North Coast 500 – Wester Ross
I remember when I was young, sitting by the waterfront at Ullapool with my family enjoying some fish and chips, when a wasp flew inside my brother’s can of Irn Bru. This is one of a few memories from this place from my childhood, so when I reached Ullapool at the end of a long day driving from the north coast, I immediately felt happy. The sun was shining and the town was bustling. After a much needed dinner and cider, I took a wander along the shoreline and round the coast past the caravan park to look for otters. Instead I found midges: lots of them, and they drove me so crazy I had to abandon my plans to watch the sunset and head indoors.
The next morning was a little overcast, and after watching the comings and goings of the CalMac ferry making preparations for its sailing to Stornoway on the island of Lewis, I boarded a little boat at the pier bound for a cruise around the Summer Isles. A small archipelago sitting near the end of Loch Broom, the sea loch that laps on Ullapool’s shores, there are a few tour options to explore them via different company’s trips. We first went in search of sea eagles, drawing a blank, before crossing the loch to visit a sea cave and then moving on to motor around the islands themselves. We were briefly joined by a lone harbour porpoise, but there was plenty of bird life to grab attention for the rest of the sailing.
Tanera Mor is the largest of the island group, and our tour anchored here to give us some time ashore. Close to the pier, a post office-come-coffee shop provided sustenance for those who didn’t want to wander, but I made a beeline for the rough track that headed up the hill to a viewing rock which gave a great view over the rest of the island and the smaller islands around it. The sailing back to Ullapool gave more opportunity to appreciate the rock structures of the region with more red sandstone slabs evident, and plenty of Lewis schist on display, similar to what I’d driven through the day before in the North West Geopark. In a little cove we found some seals hauled out to dry, and as we headed back towards Ullapool, the sky tried hard to shift its cloudy cover.
After a delicious lunch at the West Coast Deli on a back street of Ullapool, I got back in my car and rejoined the North Coast 500 to continue my journey south. The A835 hugs the banks of Loch Broom, and then at Corrieshalloch Gorge, the NC500 turns onto the A832. Near this junction, a car park leads to a walk down to the Falls of Measach, a 46metre high ribbon cascade deep within the trees within the gorge. An easy-to-follow track leads to a few different view points of the falls and the head of Loch Broom.
Heading west, the road winds past Little Loch Broom, another sea loch, before joining the coastline near Gruinard Island, then cutting across a finger of land to Loch Ewe. It was overcast again, so I passed through Poolewe and arrived at Gairloch, my home for the next couple of nights. This had been a place that I’d struggled to find available budget accommodation in, eventually finding a bunkhouse at the Gairloch Caravan & Camping park in Strath. What I hadn’t realised was that I had booked the bunkhouse for sole use, which meant I had my own kitchen, bathroom and tv. After all the previous nights in hostels, I was actually more than happy with this arrangement, and as some rain started to fall, I settled for a quiet night in.
Due to a misunderstanding with a booking I’d made, my boat trip for the following morning was rescheduled till the day after. It was starting to feel like my good fortune with the weather had come to an end. On another overcast day, I took the coast road past Badachro to Red Point at the end of the road. Here, the sand is a distinctive red colour, and I had the beach to myself to watch the bird life in peace. I was in no hurry, but eventually other people started to arrive, so I climbed the large sand dune behind the beach for a vantage point before heading off. I stopped at another red sandy beach at Port Henderson, and then at Badachro, a place I remembered from another childhood holiday. Aside from the midges, it was peaceful, the natural harbour providing a safe haven for boats to moor, and the waves were ever so gentle on the shore.
After lunch in Charlestown, I headed north a short distance past the little village of Poolewe to Inverewe Gardens, a Botanical Gardens belonging to the National Trust for Scotland. I hadn’t planned on going here, having been here before, but with my plans changed due to missing the boat trip, I found myself enjoying wandering around the woodland and various plant sections all the while overlooking Loch Ewe. Despite the grey skies, it was a beautiful place to be with the flowers in full bloom for summer, and lots of bird life both in the water and amongst the trees. It was a popular place to be that day but it didn’t feel crowded and still retained its peacefulness.
Back in Gairloch, there is a beautiful stretch of beach at the head of Loch Gairloch. Past the church and up the hill, a small car park leads to a lookout and a path leading down to the sandy shore. Whilst not as red as the beach at Red Point, it still has a slight red tinge to it, and there was a mix of locals and tourists enjoying it when I got there in the evening. I walked its length, and did a bit of rock hopping at the far end before cutting past the golf course back to the road and back up the hill to my car. It is such a calming place to be, with the coast well sheltered from rough seas by the deep natural harbour.
My original plan had been to head off south first thing in the morning and have an enjoyable drive south past Torridon to Applecross, traversing the famous Bealach na Ba mountain pass and on to Plockton. However, my rescheduled boat trip wasn’t till lunchtime, and having to check out of the bunkhouse, I found myself forging new plans and sacrificing a section of the NC500. With the morning at my beckoning, I left early to head down Loch Maree to Kinlochewe and took the single-track road to Torridon. This is a stunning drive, surrounded by mountains on either side. Torridon is just a small village beautifully set on the banks of Loch Torridon, and being a Sunday the place was shut up and deserted. I took a circular walk along the shoreline, enjoying the calls of the various sea birds. Near a bird shelter, the path cut up to a red deer farm, where the deer sat chewing the cud, not stirring as I passed. Where the path reached the end of the village at its junction with the NC500, an information centre gives information on local walks, flora and fauna. After a look around, I crossed the road to see a wild red deer doe break cover and immediately run away from me, disappearing into the trees as quickly as it had appeared.
Backtracking the single track road towards Kinlochewe, I stopped at a couple of places along Loch Maree. Had I had more time, I would have relaxed here for a while. As it was, I took a short walk along the shoreline to admire the scenery before making my way back to Gairloch. Grabbing a quick bite to eat, I was then ready and waiting for my trip. I’m a massive cetacean enthusiast, as eager to see whales and dolphins in the wild as I am to travel around the globe, so it was a no brainer that I was going to go whale watching in one of Scotland’s best cetacean viewing locations. I’d been following the viewing reports of the Hebridean Whale Cruises‘ Facebook page, and it had been a very good May and June, so I was hopeful for a fruitful day.
When I arrived, our skipper told us that humpback sightings had been good but it meant a long trip out to try and see them. I’ve seen humpback whales many times before in South Africa, Australia, and the Galapagos Islands, but it is very uncommon to see them in Scottish waters so everybody was more than ok about the long trip to get there. Kitted up in thick waterproof floaters, we set off on the zodiac boat, and I have to admit I got immensely bored and frustrated with what felt like a never-ending ride north. I don’t even know where we ended up, and whilst I’m not sure of exact timings, I think it was a good bit over an hour before finally we slowed down near some small islands where gannet activity signalled the presence of fish. We came to a stop, waiting and looking around, and finally we got our reward: common dolphins, white-beaked dolphins, diving gannets, and finally, a lone humpback whale. The fish seemed quite deep so surface activity was intermittent and well scattered, but whilst other days had had better views, it was still enough to feel satisfied. Common dolphins are my favourite species of dolphin, and I hadn’t seen them for 11 years, so in the end, I was more stoked about seeing them than anything else.
It was into the evening by the time we returned to Gairloch and now I had a long drive ahead of me to reach my pre-booked accommodation. I didn’t linger, leaving Gairloch and Loch Maree behind and leaving the NC500 at Kinlochewe. This time, instead of turning towards Torridon, I stayed on the A832 before turning south on the A890 at Achnasheen and followed it along the southern shore of Loch Carron before turning off to Plockton. It was a long detour that I could have skipped but Plockton is another place from my childhood that gives me nothing but happy memories, so I was reluctant to miss a return visit. By now hungry, I got fish and chips followed by the best whippy ice cream I can ever remember eating, and fought the midges away whilst wandering around the shore. When the tide is out, it is possible to walk out to a small island via a muddy natural causeway, and I remember fighting off the large, nasty clegs (horseflies) here when I was younger. Thankfully there were none to be seen, only some stubborn midges.
I wished I was staying here the night as it is such a beautiful and relaxing place with opportunities to go kayaking and on boat trips. However, I’d booked my location where it was for a reason, as I had to get to Fort William early the next day. So reluctantly, I left Plockton behind, and managed to waste a bit of precious time by missing the correct turn-off I had needed to take. Reaching Loch Alsh in the lowering sun, I joined the A87, pausing briefly at Eilean Donan Castle, one of Scotland’s most photographed castles. The road snaked past first Loch Cluanie, then branched down the side of Loch Loyne before twisting to follow the northern shore of Loch Garry. This was my last stop, where a particular viewpoint allows a vista west over Loch Garry which from this very location, is shaped as the outline of Scotland itself. I ended up having to wait here a while as a wide-load with escort made its way up the hill, and I was rather disappointed to discover that the trees occluded a large part of the view so it was difficult to photograph the image that I’d seen loads online. Perhaps there is a walkway through the trees to see it better, but by now near 9pm, I was tired and wanted to walk no further.
When the back log of traffic cleared, I drove down the hill to Invergarry and checked into one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at, the Saddle Mountain hostel. Nestled amongst the trees up a track from the main road, it was recently renovated, and the hosts were exceedingly welcoming. Whilst I didn’t get the best of sleeps due to noisy roommates, I was greeted in the morning by the male owner acting as barrista, serving up fresh brewed coffee. I got chatting with him about my plans for the day ahead, and he voiced exactly what I had feared. With the previous two days being overcast, I had noticed that most of the mountain tops had been hidden by low cloud. Following the same road south, I was on route to Fort William for the one and only opportunity that I had on this trip to summit Ben Nevis, Scotland’s (and the UK’s) highest peak. The forecast for low cloud on the mountains remained and my host advised me not to go up. Gutted but hopeful, I set off for Fort William wondering what I’d find when I got there.