North Coast 500 tour – Days 14-16

18th May (day 14)
I’m writing this in the Kinlochewe Hotel (great meals) 3 days later as there has been no internet to speak of on the west coast. Speed is slow as everyone in the hotel is probably using the same free (secure) wi-fi so I’ll upload most of the photos at a later date.
Resuming our journey we left Tarbet early at 8:30am (early for us) by which time 2 vehicles were already parking up for the first boat to Handa Island. Now we truly are on the West side of Scotland – the views just keep flowing into the eyes and on into the memory. The problem is the memory banks just can’t keep up, our brains need some faster processors and more RAM – if only!
We eventually drove past our original wild camp destination and we were not disappointed that we had stayed in Tarbet. A little en-route side step into Lochinver found us spending money at the Scottish Stoneware Pottery. A rather incongruous site greeted us, a car covered in pottery mosaic with a wild (more like tame) deer scoffing on the local foliage.

Not sure this would fit in Hilma

Getting to Lochinver was an interesting experience – the road via Drumbeg was narrow, nothing new there, but this road was very narrow and very steep, in places marked as 25%. Hilma handled them hills like a good ‘un, her clutch (not crutch) smelt a bit hot when we arrived at Drumbeg for the obligatory ice cream stop. After our ice cream my nerves had been restored to something like normal and off we shot for some more visual indigestion.
From Lochinver returning to the main route the road runs alongside Loch Assynt and it feels like one is in a truly wild place (‘feels like’ is the wrong description – you ARE in a truly wild place) – a huge glen carved out from the ice age – truly humbling.
Having been on the road (some of which was quite testing) for a few hours now it was time to find our next wild camp spot – yes folks – we are getting the bug for loneliness (sad old geysers that we are). We thought we liked small CL site (5 vans max), actually we still do but wild camping is something new to us, very different, the solitude and peace steeps into your pores and we are loving it. Not sure how many places in England you can do this with such ease. The Coigach peninsula looked inviting so we went off piste, turned at Drumrunie, drove 3 miles and found a loch side stop. (N58.01 324, W.5.10 158) looking up at Stac Pollaidh 2 miles away – all alone again, happy we were.

Our parking spot

Scotland or Hawaii?

The road actually turned out to be busy, when I say busy I don’t mean London busy I mean Scotland single track road busy. It is the only road on and off the peninsula but all quietened down by the evening and the last vehicle passed by about 9:00pm.
Time here has a different feeling, how can time have a ‘feeling’? The only way to describe it is by linking it to the daylight – 9:00pm here is like 7:00pm at home – really, when we drop the bed down at 10:30 – 11:00pm you could still read a book outside.

19th May (day 15)
We only travelled 10 miles today! Continuing along the road to Altandhu we passed 4 lochs – plenty of wild camping spots along this road (at least 8 but I reckon we had the best last night – see photos) which eventually reaches a T junction at Enard Bay. Turn left or right and it brings you back in a large loop – we turned right and found ourselves a few minutes later looking out at the Summer Isles. We put our feet down for the night at a campsite (no bookings) – excellent facilities but a tad busy. The reason it was so busy would become obvious to us tomorrow. This peninsula is definitely somewhere we will re-visit at a future date.
Diverting from the tour for a minute or two – the reason some of these days are all grouped on one blog page is the good old t’internet or lack thereof on the west coast is hampering daily uploads. To date the Mi-Fi unit installed last month has done a great job and to be honest still is. The poor little fella can’t help it if the rest of the world decides the west coast of Scotland doesn’t need the coverage – short sighted if you ask me. These are exactly the kind of remote communities that would benefit from 3G and 4G coverage more than other places. Other places being cities and large towns that already benefit from cable broadband. I’m currently using a SIM card – 12mths or 12GB and so far over the 3 week period I’ve used 2.2GB, I estimate by the end of the tour we might have reached 3GB usage max. I also have an EE SIM card that I have not tried yet – that has 200MB free and then you top up. This is all new to me so I’m on a learning curve – some of you old pro’s of motorhome touring may well have the answer to the west coast issue. I’m not on BT hotspots or anything like that and I don’t fancy finding every little café just to log on – we have better things to do with our time (like write this blog in the evening and wait to upload when we can), it is too easy to let the modern day agenda of instant communications dictate our pace of life which I refuse to give in to whilst enjoying this wonderfully peaceful environment and slower paced life in which we are traveling.

20th May (day 16)
The weather yesterday evening took a turn for the worse raining cats and dogs, mice, toads and a plague of frogs. Packing up in the morning gloom and drizzle (the frogs had stopped), filling Hilma’s water tank we noticed many of the people on the site had already left. We drove around the loop to get back to the main NC500 route and within 5 minutes we came across Polbain Regatta on the beach, the reason for the packed campsite and mass exodus. Parking Hilma we wandered down to find out ‘the crack’. Villages from all over the west and east coast have their own boat called a ‘Skiff’. Origination of these boats came surprisingly not from the fishing community but from miners. Because they worked underground they thought up a way of getting out in the fresh air and exercising (pre-telly of course), this then turned into friendly local competitions between the boats.

Polbain Regatta race

Getting ready to race

In full flow

Nowadays it is a way of binding a community together in a common interest, each village wishing to take part has the same boat ‘kit’. They build it together, train together (different age and gender groups) and compete against other villages in different regatta’s around the North of Scotland.

Lily Rose ‘Skiff’

Two of the competing villages Skiffs

A real sense of community spirit was evident with barbecued salmon, sandwiches, cakes, teas & coffee all on offer with the proceeds going back into the communities. We even met a girl we had met working at the Clynelish Distillery on the east coast earlier on the tour, she was rowing for Helmsdale. The big talking point and bone of contention in the world of Skiff racing is the oars. Although the boats are all made to the same specifications the oar design is a free for all. The powers that be (whomever they are) are talking about standardising the oars as well! Sacrilege apparently! One woman said that the communities talk endlessly about the oars and went on to say “if they take that away from us we’ll have nothing to gossip about!”

Skiff oars make for many nights entertainment – apparently

4 rowers and a cox make up the crew, straight line course, first past the post is the winner, simple (try saying that to a cox!). About 16 races take place over the day with about 6-8 boats in each race depending age & gender category etc.

A Polbain border – memories of Raggs

Bye, Bye Polbain Regatta

Eventually dragged ourselves away despite being invited to the ‘hooly’ afterwards in the village hall – if we had done that we would never have finished the tour for sure! Off we pop towards our next wild camp somewhere near Aultbea or Drumchork on Loch Ewe (we weren’t sure at this stage) – we have a couple of nights later booked at a CC site so want to make the most of finding another good wild spot. We stopped at Ullapool and what a disappointment, we had lunch in Tesco car park and quickly moved on eventually arriving at Aultbea. We did find a lovely spot next to Loch Ewe but there was a sign saying no overnight parking. Frankly one has to respect such a sign when there is so much free parking around. We drove down to Mellon Charles back out of Aultbea, wound up the tour route to a fantastic high viewpoint overlooking Loch Ewe (57°49.525’N, 5°34.615’W).
Plenty of information boards around this area pointing to the fact that Loch Ewe was used during WWII to shelter the North Atlantic Russian Convoys, even today just below where we parked there is a NATO refuelling station (I’ll probably get arrested now for putting that on the blog!), if you don’t hear anything for 10 years I’m in the brig!
Contrasting weather, went to bed in a downpour, woke up to glorious sunshine (see pics).

Loch Ewe wild camp in the evening

….. and morning bliss!