Days 15-16: The days of in and out roads and Bealach Na Ba

Day 15 started with a dawn walk on the lovely Little Gruinard Beach. Such a great park up with the beach to ourselves first thing. We were then off to explore the area around Loch Ewe. But first we took a small road off toward Opinan and the fascinatingly named Mellon Udrigle, which sounds like something from the Hobbit. The big surprise for us there was the wonderful beach, so we had our second beach walk of the morning. Stunning.

From Opinan we retraced our steps back to the main road. This was to be the pattern for the next few days. Following the single track until we literally reached the end of the road. Always hoping that there will be space to turn round (there always has been so far).

Moving up to the right side of Loch Ewe we reached Aultbea, which shows a lovely big beach on the map but all we could see was a rocky shore. Perhaps it is one hidden from the road, but having had beaches a plenty that morning we continued on to Mellon Charles where there was a Perfumery Cafe. I had a welcome coffee there with an awesome gluten and dairy free lemon and lime cake which was the most delicious thing. The dogs were sleeping off their beach time in the van.

We continued around Loch Ewe, once more taking a road in and out up to Cove, where there is a monument to the Arctic Convoy, the merchant navy and navy vessels that took supplies to Russia during the Second World War. Many perished en route and the memorial on the cliff top above the entrance to Loch Ewe, from which they left, was interesting and moving. I had not known about this before.

Apparently Loch Ewe was critical to the Navy during WW2, due to its natural defences and depth. There are lots of old bunkers along the shore line and a trail of information with stories of how the sailors interacted with the locals (mostly amicably) whom they outnumbered 3 to 1.

The next “in and out” road took us past the unimaginatively but accurately named Big Sand but disappointingly it was within a huge holiday park and I objected to paying to access it especially with so many accessible beaches around.

Our fifth and final in and outer took us to Red Point, another lovely beach but this one heaving with people so we continued back to the main road where we were carrying on towards Kinlochewe. We stopped briefly to see Victoria Falls, which was pretty and very peaceful. Not quite a match for its South African namesake, but a pleasant stop.

It was getting late by this point and we had covered well over 100 miles with all the ins and outs, so we started looking for a park up place. One place recommended on Search for Sites was a restaurant in Lower Diabaig, where you could park up and eat. It sounded attractive but was still a way away so I decided against it and opted for the car park in the heart of Glen Torridon. It is well used by walkers doing some of the peaks in that area, and a spot where Red Deer are known to hang out, but once the walkers left it was just us for a quiet and rather isolated night.

The heavens opened overnight and I was glad we were well up above the burn. The deer clearly had somewhere more cosy to hang out as we saw no sign of any. But we were cozy too and in the morning we strolled out in a brief respite from the rain and followed the hill walking path – but only for a short while. For today we had a major hurdle to cross: Applecross or to give it its Gaelic name: Bealach Na Ba – the Pass of the Cattle.

The weather was not much improved as we started Day 16 and before heading on the coast road to Applecross, we took the small in and out road towards Lower Diabaig, the location of our potential park up from the night before. Boy am I glad I opted for Torridon!

The road over to Diabaig was wild – hair pin bends, 25% inclines and a very narrow single track road. It was beautiful but I was glad I had not attempted it while tired the night before. When we reached Lower Diabaig I looked at the hill down and bottled out. I was not sure if we would get back out again! But this was all great preparation for what was to come later in the day.

We took the easy coastal route round to Applecross. It was drizzly and foggy so views were more limited, but a pleasant run. We stopped at Applecross beach for a rather wet walk on another great beach – and we even came across a little flock of Shetlands sheltering up in the woodland by the side of the road.

After a brief stop in Applecross, we set off to tackle Bealach Na Ba. Wow! What a road. It has the steepest ascent of any road in Britain rising from sea level at Applecross to 2054 ft (626 metres). It is similar to mountain passes in the Alps with hairpin bends and has blind summits and sheer drops at regular intervals. To make it more fun, as we drove up, the fog descended on us and I could barely see.

In reality, visibility was probably 20 feet but when you are on a single track road watching out for anything coming up the other way, that isn’t very far! I was gripping the steering wheel, crawling along, at one point genuinely scared!

But finally we started to descend and come out of the fog and it was worth it for the views that appeared before us. I could have done without the driver who decided to park up on the passing place on one of the switchbacks, and the one who waited until I had reversed back up the hill before thinking that perhaps they could move onto the gravel, and the many who attempted to race round it, overshooting passing places that should have been perfectly usable. And I don’t think I would choose to do it again in a hurry – at least not in a 15-year-old motorhome (although she did brilliantly). But I am glad we did it this time. It was an amazing experience.

I didn’t take any pictures but I have uploaded the unedited final 12 minutes of the descent. Excuse my language! It was a scary experience and I think I was slightly hysterical to have survived unscathed!

When we reached the bottom I stopped at the very busy dog-friendly Bealach Cafe and Gallery and had a wonderful Tuscan Bean soup and a salted caramel shortcake. I think I earned it. I ended up sharing a table with a chap from Dent who was just having a cheese toastie before tackling Bealach Na Ba the other way on a bike! So I felt like a wuss – although he graciously (though I think optimistically) said he thought it might be harder in a motorhome!

After my late lunch break I was much restored so we drove the last few miles to our campsite for the night: The Wee Campsite in Lochcarron. This very informal spot is great – you just park up and at some point the chap comes along and takes your money. And right next door there are pigs! Otter was fascinated and spent the rest of the drizzly evening pig watching from the van window! I made some more soup – carrot and pepper this time. Very nice!

Video: Week 1

Each week I will do a video summary of what we have been up to. Here is Week 1. I know we have already finished week 2 but it still needs editing!

Are you scared and other frequently asked questions

Most of my posts so far have been trip reports – sharing a glimpse of where we have been and what we have done. But people have asked a number of questions about the trip so I thought it might be worth doing a kind of FAQ for the trip. If there is anything you want to know just ask!

Are you scared?

I think this is mostly in connection with free camping though perhaps also doing this alone. The honest answer is I haven’t been yet. The closest I got was when a car pulled into the layby where I was parked alone, just as I was getting the dogs out for their final ablutions. But it was weird rather than scary – they drove on past and straight out the other end. Either they got a sight of Martha and didn’t fancy their chances or they weren’t on the look out for an overweight middle aged woman!! Either way there was no trouble.

When we are on our own at a park up, particularly if it is on the road, I will strap the front doors together so they can’t be opened even if someone broke the lock. But to be honest Martha is a great watch dog and would not take kindly to anyone entering without permission. Even Otter would make a lot of fuss! I think it would feel very different without the dogs but with them it is all very relaxed. And almost everywhere there has been at least one other van so it feels much safer.

Do you have a set route?

Not really. I am following the coast as closely as I can but in reality there are bits where it is just not possible by vehicle. So we have a big atlas and each evening we plan roughly where we will go the next day. Sometimes that has to change when we see the road – it has to be sensibly passable by a small motorhome – and sometimes we decide to follow a route that we had not found on the map. We keep going – stopping for breaks, walks and visits whenever we want to – until I get tired and then I look for somewhere to stop. I have pre-booked (the day before) a couple of sites when I knew I needed to service the van. I have popped into one or two on spec (there are spaces at this time of year) and I have rung CLs on the day for that evening.

I don’t want to book any further ahead as it just puts pressure on us to cover distance.

How far are you travelling each day?

This question has come up both from those who think we are covering the ground quickly – and those who feel we are taking our time! The short answer is “it depends” but it is averaging around 80 miles a day. Any more than this feels really tiring. We would do less if we wanted to spend a long time at a place but this pace allows us to pause where we like, do several decent walks a day and stop off to visit the odd gallery, shop or visitor attraction.

I am doing very few café stops – except the ones where we make our own – and have not visited too many attractions simply because of leaving the dogs. It has been ridiculously warm for most of these first two weeks and the van, while not getting dangerously hot, does get stuffy. So far, we have stuck to things we can all do together. That may change as the weather cools down – we will see.

Are you coming to … [insert where you live]?

If it is on the coast then almost certainly. I am not making it to many islands and if you are up an unmade track then I may miss you but I will be visiting as much of the coast as I can reach. At the moment it looks like it will be Scotland until the start of October, the West coast and Wales until the start of November, the South West and South East until December, then the East coast in late December/January. I have a few workshops planned so may be taking a few days out of sync to do those if I am not there at the allotted time but otherwise will be steadily working my way round. Give me a shout if you’d like to have a coffee – and even more so if you have a coastal park up you can offer!

How are the dogs finding it?

Great question especially as Martha has famously been extremely car sick in the past. They are actually taking it all in their stride. Martha has amazed me by not only not being sick at all but actually looking quite cheery when I have checked on her on some of these very windy and bumpy roads. She either sleeps or seems to be getting her sea legs and just watches where we are going. Otter travels in her box in the front and loves it as always. She is excited when it is time to leave a place and asks to go in her box.

But they are both also enjoying the variety I think. Otter is becoming more tolerant of dogs and children – and Martha is only barking when she feels something needs sorting. Both are sleeping really well and are very relaxed in the van.

How do you manage off grid?

The van is self-sufficient – especially as the battery charges when driving so we always have enough electricity for our free camps. There is also a solar panel which will have been working over-time recently!  We have an onboard toilet (lasts me on my own 2-3 days before we need to empty at a campsite) and water and waste tanks last a similar amount of time. The van also has gas heating (not required at the moment but we have had a couple of cold evenings) and gas water heater – though to be honest I just boil the kettle if needed. Cooking is gas (calor). Aside from a slight problem we have at the moment with a calor gas bottle which seems to be mis-threading, it all runs smoothly (we have two gas bottles on board so this is not a disaster just an annoyance).

When running on 12v battery, I have an inverter which allows me to still charge my computer and camera batteries and we have several 12v to USB charge points. So I can function off grid perfectly well for 2-3 nights.

At the moment I am aiming for at least 2 off for 1 on, where the on can be a small site or CL as long as it allows basic servicing of the van.

What about showers?

There is a shower in the van and I have used it to wash my hair when on hook up without a shower block. I could technically use it to shower fully every day but it would use a lot of water and gas – and frankly make a wet mess in the bathroom! So I just have a thorough flannel wash or do a “baby wipe shower” (with biodegradable, plastic-free baby wipes!) on the days when we are not on a site. So far I have managed to have a full shower one night in three and I don’t think I am smelling badly!

How do you get internet?

Mostly I tether my computer to my phone or iPad both of which have 4G through different companies. Even so much of the North and West coast so far have been without signal, so the answer then is that I don’t. It is much less of an issue than I would’ve expected. Having taken an official break, I am not feeling guilty if I can’t get online. I can write blog posts in Word to upload when I get the chance.

Occasionally sites have decent wifi which is a treat. The bigger sites have it for a price and I haven’t used it yet but I may need to – it is reasonable if you pay for 12 months.

Do you get lonely?

Not yet – but perhaps ask me again in 3 months. So far in a fortnight I have met up with three lots of friends, which is probably more than I would do at home! The dogs are great company and I am happy on my own. I thought I would miss online communication more than I do but so far I am not minding being without for a lot of the time. Plus I have met new people and got involved in some community things while staying with friends which is a lot of fun.

Lessons from the first two weeks

So we are now two weeks in so I thought it would be fun to review what I have brought on the trip: what has been essential, what I could happily jettison and what I wish I had (and may still get!).

So first what has proved to be essential?

The paper map. Sat Navs are all very well but they like direct routes and don’t function at all when there is no signal (if you use Google maps as I do). A good, old fashioned paper map gives hours of pleasure: planning routes, checking routes, getting back to the right route! Mine is already getting dog eared and has pages falling out but as long as it lasts the trip I don’t care too much!).

The dog guard behind the seats. A last minute addition (it is actually a panel from a sturdy puppy pen), this slots just behind the front seats. It will slide fully back to open up the gangway and can be secured in place with bungees. Not only does it keep Martha secure in the back while we are driving, but it allows me to separate off the front in the evening and overnight. Works brilliantly.

Microfibre towels and tea towels. These I was in two minds about but they have proved to be brilliant. Compact but absorbent and very quick drying. I would say for the human towels get ribbed ones – they feel much more like “real” towels than the smooth ones. My smooth ones have been relegated to hand towels and bath mats!

Bungee cords. You cannot have too many. They keep my bedding in order during the day, act as internal washing lines, stop things falling off shelves and generally hold things in place.

The inverter. This gives you 13 amp sockets from a 12v supply and is invaluable for those chargers that run from 13 amp as well as the fairy lights. You can’t run heat appliances from it but it is still a very useful piece of kit that I have used a lot.

Multiple dog leads. This was controversial but I am glad I stuck to it. I have three leads for Otter (who needs to be on more often) – a light normal length “town” lead for visiting places where she has to stay close, a 3 metre webbing lead for walks like on the moors where she can have a bit more freedom but not too much because of sheep, and her biothane long line for the beach. Martha only has the one but she is off whenever it is safe. I could happily have a 3 metre one for her too for walks where there may be sheep!

Grinders of seasonings. I picked these up in Aldi of all places before I left – different blends of seasoning – Garlic and Tomato, Fish Seasoning etc. They are great! Add flavour to meals without needing a whole spice rack.

The water filler cap. This is a godsend when trying to fill water on your own. You just screw it on, attach the hose and turn on the tap. No trying to hold the hose in while running round to the tap and having water spray everywhere. This is an essential bit of kit when travelling alone.

Levellers. Essential if you are parking somewhere not completely flat. Have used them several times already!

My Doris and Fred notebooks. I have two notebooks: one a daily travel log, the other a record of sites and overnight spots. They are customised and have a page for every day. I complete these religiously each evening so I have a record of key things: where we went, what we did, where we stayed, as well as mileage, prices etc. Really helpful record and very manageable.

Skin So Soft. Coming into its own as we hit midge country. Officially the best thing to keep them (and probably almost anyone else) at bay!

What about the things I have yet to use?

Most of the tech I brought. I brought loads: lights, tripods, mics, cameras. I thought I would be doing a lot more stuff (I guess I still might?). But I am generally using two iPhones for photography (my current one and an old one which does well as a dash cam) with occasional use of the Osmo Pocket. I ditched the Go Pro after the first couple of days as the quality is so poor and I have barely used my digital SLR as it is so big. Similarly have yet to use a tripod (though it would probably improve some shots!) and the drone has stayed in its box (nowhere quiet enough to try it out even up here). This may change later on but at the moment I could clear a whole cupboard by stripping down tech and not miss it.

Herbs. I started off with the bright idea of having fresh herb plants in the van and got some cheery coloured pots to put them in. I started with fresh basil and had a plan to buy those pots that supermarkets sell but I kept decapitating the basil as I climbed past and it was looking sorry for itself so I have ditched it and the herb plan. However the colourful plant pots I have hanging up are really useful for keeping odds and sods handy: change for the washing machines, my glasses, the fly swat, chargers and the odd mini tripod in case I need it!

The personal table. This was so that I could work on things without taking the bed down but it was so awkward trying to do everything sitting on the bed that, after the first night, I have taken the bed down every morning and made it up again each night. It is not anything like as onerous as I expected it to be and having a proper table and place to sit has been essential. Martha is fine on the side bench or a single bench – and she often travels on the floor anyway. This was something that surprised me but it is now part of our morning and evening routine. The personal table, lovely though it is, has stayed in the cupboard.

Half the clothes I have brought. Useful I guess to know I have 10 days worth of clothes but the reality is that storing 10 days worth of dirty washing is tricky. So I am doing a wash every 5 or 6 days and reusing the same clothes. So I could probably ditch a few!

Things I wish I had (and may still get):

A longer water hose. Have two water hoses but have still had a couple of occasions where they are too short to reach the available tap. An expanding long hose is on my shopping list.

A small gas burner. The current issue with the spare gas bottle makes me feel that some kind of independent gas burner would be a good emergency measure. It would mean that it was always possible to boil a kettle no matter what! (Have since picked one up).

Day 14: The Day the Midges joined us!

So we are now well and truly in Midge country! We have stopped for the night in a car park just opposite Little Gruinard Beach – a lovely little beach with great views over Gruinard bay and the Summer Isles. But the midges are out around the van in force! Hopefully our defences will hold – insect netting on all windows and Avon’s Skin so Soft on me just in case! It is just too hot not to have windows open.

We have just watched a glorious sunset while eating our tea of Scottish beef and Mileham tomatoes. Delicious. I am afraid I am back to eating meat but am making sure it is locally sourced. I am cutting back on carbs for health reasons so need good protein sources.

Anyway I am jumping ahead. Today we left the lovely Port a Bhaigh campsite at Altandhu and continued along the coast as far as we could then headed back and took the turn off to Ullapool. Now I know how all those people got to Achnahaird beach! The road was like a motorway compared to the route we had taken!

We continued down into Ullapool and did some necessary chores – a little shopping, posting out a book and a few things online that needed a decent signal. Plus we had a walk around the town – it is lovely along the harbour and fun to watch the ferry coming in. A reminder of when Rach and I took that ferry over to Lewis and Harris many moons ago.

The main road along the edge of Loch Broom coming out of Ullapool is pretty but I decided we needed to see it from both sides, so we turned off before Braemore, down the rather alarmingly named Coffin Road. Thankfully we turned off that quite quickly and proceeded down another single track road along the loch edge through half a dozen tiny communities until we literally reached the end of the road.

We are getting good at turning round so we retraced our steps, stopping to enjoy a small herd of Hebridean sheep and a couple of very fancy guinea fowl in the road!

Back on the main road we continued to Braemore Junction where we once again headed seawards reaching the coast again at the rather Irish sounding Dundonnell. It was then just a few miles to our resting place for the night.

We had a great time playing on the beach – aiming for at least one a day! This one had very soft wet sand so we sank well in and left great footprints.

It has been busy right up to sunset – and not surprisingly as it is very beautiful. But now there are just two other vans and we get to watch the last of the sunset in peace and quiet.

Day 13: The day of wild roads!

Today we went from Oldshoremore to Altandhu via three crazy roads! I was amazed that Martha took them all in her stride – her travel sickness really does seem to be a thing of the past.

First we took a detour along Loch Laxford via three tiny hamlets Foindle, Fangamore and Tarbet. It was an amazing road and we didn’t meet a soul at that time in the morning, which was just as well as the road was about as wide as the van with teeny passing places. But it was a gentle bit of practice for later in the day.

Next from Unapool we took the Drumbeg coast road, marked black and yellow on the map like an elongated wasp. It started fairly mildly but soon got into its stride with 25% inclines, blind bends and summits – and all of course single track with passing places! But I am not easily put off. I cut my hill driving teeth on the Lakeland passes – and this was no Hardknott!

I felt I had deserved my ice cream when we reached Drumbeg and I also treated myself to a handmade candle in a tin from the dinky candle shop at the bottom of the hill.

Then it was back down the other side – much tamer – to Lochinver. Here the main road takes you away from the coast and I wasn’t having any of that so instead I took the little coast road up to Strathan and Inverkirkaig – marked not suitable for vehicles over 26ft. At 21ft I fitted just fine – though I am pretty sure some of the vehicles we met had not measured accurately!

I was heading for a beach recommended by Claire Staines – Achnahaird – and we arrived in time for a lunch time stroll. It is a very beautiful beach – though surprisingly busy – at least 6 others on the beach and a full car park! Where they had all come from I was not sure as we hadn’t seen that many cars all morning.

But we had a lovely time and then continued across to the campsite at Althandhu. It was a bit early to make camp but we were tired and ready to stop and the site is well equipped so we can get everything filled and emptied for a few more days free camping.

I am braving the washing saga again – but it seems to be going much more smoothly than Culloden. Sun is setting over the bay and dogs are snoozing!

Days 9-12: The North Coast and Community Life

We had a wonderful dawn walk through the nature reserve, but left Little Ferry sharpish after our conversation with the local lady and continued on our way up the East Coast. Ali had recommended we call in at a community arts shop in Brora called The Otter’s Couch – and how would we resist? What a treat. Beautiful artwork of all kinds. I bought some camping and otter-themed cards and a sheepy coaster then got into a conversation with the lady in the shop who it turned out also had a dog named Otter. We shared photos and I went to get Otter to introduce her! She had a lovely time and a small photo shoot inside and outside the shop – so she is now featured on their Facebook page as well as mine!

This stretch was the first real section of the North Coast 500 that we did and it was tiring. Most people were driving the other way thankfully, including quite a few boy racers in hired sports cars and a rather fun vintage car rally all marked up with numbers and badges. But those going my way were also in a hurry and I found myself being harried by many, including a local bus. It is not as if I was driving that slowly: 50mph on average, a little slower on the bends. But they all seemed to be in a rush. Such a shame as the landscape is so beautiful. There is a limit to what you can take in speeding through at 70! So I stopped frequently just to take a break from the road.

The harbour at Helmsdale was pretty and gave Otter the opportunity for a short sniffari around the lobster pots. I loved their signs: Face the Hills on a flag waving from the harbour wall and Face the Sea on a building opposite.

I took a walk without the dogs to Badbea clearance village. I hadn’t expected it to be quite so far from the carpark or I might have taken them with me but it was a lovely walk and the ruined village is very atmospheric.

Our third “respite” stop was at the Cairn of Get. This again involved a much longer walk across the fields than expected but this time I had the dogs with me and it was great fun. The Cairn itself is an ancient burial chamber – all very interesting.

Finally we reached Wick and then John O’Groats – horribly touristy but a required stop for the obligatory photo at the signpost. After a hasty Orkney icecream we continued on our way and turn the corner onto the north coast.

Our destination was a CL called Crofter’s Snug, at East Mey, which had been highly recommended by our neighbours in Gardenstown. It did not disappoint. Right on the coast road the site had fabulous views across to Orkney and was just a short walk from the shore line and the Castle of Mey. We had a lovely walk, found a family of classic minis, and watched the sunset over Dunnet Head.

Day 10 started with our early walk down to the shore. This time we went down onto the rocks and we were all merrily jumping from rock to rock heading out to the water’s edge when I noticed one of the “rocks” just ahead moving! Seals! Dogs were hastily put on leads and we made our way quietly forward, getting quite close to what turned out to be a group of five or six seals on the rocks by the water. Just beautiful. Once Otter spotted them she started to puff and grumble so we turned away to avoid stress to all and retraced our steps up to the campsite.

It was a glorious sunny day and our first stop was the aforementioned Castle of Mey, renovated in the 50s by the Queen Mother just after the death of George VI. We stopped to have a look and I ended up on a tour of the house, which proved to be very informative and very long! But it is a lovely house – very much a lived in and loved home.

From there we drove up to the lighthouse at Dunnet Head for some lunch. Fabulous views on the way up and down and spectacular cliffs where many seabird colonies nest.

I was getting tired by this point so we continued on to Thurso (nice enough town), Scrabster (nothing but the ferry) past the massive Dounreay Power Station to Melvich, Strathy and Bettyhill. We were heading for Borgie to see friends from our Golcar days, Sue and Tony, who moved up to Borgie 17 years ago.

It must be around 12 years since I last saw them so we all had new dogs, theirs still Dobermanns, mine of course very different from the Maremmas I had when we last met. After a cup of tea and a catch up (doesn’t seem like 12 years!) we went back down to Bettyhill for a walk on the fabulous beach – Martha and Otter having a great time playing with Sue and their young rescue Dobie Zara. We finished off the evening with a fish and chip supper, from the opening night of a new dining spot in the village – and excellent it was too.

Back at their cottage, I was treated to hook up, a chance to do the laundry without any hassle this time, and showers – as well as access to a 2 acre field for the dogs. Luxury!

I stayed the next day with Sue and Tony. It was a very sunny if windy day and we were meeting friends of Sue and Tony for a dog walk at Talmine. In the end there were five of us and five dogs – and everyone got on famously. Having tried to provide a cuppa for everyone from the van and being defeated by an issue with the gas, we all went up to the local post office to get hot drinks!

Photo: Jill McDonald-Constable

In the course of conversation it transpired that one of the ladies, Lesley, had met me many years before in Meanwood Park with the Maremmas! What a small world. Lesley had moved up from Yorkshire a couple of years before and had adopted a handful of sheep, including Champ, a rigg with a bad chest. She had been given a syringe of medication by another farmer but wasn’t sure how to administer it so I leapt at the chance to do a bit of shepherding and went with her to drench the sheep!

Photo: Jill McDonald-Constable

Champ was a Cheviot so bigger than the Shetlands I am used to but he was very obliging and much less flighty. After one false start, he trotted up the hill following Lesley and the sheep nuts, straight into the small shelter where I was hiding to close the gate. Once penned he was easy to handle and I was able to show Lesley how to give the drench. What fun to play with sheep again – and to be able to help out one of Sue’s friends.

Photo: Jill McDonald-Constable

It was now 2pm but we managed to catch the end of the local “Soup and Sweet” lunch in Tongue village, and I had delicious Courgette and Basil soup followed by the most amazing meringue – all for £3.50. Plus the chance to meet some more of Sue and Tony’s neighbours and experience something of village life.

Our final stop was Novar, a croft that Sue and Tony have acquired since we last met, and which they have developed to provide two holiday lets (a luxury static caravan and a cottage – check them out at … if you are in the neighbourhood. It has the most stunning views over the Kyle of Tongue. The croft also houses a large vegetable plot, complete with polytunnel, small wind turbine and ducks, where they are successfully growing a vast range of fruit and vegetables. Tony has done most of the work renovating the croft and creating the polytunnel and vegetable area himself by hand – an incredible achievement. I left with a large bag of fine veggies and a bunch of delicious tiny grapes – which will see me good for the next few days.

We ended the day with a delicious stew of local beef and home grown veggies – wonderful – and I retired to the van to make soup with all my left over veg.

I could have stayed longer and it would have been lovely but I am conscious that I have a deadline for reaching Cumbria so I decided to press on the next day and after a morning walk with Sue and Tony and the dogs in Borgie Forest, we said our goodbyes and set off again.

We started with a brief diversion to Skerray Harbour just along from Borgie then we retraced our steps to Sue and Tony’s and continued on past Novar to the Kyle of Tongue, a dramatic and windy causeway across the water. As we’d been the Mhoine to Talmine the day before, we continued straight on towards Durness.

What a road! Mostly single track, it wends its way through craggy hills, up and down some steep inclines. Round almost every corner was another “wow” moment. Just stunning.

Durness was less interesting and very busy, especially around Smoo Caves, so since I had visited them on a previous occasion and it was way too hot to leave the dogs for any length of time in the van, we continued past and instead went up to Balnakeil Bay and its fantastic beach.

We had been here before with Sue and Tony and on that occasion the tide was out and the beach huge. Today it was in and the beach was much smaller but still just lovely for a walk – though very hot. So after splashing around in the surf we returned to the van and continued on up to Kinlochbervie where there is a large commercial port. Our final stop was another free camp in the car park at Oldshoremore.

What a treat. A flat car park with toilet and bins, Highland cows grazing and a burn running alongside, and a couple of minute walk to the most beautiful white, sandy beach. I am running out of superlatives for the beaches along this coast! We are sharing the car park with a couple of other vans so it feels very safe. We are all fed, dogs are sleeping off their glut of beaches and I am catching up on blog and photos, though there is still no signal so will have to wait to upload!

Days 6-8: Gardenstown to Little Ferry

Day 6 began with promise. I had made soup in the slow cooker overnight then blended it and portioned it up for lunches on the way. I had a great chat with the other motor-homers at the lovely campsite at Gardenstown and they recommended a number of possible stop-over points on the north coast. So I set off feeling optimistic if rather tired.

The dogs were also pretty weary so I decided to take a shortish walk before we left the area along the path to Crovie, a small village harbour all but cut off from its neighbour by erosion. It was meant to be half an hour each way which was perfect. We parked up as instructed at the school and set off down the track, but it was a horrible surface (black tarmac chips) and the dogs were really struggling, so after a short time we had to turn back. Very frustrating.

In the end we abandoned seeing Crovie and continued along the coast road. We were booked into Culloden campsite and had over 100 miles to travel. The route along the Morag coast was pretty but it is all rather a blur. We arrived in Findhorn early afternoon ­– a beautiful harbour with ancestral connections – and called into the dog friendly Kimberley Pub for a late lunch. Their seafood platter was delicious but it was a bit stressful trying to manage the dogs and eat at the same time, not helped by the chap opposite casting disapproving glances throughout our lunch. Of course his expressions may have had nothing to do with us but I felt self-conscious and unable to fully relax. As we left the pub to return to the van the heavens opened so we got back drenched and pretty miserable (no coats had been taken as the weather was lovely when we set out!).

After drying off it was on to Culloden. I had booked a big campsite as I had washing to do and wanted a shower. We arrived to discover one washing machine for nearly 90 pitches and a long queue. It got done in the end but my whole evening was spent running up and down to the laundry. But at least there were sheep!

After a long and trying day we decided to take Day 7 fairly easy. We left Culloden, saluting our 1745 Scottish ancestors who had fought there, as we passed the battlefield.  We spent the morning “fettling” the van – getting everything filled and emptied as required – then did some necessary shopping in Inverness. At lunchtime we were off again and on to the Black Isle.

This was a lovely drive – quiet roads and wonderful views. We stopped on the beach at Rosemarkie for a walk – wonderful surf that built up slowly to such a crash that it made us all jump every time!

Then we reached Cromarty, which always feels like a special place from it featuring in the Shipping Forecast. We walked along the front, visiting the tiny lighthouse and finding some lovely sculptural pieces. After a drive around the old town we continued on to Dingwall.

We stopped for the night at Evanton by the water, a free camp spot from Search for Sites, which proved to be delightful. Very quiet with great views but conveniently just off the A9.

Day 8 started dull and just got more drizzly but we had a great day anyway. From our park up we continued round to Nigg and Tarbatt. Nigg is dominated by an oil refinery but we discovered its Old Church – a treasure up a single track road. Inside the tiny church is the Nigg Stone – dating from the 8th century and carved with the earliest representation of the Eucharist in Britain, as well as birds, harps and sheep.

Balintore was our beach stop – and what a beach it was. It was massive and practically deserted when we arrived. We spent a lovely hour there before checking out the local sculpture – the Mermaid of the North (rather tacky looking to be honest) – and continuing on our way.

We had decided to free camp again and headed on to the Loch Fleet nature reserve where Search for Sites recommended the car park at Little Ferry. What a fabulous place! A huge nature reserve onto the shore of the loch with a deserted beach at the end. We completed our day with a wonderful walk where we watched seals riding the currents from the loch down to the sea. Magical.

The car park was quiet and we went to bed early and were up at dawn to enjoy another walk. As I was having my morning tea afterwards a very polite local lady came to the window to inform me that overnight parking was no longer allowed. I apologised profusely and explained I had not seen the signs (I couldn’t see them on the way out either but she assured me they were there!) and promised to make this clear in my review on Search for Sites. Such a shame as it is a wonderful park up – and I was grateful that she told me in the morning and not the previous night! She really was very polite!

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