Alness to Helmsdale
Despite having had a three course meal last night, I awoke some time after 5 am with hunger pangs. I put up with them for a while before eating the two shortbread biscuits that were left with the tea making things. For the next two hours I lay in bed listening to the crows in the garden until it was time to get up.
I had porridge and a cooked breakfast, with gorgeous grilled smoked bacon, hash browns and mushrooms. I was away by 8.45, and stopped in the town to get some bananas and muesli bars from the local co-op.
I had not bothered to put the route into the Garmin unit today, as I had decided not to take the A9 out of Alness. I had two options, one of which involved re-joining the A9 some time later, making a route of about 60 miles, the other taking me further north before heading across and south to Helmsdale, my next port of call. This option, I found out last night, would be about 95 miles. I didn’t have to make the decision on which route to take until I was about 30 miles into the day, so I would have a fair idea of how I was doing by then, and if the longer route would be feasible.
As I climbed out of Alness, I once again passed arable land. I also, rather disturbingly, passed a signpost to Dublin. Surely I couldn’t be that lost already!
The day was great, with a cloudless sky, and for the first time this trip I hadn’t put on a baselayer under my cycling top. Nevertheless, the sweat was soon running down my face as I climbed.
I saw a sign to a viewpoint in one mile, but nothing prepared me for the beauty of what I saw when I turned that corner. The view down to Bonar Bridge, and the Dornoch Firth was simply stunning, and I welled up at the sheer beauty of it. I thankfully had the view to myself for a few minutes before a Shearer’s tour coach pulled up and a hoard of tourists alighted. I left them snapping away and descended to Gayard and then Bonar Bridge.
Just before I crossed the bridge, I saw a girl coming towards me walking what I found out was a ferret! It was more interested in my bike than in my taking a picture of it.
The next miles went in easily, with wide sweeping bends and good sight lines, allowing me to use all of the road on the descents. For those moments I was Bradley Wiggins in the tour, well alright then, maybe the lanterne rouge!
I reached the ugly-sounding, but picturesque, Lairg, and stopped at a cafe for coffee and a scone. Sitting outside overlooking Loch Shin there was no decision to be made – no way was I going to return to the A9 after seeing what I had already seen today. I chatted with two local cyclists, who said that there was normally one fatality a week on the A9. I was glad to be far away from it.
The views kept changing as I cycled north, but were always breathtaking. I passed through Crask, and the Crask Inn that Ian McMurray had told me about. It was still too early to stop for lunch, so I rolled on through. Shortly after, I came upon a French Canadian couple, fixing a puncture. We chatted, them in broken English, and me in rusty French, and I found out that they were cycle touring for six weeks, had started in Edinburgh, and were now heading for the Western Isles. They were enjoying today, having battled against a ‘frontwind’ all yesterday.
I saw various wildlife as I progressed, but no deer, not until I entered the village of Altnaharra, where a flock (?) of female deer was fenced in. I got a photograph of them, as I felt that captive ones were the only ones I was likely to get on film.
I had an extortionately priced coffee and sandwich in the Altnaharra hotel, and suitably refreshed, if somewhat poorer, proceeded along Loch Naver, now heading northeast.
The furthest north I got was a place called Syre, which was only about 10 miles from the north coast. My accommodation, however, was in the other direction, so I turned to start my journey south. With over 60 miles in the legs, an uphill stretch, and bright sunshine, I began to flag. A muesli bar was followed a short time later by a banana and more McCoys. The road shortly began to tilt downwards, and I got my second wind.
Maybe I was more tired at this end of the day, but this section of upland, mostly bog, didn’t set my senses on fire the way the earlier scenery had. I did see some interesting stacks of turf that wouldn’t be out of place in Egypt! I was following the course of the Helmsdale river, and saw, in increasing numbers, fly fishermen trying their luck, some with ghillies to increase their chances. Rabbits and sheep ran across my path from time to time.
Then, just as I was about to join the ‘main’ road to Helmsdale, I stopped dead in my tracks. There, lying down by a graveyard, were about 6 or 8 stags, sunning themselves in all their majestic glory. Doubtless tame ones, it was nonetheless a wonderful sight, and one I had given up having on this trip.
The road to Helmsdale was pretty enough for me to decide to use it tomorrow to get to the north coast, rather than use the infamous A9, as I had planned for part of tomorrow’s trip. I think that I will go to Thurso first, and see if I can leave my panniers in the hotel, after which I should be able to whizz at top speed to Dunnet Head and John O’Groats, although the thought of the latter, with all its probable tackiness, doesn’t appeal after the beauty of today.
Statistics for Day 6
Miles ridden: 94.7
Miles ridden of route: What route?
Feet climbed: 4188
Ferrets seen: 1
Deer seen: Lots
No. of times better than A9: Immeasurable