The Hairless Bikers
A Trip to the Highlands of Scotland by pair of follically impaired grumpy old men
I had a phone call from my life-long friend David Durham back in February, telling me of an offer he had received through the post from Easy Breaks, a company which offers all sorts of cheap hotel breaks in Britain. This one in particular was from the Ben Wyvis Hotel in Strathpeffer, not far from Inverness and was on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis for a total of £89 for the FOUR nights - with a bottle of wine thrown in (well, put on the table at least) on one of the nights - that's even cheaper than camping! Since Chris and I retired up here to Orkney, I have had a 'Spring Shakedown' run with David using these Easy Breaks hotels and I had been gathering Brownie points by the bucket-load from Chris with the work I'd been doing on the house - especially on the new kitchen and the hall, so a pass-out would be easy to get. The 'Wing needed nothing much more than a good clean around the nooks and crannies as it's been sitting in the workshop, not far from where all this band-sawing and general woodworking has been going on. It was still on the same Yuasa battery it came with in 2003 and has been suffering from the 'release button to start' syndrome for a while, so I ordered a new Odyssey PC680 battery (AGM type) and fitted it a few days before the trip. It flings the motor over so fast that it starts immediately and now only needs 3/4 choke, even when cold. During the trip the bikes were parked outside each night and the temperature fell close to zero, but the 'Wing started each time as though it had just been stopped to buy a paper from the local shop on a hot summers day. I realise there will be people reading this who think that a GoldWing is not really a motorcycle - something I once thought too, but having owned 'Wings for well over 20 years and in that time, covered well in excess of 100,000 miles on them, I can say with some authority that they do everything extremely well. All too often I see so-called 'sports tourers' with panniers sticking out like Dumbo's ears and a passenger perched like a 'cock on a middin' needing to stop about every 50 miles to unfold some of the uncomfortable wrinkles - as they say, yer pays yer money..... Back in 96 I did a charity run of 1000 miles in just over 20 hours on our GL1200 with no ill effects, which highlights the level of comfort on these machines made for really long distances.
For the uninitiated, I'll give a little information on the spec. of my GL1500SE which is a 1991 model, so well within the VJMC 'regs'. It is a 1520cc flat six with 2 carbs, a 5 speed box driving a shaft to the rear wheel. It has electronic cruise control, an on-board compressor for the rear suspension with an outlet you can inflate tyres from (or anything else which might need inflating, sir!) There is a very good quality sound system, speed sensitive - so it increases the volume with speed, plus a tape player and an intercom. Sound can be played through speakers or via the headset into the helmet and the sound mutes when the rider or passenger speaks over the intercom. For those awkward times when you need to haul the thing backwards (it does weigh about 800 lbs!), it has a reverse gear driven by the very heavy duty starter motor. Storage space is obviously excellent with two large and very waterproof panniers, a huge top box with a mechanical central locking system, plus a few other small storage areas, so you don't have to 'stick to the existing underwear' for yet another day - oops! Inner removable hold-alls are also provided, so that you can turn up at a hotel without looking like Sherpa Tensing. It might surprise the reader, but it is actually 2 inches narrower than the BMW K100 across the panniers - mainly because the panniers are moulded inwards towards the rear wheel, rather than being hung on as an afterthought. I have owned 2 GL1500's, 3 GL1200's and one very early GL1000 - all very capable bikes but the 1500 takes some beating. We bought one of the GL1200's new for £6200 in 1988 and sold it TEN years and 50,000 miles later for £5800 - yes, a loss of £400 in 10 years. I paid £6000 for this latest GL1500 in 2003 with a very low mileage and I could probably get near to that figure if I sold it now although I have no intention of doing that. I haven't even ridden a GL1800, although I understand that they are a very capable machine with better brakes and handling, but I am very happy with what I have now.
I booked my ferry trip through Northlink Ferries from Stromness in Orkney to Scrabster on the Scottish Mainland and as we are now Islanders we get 30% discount plus a further 25% for being over 60. Not only that, but we get 2 free ferry return trips each year, so I used one of those on this occasion and only had to pay for the 'Wing. It goes some way for having to pay at least 10p a litre extra for fuel when compared with the rest of Britain. Unfortunately I would only have to travel about 120 miles to the Hotel, whereas David lives over 400 miles from it. Our last trip was down to Arrochar on Loch Long, not far from Loch Lomond, so it was about mid-way and a bit fairer - but this offer at the hotel was too good to miss.
The Hamnavoe just arriving to pick me up (and a few other folk too!)
I set off in hazy sunshine at around half past nine on the Monday morning to do the 14 or so miles to the ferry and was sent on board first so that I could turn round unimpeded to align with the deck clamps for tying the 'Wing down. I now leave the bike on it's side stand and put it in reverse when on ferries. The crew then rope it down and chock the wheels, but this crossing was not going to cause any real problems. It was then time to make my way to the Breckness restaurant on Deck 6 for a late breakfast, or was it an early lunch? The crossing was very smooth but it became a bit misty as we passed the Old Man of Hoy and thickened somewhat as we crossed the Pentland Firth to Scrabster. Leaving the Ship, the roads were dry but this mist was still around and had enough moisture content to produce big droplets of water across the top edge of the screen. As I left Thurso and headed down the A9 over Causeymire by the big wind farm, the mist lifted and the sun came out at full strength. The road surface was not conducive to spirited riding following the damage over this last winter, but the contractors were already on the case and hopefully this wonderful stretch of road will soon be restored to its former glory. As I approached Latheron where the A9 turns south again and gives those wonderful views of the North Sea, the sky was that now familiar brilliant blue which makes the sea the same shade and the daffodils, gorse and new grass produced a wonderful tapestry of colour stretched out before me. I followed the A9 down through Helmsdale, Brora and Golspie and on a whim (I thought you said you were on a 'Wing?) decided to turn right along the A836 to Lairg. As I came into this lovely little village for a brief stop to visit the 'hole in the wall' and just have a little stroll along the side of Loch Shin, the memories of my Land's End to John O'Groat's recumbent trike ride in 2004 came flooding back. It was about the same time of the year and I could see the little B and B place I had stayed, just across the other side of the bridge along the beginning of the loch - or is it the end?
From here the road heads South and climbs up and over a few hills - I remember those too, one being described in a cycling book as a 'Punchy little climb' which took me nearly an hour on the trike and it even seemed long and steep going down it on the 'Wing.
For the whole length of this road I saw hardly another vehicle until I reached Bonar Bridge. Turning right over the bridge I headed back down to join the A9 again just north of Evanton. The air was crystal clear by now with fantastic views all around and also, some of the best road surfaces in Britain.
I have been using a Garmin 60CS GPS unit for over 6 years now - for motorcycling, walking, cycling and in the car too and had found the Hotel and added it as a programmed waypoint some days before the trip. I have a small adapted bracket for it between the bars and as the buttons are too small to use easily with a gloved hand, I set it to 'Go To' mode as I re-fuelled. It gives turn by turn instructions after a 'bleep' if required and can easily be heard on the 'Wing even with a full face helmet on and the visor down.
I pulled into the Ben Wyvis car park at just on 4 o'clock as arranged and David's BMW was already there with enough space to park next to it. I took a couple of my bags with me and put the helmet in the top-box and went in search of the room after checking in. The plan for this week away was to do a bit of relaxed touring around some of the best scenery Britain has to offer, coupled with almost deserted ideal biking roads with near perfect surfaces. I soon found the room and met up with David before booking our evening meal time and having a short stroll around Strathpeffer. We happened to notice an advert for a musical evening in the local Coffee House with a couple of guitarists and a Gaelic singer. Everything slotted in to place and after a very good and well presented meal we ventured out again to the Cafe. Entry was simply by donation and we thoroughly enjoyed our evenings entertainment. By the time it finished, it was only a short walk to the hotel and to bed - well David had done a fair mileage that day from his overnight stay in Moffat, I had done less than half of what he had.
The Ben Wyvis in the late evening
The following morning we were up at a reasonable time to enjoy a very tasty breakfast before our plan emerged to retrace the latter part of my route from yesterday to get us up to Lairg on the bikes, so that we could enjoy that lovely westward road through Strath Oykel to Ledmore Junction with a northern detour to show David the impressive bridge at Unapool (Kylesku)
Way up in the Highlands not far from Lochinver, this is the impressive bridge at Unapool, which replaced the little Kylesku ferry in the mid 80's The stretch of water is about 130 metres across, but without the bridge, if the ferry was not running it meant a 130 kilometre (80 miles) detour.
After a brief halt at the bridge it was a case of retracing our route to Ledmore Junction then down to Ullapool. Our breakfast had lasted us virtually all day but we decided to patronise one of the waterfront Cafes for a cuppa and cake, only to prevent us wasting away of course! We got back to the Hotel for a refreshing shower and again made our way to the restaurant for another excellent meal followed by an evening chatting to some of the other bargain-grabbers.
As David would have quite a long ride home (to Kingston upon Hull) on the Friday, we decided to keep Thursday for a bus and train ride out to the Kyle of Lochalsh, so that left just one more good day for another epic ride, which we decided would be to the Torridon area and over to Applecross. The Wednesday dawned clear and bright, so following yet another hearty breakfast we topped up with fuel and made our way along the A836 Ullapool road as far as Garve, where we turned left along the A832 to Achnasheen, a place I had stayed on my way down from home in Orkney for our last trip. There were very few other vehicles about as we made good progress to Kinlochewe and then to Shieldaig. At this point you have a choice - South along the A896 or West along the very impressive but un-numbered coastal road to Applecross, which we chose.
The views from this road are incredible, with frequent glimpses of the Cuillins on Skye and the azure blue sea and golden sands of the inner sound with the Islands of Raasay and Rona in the near distance. It was no problem for either the 'Wing or David's BMW K100RT, but as with any road like that, concentration is required at all times, although there are many opportunities to stop for photos or to just sit and watch the great variety of birds. We saw purple sandpiper, turnstone as well as a great number and variety of duck along the edges of the shore and an unidentified raptor circling some distance away. On reaching Applecross village we made our way to the Inn for a coffee and snack but found it rather full, so just had our drink and a bun and quickly left. We were just getting ready to move off when a dark coloured '64 Mustang came burbling along the narrow road towards us, being driven by a larger than life Robbie Coltrane with an arm hanging nonchalantly over the driver's door - great car though! It was now our turn to ride the Bealach na Ba or 'Pass of the Cattle' and for those of you who have not sampled it, it's a very narrow but well surfaced 1 in 3 with numerous hairpins that winds it's way up to about 2000 feet in a fairly short distance before coming down just as steeply via more hairpins towards the beautiful Loch Kishorn. I has an almost Alpine feel to it and well worth the effort of getting there - Torridon is an area on its own in Scotland and quite different from the rest of the Highlands.
Feels like the top of the world (2045 feet), with fantastic panoramic views on a day like this.
The last time David had been up this Pass was when he and his then new Wife, Brenda and myself (before I was married) had an Easter break up in that area and there was about 6 inches of snow either side of a thankfully dry road. At that time they had a BMW R100 RT Boxer and I had a CX500 with full Sigma luggage. We think it would have been in 1982 or thereabouts, hard to believe that's nearly 30 years ago now. The next stretch took us alongside Loch Carron, through the village with the same name and back up to Achnasheen followed by a steady ride back through Garve to the Hotel. The mileage today had only been about 130 but the levels of concentration made it seem like more.
The following day (Thursday) as I said, we wanted to go on the train to the Kyle of Lochalsh, so after a slightly earlier, but equally filling breakfast, we caught the bus to Dingwall, and I got to use my recently acquired bus-pass for the first time. The train fare was under £20 return for a 2 hour journey in each direction and again goes through some cracking scenery, along many loch sides and through heather covered hills and sleepy villages. We had a stroll around the Kyle and did a few of the normal touristy things before returning to our waiting train. The meal at the Hotel on our return was as before, extremely good - not huge quantities but certainly enough, very well presented and piping hot so you can't say fairer than that.
Friday was again dry, but time now for packing the bikes and heading off in opposite directions after refuelling in Dingwall. I had actually booked the 7pm ferry in case we were late leaving, but a quick call to Northlink allowed me to change that to the lunchtime crossing with no problem. The wind was strengthening as I headed North, but certainly not enough to disrupt the crossing. With a bit of time to spare I pulled into the lovely little harbour at Latheronwheel and sat for some time at one of the picnic benches, before doing the final bit to the ferry in Scrabster.
The quaint little harbour at Latheronwheel - I bet there are some good smuggling stories surrounding that place!
A slightly bumpier crossing took me back to Stromness in about 90 minutes - I really love going home by boat, it feels very special.
All in all a really good week away on the best roads available in Britain and if you feel like doing something similar, then log on to www.easybreaks.com and see what's on offer - you might be pleasantly surprised. The bikes performed impeccably and we did not encounter one wet road - it turns out that we had 'a week atween the wathers' as they might say around here. It had been a poor week before our trip and sunshine, sleet and gales the week after - lucky eh?
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