Friday morning. 6:00 am and the bloody alarm clock wakes me just after I have at last got to sleep. I could have cursed Richard at this point. FFS, we have all day to get to Scotland - why a 7:00 am start? But dutifully, I met Richard at M6 J17 as promised and off we went. A Beautiful Day straight up the M6. Glasgow was overcast, but by the time we hit Tyndrum for lunch, the sky was horizon to horizon blue and it was calm and warm.
The A82 Out of Tyndrum
A quick lunch and a chat with three guys who had ridden up from Brum and then what do we do now. Bikes, superb quiet roads and a perfect day. Tough decision - its playtime! So we spent the afternoon enjoying some of Scotlands finest roads and taking in the beautiful scenery, bimbling around Glen Etive and sampling the wonderfully twisty back road from Glen Coe to Kinlochleven. Pausing for a little while to take photos and the mandatory search for the Loch Ness monster, eventually arriving at our overnight stop at Inverness, quite knackered but happy at about 7:00 pm. But noticing that the weather was breaking.
Loch Etive, Glen Etive, Loch Ness
This year we chose to do the Highland Challenge. Fairly straightforward - get to 12 nominated checkpoints (in any order), buy something to prove you had been there and finish at Crainlarich. You have 24 hours to complete the Challenge.
So, Saturday morning dawned with the obligitory grey mist and drizzle. Richard optimistically called it Sea Mist, I said it was pissing down. So after 10 minutes on the bikes, it was on with the waterproofs and then a search for breakfast, eventually discovered at a small cafe just opposite the first receipt point at Fort Augustus.
So where were we heading?
The map shows the route, broadly circulating the highlands in a clockwise direction, but in reality a northerly zigzag from east to west to east to west, then up to the north coast then a blast down the A9 with the idea of finding somewhere to sleep in Fort William, before heading down to Oban and finishing the Rally on the Sunday.
And so we departed, to a sky that was becoming noticeably clearer as we headed west. The first stop was at a small hotel by Loch Cluanie. Easily discovered although unexpected - it really was in the middle of nowhere.
As we moved on, the weather got clearer, so that by the time we stopped for Lunch at Lairg, the sun was shining and we were joined by about half a dozen other bikers who were doing the Highlander in the opposite direction. Also informed that we had definitely chosen the right direction as we had had the better weather.
Loch Duich, Ullapool, Lairg
From Lairg, the roads got decidedly worse. Although classified as an 'A' road, in England it would be described as a track with passing places. And we still had 50 miles of 'B' roads to hit. As expected these were actually worse - basically the same as the 'A' roads except without the passing places. The PGF [see below] had also made his presence felt. The Ducati in the opening photo became a victim on one patch and left a nicely tinted red boulder behind as proof of presence. But the bike and rider completed OK - that was good.
Once up at Bettyhill, a fairly quick ride along the mainlands most Northerly Main Road to Castletown. This is about as far North you can get without getting your feet very wet! The weather up here was quite beautiful, and with a beautiful landscape as well. Miles of desrted Golden Sandy Beaches - why would anyone want to go abroad for a holiday? OK it may be just a tad cooler than the Mediterranean but much more pleasant. But it was now about 5:00pm and we still had around 200 miles to do before finding somewhere to sleep. But the ride South down the A9 should be fairly easy. Long - but easy. Its quite extraordinary how clear the air is that far North. We were dodging rain showers most of the way down, but with early evening sunlight streaming through providing some of of the brightest rainbows I have ever seen. Absolutely beautiful.
As it was running late, we decided to skip our evening meal and try and get to Fort William. It was dark as we got into Fort Augustus again, but now it was starting to rain very heavily. It was also blowing like hell, apparently a gust of 74mph had been recorded. We eventually got into Fort William at about 9:30pm and after a brief foray down the pedestrianised High Street, we found what you could loosely call a hotel. (My wife wouldn't have stayed there!). A quick look in the shower and the concensus was we would stay cleaner avoiding it. We had ordered a curry by 10:00 pm and a well earned couple of pints.
Loch Naver, Dunnet Head, Portnacresh
Awake-up call at 7:00am was followed by another wake-up call almost 1 hour later as I hit a very wet patch of overbanding on the A82 out of Fort William. (It was just a jump to the left and a slither to the right)... But onto Oban and then to the finish at Crainlarich. In the process embarrassing four guys on sports bikes who couldn't go round corners in the wet..
All we had to do now was the final 350 miles home. Against a strong head/cross wind. Landing home at about 4:30pm.
We had covered 1384 miles, 555 miles on the rally and been in the saddle for over 30 hours over 3 days.
Are we doing it again? I have already boooked the days leave. This just has to be the best of the UK rally's.
PGF - The Phantom Gravel Flinger. A distant cousin of Billy Connolly's Phantom Carrot Flinger, this is the guy who goes around and places a small patch of gravel on the riding line. You have all been there, you'r bimbling along - making good progress and you approach (usually) a gentle right hander. Being a good rider, you ease to the left, gently over the rise, and there it is - the patch of gravel. [bugger]