Looking across to the snow capped alpine mountains seen from the back seat of a motorcycle

Home Travel StoriesNorth Coast 500 2017

The Best Of The Worst

By Ren Withnell

Last night was good. I have slept well and only had to slither out of the sleeping bag but once for a midnight pee. It was warm too, sweet warmth, such a refreshing change after freezing my ass off on the last couple of camping trips I've been on (Cornwall In Winter 2017. Chunking Campastrophy 2017). I feel as though I could actually get to quite like this camping thing if I could be that warm and that comfortable at night. I need a decent sleeping bag for winter.

I partake of my morning ablutions within the clean modern toilets then much to my surprise I find sleeping beauty has awoken without my having to prod, poke, cajole and pester her into conciousness. Something is wrong, something is seriously wrong. Have I been transported to another reality where camping is comfortable and Sharons wake up by themselves? The grass is still green and the sea is still blue but I shall keep an eye open for other anomalous events.

The shoreline near the campsite. Big blue sea and a rocky then sandy beach below
We take a short walk down to the coast before departing.

We decamp, pay our bill (£20, camping is getting expensive these days) and depart northbound once more along the Ayrshire coast. Once out of Ayr the road opens up which allows us to open the throttles too. I see Sharon in my mirrors and I'm rather proud. We're not breaking any land speed records or even any speed limits but to see her flowing gracefully along at 60mph through the corners causes me to recall when she could barely muster 45mph on the straights. She's up to speed and she seems comfortable with the speed.

The A78 rises over the crest of a hill and my heart is lifted by our first sight of what we know is to come - dramatic mountains set against the sea and lochs. I immediately sense excitement and then relaxation, I feel like I'm coming home. Home? I've never lived in Scotland I've only visited here for a week or two each year but it has become a place that I know, a place that I enjoy and a place where I feel at ease. Or perhaps it's just that holiday feeling and I've got the wrong end of the stick. It wouldn't be the first time.

Despite my joy I do know the Scottish countryside is far from perfect and the big black cloud over the mountains confirms last night's weather forecast. Here comes the rain, fear not we are prepared. Waterproof socks for me, waterproof boots for Sharon - check. Waterproof jackets with hi-viz over the top - check. Waterproof leg-zip pants - check. After donning our downpour protection we ride on heading for the ferry at McInroy's Point.

Sharon's zipper up her waterproof pants in a car park on the Ayrshire coast
Zip, zip, close the flap, zip. We're hermetically sealed in anticipation of the downpour.

Timing is everything and we roll straight onto the ferry that will take us across the Clyde Estuary. We're relieved of £18 for 2 motorcycles and 2 passengers and I'm starting to think this is going to be an expensive trip. With the rain coming down heavily now the wind has picked up making our crossing rough and requiring us to keep a hand on the motorcycles just in case. Luckily it's only a short crossing otherwise I suspect Sharon and myself could soon be retching up over the side.

Sharon holds onto her Kawasaki as the ferry crosses the Clyde Estuary
Hang on to your bikes and your stomachs!

We're hungry. Rather than turn right out of the ferry terminal at Hunters Quay I lead us into Dunoon in search of food. Between the rain and the gusts of wind I manage to spot a bakery come cafe that looks hopeful. Within we find a warm welcome, a decent breakfast and no complaints about our gear dripping on the floor. As we greedily stuff our faces a string of sodden locals come and go, chatting with a distinct yet gentle Scottish lilt. Dunoon feels remote and wild today even if the metropolis of Glasgow is only an hour away. 

The rain lashes the cars and motorcycles and properties in Dunoon
It's dricht in Dunoon today though our welcome is warm.

The A815 takes us north once more as the rain continues with vigour. I am befuddled by Sharon's riding. In the dry she's up to speed but with a little effort I can leave her through a long string of bends. Here among the hills and the lochs on roads with swathes of water flowing across them she's keeping up even if I'm as brave as I dare to be. She's a wet weather expert, or perhaps I'm rubbish in the wet? Dammit. No matter, this is not a race.

We're splashing along wonderfully and making good progress, still I make sure to slow from time to time when it's safe to take in our surroundings. Steep hillsides fall into deep lochs, trees cling to any edges where they can and occasional houses lurk between overgrown undergrowth if ever there's an area flat enough to allow this. I breathe in the clean air and savour the space. 

Loch Eck comes and goes and it's not long until we're on the shores of Loch Fyne. There's little traffic which makes getting stuck behind some random tourist (we're not tourists...honest...) rather frustrating. I overtake wondering whether or not Sharon is brave enough given the conditions, only to find she's right there in my mirrors - go girl. We stop briefly in Inverary and consider having another brew. We decide we're not ready yet so we just take a few snapshots, stretch our legs and hit the road once more.

Sharon stands next to the bikes with her hands up in the pouring rain at inverary
Sharon is filled with joy even if the sky is filled with rain.

The A819 wriggles it's way north to meet the A85 where we turn left towards Oban. By the time we reach Taynuilt we're ready for that brew and another local cafe provides this as well as some cake. Not only is this going to be an expensive trip I think I'm going to be putting some weight on too. The Connel bridge takes us over the mouth of Loch Etive and soon we're in Glencoe. The rain has persisted all this time and yet the ride has been superb. The Scottish Highlands are a world apart for motorcyclists.

Looking out over Loch Fyne we see massive hills and mountains through the rain and mist
You'll not find views like this in Manchester.

The Red Squirrel campsite is not to my liking however. Nick chose this place because the campsite he was hoping to use is being refurbished and this was the nearest second option. The toilets are glorified portacabins, the ground is gravelly, the grass is patchy and the price is too high at £24 for 2 people. C'est la vie.

My mood is lifted to find that several of the group are already here. In this rain soaked valley where the air is calmer the midges are out in force but fear not, Sharon and I are prepared once more. We're fully clothed with head nets to protect us from the evil wee beasties and lotions to discourage their engorgement. By the time our tent is up and our soggy gear is stowed away I have but a dozen or so bites on my hands and my neck. Sounds bad? Pah, this is nothing compared to that which I have endured in the past, it is but a mere flesh wound I tell you. 

Another boon to this evening is one rider has towed her motorcycle to the campsite behind her motorhome. We are invited in to escape the midges, drink hot tea and sit upon real chairs out of the rain. She also has a freezer filled with food that she wants used up as her van will be left empty as we travel the NC500 route. I expected a cold, wet and midge filled evening sat in the rain or in the tent. Instead I'm sat in a motorhome eating chicken, hash browns, sausages, bread and drinking tea while surrounded by friends new and old. Thank you Sue, thank you so very very much.

The motorhome at the red squirell. A small coach built van
Oh sweet mercy. Dryness, warmth, comfort and friendship all within this little haven.

Retiring to the tent is much more acceptable with a belly full of grub after an evening of laughter. I hope I sleep as well as I did last night.

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?
Into Ullapool 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.
BEE Happy 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?
Stolen Limelight 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.

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