Morning sees us even making it into the breakfast room of the hotel we have only camped in the car park of. No one asks any questions as we gingerly enter, we don’t say anything, and so we’re served by the bay windows with the loch and the Isle of Skye just outside, sat now in the sun as if the storms of last night were just some faulty memory. One of the world’s greatest breakfast table views. Before anyone does complain, we steal away in the camper van, leaving Kyle of Lochalsh, and drive along – pressed next to and exactly following – the Highland Railway line. Past Plockton, Duncraig, Stromeferry. The Highland line is decidedly rural, non-electrified, often has to contend with landslides – but these small, doughty trains, protected by an Act of Parliament so I’ve read, must be indispensable for the residents here. The train travellers – on one of only the two services today – who turn and look blankly into our van, like those mildly curious shorthorn Highland cows, as they chug past.
We hit the Bealach na Bà, a single track road that winds up the mountains of the Applecross Peninsular in a series a hairpin turns, ribboning up into the sky. It looks an almost impossible route, more suited for the cattle that once trod it for than our tartan grumbling machine. The Bealach na Bà seems to hold some sort of disavowing stance too – the beginning of the climb is wreathed in signs telling us that novices shouldn’t tackle the drive. ‘Not advised for learner drivers’, ‘Not suitable for camper vans’… But it’s all too late to turn back now, and I watch Giristroula, a picture of concentration, tongue out, taking the twisting turns, her knuckles on the steering wheel slowly turning white. We have to pull into tight passing places to let anything coming the other way pass, I count about 90 of them as we climb. My arm starts to go numb from the thank you salutes. I am glued more closely however, with a sort of foreboding fascination, to the drops next to us. With nothing, or just thin strips of road-side aluminium, saving us from the sheer precipices. What happened that old obsession with British Health and Safety? This seems more like a road you’d find in the far-flung wilds of Crete. Our driver, though, is now – her confidence up – taking the turns with complete Greek abandon. Swinging the wheel through her hands, veering left and right. Cackling to herself. I remember too late that Giristroula fell asleep before the end of the Italian Job the one time I made her watch it.
But we make it down the other side safely, and we glide into the small village of Torridon – and we stop for tea, something bland and reassuring, and reflect on the preposterous promenade we’d just taken. Standing on the shore of Loch Torridon we feel impossibly small as three ‘Munros’ stare down at us from behind the village house tops. A Munro, I’m told by a weather-beaten man from the Scottish Mountaineering Association, coiling endless rope into his van parked next to ours, is a mountain over 3,000 feet. Named after Sir Hugh Munro, who listed them all in the 1890s, and still tackled today as they were back then by eager competitive climbers – but now in expensive microlight clothing rather than heavy tweed jackets, plus fours and stout hobnail hiking boots. You get the title of ‘Munro Bagger’ if you can climb them all. We feel we’ve done enough with our one Munro of Ben Nevis, but I’m pleased to hear this man of the mountains, with his leathery skin, horny hands, sun bleached hair and soft-strong accent, tell us in all the times he’d climbed Ben Nevis he’d never had a clear day at the top. It becomes obvious though he doesn’t really appreciate my smug description of the miles of clear sky and the views I tell him we had when we were up there, and so with an “Aye, will you no be getting on your way now?” we set off again. Further into Wester Ross.
The scenery really is something else here. When Giristroula talked me into it this ‘Last Chance To See’ trip of Britain, I had reckoned on this part being special, but the silvery-black lochs we run past – some over a thousand meters deep – and then the granite mountains that glide into vision as we round corners and which then fill the whole windscreen, it’s all more than I ever imagined. We’re taking a ludicrously impractical, ludicrously scenic, long route to Ullapool, following the coast which, as the coast doesn’t really follow the coast – cutting in for miles of lochs and bights – has added hugely to our journey. I heard somewhere (from a friend I have back in London – quite the most ridiculous man to be fair, and a completely unreliable source on all types of information) that following a river from one point to another, following all its twists and turns, is 3.14 times longer than how the crow flies. He was very precise on this exact figure. True or not, rounding a loch must be 10 times more than that. But it’s worth it.
As we pass between two Lochs (Loch Maree and Loch Ewe) I turn on the van’s old radio and find, appropriately enough, ‘Two Loch’s Radio’. A cottage radio station – surely Britain’s smallest – which, like the Highland Railway, must provide an indispensable service for the sparse, spread out, communities around here. Out of date records – gloriously unfashionable, without any sort of hipster irony – English and Gaelic conversations, Celtic songs and snippets of news that are more like over-the-fence conversations. All broadcasted out on the airways to those listening over miles and miles of lonely Scottish moors and mountains. At one point the DJ makes a plea “Aye, thank you for all your calls. But can you not call when I have nae got a record on please? I cannae concentrate on two things at once you know…”
After the long drive – made even longer by regularly stopping to look down at deserted sunlit coves, framed with blooms of flowers and thistles from our point up at the top of the high banks – we pull in to Ullapool. Giristroula doesn’t look impressed as we park in a Tesco’s car park. “Why does the guide book say this town is so beautiful?” she chaffs as we walk along, as if personally lied to. We get to the sea front. There’s a lone glass old British Telecom phone box here looking out to see. When did I last use a telephone box I wonder? When did anyone? Do they still have that unique smell of nicotine ash and urine inside? Giristroula cheers up at the sight of the cute-looking harbour in the dying sunset, the pub looks good too. And a vicar stands far out on the quay side, tall, in his dog-collar and a holey grey cardigan. He stands above his flock of three or four bent ladies clutching hymn books to their chests, and we can just about hear him as he reads out some long hectoring verses that the evening breeze carries out over the sea.
In the pub an overweight middle-aged American lady in large glasses, patterned bow-tied maternity dress and close-curled library hair walks around the dark wooden bar. She clamps her mobile phone to each of the pained-looking locals’ ears for them to say hello to her friend back home in the Mid-West.
“Can you believe this!” she cries, snatching the phone back. “Yes! I’m in Scotland!”
She makes a mournful old man, with a roadmap-lined face, pose for a photo with a cuddly monkey she’s been taking round Europe. Presumably posing it with equally unimpressed old men in beer halls in Bravaria, cafés in Paris, or tavernas in Greece. As we walk back to the Tesco’s car park later, knowing we can’t stay there for the night but not knowing where we should go to park up for the night, we see the blowsy American lady walking arm in arm with three of the young, heavily made-up, girls from the pub – presumably the trouble of the town. She’s laughing her head off. “Where are you taking me?!” she screams with uncontrollable happiness.
You wait your whole life, come to a cold distant town on the very northern point of an unknown continent. And you finally start to live.