The smell of frying bacon wakes me. I peer out of the tartan van to see Glen Nevis camping site a morning hive of activity. Kenneth Williams is doing his exercises in the next camping bay. Sid James heads towards to the shower blocks in his dressing gown with a bar of soap and a towel over his shoulder. It’s a very ordered, community life, set amongst the vast Scottish wilds. Neighbouring campers greet each other as they walk along the grids of neatly verged small roads, as if off to work for the day with a newspaper under their arm. I prefer the wild camping of leaving our van wherever we come to a halt for the night, but a steaming shower directly under the mountain is also a welcomed relief.
We set off, calling in first to the petrol station on the outskirts of Fort William.
While I go in search of Irn Bru, Passepartout is left to fill the tank. As I come back round the side of the van, something is clearly not right.
“Something’s not right!” Passepartout calls out as she fires a blast from the petrol pump into the tank and the petrol comes straight out again in a great fountaining jet.
“Well don’t do it again!” I shout as she has another go, sending the petrol spitting back out once more.
I take over. And press the pump once again. With the same disastrous result of a geyser of spraying petrol arcing out from the opening.
What can be happening? Then we notice. We’re putting petrol into the water tank.
With a sick feeling in our stomachs, we gingerly sniff the opening we’ve been shoving the nozzle in – down the side of the van from the, now quite obvious, petrol cap. It’s where the camper van’s water supply goes in and is stored. And it now reeks of petrol. We turn white. What have we done?
There’s only one thing for it. We’ll have to get the tanks drained. We find an old corrugated-iron garage on a hill above the town. The owner raises his eyes from under the bonnet of a car as we pull into the forecourt.
“We’ve done the silliest thing…” I tell him as he walks over, wiping his filthy hands on a filthier rag. His dour silence makes me nervous and makes me talk too fast “I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen anyone put petrol in the water tank before? Have you ever seen anything like that? Have you? Maybe you have?”
“Aye” he replies, slowly. Turning away to look at the van. “Once or twice. There are some fools out there..”
He brings us out a small electric dredging machine and some plastic piping and hands it to me.
“Oh. You have everything we need then..”
“Aye. I saw the two of yous coming into town yesterday. I thought to myself, they look like a pair who’ll be filling their water tanks up with petrol.”
I can’t tell if he’s joking. His face makes no register of any emotion whatsoever. I laugh quickly, a bit too loudly, and then just as suddenly stop. It’s clear he’s not going to help us either.
Passepartout and I spend almost the whole day, dredging the tank, filling it with water, pouring the petrol out onto the garage forecourt where it mixes with the light rain falling and runs in greasy rainbow streaks out past the old tyres and hulks of cars. The garage owner sits watching us – and it never seems too difficult to distinguish between a dolorous Scotsman and a ray of sunshine- on an oil drum, smoking his roll ups with the petrol running under his boots, and occasionally shakes his head at our work.
Eventually the owner leaves and his apprentice lends us a final hand. At the end, feeling at least relieved that we’d got rid of most of the petrol residue we shake his hand and warmly thank him. A small statured lady customer coming in to pick up an enormous exhaust pipe tells us “Well, you see, we’re friendly here. That’s why they helped you. We’re friendly on the west coast. And the further north up the west coast you go, the friendlier we are. Not like them on the east coast” she adds, pulling a fastidious face.
After the back breaking work we set off, at least 4 hours behind schedule. We pass the owner coming up the hill and wind down the window to give him our thanks again.
“Thank you so much. West Coast people really are the most friendly!”
“Aye” he replies “And careful wi’ our money. That’ll be £40”.
He stands by our van in the rain with his hand out “Water doesn’t come for free you know…”
I unenthusiastically hand him the money, and watch as the Highland rain runs down his face and drips off his nose.
We’re back on the A82, passing through everything we looked down on from Ben Nevis. Deep countryside and so many different lochs. I try to keep track of everything we pass but there is so much environmental confectionary on offer, it’s hard. I even think the Scots gave up when I see that, having earlier passed a Loch Long, we are now passing a Loch Lochy.
We finally leave Scotland’s version of Route 66, having passed the huge Glengary view down onto the Caledonian Canal, and we swing onto the road heading west towards Skye. The pine trees I was missing before are all around us now, and the weather, grey with a slating rain and even mist rising up off the fields, which seems entirely appropriate for this scenery and no one is complaining in our van.
Out of the mist appears Eilean Donan Castle and the most evocatively perfect Scottish image. Set on a loch, stone bridge, turrets, flowers, mountain backdrop. More photos.
And then it’s over the modern Skye Bridge to our first Scottish island. It’s disappointing to be landing in such a prosaic way, when a ferry has been running this stretch of water since the 17th Century, but time is getting on and we need to settle on somewhere on the Isle to stop for the evening.
We keep heading through Skye, un-researched and so unable to decide where to stay. Eventually we park up in the pretty harbour town of Portree for dinner, but later have to move the camper out of the town for a more suitable place to sleep. Again, we keep on travelling, through the dark. “Is this the best place to stop?” “Is this?” Eventually we just throw the van to the side of the road.
We sit with the engine off, miles from civilisation, with the wind rocking us and making howling noises like dismembered voices all around the van.
“What’s the sign” says Passepartout peering out of the front window into the atramentous night. “Does it say no parking? Go and see”. She shoves me out and with a start I see the sign isn’t a sign at all but a ghoulish cross. It sits by the side of the road under mysterious jagged objects that I can see hanging high above us. Like ogre’s teeth.
I hurry back to the van and have a night of bad dreams under a tartan blanket.