MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “seals”

Northern Limits

On the shore of the beautifully serene Lake Mývatn, there is something to explore at every turn. I was disappointed to have run out of time to include a hike up the distinctive cone of Hverfjall volcano thanks to my misdemeanour with the tyre on route to Dettifoss but as much as the hours were marching on, the fact that the sun wasn’t setting till after midnight meant that there was still lots of time to explore the area before my bed called me. Not far from Hverfjall was the mysterious world of Dimmuborgur, an area where a lava flow has hardened, cracked and peaked in a manner as to produce tall, spiky turrets and pillars of all sorts of shapes and sizes. There are a selection of trails to follow and I chose the one that looked like it gave the best overview of the place. Unlike the sites I’d previously visited in this area, the vegetation here was thick and widespread. There was a cave that could be walked through on one section of the trail and on route back to the car park, a raised portion of the trail provided a good vantage point to look across to the lake and its far shore.

 

After collecting some takeaway pizza from a popular local eatery, I headed to the south shore, to the little settlement of Skútustaðir to enjoy it whilst looking out across the lake. From here, a walk leads round a small lake within the main lake that is surrounded by pseudo-craters, as well as up onto and around a few of the larger craters. The lake had quite a few water birds floating around with their young in tow, learning how to dive and feed below the surface. It was a lovely place to spend the evening but the flies threatened to drive me a little insane. It was a strange landscape with circular mounds sprouting up from the ground in many directions, and from the crater rim of the taller ones I could see across to the steaming vents of the power station to the east of Reykjahlíð. It was incredibly peaceful, just a slight ripple on the water, and for the most part, I had the place to myself. On the northern edge of the lake within the lake, some Icelandic ponies chewed on the grass which was plentiful here, before the path skirted some wetlands on its way back to the car park.

 

I drove round the circumference of the lake past the large wetland zones to the west that are perfect for bird watching. With more time here, I would have explored this region too, but now it was after 8pm and I had only one thing on my mind: the Mývatn Nature Baths. Like the Blue Lagoon to the south of Reykjavik, this is a popular tourist attraction in the area, but with the tourist numbers round this part of the country much less than in the overly popular Golden Circle, the experience here was a little different. As is commonplace at Icelandic geothermal pools, it is required to shower naked before entering. Unlike at the larger Blue Lagoons, there was no privacy at these nature baths with just an open shower area before leaving the building. The pools themselves were also a mere fraction of the size, and having forgotten my GoPro camera last time, I took it out with me, only to quickly regret it, standing out from everyone else, with not a single other person having one. Once I rid myself of it, I was then able to relax and enjoy the warm water. There was a group of adolescents who were playing the fool and being told off by the guards regularly which marred the experience slightly, but otherwise it was an enjoyable experience, although I personally preferred the set-up at the Blue Lagoon.

 

I had an early rise to set off north and awoke to a light drizzle that got heavier the further north I went. I followed route 1 to the north west before splitting off to take route 85 north to Húsavík, the most northerly place I’d visit in Iceland, but indeed the most northern I’d ever been on the entire planet. Previously I’d only been as far as the most northern Scottish Islands, the Shetlands, so I was excited to be exploring this northern land, having previously done plenty of exploring in the lower reaches of the Southern Hemisphere. The constant drizzle made for a very overcast view of the town, and the clouds were low across the surrounding landscape. One of the main tourist draws here is whale watching, an activity that I will happily pay to do anywhere in the world. Aside from travelling, cetacean spotting is a massive love of mine. I have been immensely lucky to see many species in many seas around the globe, and this was my best chance yet of spotting a species of whale I’d never seen before such as a fin whale or blue whale.

My carriage for the day was a lovely old wooden frigate which could travel either under sail or with the power of an engine. There are a few choices for whale watching trips here, and with a love of puffins too, I opted for the trip that combined a visit to a nearby island which was a prime puffin breeding site. Skjálfandi bay is expansive, and despite the gloomy skies, the seas were very calm. We sailed north to the island of Lundey and I revelled in the knowledge that with every passing moment I was going more north than I’d ever been in my life. Even before we reached Lundey, puffins began to be spotted in the air and on the surface of the water. First it was ones and twos but as we got closer to the island there were hundreds of them flying around us, and whilst it was hard to see many of them close up, it was certainly the highest concentration of puffins that I have ever seen in my life.

 

We sat for a while watching them before heading west in search of whales. There is always great anticipation on these trips not just for what might be seen, but also whether this will be that trip where we see nothing. I’ve been lucky to see whales or dolphins on every whale watching trip I’ve ever done, but each time I worry that it will be the first time I see nothing. But eventually that call came out that a whale had been spotted, and in the end we ended up in view of around 3 humpback whales. I love humpback whales, they are my favourite species of whale, and this was the fifth country that I had seen them from. There was a part of me that was disappointed it wasn’t a species I’d never seen before, but these whales still put on a good show for us, coming very close to the boat on several occasions, including swimming right underneath us at one point. One of them had a very unusual fluke colouration which I’ve never seen before, and I still felt highly satisfied at the end of the trip. As we headed back to Húsavík, the clouds on the far side of the bay began to lift revealing the glorious snow-peaked mountain tops of the far shore. It was incredible to think these behemoths had been hidden the whole time, and it was spectacular to see them poke through the wisps of cloud.

 

Húsavík itself felt like a fishing village. The harbour sat below the main street which was nestled below a lupin-covered hillside. The rain threatened to drop for the rest of my time there. After a wander around past the iconic church, I stopped for lunch overlooking the comings and goings of the boats in the harbour. As a cetacean enthusiast, I was keen to explore the whale museum in town which has an impressive collection of whale skeletons. Iceland is much more famous for its whaling activities than it is for its whale watching, and there was information within about the various species that have been sighted in Icelandic waters, as well as displays on the hunting of whales. Whilst a lot of information in tourism centres discusses whaling as a thing of the past, it is still very much a thing of the present too, and I had been warned in advance to expect to see whale meat on the menu in some eateries. Despite this, I had yet to see any physical evidence of present-day whaling since I’d arrived in the country.

 

Despite the drizzle, I took a wander around a local park towards the back of town before leaving. There was a reasonable sized pond where some duck families were hanging out, and some statues and pretty houses lining the paths by the river bank. But there’s not a lot more to see in Húsavík so before long, I was driving back south in the rain. On reaching the ring road, Route 1, it was just a brief back-track to visit yet another of Iceland’s famous waterfalls, Góðafoss. It was raining constantly now, and I toyed with coming back the next day, but there was a good few people in rain jackets there too, and I joined them to follow the path from the car park up river to the viewing point for the falls. Getting close to the falls meant a bit of rock hopping towards the end of the path, and with the rocks wet under foot, everyone was taking extra care. This was not a place to fall over with nothing to stop you tumbling over the cliff edge. The reward though was getting very close to the main body of the falls where the extent of the force of water could be heard and felt. Like Dettifoss the day before, you could feel the immense power of water thundering over the lip of rock to the river below.

 

The cloud and rain kept me company as I followed Route 1 on its convoluted route west. Eventually the path swung over to a long fjord and followed the eastern bank south before descending down to the water level and crossing a causeway across to the city of Akureyri. This is the biggest settlement outside of Reykjavik, and it was strange being in a city again after days of small towns and villages. A viewpoint across the fjord looks out over Akureyri which had a couple of large cruise ships in dock at the time. Down by the waterfront, a promenade provides a nice waterside walk, starting from the ferry terminal and heading south past a beautiful ship statue and beyond. The place was bustling with bus loads of people clambering about the steps up to the Akureyrarkirkja which dominates the city skyline. It was strange wandering down a pedestrian street filled with tourist shops and packed full of tourists. I shouldn’t have been surprised what with the cruise ships in port but it was a slight shock to the system after having felt away from it all for the last few days.

 

Having spent the night in the city, I had a lovely breakfast in a quirky little cafe surrounded by locals and tourists alike. After perusing round the shops and ogling at some large ogres in the middle of the street, I headed up the steps to Akureyrarkirkja, the church which was built by the same architect that built Reykjavik‘s famous Hallgrímskirkja. The style is recognisable as being the same, although the size of Akureyrarkirkja is much smaller in comparison. Inside there is a beautiful organ which was expertly played by an organist whilst I was there, and as often churches are, it was adorned with some beautiful and striking stained glass windows. Outside it has a distinctive look, and from nearby there is a view down over the roofs of the town and the cruise ships below.

 

A few streets back was the city’s botanical gardens. There appeared to be some sort of pilgrimage here with a steady stream of people walking from Akureyrarkirkja through the streets to the gardens. They certainly weren’t the biggest of botanical gardens, nor would I class them as particularly pretty but they were still nice enough to wander around and by the time I was leaving, the sun had started to burst through the clouds. From the nearby road junction I could look down on the ship statue below on the promenade walk and the Akureyrarkirkja looked even better with the sun shining on it.

 

Whilst Akureyri certainly had more to offer than a few other places I had been, I wasn’t particularly fussed about staying much longer. My stop for the night was at a hostel in the middle of nowhere, and I had to carry all food supplies with me. Every other night I had eaten out at a local restaurant but this would be the first night I’d have to prepare a self-catering meal. I stocked up on supplies in one of the many supermarkets in the city, but then, having spotted something to the west to do on a whim, I decided to leave the city behind and bolt west across the landscape. I’d spotted a boat trip to do in Hvammstangi to a nearby seal colony, and decided I’d chance my luck by turning up without a booking. I was exceptionally tight on time to make the last trip of the day, and the landscape went by in a blur as I whizzed through it, past a few settlements on route. When I got to Hvammstangi, I arrived with just 5 mins to spare and then couldn’t find the turn-off to the harbour. When I got there, I was sure I would have missed the sailing but in the end it was all good.

The wind was whipping along the fjord making for a choppy sailing and a lot of spray. We got kitted out in head to foot waterproof jackets, and despite the weather, there was quite a few of us on board. Unfortunately the weather conditions also meant that there weren’t a lot of seals hauled out of the water, but we still managed to see a few. We were even lucky enough to see a sea eagle as well, and it was so far away and so blended in to the hillside that I was as much impressed with the skipper spotting it as I was with actually seeing it. Back in Hvammstangi, near the pier was a pillar of wood used to hang the day’s catch out. This was the image I had in my head of arctic village life, having seen photos of Inuit villages to the north with their fish and seal pelts hanging out to dry. The ticket for the seal watching trip also included entry to the attached seal museum. Like whaling, there is a lot of regional history to do with hunting the seals and the effect this has had on populations. It was a compact museum, but there was enough to occupy me until closing time, and I was glad I’d made the effort to get there.

 

To the south was my hostel for the night. I arrived just as the UEFA EURO 2016 match of England vs Iceland was starting and everyone at the hostel was glued to the television to watch the match. We were a mix of nationalities, none of us Icelandic and none of us English, but every single one of us were routing for Iceland to win. Iceland as a whole is not a football nation. In fact the team’s manager is a part-time dentist, and when speaking to the locals, they joked that all the Icelanders who liked football had gone to France to watch the games live. But because Iceland started off surprisingly well, the rest of the country began to get behind their team. It was a great atmosphere at the hostel that night as Iceland won the match, and I went to bed just a sleep away from completing my circumnavigation of the island, with Reykjavik in my sights that next day.

Exploring Myths and Memories

Out of the dark and cold waters of a Scottish loch, illuminated by the midnight moon, there comes the beautiful form of a horse. Broad muscles and mane dripping with water, he finds a poor soul to whom he laments a tale of loneliness, tugging at their heart strings before leading them back to the water’s edge. Enveloping them in his spell, he leads them out into the darkness and drowns them. The mythical Kelpie, or water horse, is a long-standing feature of Scottish folklore, although the stories vary depending on their source. It is said that many lochs in Scotland have their own Kelpie, and mariners of old used to relate tales of Kelpies coming out of the sea during storms to sink their ships. In some stories, the Kelpies take the form of a woman on land, to seduce some unsuspecting man before leading them to water and drowning them.

Before I moved to New Zealand in 2012, I must have seen or read about a public art piece that was planned for Falkirk in Scotland, so when finally they were constructed and opened to the public, I knew I would have to visit them on my next trip home. The Kelpies are two 30m high steel structures shaped as horse heads beside a section of the Forth and Clyde canal. Representing both the heavy horses previously used in Scottish industry and agriculture as well as the transformational change of Scotland’s waterways, they have become an iconic structure in Scotland’s Central Belt.

After a nice lie-in in Glasgow following my road trip round the north coast and the previous day’s hike up Ben Nevis, I set off with my parents on a very cloudy day to go visit the steel behemoths. The sculptures have proven to be a popular place to visit, and even though there was an occasional drizzle, there was plenty of people about. Like so many things, they have their critics but I personally love them. I think they are stunning. It is possible to walk round them and view them from different angles, and nearby the canal played home to some swans with their cygnets. My parents had been here before, but they were more than happy to come again.

 

It was only a relatively short drive from there to the Falkirk Wheel, a boat lift opened in 2002 to connect the Forth and Clyde canal with the Union Canal, and the only one of its kind in the world. Built to help regenerate the canal network and to link Glasgow with Edinburgh via the waterway, it is an impressive feat of engineering even if some people do think it’s ugly. Granted, it has weathered quite a lot, and doesn’t look as grand as it does in pictures from when it opened, but it was still worthy of a look. There is a large visitor centre next to it, and my parents and I enjoyed a wander round the large gift shop and a meal in the cafe whilst we waited for our boat trip. Two canal boats alternate at taking passengers onto the wheel and up to the top, passing through a tunnel and out the other side before making a return trip. Unfortunately, the heavens opened whilst we were on this trip, so we didn’t get to experience much in the way of views at the top. But it was a pleasant and relaxing hour, as well as time well spent with my parents who I only get to see every few years.

 

That night I met my best friends for a night out in Glasgow. In April, I enjoyed going to see The Proclaimers, a Scottish duo, on their New Zealand tour in Christchurch. So when I found out that Ladyhawke, a musician from New Zealand, was touring the UK, I thought it only fitting to see her in Glasgow. One of Glasgow’s best known music venues is King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, which has a bar downstairs, and an intimate music venue upstairs. It had been many years since I’d last been there, and these days, thanks to a back injury in 2013, I prefer to enjoy gigs in a seated arena where I don’t get jostled or spend hours on my feet. The support acts as well as Ladyhawke herself were fantastic, but I felt old amongst the younger music lovers, feeling sore from being on my feet throughout the whole gig. Aside from having to stand, King Tut’s has seen some major names play there, and it is worth checking their gig guide for any stay in the city.

It was obvious the following day that my run of good weather had well and truly ended. Having lived in Aberdeen in the north-east for 5.5years, I had friends that I wanted to catch up with, and setting off on the 3hr drive north from Glasgow, it wasn’t long till I hit torrential rain that refused to give up. It’s never a good sign when your car’s wiper blades struggle to keep up with the force of horizontal rain that is lashing at your windscreen, and this went on for the majority of the second half of the drive. The Granite City that sparkles in the sunshine, looked dour and grey on such a miserable day. I flitted from friend to friend, unfortunately short of time to spend as much time with most as I would have liked to. I got a beautiful surprise from some dear friends in Aberdeenshire who had put a lot of effort into a surprise den for me, and after many hours catching up, I went to bed under the stars.

The rain continued in Aberdeenshire the following morning, and although lighter, went on into the afternoon. I managed to get lost on some back roads trying to take a short cut to the coast, ending up much further north than I’d planned, and nearly an hour late for meeting some more friends. I was in Scotland in the run up to the ‘Brexit’ referendum and it was an interesting time to be back in the country, with lots of opinions and discussion abound. I was intrigued and curious listening to my friends put forth their varied opinions on the matter, amongst catching up with everyone on the movement of their lives since I had left.

Despite the thick clouds and showers, my friend had dogs needing a walk, and I have a favourite spot north of Aberdeen to go seal watching, so we drove to Newburgh beach to face the elements. Luckily we managed a dry spell to walk along the south bank of the river Ythan to the North Sea, where curious seals swam close by, eyeing us up as the river’s current moved them along. There are always seals hauled up on the north bank of the river mouth, an area that is a nature reserve where people and dogs can’t go. But on this occasion, the numbers of seals were incredible. In all my visits when I used to live there, I had never seen this many and we watched them for a while before the return of the rain.

 

I couldn’t leave Aberdeen behind without a drive down the promenade, a place where I spent many an evening walking its length listening to the crashing waves on the shore. At the southern end near the harbour is Footdee, a historic fishing village which I had a quick wander around before setting off on the long journey south. I took a detour to Kirkcaldy in the Kingdom of Fife to visit another friend before following the Firth of Forth west and then onwards to Glasgow.

 

With my hire car due back at lunchtime, I set off early the next morning to head south to visit a place that I hadn’t been to since I was a school kid. Nestled amongst bush on the Ayrshire coast on the west of Scotland, Culzean Castle and Country Gardens is a popular addition to the National Trust of Scotland. Built in the 18th century, the castle sits on a clifftop and is one of Scotland’s most photographed castles. It even features on one of the Scottish bank notes. I took a wander around the gardens first which open to the public ahead of the castle. It was threatening to be a scorching day so it was actually a nice reprieve to step inside out of the sun and take a look around.

 

Inside the castle, there are resemblances to a stately home, and it was built for the Marquess of Ailsa, clan chief of the Kennedy Clan. Reputed to be haunted, I wandered around unawares enjoying the views out to the sea through the large windows. Back outside, a path lead down to a stony beach near where the entrance to some sea caves at the base of the castle lay. Near a gas house, another beach gave a prospect back towards the castle as it perched on the cliff.

 

I had unfortunately picked a day where several bus loads of school kids had come on an end-of-year visit, and every inch of grass around the old stables was covered in children noisily chasing each other. I left them to it and looped back through the old archway and across the bridge to the gardens below the castle where the sun now illuminated the scene. Here it was more peaceful and deserted but before long it was time to make the drive north back to Glasgow, returning my rental car ahead of the next adventure.

North Coast 500 – Sutherland

Northlink’s MV Hamnavoe ploughed through the morning sea fog, finally breaking free as the north coast of Scotland’s mainland grew near. I was sad to leave the Orkney Islands behind, but excited for the next part of my road trip. It was another brilliantly sunny day away from the fog, and as with each day before, there was so much to see. Docking at Scrabster, near Thurso on the Caithness coast, it was just a short drive to rejoin the main road which has been branded the North Coast 500. A week had passed since I was last on this route, and heading west from here, I was covering new territory for me, having never been further west of Thurso or further north than Ullapool before.

 

I took a wee nosy at Dounreay, Scotland’s only nuclear power plant. Having been decomissioned in 1994, it is undergoing the long clean-up process necessitated of a nuclear reactor, and I paused to look at it before heading on. I was keen to enjoy the coastline that I would be following, and it is littered with coves, beaches and cliffs to ogle over. Crossing into the region of Sutherland, I stopped first at the stunning Melvich beach. The sand had a slight red tinge to it, and I had the place to myself, listening to the surf as I walked its length and back whilst sipping on an iced coffee. It was an utter pleasure.

 

West of there was a turnoff to Strathy Point, a promontory of coastline jutting north, and a recognised spot for watching sea life. It is a long and windy road that terminates at a farm, from where the farm track allows foot access across grazing land to the lighthouse. I reached the lighthouse, and after walking around it, saw with dismay a thick wall of fog moving towards the shore: the sea fog from Orkney had caught up with me. It wasn’t long before the temperature dropped and the coastline was completely shrouded, my visibility dropping dramatically. I wandered around the site, trying to kill time in the hopes that it would lift again, but after sitting for 20 mins listening to the silence and getting cold, I decided to cut my losses and move on. There would be no dolphin spotting there that day. I was dismayed by the change in weather given that the rest of my drive for that day was following the coastline. Thankfully, by the time I’d driven back to the North Coast 500, I was back in the sunshine again, and most of my drive remained so, with the fog hugging the coastline just to my right as I worked my way west.

 

Like my drive north to John O’Groats the week prior, large sections of the road were dominated with the bright yellow flowers of gorse bushes before the terrain became wilder and the hills of the west began to come into view. The road (the A836 in this section) climbed up over wild rolling hills before dropping back down to near sea level at Bettyhill, a small settlement with another beautiful beach. Sections of the road around here are single track, and following the North Coast 500 from here in an anti-clockwise direction, the road regularly switches from dual direction to single track. On such a sunny summer’s day, there was a steady stream of traffic in both directions, as well as plenty of distracting scenery so concentration is definitely required when following this route. There were a few more people at Bettyhill’s beach than there had been at Melvich, but it was still easy to get peace and quiet and soak up the rural vibe despite this.

 

As the beach was within a deep cove, it was easy to forget the fog, and especially as the road cut inland for the next section, winding its way through the countryside. By the time I reached the village of Tongue, I was eager for lunch, and up on a hillside as it was, I could see large fingers of fog nearby, trying to creep its way inland. I stopped for refreshments at one of the two hotels in Tongue before following the road down the hillside to where a causeway crossed a large estuary. Looking out to sea, the fog threatened to come closer, hiding the entrance to the estuary, and inland some mountains were visible in the distance, whilst Tongue itself was hidden amongst the trees and a finger of fog.

 

After driving across some stunningly barren landscapes, I was taken aback on coming around a headland to be presented with the beauty of Loch Eriboll. A sea loch, the road joins its banks near a small peninsula that juts into the loch where a handy pull-in allows a safe place to stop and take photographs. There was a regular flow of traffic but yet it was still easy to feel a million miles away from anywhere, and I couldn’t believe that I was seeing these places for the first time despite spending most of my life in this country. Further round the loch, the scenery continued to distract, although there wasn’t always the opportunity to stop, especially on the far bank where, after looping around the head of the loch, the road became a single track road as it wound its way along the far side. There were plenty of cyclists to negotiate, but as I was in no hurry, they were a good excuse to slow down and enjoy the scenery.

 

My bed for the next couple of nights was at the basic YHA hostel in Durness next to Smoo Cave. The village of Durness is quite spread out along the road in sections, and I reached here mid-afternoon to discover it was blanketed in the fog that had been chasing me all day. It felt so much colder in the fog, but this didn’t stop me from exploring the cave which is one of the region’s most famous attractions. Its largest main chamber has been eroded by the actions of the sea, making it the largest sea cave entrance in Britain, however the smaller chambers to the rear have been created by freshwater running through. It is a steep descent via a lot of stairs to reach the sea level where a river trickles out of the cavernous mouth. The fog enveloped everything giving an eerie feel to the scene. It was a busy place though with people wandering around inside the cave and the paths around it.

 

I stood in the large cavern for a while looking around before following the wooden constructed pathway into a second chamber where a pool of water sits at the base of a waterfall. From here, a local man named Colin runs a short trip on a dinghy across this pool and out the other side where a walk up a small stream leads to a limestone waterfall, a feature of caves that is always impressive to see, no matter how big or small. On the way back across the pool on the dinghy, we pulled up near the base of the waterfall where it was possible to look upwards to the hole in the roof where the river entered. Colin told us about his theories regarding hidden chambers and passages behind the wall of rock, and he has now been given permission to do some digging where he is hopeful to find another chamber. Afterwards, I climbed up the other side of the gully, and wandered around the clifftop paths before returning to the hostel for the evening.

 

I had an early rise next morning to make the short drive to Keoldale to the west of Durness to catch the first boat trip of the day. With booking not an option, it was first come, first served, and with only one chance to do it, I was determined to make sure I made it in time. In the end, I was the first one there, with the boat being later than I’d thought due to the tide times. But there was quite a queue when it came time to climb aboard, and with a bit of disorganised chaos, there was a few disgruntled people who got turned away. Whilst the fog was gone, it was a cloudy day, and the little tin boat took us across the Kyle of Durness whilst a drizzle started. We loaded onto the minibuses at the other side, and after a bit more disorganised chaos, we set off on the hour-long 11 mile (18km) trundle to Cape Wrath, the most north-western tip of mainland Britain.

 

107 square miles of barren moorland straddles the cape, most of which is owned by the Ministry of Defense and regularly used for bombing target practice. The only road here was built in 1828 and has seen little maintenance since, so the bus rarely made it out of 2nd gear. It is a wild place, boggy off the track and pockmarked with holes from target practice. During its use, the skies of nearby Sutherland ring out with the sound of high speed fighter jets. The sole inhabitants of the region are the couple that run the cafe at the lighthouse, which marks the end of a hiking trail, the Cape Wrath Trail, a 200 mile walk from Fort William to the south.

 

Eventually we trundled into the parking zone next to the lighthouse and were given an hour to have a look around and be back on board for the return journey. The wild weather meant there wasn’t a lot of bird activity, but the cliffs were still steep and dramatic none-the-less. The lighthouse itself is of a similar style to others on this coastline, and like many was built by Robert Stevenson of the famous Stevenson family (which includes the author Robert Louis Stevenson). There was enough to look at to fill the hour, and then it was time to make the slow trundle back to the pier and the waiting boat back to Keoldale.

 

Whilst still cloudy, it was only early afternoon. I took respite from the wind at Cocoa Mountain, a chocolatier in the unlikely location of Balnakeil. Their hot chocolate was made from pure liquid chocolate, and it was just what I needed to warm me up and fuel me for the afternoon’s walk. Near here, by the ruins of a small church, a car park denotes the pedestrian entrance onto Faraid Head, a peninsula with some stunning beaches and dunes. It is fantastic territory for walking with a path leading up the western beach and cutting through the dunes and eventually reaching cliffs to the north and east. In the north-eastern corner, another Ministry of Defence area is fenced off out of bounds, but near here, the landscape rises into dramatic cliffs which turned out to be prime puffin watching territory.

 

I’d by now had ample chance to spot puffins on cliffs at Westray and the Brough of Birsay but this was the first time I’d seen them on the water’s surface, and there were lots of them. I never tire of seeing these birds, to me they are just stunning, and I had all the hours of the day to sit lying on the cliff edge watching their lives unfold below me. I took my time walking back, enjoying the view over to Cape Wrath and the beautiful beaches and dunes which by now were getting quiet. I stopped at the tourist centre in Durness where a path leads down to Sango Sands, another beach, where I had an evening wander before dinner at the nearby pub.

 

The following morning, I made the short walk back to Smoo Cave which I was able to enjoy both fog free and people free. Without the fog, it was easier to get a sense of perspective which had been slightly misleading with the reduced visibility the day I had arrived. The sheer size of the cave entrance was impressive when compared to the buildings that sat above it. I followed the path to where the river meets the sea, then back up and around to where the river flows across the moorland and down into the cave. Only as I was leaving were other people starting to arrive, and I set off on the long drive south, stopping first at Keoldale where, without the rush of catching the boat, I had the time to take in the stunning view.

 

Passing lochs and crossing rolling hills and moorland, the North Coast 500 turns south towards Ullapool in Wester Ross. I had a deadline to meet with a boat tour booked at lunchtime, but that still left me plenty of time to take a few side roads off the main road. Firstly, I headed off to Kinlochbervie, a fishing village at the head of Loch Inchard. There’s not much to the village itself other than the large harbour, but it’s a scenic drive there and back. Soon, the road enters the North West Geopark, a region of geological significance. A mountainous region with interesting rock formations and full of lochans, there is constantly something to catch the eye. I took another detour to Tarbet, a cute little village at the end of the road where the boat to Handa island leaves. With a bit better forward planning, I would have had time to go out to the island which is a Scottish Wildlife Trust nature reserve. As it was, I simply sat on the shore in the sunshine and watched the boat leave before returning to the main road.

 

Stopping briefly at Scourie, the road continued through the geopark before dropping down to the bridge that splits Loch a’Chairn Bhain and Loch Gleann Dubh at Kylesku. Previously this crossing could only be made by boat, but in 1984 the bridge was opened and it’s quite distinctive. Pulling in at the Kylesku hotel, I was just in time for the 1pm trip that goes up Loch Gleann Dubh to a view point of Britain’s tallest waterfall. Along the way, we got the closest to wild seals that I’ve ever gotten, as there were several hauled up on the banks and dotted amongst the small islands within the loch. Heading back up the loch, the sunlight created the most amazing reflections on the water of the surrounding mountain sides until we reached a large red scar in the cliff which denotes a fault line in the earth’s crust. We sailed under the Kylesku bridge whilst jellyfish floating around us, before heading back to the pier.

 

 

I was excited to stumble across the ruins of Ardvreck castle on the bank of Loch Assynt, as I didn’t know of its existence and wasn’t expecting it. Nearby a group of European tourists practiced sword fighting, and along the road a group of geology students were studying some rocks near the road. The whole day had been packed with glorious scenery, and Loch Assynt was no different. Built around 1590, it is in quite a state of disrepair with only the remnants of one tower remaining which belies its originally large size. I hung around for as long as I had peace before an ever increasing crowd of people trickled in.

 

The North Coast 500 continues south on the A837 before turning onto the A835, signposted for Ullapool. My last stop in Sutherland was Knockan Crag, one of the main stops within the North West Geopark. Here, the Moine Thrust fault line runs through, and it was the first thrust fault to be discovered in the world, initially confusing scientists. An interpretation building gives information on the studies in the late 19th and early 20th century, and from here a walk zig zags up the cliff face past the Moine Thrust and some sculptures, up to the top where you can walk along the clifftop and back down again at the other end. Unfortunately, the bus load of geology students arrived immediately after me and I was given little peace or space to read the information boards or view the sculptures on the way up. They didn’t follow me all the way to the top though, so I was able to admire the view over Lochan An Ais in silence. From here, there was just another section of road to complete before crossing into Wester Ross, and reaching Ullapool where a nice cold cider awaited.

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