John O’Groats to Land’s End (week 3)
(The Long Way Round or should that be The Long Way Down?)
We are writing this entry in Thurso after covering the 206 miles from Pitlochy, where we left at 1pm. We cannot seem to get an earlier start than lunchtime! The further north up the A9 we went, the windier it became and, by the end, the bike was a handful as it was less than vertical most of the time. On arriving at a campsite in the middle of Thurso it was very, very, windy. The two of us set off to find a sheltered site and this proved impossible really. During our wandering around the campsite looking for a pitch an inspiration came like a bolt of lightening.
On the site there was several static caravans? We wondered if one was available?
Back to the reception to ask the question.
The receptionist rang a few people and, lo-and-behold, one was available for £40 per night. Thank you very much. Done deal – although the owner did take a little convincing the two ‘bikers’ wouldn’t trash his caravan or bite the heads off his chickens! Three nights please! We decided on three nights as the weather forecast was atrocious with very high winds and torrential rain coming in across the north of Scotland.
We entered the caravan and Cathy went on her exploring routine to familiarise herself with what, and where, things are. She much prefers to orientate herself in this way. She does not want me to ‘show her around’. It’s been hard to learn to let her do this by herself but it is her preferred method. Thus she works out where everything is on her own with no help from me. She spent ages trying to work out how to turn the television on only to find it was actually the microwave she had just spent 10 minutes trying to tune in. She laughed about it as she recounted this event; it had happened when I was outside blowing smoke rings in the wind.
As we sit and write this entry the wind is howling and the rain is lashing down outside. Meanwhile we are warm as toast and even have a television – which we haven’t seen for a while. Looking out of the windows the people in the tents certainly look cold and miserable as we toast in front of the fire!
Tomorrow morning we are going to investigate the shops to see if we can find a couple of sleeping bags as the ones we brought with us are not up to the job. They were bought for size more than anything else and, unfortunately, they do not retain much in the way of heat – actually they are useless in anything else bar the Caribbean! Cathy in particular is feeling the cold during the night and her nose shines in the dark saving me using a torch to find anything.
A lot of people go over the top with -25 degree rated sleeping bags for round the world trips and other events but there is little chance of them ever needing this sort of extreme protection. We think something in the region of -3 degree comfort rating should do the job. Personally neither of us can see the chance of being in a tent trying to sleep if the temperature ever got that cold! Definitely we would head for a solid roof if the temperature every drops by that much on our journey. Artic Siberian explorers we are not!
We set out for John O’Groats on Sunday (5th) after checking the local shops for the required sleeping bags but only found summer temperature ratings. So it was we set off to John O’Groats to pick up the usual mementoes of pins and badges and pictures.
Cathy was introduced to Eric the Viking and she spent sometime exploring our wooden friend who has been there for as long as I can remember. She also managed to find even more jewellery (ear rings) she liked – is that the third pair so far? I swear the bike is rattling with the sets she has bought to date. I pull her leg about the extra space she is consuming with her search for the definitive ear ring!
John O’Groats was quiet when we arrived and Cathy did the round of the shops where everything from 400 sets of further ear rings to candles and wind chimes were explored in a tactile sense. People smiled as they passed at Cathy exploring all the wares of the shops and the staff ignored the fact that we handled everything that said “Do not touch” and “Please ask before you handle this object”. As we meandered from shop to shop we acquired pin badges along with coffee and muffins before setting off to Dunnet Head – which is the real furthermost point on the UK mainland.
Unlike John O’Groats there is really nothing at Dunnet’s Head apart from the very important light house and the ‘marker’ stone which indicates you really have reached the end of the UK – this marks the furthest point (the same is true of Land’s End where The Lizard – and the light house – is actually the furthest point south and not Land’s End itself).
Not a coffee nor souvenir shop in sight.
Millions of biting clawing midges all looking for a fresh piece of skin to latch onto. Needless to say, we didn’t stay very long – just long enough to take the pictures. Then we beat a hasty retreat from the vampires of the North who descended on us in clouds and even tried to cling on as we hit 70 mph in the opposite direction!
We did, for the first time at this point, try setting up the video camera on a very quiet road on the exit from Dunnet Head. The idea was to get some footage of the two of use actually on the bike thus filming ourselves riding away – before turning around and then riding back towards the camera!
Not a car in sight for ages and ages. Nice quiet road, or so we thought.
Camera, action. And off we rode.
As I turned the corner way up a hill we had climbed I turned the bike and noticed a car had pulled up right beside the camera. Hasty turnaround of the bike and a quick blast down the hill to find a Spanish driver hovering over the camera.
Tricky situation now as his English was not good and my Spanish is rubbish – anything past Ola and I am lost. Fortunately there was no misunderstanding as to the ownership of the camera otherwise an International event may have been on the news about extracting said implement!
I only tried this method of filming once more and it did work that time. The filming has proved problematical as the camera (a hard drive format) did seem to be particularly sensitive to vibration – of which there is a reasonable amount on a 1990 BMW. Every time I tried to film with the camera mounted in the fairing or strapped onto the tank bag the inevitable ‘Failed to record’ would flash on the screen and another opportunity to film events was lost (strange as last year it worked perfectly?) I did eventually solve this. It was to be several days later of Cathy patiently waiting while I messed about with locating the camera, trying to film, failing, stopping, getting off the bike and messing with the location for 20 minutes before trying again. It seemed to go on for days before we eventually managed to get decent footage of the journey. More of this solution later.
The ride back to Thurso from Dunnet Head (and the infuriating midges) was in advance of the threatening rain which was visible in my wing mirrors all the way back. Dark threatening clouds which looked full of rain and violence and, sure enough, just as we entered the camp site the heavens opened but, for once, we threw ourselves in through the door of the caravan before the deluge really began. It’s not often we manage to beat the rain in this way but the Gods were smiling on us as we listened to the drumming rain pounding away on the roof over our heads. Within minutes the rain had turned everything into little rivers of water as it poured off the roof. Paths became streams which merrily made their way past our location carrying bits of debris with them, such was the strength of the water and the direction of the flow downwards towards the seafront.
All through the night the wind howled and the heavens drowned everything is water that dared move (so Cathy said as I was blissfully unaware; anything less than a nuclear explosion will not disturb me). Out in the campsite two cyclists sheltered under a tarpaulin and we wondered what they were doing.
The next day it turned out that they were two mad French guys who had no tent with them and this was how they slept, under a tarpaulin each and every night. They confirmed to us that people had offered them tents and accommodation but they stubbornly stuck to sleeping under their tarpaulin. It seemed to be with a fanatical tenacity that bordered on a form of masochism – like a Japanese game show where people inflict tests of endurance on themselves. Each to their own we supposed as we snuggled down for the night leaving them to their choice of sleeping arrangements. Not once did I envy them their accommodation. We tried this on the M5 weeks earlier and neither of us much cared for it! After three nights it was time to move on and we set our sights on Ullapool on the West Coast.
The road from the North and Thurso to Ullapool consisted of 160 miles of howling wind and rain. While it was only 160 miles it felt much, much, longer as the wind would come sideways at us causing the bike to lurch this way and that with no warning. Shoulders and arms were aching by the time we reached our destination. Little gasps from Cathy would come through the speakers in the helmet as powerful blasts of wind would catch the bike and we would be violently ripped sideways. Slow or fast made no difference at all. Road positioning made no difference as the roads were largely single track with passing places every few hundred yards. We would come around corners and find sheep in the middle of the road fast asleep.
The main highlight of the day was exiting a corner to find a bull ‘servicing’ a cow in the middle of the road! Three other cows waited patiently by until – we assumed – it was their turn? The bull took no notice of my twin BMW horns repeatedly blasted, nor my shouts of “Get out of the bloody way” nor “Take it indoors please.” We supposed it was a bull’s life and so we patiently sat and waited with the wind rocking the bike underneath us until he done done his wicked work before – I swear, nonchalantly – he walked away with his harem following him. Looking over the shoulder he seemed to be saying to us “Well, what can I say?”
The roads themselves were beautiful and generally quiet – tracks of moor land only marred by the rain which stopped any filming at all as it continued to fall heavily all day. It even stopped the taking of still pictures as the camera would have been ruined in seconds due to the watery onslaught.
We had one heart thumping moment when a post office van can flying around a corner and it was one of those ‘whites of the eyes’ moments as both I and the other driver thought – for a second – “Oh *hit” as I stood the bike on its nose in the wet. I believe the rear wheel did leave the floor for a fraction of a second and there was a distinctive sound as the wheel came back down. Then he was gone, accelerating hard off into the next corner. I sat and pondered and when I had stopped shaking commented to Cathy,
“Your mum wouldn’t be pleased if you ended up plastered all over the front of a car on this trip!”
Muted laughter was her reply as I think she heard the tremor in my voice or, perhaps, she felt the bike shaking between my trembling legs at the closeness of the event.
Nothing helped on this day but concentration and constant repositioning of the bike to the effects of the wind. It rained unremittingly all day with those big drops the like of which you see in Brazilian movies about rain forests. We stayed dry, however, inside our waterproofs and apart from the buffeting of the wind we were relatively unscathed although I still dream about post office vans with big teeth coming to get me.
We arrived at Ullapool at 3pm with the sea in a real fury and gales forecast for the night. We managed to find two good sleeping bags with the necessary ratings although they set us back £200. I was still in shock heading out of Ullapool looking for a camp site before I realised the bike was on the reserve fuel tank and had been prior to arriving there. Ten miles later, no sign of a petrol station. A hurried conversation between the two of us ensued before we decided to turn back and, gently to conserve petrol, we rode back to Ullapool. With my brain now working and not thinking about the cost of sleeping bags, I asked at the petrol station where the nearest camp site was. It turned out it was two minutes walk from where we bought the sleeping bags! I think the sound of Homer Simpson springs to mind!
The camp site looks like a war zone with destroyed tents everywhere, abandoned with snapped poles and ripped coverings flapping in the wind from the previous night’s force 7 which blasted through it.
As we tried to set up in a ferocious wind the tent broke and the heavens opened again poring buckets and buckets of water down on to the site. At moments like this Cathy goes very quiet i.e. when things are starting to go wrong! She knows that things have to be done quickly yet she wants to help and wants to discuss but there is little time. Rushing around the camp site I plundered bits and pieces from the decimated residues of broken tents (which were all cleared the next day by a van which made several trips) and, Gaffa tape and cable ties in hand the tent is jerry-rigged to get us through the night. In dived Cathy to completely take over in sorting out air beds, sleeping bags and generally organising the inside. When we crawled into the sleeping bags and eventually fell asleep to the wind and the rain, I swear I could hear her purring in her new sleeping bag. After only a few minutes first one of my arms came out of mine to cool down, then the second rapidly followed and eventually half the bag was unzipped. If this is a minus 3 rating I dread to think how hot a minus 25 would be!
The next morning we stitched and glued the tent together and bought further guide ropes to reinforce the tent against the forecast strong winds (and some serious tent pegs for the onward journey to Skye!) A further parcel was despatched from the post office – back to our friend Linda – containing our old sleeping bags and silk liners plus various other bits and pieces. After packing the bike we headed for food and various maps were spread out all over the table as we decided where to go next.
Originally we had thought to head for Fort William but, while having breakfast, it struck us that Ullapool was the ferry dock taking people to Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and, ferries connected Lewis to Skye and so a plan started to form. Thus it was that an hour later (and £74 lighter) we had a open ticket to Lewis (2.5 hour trip), on to Skye (1 hour 40 mins) and then from Skye back to the mainland (about 40 minutes).
It is really interesting to note that had Cathy been in receipt of the higher rate of the Mobility element of the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) she would have received a further £30 discount on the £74 ticket price. To claim this she needed the tax exemption certificate for the vehicle. Unfortunately, Cathy is not allowed to drive as a blind person (for some reason) nor is she eligible for the higher rate of mobility under the current regulations which would give her access to this certificate!
Thus the blind are further disadvantaged in terms of this denial of the higher rates of DLA. There is a current campaign by the major organisations and it was to this end we also started a petition for the Government to review this component of mobility for registered blind people (please select here to sign the petition).
Despite Cathy fluttering her eyelashes at the very kind man who completely understood the fact that, undeniably she was ‘disabled’, he was unable to enter the necessary certificate details in his booking system. So it was that the additional discount was unavailable to her.
We left the ticket office clutching our Island Hopper tickets and a little miffed at Cathy ‘not being disabled enough’ and stood by the dockside waiting for the ferry to pull in.
After weeks, or so it seemed, of torrential rain we were heading out into the Hebrides on a motorbike, in a tent, with Gales forecast. Somehow it doesn’t seem that sensible now looking back! But we did it nonetheless.
As Cathy settled into her seat on the ferry, I headed off to the toilet clutching a tube of superglue (bought that morning) to complete an emergency repair on a broken front tooth! Wonderful stuff superglue and amazing what it will hold together. I did get some really funny looks as I held my lips open over the hand dryer to harden the glue. I even managed to stick my left index finger to the tooth but fortunately I managed to get them apart! The second time I had to do the same repair (later on in Skye) I managed to glue my lip to the tooth but that is another (painful) story which I won’t go into.
A short ride out of Stornoway after the crossing and a very reasonable campsite was found at £4.50 a night which only slightly offset the high cost of petrol (£1.07 pence a litre) and a ridiculously expensive meal in a local hotel. We learned that we always needed to check before diving in where hotels and food are concerned! We should be old enough to know this but it slipped past our radar on this occasion. I also often queried why a pack of cigarettes should cost £5.56 for a UK price of £4.86 but that’s a whole other story.
Lewis itself is gorgeous and we spent the next day pottering around it and managed to cover 160 miles as we explored the Island.
We travelled from Stornoway to the northernmost point of Eoropaidh to the southernmost tip of Rodel and everything in-between.
We visited the Callanish stones situated on a ridge beside the hamlet of Callanish, about 25 miles west of Stornoway. This site dates from about 1800 BC and consists of a 13.1 x 11.3m (43 x 37 ft) circle of 13 tall slender Lewisian gneiss stones. In the middle is another stone, the tallest of all (4.75m/15 ft 6 in). Four incomplete avenues lead away, with single rows of stones to the east, south and west, and a double row just east of north. Cathy walked each stone and felt the nature of them and the colouring of each stone was described as some had a tinge of pink running through them; the best description I could give was that each looked very much like tree bark (in stony sort of way!)
From here we headed south (A859) towards the end of Lewis until we ended up on what the maps called a ‘road’. It was bad.
Really bad twisting, turning, gravel strewn single track, sheep infested, hair raising precipices, barrier-less strip of – roughly – tarmac turning back on itself; edging closer and closer to the ocean. It was at this point that my hands and thumbs started to give problems with the constant up and down gear changes and braking (this pain was to reoccur on several other days throughout the journey from this point onwards). The bike was very heavy in these conditions and difficult to manage as we made our way to the southernmost point.
When we eventually reached Rodel (Roghadail) we couldn’t appreciate the location as the difficulty of the road had tired both of us out and Cathy was definitely not looking forward to going back the same way. So it was we took the much easier and more enjoyable A859 through the west of (South) Harris until we reached Tarbert (where the ferry to Skye is based) to stop for a meal and a coffee.
It was at this point – while ordering a meal – that it became apparent that not all was well with Cathy.
After some gentle prompting she started to talk of the ‘mountain goat track’ we had come across (as she labelled it). Over a glass of wine she eventually managed to put into words what the problem was.
The roads had unsettled her to a serious degree. The wind was blowing the bike about in a fairly violent way and – as she had asked me to do – my descriptions were setting a culture of fear in her. When I talked about precipices and sheer drops with no barriers (which it was throughout its length), her mind started to visualise all the things that can go wrong under these circumstances. As she started to dwell on these images she became annoyed with herself at the fear which was getting control of her thoughts. The trip around the world seemed so far away to her when she could not “cope” with the route we had just completed. As such she started to get more frustrated with herself.
We spent some time discussing the extent to which I should describe the environment around us and the degree to which I should, perhaps, curtail my descriptions but this was not what she wanted. She talked of needing to get her mental images under control and she went on to talk about “never liking the wind”.
I have known this for some time.
Cathy, as a blind person, has always disliked the wind. It does unsettle her as she cannot hear the same and her hearing is a matter of utmost importance. It is her primary sense through which she knows her world (along with tactile).
Thus the wind was making the bike lurch all over the place and she felt the whole bike was ‘unbalanced’ as the wind buffeted us. Her focus became all the things that can go wrong under these conditions and imagination was running away with her as she was waiting for “something to happen.” The prospect of returning across these roads “terrified” her as darkness was falling; she thought this would make the roads even more dangerous for us. In my own head, I was just hanging on for dear life and saying my prayers on every corner. I was also thinking about events like this testing our fortitude and resilience. I talked to Cathy about fear and the fact that, often, I feel it too under some circumstances. Most motorcyclists feel it at some point although it may be after an event when they reflect on what ‘might’ have happened.
The prospect of the darkness itself didn’t worry me as the bike is equipped with four spot lights plus the main headlight. Vehicles would be aware of each other way before they met in the darkness on a narrow corner; sheep would know for miles we were coming to disturb their sleep in a blaze of light.
To Cathy this knowledge, or understanding, was outside her experience as she has always had complete night blindness (even before her sight failed completely 25 or so years ago). Thus it is not possibly for Cathy to visualise headlights and spotlights lighting up the night sky and hedges for hundreds of yards; laser beams cutting through the darkness. These concerns about driving on that road in the dark were very, very real for her. The thoughts were overwhelming all other things at this point as she became trapped in this cycle of anticipation of ‘something’ happening.
We talked about what we had just been through for quite a while as we ate our food and drank our coffee. We talked until we both understood what had happened and what the experience meant to us, now and in the future; involving many situations probably far worse.
After quite some time talking and drinking coffee the smile slowly reappeared on Cathy’s face. Shortly after this occurred we left and Cathy settled back onto the bike with only a little trepidation.
The trip back up the A859 from Tarbert to Stornoway was just what was needed.
The road is, and was, fantastic with lots of gentle sweeping corners on a very good road surface; just made for motorbikes really. I tried to smooth out the journey so that each corner was a slight tilt of the bike before easing it through and onwards back towards the camp site.
By the time we got back to the tent and climbed into the (centrally heated) sleeping bags, Cathy had the world and her thoughts under control again.
Sleep came rapidly as we drifted off into separate dreams of mountain goat tracks with the third week ending.
Select here for week one report, here for week two, here for week three and here for week four