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Fri Aug 26 2016: The Best Of The North Coast 500

If you build it they won't necessarily come.

But if you name it... And make stickers and print T-shirts... they'll show up in droves!

In 2015, the Tourism Board in Scotland came up with an idea to bring visitors to the very northern reaches of the country. Create a scenic route that shows off the best of the untamed Scottish Highlands! But to properly market it, you have to come up with a cool name, like the Tail of the Dragon, or Route 66 in the US. Perhaps the branding people got a bit too literal: "Um, we said 'like' Route 66 not 'exactly'..."

Presenting: The North Coast 500!

It's cool in the late morning when we leave our campsite in Thurso. High cloud cover obscures some of the blue skies that we have enjoyed during the last couple of days. No matter. As long as it doesn't rain, we're okay with that.

The rocky terrain is markedly different from the east coast of the NC500

It's almost as if John O'Groats is some kind of marker that separates the smooth shorelines from this more rugged landscape.

The brush is thick and overgrown. Things seem a lot more wild here on this side of Scotland

And the road keeps twisting and turning around this marvelous playground!

Sheep are unfazed by the odd passing motorist.

Despite the marketing push, the north coast is so far from civilization, most traffic here is recreational and the UK holiday season is winding down. The route is basically brand new, so probably word hasn't gotten out yet. We don't mind. We hate crowds.

Every now and then, we spot little crescents of sand between the rocky bays, not large enough to make a beach

The ruins of a Scottish castle high up on the hills lend to the charm of this Highland experience

But the main attraction here is the brand new ribbon of asphalt winding its way through the scenery

The passing clouds overhead colour the land with moving shapes of dark and light as we motor through Northern Scotland. We pick up a really nice rhythm accelerating and then slowing between curves like the pendulum push and pull of a snowboarder carving through turns in fresh powder.

Carve, Neda! Carve!

Stunning views of blue lake beside the twist of tarmac that we gleefully negotiate

In the rockiest section, the road narrows down to a single track. This is not a problem as there are so few vehicles up here. Every now and then the road bulges out, like a snake that's swallowed something large, to accommodate safe passing spots for oncoming traffic.

Even the passing bulge is not nearly wide enough when a tour bus goes by in the opposite direction!

As we get closer to Durness, we spot a larger outcropping of sand

It's a full-on beach and there are people out enjoying the blue skies when the clouds take their mid-afternoon break. Yay! Sun!

From up above the hills overlooking the beach, are those rocks up there?

No, more livestock decorating the lambscape. She's so fluffy!!!

Life's a beach

Scottish highlands would not be complete without highland cattle!

When we were at Gino's place for dinner, he recited a Scottish poem which I can't recall. Actually, I didn't understand most of the Gaelic words, but two stood out: Heilan Coo. That's Highland Cow for those of us who don't speak Scottish.

"If you can smell this, you're following too close"

The Heilan Coo is a special breed with a long coat to better withstand the cold of the Highland winters. Also, to be designated an official Heilan Coo, the hair has to be styled to cover the eyes in an Emo mop. I believe there is a special cattle-stylist that the farmers go to to get this look.

We found a cafe and ducked inside for lunch

I took the picture above in the cafe parking lot while sprinting to find cover inside. The smidges were out in full force. I don't understand how they find us so quickly. When we stop, there are no smidges around at all, but within 30 seconds, clouds of them descend on us.

Then I read online that smidges are attracted to two things: carbon dioxide and heat. The warmth of our motorcycle engines are basically a beacon to all the smidges in the area. Our own bikes betray us every time we stop! :(

While munching on a burger, I stare out the window and watch as a thick mist of smidges swarm around our motorcycles. Even from the safety of inside the cafe, my skin was beginning to crawl in dreaded anticipation. After we eat, we make sure every square inch of our skin is covered before we venture out again.

I hate smidges!

The only way to avoid smidges - keep moving. And we do. With much gusto!

More scenic lambscape

And more Scottish ruins. I believe they build these structures brand new, then wreck them immediately to create the proper ambiance!

We are on the "back straight" of the NC500. However, the road is anything but straight! The land is starting to get fringey - rocky fingers extending out into waters of the North Sea. This strait that looks out to the Outer Hebrides is called The Minch. We were debating about whether to catch a ferry to the Outer Hebrides, but the way the ferries run, we'd either have to make a cannonball run through the islands, or wait several days between ferries if we took our time. Things are not clockwork-regular up in the North Coast.

Looking at a map, I'm reminded of the west coast of Norway, the west coast of New Zealand, and also the west coast of Ireland. I wonder why do fjords form around the west coasts all over the world?

The west coast is also called the wet coast

Just like Norway and New Zealand, the weather is typically wetter on the west coast in Scotland. Same as in Vancouver/Seattle. We pull into Ullapool as the clouds release a shower on top of our helmets. And everywhere else. Ugh!

I don't want to camp in this. We ride around knocking on doors to find sheltered accommodations

Every place we try is either sold out or too expensive. We fall victim to NC500's marketing. It's obviously way too successful, transforming these old fishing villages into tourist hotbeds! We can't afford a place to sleep here.

So during a break in the showers, we set up camp. A rainbow overlooks Neda's progress, warning us that although it may be dry now...

Do the endpoints of rainbows signal a pot of gold in Scotland? Or just Ireland? If we go to Ireland, will it be just as wet as it is here? And will there be Irish smidges there too? Our campsite is not immune to smidge attacks and I don the requisite armor:

"F U, smidges!"

Walking the main strip of Ullapool between rain showers

Fishing boats out by the pier in Ullapool

It starts raining again and we duck into a pub to escape the waterworks. The price of admission is a pint of Scottish ale. We buy many admission tickets waiting out the storm that's developing outside. The early evening crowd turns into the late night crowd, and the pub starts rollicking as a local musician hits the stage and starts singing traditional Scottish songs. Every now and then, the power cuts out as scheduled blackouts hit the whole of Ullapool. We all sit in darkness and listen to the act as it becomes an acoustic set. Everyone just takes it in stride.

Welcome to the Scottish Highlands! :)

From her setlist, I had no idea Bruce Springsteen and Tracy Chapman were Scottish!

We make fast friends with the couple that is seated at our table. Turns out they are Canadians too. The guy is here for a bagpipe convention! Lots of Scots in Canada!

The rain comes down hard outside in Ullapool. We are warm, toasty and slightly inebriated and we've got enjoyable company and good music inside this pub on the wet coast in Scotland. I don't want to go outside into our cold and soggy tent.

So I buy another admission ticket.

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