NC500 – Day Five
177.5 miles travelled and 21,711 steps
We began our morning at Drumbeg Viewpoint soaking in more of the beautiful scenes that we had gawped at through car windows the night before. From there we took the route slightly back on ourselves to see more of Quinag and the beautiful Lochs we had driven past including Loch Assynt, Loch Chairn Bhain, and many of the ‘smaller’ but no less picturesque bodies of water in that area. The sense of the strength and the power in the land and the sense of our own insignificance passing through it were both so present at every turn that I experienced overwhelm in a way I never had before.
Nature was showing us the land she formed before our time. The land glaciers cut and shaped long before history as we know it began. Long, long, long before I was born. As someone who suffers from anxiety, the feeling of freedom that perspective gave me was like nothing I have known before. It felt like my feet had wings. Nature was telling me that it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Whatever worry I had stored in my tiny little mind was so insignificant in the wake of her splendour, it was not only no longer worth conscious registering (which is normally how I try to deal with these things) but in fact no longer worth the space it took up even in my subconscious mind. I needed to clear the filing cabinets for all the incredible wonder my eyes were taking in. I gladly did so and let my superficial concerns float away somewhere over Ardveck Castle. If you see them there – I don’t want them back. If you are anything like me, feel free to let your own worries join them.
Ardveck Castle was an unscheduled stop but most worth it. It took us significantly ‘off spreadsheet’ for the first time in five days, much to JD’s delight! We spent nearly two hours at Ardveck photographing the castle, the surrounding landscape, and the stone bridge and waterfall in the fields beyond. It is well worth a scheduled stop if you are compiling your own spreadsheet, although part of its charm for us was the fact it was just stumbled across. Ardveck is one of many NC500 reminders of how our history began in this land before time. From there we drove to Inchnadamph and the Bone Caves via a brief and abrupt return to the very modern world of parking problems. Firstly, we went to the wrong car park (Inchnadamph Public Parking and not Allt nan Uamh which is signposted for the Bone Caves) and it took me a while to figure that out when we couldn’t find the landmarks mentioned in the excellent instructions from WalkHighlands.co.uk. The actual Bone Caves car park was full and that resulted in the deliberation over finding another one or going back to the Inchnadamph main car park around three miles back on ourselves. Not too difficult a choice you might say, but it seemed my brush with Nature’s power had left me dazed and indecisive! We opted to go on and found layby parking after about a mile and a half and I am most glad we did. However, if you arrive at the car park yourselves and find it I recommend checking the entrance to your immediate left as you pull out as there was space for two cars there that we missed. Also, there is another layby back towards the main Inchnadamph car park which is arguably a little closer. Wherever you park, the Bone Caves are a must see!
According to the sign as you begin your walk, the caves ‘tell an incredible story about this landscape before and after the last glaciation’. The caves were formed over 20,000 years ago when water drained through the soft limestone, dissolved the rock, and widened cracks to form caves. Glaciers then pushed through and carved out the glen which left the cave entrances high up on the hillside. The land was barren and empty before plants and animals began to populate it. The bones found in the caves are now on display in Edinburgh and they include a 20,000-year-old polar bear skull, and 14,000-year-old brown bear and reindeer remains. 8,000 years ago man came (somewhat late to the party!) hunting reindeer and bears and his remains were found too. The caves themselves are accessible through a rocky path that goes past the Allt Nan Uamh waterfall, making for some lovely photos early on. You then walk through the glen, crossing the river’s smaller streams, which is somewhat boggy in parts before scaling the steep climb to the caves themselves by following the path to the right. It is a walk requiring sensible footwear with good grip. You don’t need any climbing equipment, but the path is steep and rocky and there is a fairly sheer drop to your left-hand side. I spent a lot of time hugging the ground on my right or gripping tight to JD’s hand. I don’t have the best balance in the world and also struggle with vertigo so I felt quite queasy! Luckily the way back is gentler and you could (in theory) go up this way instead. It means following the path to the left through some boggy fields instead of taking the right fork; but I would recommend following the official route just in case. JD gave me some great advice on the way back about focusing only on the path and not looking down the cliff drop. He went first so it was easier to follow his footsteps and we leant away from the wind, which was strong enough to add even more drama! The caves were 100% worth the effort though. I felt like the king of the world up there looking out (not down!) and the photographs we took will remind me of my act of bravery for many days to come.
We left Inchnadamph far, far away from spreadsheet time as we drove to Ullapool and our lunch stop (which was now well after 3pm!) Ullapool was the biggest town we had seen so far on our travels since Fort William. And a bit too touristy! It was a sudden jolt back to civilisation that neither of us had really prepared ourselves for. We ate battered black pudding and haggis, breaded haddock and chips on the seafront which cheered us up a bit; but no hot drinks on the windy, drizzly day made me less happy! We ventured to the liquor store and bought a nice bottle of Ullapool gin (to go with the Dunnet Bay Rock Rose gin I had already procured) and the gift shop to buy a cuddly Highland cow for my daughter. We bought water for the night ahead and a sandwich for tea (another car camping night) and left Ullapool just before 6pm. The plan had been to car camp at Torridon having canoed at Loch Maree on the way past; but we felt too late and too tired for such an adventure, so we headed to Gairloch as it started to rain. Gairloch is another pin to revisit and I would gladly have spent a few days there. Much less touristy than Ullapool and much warmer (in welcome not temperature!) and friendly. I even saw people swimming in the Loch that bears the town’s name, which made me itch for a swim in the wild waters that we had so far missed out on. I drank coffee there for the first time since breakfast and JD had a few beers as we edited our photos so far and I badgered him for some of his ‘bangers’ (Instagram slang for a great photo!) The public toilets in Gairloch are run by the Gairloch Community Trust; and that told me all I needed to know about the town and the people’s sense of pride in their welcome to travellers. Thanks also to the landlord at the Myrtle Bank Hotel who reminded us to make sure we were prepared for midges when we camped out that night! We had heard so much about Scottish midges, and I had dutifully purchased two cans of the top recommended repellent ‘Smidge’; but we’d not encountered them at all up to that point. But now we were in Wester Ross and the drive from Gairloch to Loch Maree (and our bed for the night) showed us how much the landscape can change. Almost as quickly as the weather!
As a quick aside on the weather in the Highlands, it can and does change suddenly. We didn’t wear our waterproof jackets out in Ullapool as when we arrived it was beautiful sunshine. Within an hour it was pouring and our wet fleeces had to be removed before the hour drive to Gairloch. My advice would be lots of layers, always take a light waterproof jacket whenever you leave the car, and good footwear is a must.
Loch Maree was forty minutes or so from Gairloch and we found a spot and got the airbed pumped up just as the sun was setting. This time we drank whisky, chatted, and watched the Pelicans play Utah Jazz in the NBA (our new found obsession since watching The Last Dance on Netflix) It was slightly surreal that we were by the banks of a Highland Loch, in what felt like the middle of a forest, watching Sky Sports on JD’s Now TV App on my iPhone. I can’t guarantee that will work everywhere as many parts of our route we had no mobile signal at all; but here it did work. The game started at 11.30pm and JD was gone by the end of the first quarter. I managed the whole first half to see the Pelicans ahead and then gave into sleep myself.