I love AirBnB. This is the 5th or 6th time I’ve used this service for accommodation, and I’ve not been disappointed yet. Ian “Ancient Mariner” Cameron, my host is proudly Scottish, and keen to give his guests both a great, and uniquely Scottish experience.
So it was that I left about an hour later than I stated I wanted to, and 2 hours after my ideal departure time. 9 am. I’m going to be pushing to get to John O’Groats by 11 in time for the Lion’s v Wallabies rugby match.
Last night Ian and I discussed route options, of which there are essentially two. Head straight up the middle through Lairg, Tongue, and Thurso; or up the east coast via Golspie and Wick. The latter is quicker, but then motorbike touring is almost never about quicker. If I wanted to arrive at a destination without viscerally experiencing the sights, sounds, smells, and forces of the journey, I’d be in a car. Or an aeroplane. No, bike touring is about enjoying every element of the ride, the destinations are just a contextual bonus. So up the middle it is, and schedule be damned.
A quick top up highlights a disappointing change in the UK. Garages no longer have that bucket of soapy water to wash your windscreen. Instead you have to go around to the side and pay a pound for 80 seconds of soapy water from a machine. There’s no squeegy (feel free to buy one inside for 5 quid) or paper. Whatever happened to local hospitality and kindness? To add insult to injury, this change happened so long ago that the young attendant inside the garage didn’t know what I was talking about, she simply had no memory of that kind of service. What is the world, even the rural small town world, coming to?
Up the A9 with a quick left onto the B2196 towards Lairg. Wow. If I thought the A9 was a great road yesterday, this road makes it look like a boring motorway. For one thing I may as well be the only person on the planet. I think there’s a confidence that is indirectly proportional to other cars on the road. So in a city, and on a motorway, so much of your awareness is about the other vehicles on the road. What are they going to do, and how to be out of the way when they do it. The less cars, the more you can immerse yourself in the environment of the ride. Every curve, bump, leaf, gust of wind. You become one with the environment, in the moment, and there is no more exhilarating experience. Flow. So it was on this road.
The single carriageway (and occasionally single track) winds through ancient highlands forests, over stone bridges, alongside sparkling streams, and through tiny granite hamlets. It’s exactly what I expected and was hoping for, in thrilling high definition.
Ian suggested I stopped at the “Falls of Shin” that is a set of rapids in the Shin River famous for jumping salmon. The tourist attraction is actually closed at the moment as they repair the effects of a fire, but you can still head down the stairs to the actual falls.
The photos and video I take simply don’t do it justice. You have to be there, smelling the wet peat and summer flowers, feeling the chill of the wind, and seeing the dappled shadows over the water under the bruised sky. It is simultaneously inspiring and melancholy. I’ve rarely wanted to share an experience as strongly as I do this instant.
I also need to pee. Badly. The after effects of mugs of tea with my full Scottish breakfast. An hour on the bike, and the rushing water only contribute to discomfort. But between jeans and long johns (hey it is 11oC) I have to effectively drop my daks to relieve myself, and closed attraction or not, even I can’t bring myself to such exposure.
I push on alongside the Shin River to Lairg, passing a couple of oncoming cars with fishing rods (good thing I didn’t take that pee). For once I wish I had my helmet cam. Around every corner is another spectacular shot, and I’m conflicted between giving in to my photographic bug, or actually pushing on.
Whilst the ride is about the experience, I do have the better part of 400 miles (640 kms) to do today, mostly on back roads. I am glad that I took the time to duck off the main road down to the Falls, thanks Ian.