Travel StoriesNorth Coast 500 2017
By Ren Withnell
After last night's warning of impending meteorological doom this morning greets us with light cloud and a gentle breeze. Still who am I to doubt a weather forecast so after packing the tent and the gear I dutifully put on my waterproofs and suggest Sharon does the same.
The campsite is slippery due to the rain last night and a few riders are struggling to safely depart the sloping grass of the pitches. Sharon is concerned. I could of course just push or ride her bike to the tarmac but there's only one way to learn. To my eye the options are plainly obvious, I glance at the lie of the land and instinctively calculate the flattest, straightest and therefore least treacherous route. This doesn't come naturally to Sharon and I can't understand why. I guess it's like me trying to understand "goes with" in terms of dress sense or colours. I'd rather have my skill than hers.
Right - so which way do YOU think is the best route off the slippery grass?
After cautiously negotiating the turf as well as the treacherous broken surface of the nearby self-serve petrol station we are back on the road briefly. The first stop, but a mile from the campsite is Smoo Cave. As we park the sun is bright and warm, when I look down into the cove I see there is a steep walk to come so we ditch the waterproofs.
The decent to Smoo cave is steep but secure with steps cut into the side of the slope with railings. Down on the floor of the cove a small river runs to the sea after emerging from the rocks of the cave. The cave is not massive nor does it run deep into the hillside, it is only a short walk into the darkness before we are confronted by the waterfall. The waterfall within takes our breath away and drenches us. Standing on the wooden walkway the roar of crashing water spews forth a spray so heavy my face and hair are dripping. It is small yet mighty, an assault on the senses, intense and dramatic. I'm slightly dazed when I emerge back into the sunlight.
The steps down to the cove and Smoo Cave
Back on the road it's just Sharon and I once more, we're enjoying dipping in and out of the group and mixing up our riding. We're back on single track so the pace is tempered, allowing time to see the endless lochs, coves, inlets, hills, mountains and various animals upon the road. It seems our good weather is short lived, we must stop to put our waterproofs back on as the first droplets appear on our visors.
Time for the waterproofs again I reckon.
The rain is only briefly heavy, easing to intermittent once more after a handful of miles. In Tongue we see several of the group's bikes parked outside a restaurant but we decide we're looking for something more cafe-esque. A mile down the road we pull into The Weaver's Craft Shop and head inside for a brew and to shelter from another heavy shower. We drip on their floor just as we have done on many other floors. It's what we do.
We get talking to a couple travelling the NC500 2-up on a 200cc scooter, a proper Vespa scooter, albeit a modern one. They don't need a GS1200 or a GoldWing to explore, they're happy with their small boxes for luggage and the ring-a-ding ding of their 2 stroke velocipede. It is a refreshing joy to engage with them as they're not out to impress or collect kudos points they're here for the sheer pleasure of looking around. As we leave we all put on our still dripping gear.
Just before Reay and Doonreay the landscape changes, noticeably and remarkably. The Highlands just stop, they don't fade out they come to a sudden halt and are replaced by rural agricultural pasture land. Whoosh! There go the mountains and here come fields and farms. It is good to experience the change but I feel a sense of sadness. Fair well Scottish Highlands, you have been magnificent as ever.
We stop at the Lidl in Thurso for yet more supplies, I do wish we had space for a decent fridge freezer on the bike as this daily shopping is such a bind. Croissants, pasta, sauce and some cooked meat. I'm resisting the urge to buy chocolate biscuits.
Dunnet Head is the most northerly point of mainland UK and here we are. I wonder if this is the furthest north I'll ever get on two wheels? I could go to The Orkneys, The Shetland Isles or even Norway and Finland? Yes I could but will I? Will I ever actually take the plunge, make the leap and grab the bull by the horns? So many doubts, so many what-ifs, so much uncertainty. I've been promising myself for 15 years and I'm still here on a week long holiday in the UK.
As we roll into the car park behind the lighthouse a couple mounting a Shadow 750 look at us curiously, Sharon in particular. We dismount and remove our helmets, more looks in Sharon's direction.
"Are...are you erm...are you called Sharon?"
The rider has recognised Sharon's bike and now Sharon herself. DAMMIT! Damn and blooming well blast! I've been writing this god forsaken crummy little blog for over 13 years and not one soul ever recognises me or my work and there's blinking Madam Parker - puts the odd blog post out and rides a couple of miles on bikes that I maintain after teaching her to ride them and she gets all the goddamn attention.
I'm not jealous or envious, I don't care. No, no it's fine I'm glad she's being successful and I wish her all the luck in the world with her new found fame and fortune. Bitch.
Sharon takes her new found fame in a calm and mature manner.
We say hello only briefly, they're away on their own NC500 adventure, isn't everyone? Their Honda Shadow makes a satisfying V-twin rumble as they ride away. I want nothing more to do with my upstart jumped up famous hobbit girlfriend any more. She pretends to be all cool about it but like yeah whatever. Pffffft.
John o'Groats brings the obligatory photo opportunity at the famous sign post. I wonder if the sign post is as famous as Sharon? She'd be nothing without me you know, nothing. Then there's a tap on my shoulder and another friendly "Hello!" Oh am I famous, is this my moment too? Nope, the vivid blue macs tell me it's the German couple once again. We talk, exchange some details and use each other to take some more pictures. I suppose I'm doomed to a life of obscurity.
The Famous heroic motorcyclist that is Sharon Parker is playing it all cool.
Even our new German friends are pleased to be seen with Her Ladyship.
Another pub and another round of animated banter belies the weather outside that is gathering. I talk to Nick alone while we're in a porch puffing on our vapour sticks. He's OK, a little weary. Even though he's "not in charge" and this trip is not an organised tour just a set of suggestions everyone still comes to him with any gripes. Being a decent chap he takes them on board, I advise him we're all adults and responsible for ourselves. It's a brave man that takes a step forward and becomes the one to make things happen.
As we settle in for the night the wind is shaking the tent. The much hyped storm seems to be here. I hope this new Vango tent is up to the task and I hope the bikes remain upright. It's not cold though within the shuddering and flailing sheets and sleep comes easily enough if I ignore the tempest outside.
It's a strange place John o'Groats.
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North Coast 500 2017 Prologue
Ren looks at the wheres, whys and hows of this year's trip to the North of Scotland. This time they're with a group, kind of, sort of, maybe.
Panicking, Boredom and Pleasure
After the pre-departure concerns and a dull stretch of motorway things improve as Sharon and Ren head north on the first leg of their adventure.
Letting Sleeping Sad Sacks Lie
It's Sharon's turn to tell her version of the first day's events for this trip. After recently having surgery to remove a tumour is she even fit enough for the forthcoming journey?
The Best Of The Worst
Heading into the Highlands brings forth both rain and midges for our travellers. Fear not though as they are both prepared and fortuitous (ready and lucky).
Twisty roads and Twisted Friends
Sharon discovers the joy of riding Highland roads is more than enough to blow away the blues even in the rain. Nothing can stop her now.
Muggles at Bealach Na Ba
With improving weather and impressive surroundings Sharon has to make a major life changing decision. Will she...won't she...can she...should she...?
A Day Full Of Mystery And Magic
Sharon's journey into The Highlands is a mixture of magic, fear, delight, beauty and sheer survival. Can she remain shiny side up over The Applecross Pass?
While the weather takes a turn for the worst it's not nearly enough to put the dampeners on a group ride. Follow our trekkers along the Highland coastline and into Ren's favourite town, Ullapool.
There's a lot of emotions flowing through Sharon today but they all lead to one conclusion. Life is for living because tomorrow is not a certainty. The Highlands is an excellent space to make the most of life today.
Priceless Scenery And Pies
The next part of the NC500 adventure is arguably the most beautiful part. Will the weather hold out and just how expensive can 2 pies be? All this and more besides.
Friends Come In All Shades Of Blue
Fabulous scenery along fabulous road put a big smile on Sharon's face. There's friends old and new and some of the new friends are wearing blue. But why?
Riding across the very top of the country is always a pleasure even if it's raining. However Ren's day is ruined due to Sharon's fame.
Envy Attracts Envy And Fame
Sharon is revelling in the wonders of The Highlands, the delights of meeting fellow travellers and in upsetting Ren by being famous.
Sleeperzzz In The Rain
It's a soaking wet day riding from John O'Groats back south. There's the promise of a hearty meal and a proper bed at the end of the day to keep the riders going.
Fairly Dry And Rather Bracing
In spite of the awful weather Sharon's making the most of the last day riding the North Coast 500. At least she gets spoiled at the end of the day.
Failure and Reality
There is nothing left any more, nothing to look forward to now the adventure is complete. Ren just wants to get home but is that just a little too much to expect?
Thrills And Spills
There's a whole heap of miles to be covered for Sharon on her way home. How many can she cover, can she enjoy or endure them and will she survive?
North Coast 500 2017 Epilogue
Ren sums up the experience of riding the NC500. It's all about the people, the route just speaks for itself.
The End Of The Story Leaves Me Speechless
Sharon rounds off the NC500 adventure with the wrong breakfast, the wrong weather and the wrong traffic. Luckily these are just tiny hiccups on what was a most excellent adventure.
Paul S said :-
I was fortunate enough to see the famous Sharon Parker at this year's Manchester bike show. She was surrounded by autograph hunters and alas I couldn't get to speak to her. I did manage a chat with her assistant though who was busy fettling some bit off a tatty 125. Nice chap, though his name escapes me,
22/6/2017 6:48:14 PM UTC
Henrik said :-
Yeah, heard about him, but the name escapes me as well :-)
Strange place John O'Groats, yes strange indeed, things doesn't fit together, the buildings doesn't match the place, and the habor, in fact
the buildings are screaming after eachother also.
One stylish white building, and then clamp up some outa style carnival-colored building right next door
How could they ?
(I hope the people who did it is behind bars now)
22/6/2017 8:17:09 PM UTC
Henrik said :-
In fact so strange that it looks like something done in Photo Shop :-)
22/6/2017 8:35:41 PM UTC
Ren - The Ed said :-
ASSISTANT!!! Oh for goodness sake. With readers like you lot I might as well give up now. You're all horrible.
Yes John O'Groats is rather a mismatched muddled up place. Some folks might term this a "character" I rather see it as odd.
Anyhow I shall return to obscurity a cry myself to sleep.
22/6/2017 10:43:17 PM UTC
CrazyFrog said :-
Arghhh, who put those horrible huge lego bricks next to the hotel, they never used to be there. In fact, apart from the hotel, campsite, a few cottages and a tiny post office the5re was nothing there at all in the mid eighties!
23/6/2017 12:04:07 PM UTC
Ren - The Ed said :-
While it's not a sprawling metropolis quite yet there's quite a bit more than that which you remember CrazyFrog. It's been a while since I went to Land's End but I recall that being somewhat commercialised.
23/6/2017 1:55:04 PM UTC
pocketpete said :-
You will have to start carrying around signed Photographs to hand out to all the fans. Can I have one with both you and Envy on it. Obviously I dont want Ren on as he's simply not famous enough.
24/6/2017 4:36:00 PM UTC
Ren - The Ed said :-
24/6/2017 7:07:24 PM UTC
Sharon said :-
Haaa Haa, you lot will have to stop winding Ren up. I fear he will stop taking me on trips soon. Anyone got a spare sat nav going :-D
25/6/2017 10:23:10 AM UTC
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Travel StoriesNorth Coast 500 2017