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 and we don’t say anything as we’re served a full fry-up, tea, toast, marmalade, all with a view of the Loch and Skye. A contender for Great Breakfast Table View of the World.
Before anyone does complain, we steal away in the camper van, leaving Kyle of Lochalsh, pressed next to and exactly following the Highland Railway line. Past Plockton, Duncraig, Stromeferry. The 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 a true lifeline for the Highland residents here. Highland travellers – on one of only the two services today – who look imperturbably into our van, like mildly curious shorthorns, 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, far more suited for the cattle it once was designed for than our tartan grumbling machine.
The Bealach na Bà itself seems to hold a 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’ ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’
Well it’s too late to turn back now, and I watch Passepartout, a picture of concentration, tongue out, taking the twisting turns impressively. We have to pull into tight passing places to let anything coming the other way pass. I count about 90 as we climb. My arm goes numb from the thank you salutes.
I am glued more closely though, with a sort of foreboding fascination, to the drops next to us. With nothing, or just thin strips of aluminium, saving us from the sheer precipices. What happened to good old British Health and Safety?
Our driver though is now – her confidence up – taking the turns with Greek vehiculate abandon. I remember too late that Passepartout fell asleep before the end of the Italian Job the one time I made her watch it.
But we do make it down the other side safely and stop for tea and to reflect on the magnificently preposterous promenade we’ve just taken, in the small village of Torridon.
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 young 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 by men in heavy tweed jackets, plus fours and stout hobnail hiking boots back then, for the title of ‘Munro Bagger’ if you can climb them all.
We feel we’ve done enough with our one Munroe, 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’s climbed Ben Nevis he’s never had a clear day at the top. He doesn’t seem to really appreciate my smug description of the miles of clear sky and views we had and so with a “Aye, will you no be getting on your way now?” we set off again, further into Wester Ross.
The scenery really is incredible. When Passepartout talked me into it this Last Chance To See Britain I had reckoned on this part of the trip being special, but the silvery black lochs we run past – some 1000 meters deep – and then the granite mountains that glide into vision as we round corners and which eventually fill the whole windscreen, is much more than I 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 definitely unreliable source) 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. Well, anyway, rounding a Loch must be 10 times even more than that.
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 – which must be Britain’s smallest – and which, like the Highland Railway, must provide an indispensible service for the sparse communities around here. Out of date records – gloriously and unironically unfashionable – Gaelic conversations, Celtic songs and snippets of news that are more like over the fence conversations, all broadcasted 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 your calls. But can you nae call when I have nae got a record on? I cannae concentrate on two things at once you know..”
After the long drive, made longer by stopping to look down at deserted sunlit coves, framed with blooms of flowers and thistles from our vantage point at the top of the high banks, we pull into Ullapool. The Greek doesn’t look impressed as we park in a Tesco’s carpark. “Why does the guide book say it is so beautiful?” she chaffs, as if personally lied to, as we walk through the town. But the harbour has cute charms and the pub is welcoming.
An overweight middle aged American lady in large glasses, patterned bow tied maternity dress and library hair walks around the dark wooden bar with her mobile phone, clamping it to each of the patiently pained locals’ ears to say hello to her friend back home in the Mid-West. Snatching the phone back “Can you believe this!” she cries “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, knowing we can’t stay there for the night but not knowing where we should go, 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, 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.