Wednesday, 6 August 2014


At last it was time to load my bicycle and head off on a new adventure, to a group of islands off the north coast of Scotland that I had never visited. Orkney.

The first part required very little effort: as it was by train from Edinburgh to Inverness to meet up with my adventure buddy Pauline, on the  leg of her Northern Exposure adventure.

My arrival in Inverness late on Saturday night was a bit damp, due to heavy squals of showers passing through all day. Pauline was there to meet me and guide me to the campsite for the evening.

The following morning was dry, and even sunny at intervals, as we headed out on the first 50 miles, first across the Kessock Bridge spanning the Moray Firth, along busy roads, then quiet back roads, climbing to a vantage point with Moray Firth to our right and the Cromarty Firth to our left.

It was a glorious morning as we flew downhill into the little village of Cromarty itself, where, after lunch, we took a short ferry ride across the firth to the start of the next half of our first day on the road.

The next big town was Tain, 15 miles on, but with a tailwind we reached it in good time and easily. Here we stocked up on groceries and fresh water before finding a quiet little wild camp spot in the forest beneath Dounie Hill, eight miles after Tain.

Quiet at first that is, until a local, atop her horse, came through, though the horse was a little spooked by the site of our tents in the forest.

Day two was our big push to the northern coast and the town of Tongue, some 56 miles on. I hadn't had much sleep the night before due to still nursing a painful elbow injury, and by mid morning, just 16 miles in, I was wiped out.

Nothing a good cup of tea and bacon roll couldn't cure though, and soon we were back on the road, albeit with a strong side westerly side wind.

Another 21 miles under our belt brought us to Altnaharra where we stopped for lunch. However, the local population of biting midges were waiting for us despite a strong breeze. But we weren't beaten, as a small local church was open, with an "all welcome" sign on the door, and so we sheltered in a small side room to replenish our energy. The church was in sad decline, with only one service on the first Sunday of each month now held. The paint on the walls was bubbling and flaking from the creeping damp and holes in the ceiling would likely now go unrepaired.

The last 16 miles to Tongue were the most picturesque of the journey so far. We passed first across rolling, heather-covered hills as the road constantly but gently rose, then once over the pass into a very different landscape of lush green indigenous woods and lochs. The rain was ever threatening, but always up ahead, clearing east across our direct north path, and apart from one light shower, we arrived in Tongue dry. Our camp for the night was just below Tongue in the grounds of the youth hostel with a commanding view over a small bay.

The morning gave rise to midgie hell as we packed up to leave, and we were glad of the breeze on the bikes. It was a scorching hot day with the wind south easterly, so at times we had a headwind as we now travelled due east along Scotland's most northerly shoreline for 45 miles heading for Thurso. The first couple of miles looked out across picture postcard bays with sunkissed sandy beaches framed by sandstone cliffs.

The first two thirds of this part of the route were relentless up and down steep, long hills, with the first seeming to go on forever and be impossibly steep on my bike with fully loaded panniers. Strangely though, I found the challenge both hugely rewarding and a highlight of the day. Steep uphills always have a reward of course . . . a fast downhill.

After a mid morning tea break, where we met a guy on the final day of his Lands End to John O' Groats run, we pushed on through more steep climbs and fast downhills, though none as long as the first.

The final part, passing close to the Dounreay nuclear power plant, now being decommissioned, was along a very busy road, unsuitable in every way a part of a National Cycle Network route. We had some respite over the final 12 miles on a back road, but this turned out to be a rat run for locals and commercial traffic.

Thurso, and the end of our Scottish mainland section. After a supper of chips from a local fish & chip shop, we headed for the ferry port of Scrabster, just two miles east.

Two thirds across the Firth of Pentland we passed close by to the world famous sandstone sea stack called The Old Man of Hoy,  a faviurite with climbers the world over. And so it is, courtesy of the Northlink ferry, Hamnavoe, that I find myself writing this weeks blog from the campsite in Stromness, Orkney.

So what of these northern isles of Orkney? Well, that's a story for next week.

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