were taking no prisoners. Luckily I had invested in a full rainproof suit from Ebay for just ten pounds (worth about £60 when I looked it up) and it was just the job. My neck cover let the side down by allowing water to soak in and down to my chest but apart from that, I was bone dry.
We made good progress down the A9 and found ourselves home by lunchtime. Day four feeling like a bit of a cop out but in all honesty we just needed to get home, see our families, and put our feet up.
Overall the long weekend’s touring was a great success and I look forward to our next trip. If you are thinking about touring but haven’t tried it yet, just go! It’s everything you think it is and worth every minute.