This is the continuation of Katie Palmer's story on her North 500 trip with her husband Ian. To read the first part of the story click here.
The North Coast
The next morning we started heading West. Other than John O’Groats, we were yet to see much evidence of the over-crowding issues that the NC500 has supposedly created. However, within the first few minutes, we drove past a campsite next to the large sandy beach at Dunnet Bay and were shocked to see the site completely full with vast numbers of white motorhomes lined up in neat rows.
Not that I blame anyone for wanting to stay in such a great location – Dunnet Bay boasts a sheltered, 2 mile arc of white sandy beach with a reef break which makes for reliable year-round surfing. It was just that after a few days of driving along quiet roads and camping in relatively remote locations, it jarred a little to be suddenly in the midst of the summer holiday beach brigade.
This pattern continued every time we passed an easily accessible sandy beach and the North Coast is bursting with them. If this part of the world enjoyed more settled weather, I’d imagine these coves would look like Cornwall in August. That said, this really is a surfer’s paradise and if you can cope with the chill factor, you’ll be spoiled for choice; from the big hitters like Thurso East to Farr Beach at Bettyhills, to tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them coves that we only discovered because we took the dog for a walk.
As we drove further West, you could see the hills forming and the landscape becoming more rugged. Again, we chose to exit the official NC500 route in search of somewhere quieter to camp for the night.
After crossing the slipway at Tongue, we headed North along a single-track road and came across the beautiful Talmine, which proved to be such a great antidote to the packed-full campsites that we ended up staying 3 nights. We had a few walks, runs and bike rides around the dramatic coastal path overlooking the Rabbit Islands.
Tearing ourselves away from Talmine (we really needed a drive to charge up the fridge), we headed West to Durness. It’s an interesting spot with an award-winning beach (Sango Bay), an array of WW2 bunkers and Smoo Cave, the largest coastline cave in the UK.
Durness is also a good place to access Cape Wrath, the most Northwesterly point of mainland Britain, via a small ferry. Once you’ve crossed, it’s a 22 mile round trip to reach the famous lighthouse at the point but in summer there’s usually a bus service offering a ride in one or both directions if your legs aren’t up to the distance.
Leaving Durness, we headed to Kinlochbervie to replenish our supplies (there’s groceries, petrol and a hardware/camp supplies shop there) before taking the tiny road up to Sandwood Bay. Another coastal gem steeped in history and supernatural mythology, we were keen to return having taken the tent out and camped the night in previous years (stories of the haunted bothy and marauding Viking ghost army really aren’t funny at 3am when every rustle of the tent outer from the wind sounds like approaching footsteps!).
This time, we decided to run the 8km track to the bay but return to sleep in the van. Even when you’ve been before, you can’t help being a bit overawed by the sight that greets you when you arrive at the bay.
A mass of grassy sand dunes (meaning even when there are other people camping, you can easily find a spot that feels like it’s just you there) lead down to a vast sweep of white sand, crashing waves and ‘Am Buachaille’, the eerie looking sea stack standing like a sentry at the Western tip of the bay. It’s a really special place and well worth going out of your way to visit.
Sadly, as word of its specialness has spread (due in no small part to the promotion of the NC500), it has become more crowded. On our way back, we passed several groups of ill prepared looking campers, struggling to carry floral designer hold-alls bursting with barbeques, footballs and flimsy pop-up tents.
I wonder how they managed juggling their heavy loads over a good hour-long trek and whether they had a good night’s sleep when they got there?
To watch Katie and Ian's video on the second part of their journey, see their video here