To The Top–Part Two: The Highland Moors

From Lairg I head north on the A836 to Tongue. The road is mostly single track with occasional passing laybys. For much of the time you can see a long way ahead, so I open up the bike. It is riding at its best. Smooth tar for miles at a time, that winds through desolate countryside down dales and up hills, always back-dropped with awe inspiring views.

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The traffic starts building though, tourist campervans, local farm traffic, and the odd adventure bike. The latter always take the time to nod, wave, or flash their lights. Greeting according to their local multinational custom. I love motor-biking, and the friendly community it creates, everywhere in the world. Here I am in the wilds of Scotland, and total strangers are greeting me with an affinity borne of shared experience. You simply don’t get that in a car. Ever.

The traffic slows down my ride somewhat. It’s tear along at (cough) breakneck speeds, round a corner and pull over to a stop, or crawl along until you can pass the next clump of cars. Then stop totally to take photos, and desperately try to get gloves on and going again before previously overtaken motorhomes rumble past. I can picture the parents with adenoids sagely pointing out to their kids about the folly of rushing when you’re just going to be overtaken at your next stop anyway.

I just smile to myself, and open up the 98 bhp V4 1300. This is living.

IMG_1091Just north of Tongue, in Torresdale , I find the Bettyhill Hotel, where finally I can relieve myself. Aah, bliss. Now close to 11, it’s unlikely that I’m going to make J O’G in time for the kick-off, but I might make it for second half.

The temperature is up. Registering at 20oC, I’m beginning to feel a little warm under all my layers. Given I take my jacket off for the toilet stop, I consider removing my fleece for the next couple of hours. I decide against it. After all, I’m not exactly hot, and can probably handle another couple of degrees.

Righto, next stop Thurso and John O’Groats.

To The Top–Part One: The Falls of Shin

IMG_1035I 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.

IMG_3949A 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.

IMG_3951The 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.

IMG_1051I 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.

And I Would Walk 500 miles…

ToDingwall…Just to be the man.

What a day. To say I’m cream crackered is to understate things somewhat. All up I’ve come 579 miles, er that’s 931 kms on the Honda today. Through inner cities, congestion, driving rain, and spectacular scenery.

I break the last stretch from the Lanark Services to Dingwall into 1 hour chunks, interspersed with a short 10 minute break. The ride though is the best of the day, and worth the first 8 hours up the motorway. The A9 is a spectacular road in great repair, that winds through the highlands, resplendent with broken cloud delivering “godlight” onto fields resplendent with heather.

ToDingwallCUThe road, as you’d expect, is somewhat slower here. This is not helped by the amount of traffic distributed across a mostly single carriageway. There is nothing to do but to overtake, which requires concentration, and at this end of the trip is pretty taxing.

Still once you get away from the traffic, these are among the best roads I’ve ever ridden. Definitely better than the Oxley, and arguably better than the Shasta’s run along the Trinity River.

Of course, by the time I get to Dingwall my phone battery is dead. There’s no signal to get to my Tripit or AirBnb apps on the iPad, and I’ve forgotten the address. Still, how many people can there be in Dingwall. Right?

Here’s a short video I took at a brief stop in a glen in Aviemore.

As it turns out, enough to get hopelessly lost, but not enough for a local to be able to direct me.

Ian is wonderful. The perfect host, he even offered to give me his meal, and directed me to Mr Fish (guess what they sell) where I got that archetypal Fish and Chips that the UK is known for. This is all washed down with a Scottish Brown Ale, and “wee dram” Hot smile

Can I say that that bed in my room is looking particularly inviting right now.

Here’s the full trip I rode today.

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Tomorrow we push to the top. Don’t forget to follow me in real time at http://rog42.tv/map-13 or by clicking the “In Space” link on the menu above.

Night all.

Some Hae Meat

“Some hae meat, but canna eat,
And some wud eat that want it.
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And say the Lord be thankit.”

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I’ve made it to Scotland, and the end is in sight. At least figuratively.

I decide not to push through to Glasgow, given the time, but rather to take a much needed break, fill up on food, and recharge the batteries. We’ve at the Lanark Service Station on the M74, finally in bonnie Scotland.

This last stretch has been the best yet. Again the weather is alternatively morose and awful, but that’s made up for by the roads, and once I crossed the border, the views. This place is spectacular. Finally the motorway has given up it’s industrial surroundings and straight aspect. We now wind through gorgeous valleys, almost perfect riding. Occasionally blue sky breaks through, and the one time the sun broke through I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. The wild flowers burst out in colour, and the stark contrast of the sullen clouds above the green hills was to die for.

The one thing I did forget was to put my ear plugs in. Another reason to shorten this leg. I won’t forget that again in a hurry I can tell you. The wind roar is deafening. It doesn’t help that we’re fighting about a 30mph cross-wind either. All part of the experience.

Things I love about the UK:

  • Home made Beef & Locally Brewed Ale Pie with chips and peas
  • Mugs. Real man sized mugs, with strong, hot tea
  • Free wi-fi
  • Dales. Dales with sheep (woolly pigs?)
  • Double Back Bacon
  • Pork Sausages
  • Some of the best friends a man can have

Loving this ride. Currently charging the phone, so you’ll have to wait until the next post for up-to-date photos.

Righto, just done a Google maps and allegedly I have another 3 hrs 40 riding ahead. Better get a shufty on.