NC500 – Day Four
156 miles travelled and 27, 014 steps
We were up early on the fourth day (the result of sunrise into our car windows!) and JD had slept surprisingly well on his first car camp experience. We do nearly fall out though when I am trying to get ready and he’s moving bags around and then when he’s trying to change clothes and I open the car door unintentionally exposing him! Luckily though we leave Thurso unscathed and onto Bettyhill. With nothing open, we drink coffee and eat porridge from the car kettle in the car park while I get hold of my previously downloaded Strathnaver Trail map.
What I thought was a two hour walk through the Bronze and Iron Ages and the Celts and Picts is actually twenty-nine archaeological sites of interest over twenty-four kilometres in a straight line from Bettyhill to Altnaharra. We saw another couple starting it in their car (we think!) which would explain the two hours, as it would take us a lot longer to walk it!
We did one of the main Pictish sites which was right by us – the Farr Stone – and looking for the next site stumbled across Farr Beach instead. I’d like to do the full trail on a return trip with better route planning (and maybe better weather!) but our compensation came in the form of Farr Beach and possibly my favourite photo of the holiday (taken by JD). We left as I put a mental pin in Bettyhill as somewhere to return to.
Forty or so miles later and we landed in Durness in time for an early lunch. On the way, we’d seen surfers near Sangobeg but you definitely needed to be committed enough to own your own board. Another future pin for when I suddenly become a professional surfer! (Or at least a slightly better one) The Kyle of Tongue was also a beautiful photograph stop too. When I had signal a Google search had showed me a café that appeared open near Smoo Cave’s car park (which was our next spreadsheet stop) called the Meet and Eat Café. We arrived on a park full of chalets normally selling Scottish crafted wares, but most were closed. Another reminder of what the NC500 was like before Covid and I wondered if it would ever be like that again. The Meet and Eat Café was a lovely little place and I was very glad it was open. We had a warm cup of coffee (so good I had one to go as well!) and a sandwich. We also picked up one of the finds of the holiday, and another present for JD’s Scottish father, Mike McCartney’s North Highlands book of photography. Mike is a Liverpudlian more used to photographing rockstars than the sights of the North Coast 500, but a flick through his book at our little table made us gladly part with £10 as a donation for the book. He had captured so much of the feel of our last four days and we still had so much to go.
As we were leaving a queue was forming, and the two young girls were working hard to ensure everyone got the bread and water they required. I was impressed, as I had been at Mackays, at the work ethic I had seen on the North Coast. Covid has made me reluctant to withdraw any cash but, luckily, I had enough (after the £10 donation) to leave a tip and a warm thank you.
Smoo Cave was less than five minutes down the road and car park and toilets kindly provided before we began the walk down to Britain’s largest sea cave. Used by early man, Vikings, and 18th century illicit whisky smugglers; its name ‘smoo’ is believed to come from the Norse word ‘smuga’ meaning hiding place. Plenty of tourists here, although not as many as I imagine there would usually be. I was able to get all my photos easily without people in; something that became more difficult as our trip went on. From Smoo, another walk along the cliffs as it started to rain again. I was almost overcome with the feeling that we were walking off the edge of the world as we made our way to see the waves continue to batter the cliffs below. We were following the North Atlantic Ocean now and would continue to see it alongside us for the rest of our trip.
From Durness we drove to Blairmore and the start of our eight-mile round trip on foot to Sandwood Bay. The amount of walking means this isn’t for everyone but there were plenty of people hiking to camp at Sandwood and then make the trip on to the Cape of Wrath the next morning.
I have placed another pin in the Cape Wrath walk, although it is a further eight-miles from Sandwood or a similar sixteen-miles from Durness: making a 32-mile round trip in total with river-wading and boggy ground.
Also, I am much happier sleeping in my car than I would be in a tent in the sand dunes! However, in pre-Covid times there was a bus and a ferry tour making it easier if that returns. Sandwood Bay was a lovely (and much easier!) walk through different landscapes as you listen to the sound of the Loch waves lapping the shore. Much of the time we were on our own and when we stopped walking, the silence was incredible. So much of the walk had me amazed at the sheer scale of the land and the lack of any signs of modern civilisation as far as the eyes could see. Everything had been there thousands of years before me and would be there thousands of years after. Even the stone of the walls and the roofless Crofters cottages had seen many, many travellers like me pass by and would see many, many more.
We spent about four hours in Sandwood with the walk itself taking around 2.5 hours. The beauty of the sea view and sheltered sand dunes of the bay did not disappoint but I also really enjoyed the changing of the landscape as we journeyed there through bog, Loch, and farm. A few slippery stones to cross some of the Lochs’ shallower feeding streams was a sign of things to come on future walks! We were extremely grateful for the toilets at the Blairmore car park and also the freshwater tap to fill up our water bottles from before we set off for our stop for the night in Stoer.
And then the world changed. And beauty became more breath-taking then I have ever seen before nor I imagine I will ever see. We were running a little late and the Bed & Breakfast at Stoer had been strict on a 7pm check-in so I called when we stopped for fuel to give them the new 8pm eta. “It will need to be 8pm as we’ll leave the house then”, the woman on the end of the phone told me. “It will be 8pm” I confirmed with the Sat Nav saying we would arrive at 7.56pm. But around every turn we were confronted with beauty so raw it hit us smack in the face and I had no choice but to slow the car as JD hung out the window to photograph what he could.
He’s a talented photographer with a 40 mega-pixel phone camera; but there’s no way anyone could capture the scale and the colour of the views our eyes were soaking in. That said his panoramic shots give you a pretty good idea! At every bend, the views seemed to get more and more beautiful until we ran out of words and would just say ‘Wow’ or let our jaws drop open involuntarily as we turned another corner and another incredible scene came into view.
We went past Drumbeg Viewpoint, which was a stop on the spreadsheet, as time did not allow; but we promised ourselves we would come back and really soak everything up tomorrow.
Then we turned off the A387 just north of Lochniver to take the B869 towards Stoer. This is when I started the most dramatic drive of my life. ‘A’ and ‘B’ roads are not like we know them to be with ‘A’ roads often single track albeit with plenty of passing places, so a ‘B’ road was an immediate cause for personal concern. And I was right. Sheer drops on either side; weathered rock faces at every turn; and a steep and narrow single-track road seemingly leading us deeper and deeper into the mountain wilderness as we climbed and climbed and climbed. I started to wonder if we were on the right road as we passed no signs of civilisation and no other cars; but there was nowhere to turn so we had to keep going. “We’re in the opening of a film,” I said to JD; but I wasn’t sure which genre. I hoped not a horror! Reading my NC500 guide later it described this area of West Sutherland as having ‘cinematic landscapes’ and the clever writers are bang on the money with that.
It must be seen to be believed. Just as hope was leaving me that we would find our bed for the night, we saw a sign for our B&B – The Green Cruachan – and it appeared in less than a mile in a short row of houses overlooking rocky fields where sheep proved once again they can really graze anywhere. We were a little late, but not too much, so we rushed out of the car to check in before the owners left. We were greeted by the nicest man I think I have ever met running the sweetest Bed and Breakfast. Every detail was so reassuringly comforting with the rooms having sweet little window seats, cute little tea and coffee sets, and lovely little positive messages everywhere. After the drive we had just completed, it felt like a haven of wonderfulness. We knew there was no dinner, so we booked ourselves into breakfast at 8am; the lovely owner left; and we got our bags from the car including our stash of cup noodles. We devoured these with a dram of the Old Pulteney we had bought in Thurso whilst watching Masterchef (the irony was not lost on us!)
But before that, I enjoyed one of the warmest, most rejuvenating shower I have ever had (it’s second only to the shower I had after being in hospital unable to wash under running water for two weeks!) The orgasmic moans that fell out of my mouth made JD question what was happening in there! The next morning the sweetness continued with breakfast: little milk bottles; a cute toast rack; delicious eggs and kind words as we left for the day and our next stage of the adventure. But before that, I enjoyed one of the warmest, most rejuvenating shower I have ever had (it’s second only to the shower I had after being in hospital unable to wash under running water for two weeks!) The orgasmic moans that fell out of my mouth made JD question what was happening in there! The next morning the sweetness continued with breakfast: little milk bottles; a cute toast rack; delicious eggs and kind words as we left for the day and our next stage of the adventure.