The North-West

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We saw little sunshine today but not much rain either. The sky was mostly cloudy through the day with occasional glimpses of blue and sunshine until after dinner when we have full blue sky. We can hope that is an indicator for tomorrow. In the meantime we had another great and varied day despite the sky.

Breakfast was at the Ferry Inn where we had muesli with yoghurt and coffee followed by sausages, bacon, and eggy bread (French toast). We had finished that and packed the car in time for me to take the wheel by 8:15 am, heading west via Kinlochbervie and then south to Ullapool.

An email from Charles last night had added Smoo Cave to our itinerary. I had not been aware of it prior to that and my navigation app did not find it either. Instead I pointed us toward Smoo Cave Hotel, assuming that should be close enough for driving.

DSC_5635I had intended to buy fuel on the way out but we did not pass a service station and I assumed that with a bit less than half a tank we would find fuel soon enough. Once we had passed the bit of cultivation close to Thurso our drive was through moorland perched above the sea with cliffs falling away somewhere to our right. Occasionally we could see a bright glint of unlight on a distant hill or other landmark but mostly it was grey sky and occasional sprinkles of rain. That was not a problem while driving.

After 45 minutes or so of driving the fuel had dropped to a quarter tank without any sight of a service station. I was beginning to wonder how people in those parts obtained fuel when we saw a sign for services including fuel as we approached Betty Hill. It was one of those rarities nowadays where you are required to have somebody operate the pump. The man told me that there was fuel at Tongue, a short distance on, but that woudl not open until 12:00 and there was a 24 hour card operated pump at Durness, a bit further on.

DSC_5645We crossed the Kyle of Tongue (a shallow sea loch) on a combination causeway-bridge and drove on across the moors until we reached Loch Eriboll, a long and deep sea loch (open to the sea) that has been used for safe anchorage for centuries. It has been used consistently by the British navy. There is no crossing so the road goes down the east side and up the west, allowing great views of the loch and surrounding hills. They were shrouded in clouds and we had more sprinkles of rain as we drove around.

DSC_5666Soon after leaving the side of Loch Eriboll we came to Durness. Our navigation aid directed us to the Smoo Cave Hotel but there was no nearby sign of the cave. I drove on toward the township and we soon spotted the signs for the cave at about 10:30 am. The cave is on a fault in the rock formations and has been formed and shaped by the action of both sea, coming up the narrow inlet, and fresh water flowing down from the hills above. Access to the cave with the waterfall was free so we looked at that and saw a small group embarking on a tour by inflatable boat. We opted to take the next one which began at 11:00. Helmets were mandatory and supplied, which was fortunate bacause we each managed to hit our heads on rocks at some point during the tour that involved a short ride in the boat across a pool below the waterfall, a short walk up and back in a narrow cave, and a boat ride back. At the head of the narrow cave is evidence of a waterfall that existed in prehistory and our guide told us about the evidence of occupation by neolithic people and the work his group is doing to explore the extended cave system.

Afterward we walked to the top of the cliff on the other side of the inlet and back around the top of the cave. By then it was close to midday and we had not yet had morning coffee. We drove into town but the cafĂ© promising coffee was closed. As we drove out of town hoping to find something further on, Majella spotted a sign to a craft village and chocolatier where we found Cocoa Mountain. They claimed to have the best hot chocolote in the world and Majella is prepared to vouch for the validity of that claim since it was the best she has had. I had coffee and we shared a baguette with ham and salad for lunch. A brief exploration of the craft village before we left established that it had been built as a British military listening post but never used for that purpose. Its current upcycled role seems a better use of the locality but it would benefit from more publicity.

DSC_5679Our drive to Kinlochbervie and on to Ullapool could have taken much longer than it did if the roads had been wider or offered more convenient parking spaces. Much of that road, as had been the case earlier in the day, was single lane with passing spaces. The surface was usually very good and often recently improved but there was often just too little of it. Had there been more convenient spaces to stop and take photographs I could have taken a very long time to make the distance. There was just so much begging to be photographed. Despite the grey skies, broken only occasionally by blue, the landscape presented a succession of widely different but beautiful vistas. I captured just a few where I was able to find space to stop safely.

Charles and Cathy had warned us about the Highland midge (midgies), small biting insects which we assumed might be comparable to sandflies. Until today we had not enountered them. At one of my photographic stops I became aware of a cloud of small insects around me and rushed back to the car. We were not able to prevent entry of some of them but I pushed the air conditioning to cold on high fan and hoped that might calm them. Whatever worked, the air conditioning or the unattractiveness of Australian blood, neither of us was bitten this time.

DSC_5702We drove to Kinlochbervie where we were amazed by the variety of rock formations in the surrounding hills. From there we drove south toward Ullapool stopping now and again when I could to try to capture some of it with my camera. The sky was still mostly grey but there were occasional bright patches as the sun peeked through the clouds in the distance. The landscape reminded us of the South Island of New Zealand with green hills and water running down every slope.

DSC_5726By 3:30 pm we had arrived at Ullapool and checked into our accommodation. After a short rest we walked into town via the river walk and down to the harbour. We strolled around there for a while, checking out the shops and alternatives for dinner. Eventually we decided that the restaurant at our motel was as good an option as any and walked back.

Dinner in the motel restaurant was good. Majella had the roast beef with vegetables and I had steak and Guinness pie with chips and vegetables and a dark ale. Majella consulted the dessert menu and opted for liquid dessert, a glass of Baileys. I had a Laphroaig, a name I recognised but a whisky I had not tried previously. It surprised me with its smokiness.