North Coast 500 - Part 3

By Alice Peyredieu

This is the third and last part of Katie Palmer's story on her North 500 trip with her husband Ian.

You can read the first part of the story here and second part here

The West Coast

Heading South, we stopped off at Scourie to walk the dog on the beach. Within minutes, an enormous white tailed eagle swooped down and landed on a rock just a few metres away. Basking sharks and a whale were also ticked off the wildlife-spotting list during the trip!

Our next camping spot was going to be Clachtoll just under the Stoer peninsular, famous for its 60m high sea stack the ‘Old Man of Stoer’. We had fond memories of a tranquil, quiet campsite from years gone by so were a little surprised to find it had grown massively into a super-busy, family site with motorhomes as far as the eye could see. Another sign of how the NC500 has changed things.

We had time to squeeze in a quick mountain bike ride before dinner around the many small lochs to the East of the bay. Cycling back along a tiny singletrack road, we were overtaken by several loudly revving sports cars and at least 8 massive motorhomes before passing a tiny cottage with a large homemade sign in the windows reading ‘GO HOME NC500 YOU ARE KILLING OUR COMMUNITIES’! 

Top Gear has covered the route and as we discovered, you can hire sports cars from Inverness especially for taking on this ‘driving challenge’. Large motorhomes are also causing grief to the locals as many are hired with drivers unaccustomed to handling vehicles of that size in those conditions. Travelling in convoy, not pulling in to allow overtaking and being unable to reverse into small passing places, these behemoths are making everyday road travel a nightmare for year-round locals. On top of the damage done to roads simply not made for this volume of traffic, residents dread the increase in litter and even human waste that is the inevitable result of an inadequate infrastructure (not enough bins and public toilets to cope with these numbers of visitors). 

Sat on our bikes, it felt easy to be scathing, but let’s face it, we would be soon be back in our own camper van (albeit a small one) following many of the same road sections. We were having such a good time but the thought of adding to these problems didn’t feel great.

Keen to head off ‘The Route’ again after the Clachtoll crowds, we followed the smaller roads towards The Summer Isles and pitched up at the campsite in Altandhu. It’s a prime sea kayaking location for exploring the multitude of tiny islands that are sprinkled throughout this part of the coastline.

The next day was forecast to be high winds and double drops all day but the worst of it managed to hold off until lunchtime, allowing us the chance to quickly climb the legendary Stac Pollaidh en route to Ullapool. The 600m high peak seems daunting from below but it’s a straightforward path and an easy scramble at the top with unbeatable views. 

Getting back to the van minutes before the rain started, we headed to Ullapool for a fish and chips lunch and a re-stock of supplies before continuing to Gairloch, our stop for the night. Whilst there, we had a run out to the Fairy Lochs, a collection of tiny lochans and also the final resting place of an American B-24 bomber plane, which tragically crashed into the rocks on its homeward journey at the end of WW2. The wreckage remains strewn across the hillside and in the lochs making it a somber but fascinating place to visit.

In much improved weather, we headed for Torridon the following morning with a plan to hike out to Craig Bothy (once Britain’s most remote Youth Hostel) for a night. We brought our tent just in case the bothy was already occupied but it was such a beautiful night, we opted for a tent camp anyway. Down by the shore we made a driftwood fire on the stones of the beach and watched the sun go down as two deer strutted on the cliff tops above us. Magic!

The next day’s drive from Torridon to Applecross (taking the coastal road) is one of the most scenic you could hope for, with views across the water to the islands of Raasay and Rona and the spectacular Cuillin ridge on Skye. The old coffin road between Kenmore and Applecross (10 miles of superb winding singletrack) makes for a spectacular trail run or MTB.

It must rain in Applecross sometimes, but seemingly never when we visit. Even before the birth of the NC500, it’s always been a popular destination but despite the hot weather, the campsite was pretty peaceful and chilled. Highlights include ‘Britain’s best singletrack’ (according to Ian) from the village to Sands and back, kayaking in the bay and lunch at the famous Applecross Inn.

Speaking to the owner of the little art/gift shop, it seems Applecross has suffered a greater number of less-than-respectful tourists visiting since the route was launched. There is a decent public toilet on the front but people have been choosing to relieve themselves in various indiscreet locations across the village as well as leaving litter and lighting fires in dangerous places when wild camping. It was a great relief to hear her say that locals are still happy to welcome visitors as long as they behave like civilized human beings. It goes to show that with just a little forethought (Can I safely drive on this tiny road? Is my chosen camp spot going to annoy the people who live here? Where will I go to the toilet whilst I’m staying here?), it is possible to enjoy this absolutely unbeatable road trip without adding to the problems. 

If you travel thoughtfully, you’ll still get the famous Highland welcome that has drawn us back to this part of the world for so many years.

 

8 comments

  • The NC 500 thing is a disaster exacerbated by Covid of course. We can only hope that the midges and the rain will see the majority of creatures off. If Covid blows over we should see things improve as they will bugger off to warmer climes. We have had the same problems this year down here in Dorset. The thing is – your well put together and entertaining article also manages to advertise the last bit of Britain not swamped by the entitled and ignorant motorhomers – what can we do?

    Tim Hicks

  • Unfortunately the overriding theme reading this story is the distaste for fellow tourists also following the route. You seem to believe you are somehow different but in essence you are no different. In fact I would go so far to say that as seasoned travellers (which I assume you are) you should have had the foresight to anticipate the crowds and stay away yourselves. Just saying.

    John Sanderson

  • Hi there I enjoyed reading your message and totally agree with the comments about camper van/fast sports cars/the Benidorm bams , (that’s what we call them up here) relieving them selves everywhere . I live in Thurso and am a keen cyclist mountain biker and a lot of NC500 ers have no respect.

    Walter Mclachlan

  • Thanks for highlighting the devastating effect of the NC500 on the West Coast Scotland, with unsuitable vehicles – from low-slung noisy sports cars to lumbering caravans – tearing up the roads and overwhelming the local infrastructure. The ‘Top Gear’ effect has been profoundly depressing, with convoys of GTIs treating the roads like their personal racing track, to the terror of other road users, whether vulnerable cyclists being overtaken at a hair’s breadth or car drivers venturing in the other direction as these idiots overtake at corners and blind summits without a concern for what might be coming their way. I met a cycle tourist who had ridden up from Cornwall a week ago who was thinking of abandoning her trip early because her nerves were burnt out by the neverending and incredibly dangerous traffic she encountered once she hit the NC500 route. We’ve also had a lot of problems with people in caravans sneakily dumping the contents of their chemical loos in laybys and rivers – because they are too stingy to stay in campsites and use the facilities there, I guess. People are abusing the natural landscape: last month I saw a car down on a beach at low tide, racing around in circles, throwing up sand and no doubt doing quite a lot of damage to the shellfish buried in the flats waiting for the returning tide. Most local businesses get next to no benefit from these louts, many of whom aim to run the NC500 “challenge” as fast as possible, contributing nothing to the local area but litter (see the cans of Red Bull strewn along the verges), air pollution and piss. I appreciate your awareness that being in a van you’re in effect contributing to that – though until the plague of caravans and ferraris, a gentle, thoughtful road trip round the highlands in a campervan was no problem at all. I think your conclusion was right: the Highlands needs and welcomes tourists who are respectful of the local environment and communities – it’s not like there are many other sources of income around here. But there is only so much the local infrastructure can support, and this NC500 malarky is something we can all do without.

    Ginevra

  • Hopefully we’ll be purchasing our very first van in the new year. It would be nice to think that come spring we’ll be able to do that trip ourselves

    Aaron Cone

  • I am pleased Alice and Ian enjoyed their tour of our beautiful NW Scotland, I am sure you appreciate how important and precious this wonderful natural asset is to us in Scotland. However, we are really concerned about the impact the promotion of NC500 is having on local communities and the natural environment. So much so that the service infrastructure is under great stress. I personally would like a system similar to that which was introduced to the Goyt Valley in Derbyshire many years whereby you had to leave your motorised transport at either end of the valley and continue on foot, cycle or park minibus. Such a scheme could operate from Kinlochewe to Gairloch, Achnasheen to Applecross or Ullapool to Kinlochbervie. What we do know is the current situation is unsustainable, may be we will have a quota of vehicles, especially these absurdly huge motor homes and speeding super cars . We welcome and encourage sustainable tourism but not the influx of motorised transport on our fragile roads and communities.

    Chris

  • So glad to see the third installment on the NC500 balances the enticingly attractive descriptioms from the first two. The tourist-board created route now seems a victim of it’s own success. The scores of fast car, bike & hired motorhome users drawn to the idea of the route are directly devaluing the beauty the route originaly set out to promote, and 2020’s explosion in fly (not wild) camping has been a curse everywhere. I love Caithness through to Lochaber and would fully promote them to any respectful visitors.

    Andrew Johnson

  • It is good more are now finding the "great outdoors " but a minority leaving commonsense at home!

    Bob Andrews

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