The Better Half of the North Coast 500

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Cycling touring is like an incessant itch that is only saited when doing the following: cycling touring, reminiscing about cycle touring or planning the next cycle tour. After my 2016 debut, I was eager to get back on the road, but where to next? I was tempted to trade neeps, tatties and rain for the mountains and vineyards of the Italian countryside, but long haul work trips were laying heavily on my carbon conscience like a stomach full of carbonara. So I vowed to remain loyal to the steady, sturdy Scottish hills.

But still, there are endless beautiful and wild places to explore in Scotland. Would I go to Orkney and Shetland? Would I explore the Cairngorms and the east? Both beautiful places, but my internal compass was feverishly pointing North and West. So what better route than the north coast 500? A 500-mile coastal loop starting and finishing in Inverness and taking in the best wilderness landscapes in the U.K. I mean it’s mostly advertised for cars and motorbikes, but why should they have all the fun? Shifting from car to bike is like upgrading to a 4D cinema, you become intimately part of the landscape rather than watching it go by. You travel slower, see more and feel more. Oh, how I couldn’t wait to be back on my bicycle!

I booked two weeks off work and began to plan my adventure. There are few things more satisfying than pouring over a map with a hot cup of tea and dreaming of all the places your wheels may take you. Achnasheen, Achmelvich, Achiltibuie; place names I couldn’t pronounce, not even with popcorn stuck in my throat. I would also be passing some of Scotland’s most iconic hills: Slioch; An Teallach; Liathach. Some more popcorn, please? Did I really want to spend days fending off traffic on the A9 only to fly past these magnificent mountains? Just for the satisfaction of doing the ‘approved’ loop and a nice round number of miles to impress people with? Absolutely not. And so the better half of the NC500 was born, a hike and bike trip starting in Inverness, finishing in Durness, and sticking to the West coast. After all, anyone who knows Scotland knows West is best.

An important part of the preparation phase of any expedition is not to fall into the dangerous trap of over-planning. Often the swirling giant of anxiety collides with the black hole of adventure consumerism ending in a cataclysmic bank balance and no escape from the rigidity you sought to escape. I decided to camp this time, so the luxury of freedom would be balanced out by heavy panniers; the gravitational pull of the black hole ever stronger. It is amazing what you (or more likely the very charming man from Tiso) can convince you that you absolutely need to take with you on your great expedition. I mean you definitely can’t get up those hills on regular glucose; these overpriced electrolyte balanced energy gels are absolutely essential. All the real cyclists use them.

I did invest in some lightweight trail runners so I didn’t have to schlep my massive hiking boots around, but luckily umpteen other ‘essential’ items stayed on the shelf. Now to fit everything in my panniers. Ideally, you should do this more than 15 minutes before your train leaves. I’ve heard rumours of cyclists who have weighing scales and spreadsheets and a tremendous process of triage. A bit more sophisticated than my ‘make a big pile of everything on the floor and hope for the best’ approach. When this fails, attach everything that won’t fit precariously onto the outside and pray it doesn’t fall off while you pedal frantically for the train, trying not to mow down unassuming pedestrians or parked cars.

Made it! Only just. Once on the train, I have to take everything off my bike again, causing much kerfuffle. But as I sit in my seat and watch the city fade away, my heartbeat slows and I settle in. I am on the doorstep mile. I have mustered the disproportionate amount of energy it takes to overcome the safety and inertia of home and take the first stroke on my big adventure. I have begun. Everything will be easier from here on in.

I mean, in theory. I always find the first couple of days of any trip hard. Everything is new and unfamiliar and of course, you massively overestimate how much you can achieve in a day. I only manage 10 gruelling, wobbly miles before it gets dark. How on earth am I going to manage 60 with all this weight? Why didn’t I train more? Who am I kidding… Why didn’t I train at all?

I assumed it would be easy to find a place to camp but either side of the road is thick with plantation forest or farmland. Balls. There’s a car park – will that do? Or should I carry on? Will I find somewhere better or will I waste time fumbling around in the dark and backtracking? Where can I find water? Oh, so many decisions, so much uncertainty. Let’s keep going, 10 more minutes. A trail leading to a waterfall – great! I whiz down it in the hope of finding somewhere flat only to have to push my way back up the steep rough ground. My bike falls over three times, the chainring scratching my leg and luggage spilling back down the hill. Back to the car park. This will have to do. As soon as I stop the midges set in. I sleep badly, dreaming of drunken drivers showing up and falling into my tent. In the morning I’m grouchy and itchy, there’s a slug in my porridge, and I somehow have to quadruple the impossible distance of the day before.

I get on the road early. By lunchtime I’ve got 25 miles under my belt and the dangerous teetering has stabilised into a steady trudge. I encourage myself on with a snack every 5 miles, kidding myself I’m making the bike lighter in the process. To my surprise and delight, I make it to my planned destination by 4pm! Hurrah! Maybe I will be able to do this? I stop here because soon the road climbs to the Bealach Na Ba, a steep hairpin climb into a crevasse between two solid lumps of sandstone. Famed amongst cyclists, it’s the road with the greatest elevation gain in the UK, from sea level to 2053 feet. The ‘where to camp?’ dance begins again.

I find a beautiful bay with a beautiful view and a beautifully flat patch of grass. No car parks insight. I pitch my tent and wash away the day’s sweaty achievements in the salty shadow of the Bealach. I am happily warming up in my sleeping bag contemplating what to have for dinner when I hear yelling. Uh oh. Have I camped somewhere I shouldn’t? Is it an angry landowner telling me to clear off? I step out of my tent… SPLASH! I am surrounded by water! I look up the shore and see the seaweed-strewn high tide mark. Doh! What a plonker. I quickly pull on more clothes, pull out the pegs, and drag my tent and all its contents up the shore. I thank the man who yelled and he laughs. Who knew grass could grow underwater eh? Some ecologist adventurer I am. I look around listlessly but it’s all rocks and shrubs, nowhere to pitch. Back to square one.

Such are the teething trials and tribulations of the doorstep mile. Luckily, the universe is a kind one that rewards people who dare to risk looking like fools. A woman living across the bay sees my predicament and offers me her lawn to sleep on. I’m welcome to fill up my water bottles and use the bathroom, and would I like to dry my wet clothes and have a hot cup of tea? In actual fact, she just made some sticky toffee pudding which is still hot…

And so I spend the evening sharing life stories with my new friend Prudy, marvelling at the magic of the kindness still alive in the world. She is a retired nurse and moved up here when her father died to take care of the garden and the family home. She is kind and gentle and gravely concerned about my plans to cycle up the Bealach. It’s too steep and too dangerous. Cars come flying around those bends at top speed and with all that weight? Impossible. I should definitely go the other way around – it’s much more gentle. She will be awfully worried about me otherwise.

I go to bed with my belly full of warmth but a cold ache in my chest. Prudy was probably right, it was probably really silly to think I could cycle the Bealach. I didn’t want my trip to end in a car crash, and it would be a really embarrassing waste of time if I didn’t make it. I came here on holiday, not on some macho mission to prove myself to no one. Yes, I should go the long way around.

But then I heard the voice of Al Humphries in my head – the regular guy who cycled around the world, who inspired me into this whole biking thing and who I sheepishly named my bike after. He was told numerous times that what he was doing was too stupid, too dangerous, too far, too steep and he would no doubt fail. But when he asked these fearmongers whether they’ve actually been to these places they’re so knowledgeably chastising? Of course not.

Prudy knew this road, lived this road, but she wasn’t a cyclist. Despite my lack of confidence, I suspected our athletic abilities differed somewhat. I cycle safely; yelling around corners and occupying the middle of the road, endlessly pissing people off but preventing dangerous overtaking and letting cars pass in the right places. If worse comes to worst I could just turn around, right? I came here on holiday, yes, but also to see whether I was ready to venture into bigger mountains and across country borders. I certainly wasn’t going to make it anywhere if I didn’t even try.

So, I resolved to take on the Bealach. I thank Prudy for all of her hospitality and ask for her number to let her know when (using some positive psychology on myself) I make it to the other side. The first 2 hours are easy, gently climbing around the hillside. I chuckle at Prudy’s claims and at the fact I nearly didn’t come this way. A passing car slows and jokes about how I’ve got hills to come. Oh, how he was was right! The road gets steeper and steeper, to the point where sometimes I don’t have enough time between strokes to unclip my shoes from the pedals and come to crashing stop. I change my shoes to one clip-in and one normal to save my cut-up knees. To my surprise, the drivers are slow, careful and jovial in spirit. They cheer me on with applause and pedalling gestures as I crawl around corners, panting heavily. One guy even winds down his window to give me a high five! (Miraculously, I reciprocate without falling off my bike again).

Lots of cars, but I see no other cyclists. Maybe I really am crazy to be attempting this? Before long I need to stop at every passing place. The fuel from breakfast long gone, my thighs turn to jelly, my face is dripping like a beetroot and my lungs burn like searing steaks. The hairpins are still in the far distance. The crevasse smiles down at me smugly. Why didn’t I buy those god damn energy gels?! I throw my bike down in a huff. Who did I think I was? I obviously couldn’t cycle up this stupid hill. I obviously wasn’t adventurer material. I was never going to cycle across continents. I wanted to cry and go home.

Luckily, I know far too well the strop I can throw when all I need is a little sustenance. All I have is stale naan bread and a few jelly beans, but I devour my feast like its a fine banquet and give myself a pep talk. I make myself a deal. All you have to do is make it to the next passing place. That’s only like 200m. You can totally cycle 200m. Make it to there, then we can talk. I make it to 5 more passing places with these tactics before I have to get off and push, defeated. I am so not a cyclist. But I will make it up this hill, cycling or not.

Then I hear something behind me, a new sound. Not a car; less engine. Not a bird; less graceful. Another cyclist!! And not just any cyclist, but that rare breed of female cyclist! She is powering up the section that just defeated me. She has less kit, sure, but she’s doing it! If she can do it, just maybe… I could do it too?! I cheer her on as she crawls past and we exchange excitement about cake on the other side.
“See you at the top” she shouts in her wake.
“If I make it…”
“You will!”

I will?

With a newfound enthusiasm in my quads, I will myself on. If only I’d known during my little strop that I was at the steepest section and after that, it would get easier. Head down, legs pumping, I creep up the bealach. I make it to the hairpins. One corner at a time. Slowly, imperceptibly, I deceive and defy the mountain. I spy a couple more cyclists, playing power tunes to keep the wheels turning (wild Mary keep on burning). The horizon blossoms into spectacular rewards. Corrie, as I discover my saviour is called, is waiting to whoop and cheer for the final struggle. Soon we are all at the top sharing snacks and stories from the road and enjoying views out to Skye and the Atlantic Ocean. Not only was I a cyclist, but I was in a gang of cyclists, a gaggle of cyclists. The kind of cyclists who brave the Bealach and do not turn back.

Then comes the descent. A hair-raising, wrist-aching, adrenaline-spitting ride. No room for fear, only focus. Pure unadulterated attention on the road. Reel of wheels, screech of brakes. Glide of gravity. Bike and body becoming one. All thoughts left behind in the slipstream. And at the bottom? Cake, just as promised.

On google maps, the remaining 30 miles looks like a pleasant, ambling coastal route in comparison to the profile of the Bealach. It is, in fact, a relentless rollercoaster; climb, swirl, dive, climb, and again, and again. The midges descend whenever I try to stop and refuel. I am totally spent. An arrogant driver in his arrogant automobile says ‘it’s all downhill from here’ when in actual fact there are at least another 5 hills. I am about to quit again when out of nowhere, my saviour appears once again. She still has another 20 miles to do, making my 8 seem all the more manageable. And so, we ride to Torridon together.

I am out of food and so unbelievably excited for a hot stodgy meal. But this being rural Scotland, the only place open is 5 miles back up the massive hill I’d just come down. Typical. No way am I going back up there. The youth hostel sells me a tin of rice pudding and a mars bar. I get back to my tent only to realise I don’t have a tin opener. I approach the rough-looking guys camping next to me and ask them to help. One proudly displays a manly looking pen knife, though it quickly becomes apparent that he has no idea how to use it. In a satisfying reversal of gender roles I take over, whilst his friend teases and jaunts. Finally, I eat my rewards of the day; cold and straight from the tin. Still, I feel like queen of the mountain; sitting on her throne of rock, eating from her vessel of victory, in the breezy, midge-less evening air.

So, what do you do from your days off from cycling long distances? Climb some of the most difficult Munros in Scotland of course! This idea seemed great when I was planning on my sofa at home, but yesterday’s work combined with the pelting rain makes it seem less than ideal. Plus the only shop doesn’t open until 11am and I desperately need food. So instead I spend the day delighting in scones, clotted cream and fresh vegetables. Oh, how you miss fresh produce on tour and crave anything and everything calorific! Peanut butter, porridge, pasta, potatoes. Cake, crisps, Coca Cola, custard. That night I watch the sunset and eat a serving of gnocchi recommended for 4.

The next morning is torrential. I get 60 midge bites in the 7 seconds it takes me to get in and out of the tent. My bike insists on falling over as I try to wrestle the too-small rain cover over the too-full panniers. Everything gets soaked. I have deeply personified the only company I’ve had for the past week and I swear he’s doing it on purpose. He’s having a toddler tantrum with me: I don’t want to cycle 60 miles in the rain, I won’t do it, you can’t make me do it!!! Eventually, we set off and plough through the first 30 miles without so much as a break for water. After that, the rain eases a little, and guys I met the night before during the tin opener incident drive past. They stop to say hello, feed me snacks, and tell me how much of a badass I am. A much-needed ego-boost for the afternoon slaughter.

My next stop is the foot of the An Teallach ridge. I treat myself to a hostel for a couple of nights so I can shower, wash my clothes and have a much-deserved rest. I meet a couple from New Zealand who are planning to walk the ridge the next day with a group of friends, and they invite me to join them. Given the low-grade scrambling, lack of phone signal and hardly speaking to another human in the last week, the company is a welcome offer. My thighs have built up a nice reserve of lactic acid and every step burns my clumsy and petulant legs. To everyone’s surprise, Neil proposes on the mountain and the evening becomes a raucous celebratory engagement party. I suffer from extreme food envy as they cook up a delicious feast that makes my plain pasta and look rather pitiful. Happily, they meet my hungry eyes and appetite with extreme generosity and we play card games into the small hours, drinking chilled Buckfast as if it were fine wine.

My day off coincides with raging thunderstorms accompanied by a raging hangover. I indulge endlessly in the glory of being horizontal. I am excited to get back on the road though because my family friend says the next section from Ullapool to Lochinver is the best he’s cycled. And he has cycled a LOT of roads. It doesn’t disappoint. Singletrack winding around coastal outcrops that fall off into the sea. Mossy meadows meandering around gentle streams. My legs now fully adjusted to their new role, it’s a satisfying climb up to the big reveal of the hills of Sutherland. The geology here is so bizarre; Lewisian Gneiss smushed and flattened almost since the beginning of time itself, juxtaposed with rude protrusions of Torridonian sandstone. They stand tall, unwavering and unapologetic against 500 million years of sunshine and storms.

Under recommendation from anyone and everyone who has been to this region, I make a detour to Sandwood bay. It can only be reached on foot, so I lock up my bike and load the things I need for the night onto my back. As I crest the bleak moorland, I’m met with the most astonishing surprise; staggering cliffs with teetering stacks, waves perfectly cresting and crashing, the roll of white sand dunes and the lagoon lapping at their feet. How can this huge gem be so hidden in the peat bog? A rare treasure rewarded only to those willing to leave the comfort of 4 wheels. It takes me back to childhood summers camping on an island off the Welsh coast, toasting marshmallows and collecting shells. I feel nostalgic, melancholy. Tomorrow is my last day. I only have 30 miles of this journey left to savour. I watch darkness descend as the day-blind stars begin to shine. I listen to the crash of wave on rock. The rock can take it all; the sea, the sounds, my secrets. I feel held, safe in this cove of wonder.

I reflect on my journey. I set out as a fearful, fretting beginner; always adding judgement to mistake and never feeling ‘enough’. Not a cyclist, not an ecologist, and definitely not an adventurer. In just 2 weeks I had become stronger, more confident. All the worries of ordinary existence had got left behind somewhere around Torridon and they were no longer flitting around my mind like parasites on speed. All the spaciousness of the landscape was now reflected within; an inner distance between thought and observer. I could see my self-talk for what it was; insidious bullshit. I had become more comfortable outside of walls than within them, including the walls we build around ourselves, labels like ‘adventurer’ and ‘cyclist’.

We are all so much more than that. But until you face your own Bealach, how can you possibly know?

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