Scottish 500 – Day 5

The North Coast

No messing this morning, we’re up and off. Durness for breakfast!

We stop briefly at Laxford Bridge as our guide book says it’s a good place to spot otters, but alas, we fail yet again. I think you have to sit for days in the same spot for even a chance of seeing a fleeting head. Our stomachs were starting to complain, so we hurried on.

The cragginess opens out to a beautiful wide sandy estuary of the Kyle of Durness and with the sunshine weakly pushing its way through the high clouds, its looks stunning. We skirt Durness and turn left to Balnakeil to the Balnakeil Craft Village. Here lies the old buildings of the wartime radio station base, which has been taken over by jewellers, knitters, artists and other talented people. The armed forces of World War 2 used this corner of Scotland to practice landings, hide submarines and have outlying radio stations. At Cape Wrath, they still practice live shelling and bombing! The tall and numerous radio masts have long gone, but the low flat roofed offices remain and one of the them houses the hot chocolate!

The Cocoa Mountain cafe didn’t do breakfasts as such, so we satisfied ourselves with amazing hot chocolates and a bun drizzled with thick gooey chocolate. Again, I was baffled how a trendy cafe was in the middle of nowhere and clearly thriving. It had a small work room next door and they were producing more chocolate confectionery than just for the cafe. Where did that go (later in the trip, near Inverness, we discovered another branch of Cocoa Mountain, but it was miles and hours away). We presumed it was online orders. I was pleased that they were doing so well in such a remote spot.

To walk off our excessive chocolate intake, we drive up to Balnakeil Bay and enjoy a long walk along beautiful golden sands. The Dog is very happy.

Here, as we start our walk, there’s another isolated, but impressive cemetery, sitting on the edge of the beach.

We retrace our steps back to Durness, another village that is scattered across the vicinity with a small shop and not much else. However, there was a cafe for coffee and cake before heading to Smoo Cave.

It’s an impressive cave, accessed by steps down into a small bay. You can visit the first main cave free, but there’s a charge to go in deeper. We had a little investigation but had no inclination to go further. We head back and headed east.

We drive leisurely, then have to drive down Loch Eriboll and back the other side, some 10 miles extra! Lunch is taken on a high position, looking back down the Loch towards the coast. The sun is out properly now and the views are stunning. We continue on, the landscape softening as we leave the mountains behind us. It’s more moorland and distant peaks, but no less dramatic. We drop into little valleys where small communities snuggle. We stop at Tongue for a ice cream, but time is getting on and we need a place to stop. We haven’t wild camped yet which is an option. We think Bettyhill might have one, and head there. The campsite turns out to be a grubby field, with a dilapidated toilet block and an overflowing dumpster. There’s no reception office, but a few shabby static caravans and one hapless pre-booker. We turn tail.

The landscape has now flattened out considerably with gorse bushes. We stop at Melvich as there’s a pub with a campsite. On enquiry, there is no room and the gangly youth muttered about Thurso would be the next stop. We’ve basically traversed the whole of the north coast without stopping, in one day, which wasn’t part of the plan. So we plunge onto Thurso, through a decidedly flat and monotonous landscape, devoid of any trees. We pass the Dounreay nuclear plant, which is obviously the biggest employer, but it’s being decommissioned. Where to people work?

There’s plenty of housing dotted around. Pebble dashed modern bungalows seem to be the norm, next door to a crumbling pile of stone which obviously was an old cottage. Nobody seems to renovate here. It’s as if it’s so much cheaper to new build in pebble dash (insulation purposes?) than restore historic little stone cottages which is a great shame. The bungalows look like they’ve been dropped in by helicopter and there’s no effort to landscape gardens or grow trees around them. Perhaps the soil is so poor that it can’t support trees and shrubs. The bungalows become as monotonous as the scenery.

We finally get to Thurso, via a brief visit to neighbouring Scrabster, under the misguided belief there was a campsite. Our overnight spot was just outside the town centre, overlooking the sea but backing onto housing across the road. It was a bit surreal. The bonus was that it had a cafe on site that did fast food. We found our pitch, overlooking the sea, which was nice, but close to the boundary fence which was upright flagstones buried into the ground. Beyond that, there was a public footpath where people walked their dogs and gawped into the campsite. We felt like we were in a fishbowl.

We ordered burger and chips in the cafe and the young girl promised to deliver them to our pitch when they were ready. So we sat outside supping wine and munching our tea, admiring the far flung views in between the wandering people of Thurso.

Afterwards we go and investigate the town and drop down onto the beach. You can see the Orkney Isles. The weather is warm and there is high cloud. We head back to our little motorhome and watch the world and ferries heading off to the Orkneys. For some reason, that low flagstone wall and everybody walking past close to the van, unnerves us a bit. We’ve never come across a site so open to the public before. Weird.

While we were wondering what to eat, a cheerful youth wandered through the site brandishing leaflets for the local takeaway. We have endured deep fried Mars Bars and fried pizza (which even the dog turned her nose up) before in Scotland, but the Munchie Box takes it up a whole new level. And with that, I leave you for the night and til tomorrow when we visit John O’Groats.

Author: apathtosomewhere

Come with me and my dog on my meanderings around northern England and further afield, encountering all walks of life and everything in between!

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