North Coast 500 - Day 7 & Coming Home.

I've had a bit of a break from my Scottish blog to share a couple of family shoots, and so as not to bombard you with too many travel photos. Remember the old slideshows certain family members used to make you sit through?! Although I have had a couple of requests to do just this with my North Coast 500 series - maybe if there are refreshments this would make it more tempting?

So, to day 7, my last official day of the North Coast 500 route and day 8, my journey from Loch Ness down to the Bridge of Allan and then home. On day 7 I woke up early to a sunny Dornoch day and a wonderful breakfast at No 9 Guest House.

I hadn't actually planned too much for the day, and I have to say I set off with a heavy heart, knowing that this was the last day of the adventure. I drove slowly around Dornoch Firth and stopped for a few minutes at Bonar Bridge.

The traffic was busy, and I felt I'd hit a popular route, there were signs to various destinations of interest and roadside shopping stop offs. This A road felt a lifetime away from all the single tracks driving through mountains from just a few days ago. I hit the Cromarty Firth, peppered with oil rigs and signs of industry.

I wanted to get away from the main road and prolong my journey which was hurtling towards the end point of Inverness. I'd seen a few photos of Rogie Falls before I set off and decided to take a trip. It was the perfect spot to visit after a morning of not feeling quite myself. Tall trees and the crashing waterfalls carved deep into the rock.

There is a peninsula just above Inverness called The Black Isle. This is where I headed for next. I had circled Munlochy on my map as somewhere I wanted to visit. Here is The Clootie Well - a strange left over from an ancient pagan tradition. Folk would bring belongings to the well as an offering, sometimes in the shape of clothes or rags, in the hope that a family member's illness would be cured. The tradition has been updated as I spotted a Santa hat and a hi viz jacket. It was a strange, eerie place. The twigs cracked underfoot and echoed round the trees. 

I drove a little further onto The Black Isle. At this point I was feeling just a little jaded, and knowing I hadn't booked anywhere to stay for the night, I was keen to try and find somewhere a little further south than Inverness. I drove to Avoch Bay and Chanonry Point first to see if I could spot any dolphins.

And then I turned to head south. I hit Inverness at 5pm on a Sunday eve. In the traffic, I turned to see drivers left and right, many coming back from weekend's away with family. Sleeping kids in the back with heads pressed to the window and streamline roof racks perched on top like tortoise shells. 'You are entering Inverness' the sign proclaimed. That was it, I'd finished. I wanted to feel something. For the first few moments I sat tapping my fingers on the steering wheel to the radio, the traffic flow edging slowly towards a roundabout ahead. And then it hit me as I drove out of the town along the banks of Loch Ness. For this journey, I had pushed through my travel anxiety and although panic attacks had grumbled once or twice, I'd silenced them. Through the darkness of the beginning of the year, I'd pulled myself up and done something that for a long time had not seemed achievable. I felt something I hadn't felt for a while, I felt proud. I pulled over and just sat in the car for a few moments and took this photo. In the grand scheme of things, it's nothing special, but it'll always mean something to me.

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I drove down to Fort Augustus on the southern tip of the loch and found a great place to stay. I had a beer and face-timed Suze, it was good to celebrate albeit over screens!

The next morning I had a quick walk to the tip of the loch before setting off.

As I still had a number of miles to travel before reaching home, I decided to break my journey up by staying with my cousins again in the Bridge of Allan. The journey there on a blue sky day was quite spectacular.

Travelling through The Cairngorms was beautiful.

After coming through the mountains, I stopped off for a lovely lunch with our friend Carol and her beautiful pooch Carter. They showed me some of the local sights.

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And then onto a peaceful eve with my cousin and family. We sat round the dinner table over a glass of fizz, and chatted about the last few days. After a great night's sleep, I climbed into the car, packing my overnight bags up for the last time, for now, and tapped in the directions home into the Sat Nav. I felt excited to be returning home to Suzi.

A few hours later, I pulled up onto the cobbles on our street, shiny from a recent shower. When I walked into the lounge, Suze had left a treat for me on the table, a pecan pie, still warm. And propped up, one of our favourite pieces of art (by the wonderful Angela Smyth). It reads 'a suitcase built for adventure...' and written underneath 'the Thrills of the Unknown are Waiting for You.'

Thanks to everyone who followed my journey.  It was great to get your messages when I was away, it felt like you came along too. If you'd like to read the series of blogs, here are the links to each day:

Day 1 - Dornie to Big Sand

Day 2 - Big Sand to Inchnadamph

Day 3 - Inchnadamph to Talmine

Day 4 - Talmine to Armadale

Day 5 - Armadale to Thrumster

Day 6 - Thrumster to Dornoch

Me and Suzi are talking about the possibility of doing a longer trip together next year, we've just started doing some research. We'd love to hear where you've been, if you have any recommendations, or where you'd like to have an adventure!

The North Coast 500 - Day 3 - Inchnadamph to Talmine

I mentioned in my last blog (you can read it here), that this day, day 3, was probably my favourite. The bright blue sky and surprisingly warm sunshine certainly were a factor. Day 3 was all about open roads, snowy mountain tops, deserted beaches and crystal blue waters.

I woke up early and had a bowl of porridge on my little veranda at my B n B, a breakfast with a view. Whilst I was away, I found a new love of porridge, something I'd always thought wasn't my thing. After breakfast, I took a short stroll down to Loch Assynt to the soundtrack of oyster catchers flying overhead.

I packed the Corsa up, it had that warm car smell when I climbed into the driver's seat. I felt the warmth of the sun through the glass as I drove along the side of Loch Assynt to Lochinver.

I had the most incredible mushroom, chestnut and red wine pie at Lochinver. When I posted about it on Instagram, quite a few people replied excitedly to say they'd tasted these gorgeous pies too! After finishing the last bite, I was happy to know that they have a Pies By Post business.

I followed the road around the coast, and for the most part I had it to myself. It could have been the day when I felt most alone, but the landscape seemed to hold me. Sometimes there were stretches of road that felt very remote, and just as I was wondering if I'd see anybody ever again, out popped a little house with smoke curling from its chimney.

My first stop was Clachtoll. Such a perfect little beach. Dunes, white sands and turquoise water. I had it to myself.

The only other person I saw on this stretch of road was the postman. I pulled into a couple of passing places to let him go by, but on the third time, he waved and gave me a smile of recognition. I don't know quite why, but it gave me a boost, another reaffirmation.

The ever changing landscape was exhilarating. From the beach, to driving along cliff tops, to mountain views. Little lochs peppered the brown land. As I looked at the map again, I realised that today I would be reaching the very top of Scotland. For some reason before I set out (and this is how my anxiety can manifest itself), I had pre-empted a wave of panic washing over me when I reached the most northerly point. The furthest I could possibly be away from home on this trip. Although the thought grumbled away a few times, I didn't give it air to breath, and I know it might not sound much written here, but it was a significant turning point for me.

Along the single track road towards Drumberg. The tarmac carved into the horizon. I stopped to look at the map just to check the next petrol stop as I'd noticed the gauge getting past the wrong side of the quarter full mark. As I stopped, I noticed two pairs of deer eyes staring at me from the side of the road, they chewed nonchalantly. Bored with me, they sauntered into the trees. The landscape made me feel incredibly small. Everything seemed to be oversized. The lochs, the mountains, even the sky.

After travelling along the single track road for the morning, I met the A road again to head further north. I joined a small herd of campervans and motorhomes with shiny bike racks and bright logos. Travelling further into North West Sutherland, I started to feel an urgency to reach the top of the country. I drove a little quicker than anticipated up to Durness, so I didn't make any stops or take any photos until I hit that little town. I had a welcome hot chocolate in Cocoa Mountain and let Suzi know I'd made it to the top. Just along from Durness is Smoo Cave. It's very impressive at 130 feet wide, 200 feet long and 50 feet wide. The river Allt Smoo falls from an 80 foot drop into sea water below. The sound was deafening, and again, nature made me feel incredibly small.

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I drove towards my Airbnb in Talmine. The majestic Ben Hope caught the late afternoon light.

And then to the lovely croft that was home for the night, and that's exactly how it felt. I had such a warm welcome from my hosts Steve and Lea. A pair of slippers waited for me at the door, and inside, the log fire glowed in the burner. The perfect end to a long day's driving. I settled in for the night. I'll write more about this lovely croft in my next blog, about my glimpse of the northern lights, and a beautiful sunrise that started Day 4. 

The North Coast 500 - Day 2 - Big Sand to Inchnadamph

I realised that I mentioned the weather quite a lot in my last post (which you can read here), but it was a big part of the trip. How it affected the landscape, and me too. Just before I turned in for the night in the cabin, I had a short walk down to the stoney beach. It's the first time I'd felt a little isolated. The small houses dotted along the shore were uninhabited, and the wind danced in the electricity cables above. As the light faded, I decided to head back to the warmth of the cabin. 

Day 2 was all about headlands, mountains emerging from the clouds, dark waters, snow, stags, and a staring competition with a buzzard. I slowly made my way around Wester Ross through snow and surface water.

This day above all others tested my driving. I travelled down the side of Little Loch Broom. The water on one side, steep mountain on the right, I felt quite hemmed in. I realised how much landscape can affect my mood and to a certain extent, my anxiety. But it has the polar affect too as I climbed out of Dundonnell. The break in the clouds summoned the sunshine through tall trees and I felt my body respond. I felt another reaffirmation of why I was doing this as I watched the light through the bare branches, the low clouds breaking, and the cold dark waters of the streams rushing down the mountainside. 

I reached Corrieshalloch Gorge. My photos don't do it justice and it was a lot deeper than it looks! In fact when I tentatively walked onto the bridge, vertigo kicked in. The sides of the gorge were steep and narrow, trickles of water glistening on the wet stone. My mind started racing and it reminded me of a scene in some crime drama or other - so I inched my way back from the bridge.

Just as I was getting back into the car, I noticed these tall pine trees perched on top of the hill. Matchstick trunks, they were lined up like dominoes.

I drove further north to Ullapool. Although it was grey, the white row of houses and shops on the loch front were very welcoming.

I had scampi and chips in a cute cafe, a cafe obsessed with time. On a feature wall, paper with many clock faces on it. On the opposite wall, three clocks. Different models, positioned in such a way so not to look too symmetrical. Two of them read 1.25pm, the other 1.50pm. I glanced at my watch and it was 1.25pm. After eating a delicious lunch, I glanced at the three clocks, they all read 1.50pm. This alignment made me think it must be time to head off!

I was finding the single track roads my favourite to drive on. I wanted to feel solitude on my trip, and being on these little roads without seeing another soul gave me a taste of this. The Coigach peninsula was just spectacular to drive around. Along the banks of Loch Lurgainn, mountains would reveal themselves from the thick clouds.  The brown earth speckled with bright gorse, a welcome burst of yellow through the grey.  

Stac Pollaidh was particularly stunning.

As I said in my Day 1 blog, I was on golden eagle watch, twitching every time I saw a bird soaring or perched in a tree. I spotted an unidentified large brown bird high in a tree and stopped the car abruptly. There started a strange one minute stare off with a buzzard. Neither of us wanted to give in, but eventually it ruffled its feathers and flew away.

And then to Inchnadamph - I love that name! I was driving towards my B & B, and on the mountainside opposite Loch Assynt, a group of around a dozen stags were grazing. I stopped the car in a handy lay-by and raced to the back of the car to get a longer lens out of the boot, but thought against all the faffing and door slamming and just watched them. I took a few photos with the lens I already had on my camera. Their antlers made them look top heavy and they seemed cumbersome when they reached down to graze. A car pulled up behind me and skidded on the gravel, spooking the stags and they bounded away. I chatted excitedly to the B & B owner about my sightings, and she told me that Inchnadamph means meadow of the stags. It was certainly a highlight for me. 

It's a small hamlet, but oh so pretty. I took a little walk around and breathed in the day I'd just had.

 

I'm looking forward to sharing Day 3 soon - if I had to pick a favourite day, that would be it!

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