We’d enjoyed being island explorers for a couple of weeks, but back on the mainland, we were ready to continue our journey. Our next destination was Torridon, and the drive up from Kyle of Lochalsh brought us for the first time onto the famous NC500 route. As the road twisted and turned through the Torridon hills, we marvelled at this incredibly unique landscape – and wondered why it doesn’t seem to attract the same number of visitors as areas like Glencoe. The area boasts some of the most stunning hill views either of us had ever seen. The distinctive ridges and shelves of the mountains are made of some of the oldest rocks in the entire world – Lewisian Gneiss can be around 300 million years old. Whilst in the area, we spoke to a few residents who seemed pretty proud of the fact they lived in one of the oldest places on Earth. We spent a peaceful night camped by Upper Loch Torridon, listening out for owls in the nearby woods.
The next morning we pressed on towards Gairloch. When planning our trip around Scotland, we’d been keen to do as much on a shoestring budget as possible. One thing we had wanted to treat ourselves to, however, was a whale watching trip, and our research had tipped Gairloch as one of the best places to try this. We looked at the different companies who offer boat trips, and decided to book with Marine Wildlife Centre Cruises, as they work with the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust to preserve and monitor numbers of local wildlife. We tooled up with all our warmth layers and waterproofs, and excitedly stepped aboard the tiny boat. Our skipper was a very knowledgeable chap who sounded like he was from Lancashire, and he kept us entertained and informed about what we’d have a chance of seeing. Porpoises, dolphins, otters, even minke whales are among the animals frequently spotted in the area. Sadly, on our two hour trip, he was forced to admit that we’d had rotten luck…we saw none of the above, only some lazy seals sleeping on rocks, and a great skua interested in our boat. Although that was pretty cool, we had to admit we were a little disappointed at not seeing any animals with fins. But, as with trying to catch a glimpse of any wildlife, you can’t guarantee any results. So we went into a local cafe to warm up and sample some home made cake as a consolation prize. We rejoined the scenic NC500 route and headed north, spending the night camped up not far from Ullapool.
From there, we ventured to Lochinver and the Assynt area, a place that had been recommended to us by some fellow vanlifers. What an amazing spot! We enjoyed one of the most scenic drives we’d seen on our trip to the famous Kylesku hotel. Here we had a real treat – a delicious evening meal featuring locally hand-dived scallops, something Chlo had been really keen to try during our time in the Highlands. As we left to head back to Lochinver, we were greeted by a truly beautiful sunset and the sight of dozens of red deer grazing by the side of the road. It was a picturesque scene, and we felt so lucky to be there. The following day we decided to take advantage of the morning sunshine and go for a walk in the area, following the river Inver through to the Glencanisp circuit. This brought us wonderful views of Suilven – a bizarre loaf-shaped hill which sticks out head and tails over the landscape.
Before we settled in for another night in Lochinver, we went to try a local delicacy which we’d been reliably informed was not to be missed. The Lochinver Larder has a pretty extensive cafe menu, but they’re really famous for their pies. Prue had a steak and ale, and Chlo had a chicken, ham, and cranberry. They were not cheap, but they were really, really good. We both agreed, the best pies we could remember having anywhere. In the morning, for miles and miles as we drove out of the Assynt area, the views were jutting peaks and twisted, gnarled trees, all surrounded by the brown of heather and peat bog. It wouldn’t have looked out of place to see pterodactyls soaring above us, or a huge brontosaurus stomping around – it was truly obvious we were in a prehistoric place.
We pressed on to Durness, our first taste of the north coast. Admittedly, we weren’t really sure what we’d find there, but an organic chocolate factory was an unexpected pleasant surprise in the small village. We absolutely took advantage of their heavily discounted leftover Easter chocolate, then headed to a great spot next to the sandy Balnakiel bay to camp for the night. As we followed the A838 along the coast the next day, we passed so many signs reminding drivers of the remaining miles to go until John o’ Groats. It was obvious that we were on the “home stretch” of a route which, for many, is all about getting to this famous finishline. And on that day, perhaps, that’s what it was for us as well.
The landscape had changed again, losing a great deal of the drama of the west coast and looking more like farmland. The only giveaway to the fact we were on the far edge of mainland UK was the occasional glimpse of a sea cliff, the fields seeming to fall straight into the ocean. The road had widened and flattened, and we pressed on. But we had a stop to get to before John o’Groats, which for us was more significant. Dunnet Head is the most northerly point on the UK’s mainland, and we both wanted to get there. It was the furthest we could get from Brighton without getting on a boat, or leaving the country. We struggled against gale force winds to get up to the point, and admittedly, we didn’t stay long. But from there, we joked, it was all downhill. We’d spent the last seven weeks in our tiny van travelling (more or less) north, and now, we could go no further without a ferry crossing. It was a milestone in our trip, but of course, not the end. We found some woods a small distance inland, somewhat sheltered from the strong Atlantic winds, and had a peaceful night’s sleep. The following day, we continued to John o’Groats, and waited with other tourists to take our obligatory picture with the famous sign. Our next destination was Inverness, to meet up with our good friend Trickey who’d made the massive journey up from Brighton to see us. So for the first time in months, we headed south.