Sunday, 23 June 2019

Geocaching on the North Coast 500

The North Coast 500 (NC500) is a 516 mile scenic route around the north coast of Scotland, starting and finishing at Inverness Castle.  The route was first launched in 2015 bringing together many features in the north Highlands of Scotland in one epic touring route.

We first became aware of the NC500 not long after we bought our campervan in August 2016

Originally we had planned to combine a trip to the 2019 UK Mega in Aberdeen at the beginning of August with a trip to the north Highlands but after a bit of research we decided to do the NC500 before peak holiday season and we brought it forward to June.

The plan was to visit all the waypoints to complete the NC500 Virtual Reward and stop off at any other interesting caches or locations along the way.

Day 1

Annandale Water
We left home at 3pm and after a leisurely drive, stopping off for a couple of caches on the way, we arrived just south of Inverness at 22:30.  The roads were fairly clear all the way, Mark did all the driving and I got stuck into reading my new book.

Day 2

Charlie slept for most of the journey last night so this meant he wasn’t tired and was stamping around in the van by 1.00 am, so not much sleep was had but it meant we were up nice and early ready to head into Inverness.  First things first, although we’d got most of the supplies we needed for the next few days there were just a few essentials we needed from the supermarket.  Once that was done we headed to Inverness Castle to find the information for Stage 1 of the NC500 Virtual Reward and take the obligatory photos at the start of the route.  Although disappointingly there’s no official sign or starting point for the NC500.

Then it was off to the Tourist Information to pick up the route map which gives details of services along the route.  We were now ready to start.

One of the questions that’s always asked when planning the NC500 is ‘Which way round is best? Clockwise or anti-clockwise?’  Well we were unsure about this too but there are pros and cons for both.  We eventually decided on anti-clockwise.  A number of reasons really: we’d already driven the east coast on a previous trip a few years ago, seeing many of the sights already and the best of the scenery is supposed to be on the west coast so we decided to leave the best until last and it made perfect sense for us to go anti-clockwise.  We'll know at the end if this was the right decision 😀

If you’re planning a trip then other things to consider are:  If you go clockwise you will approach the Bealach Na Ba road on the first day and if you’ve hired a vehicle or not confident on tricky steep roads then this could come as a bit of a shock.  Going anti-clockwise will ease you into the types of roads you will encounter.  On the plus side going clockwise you will always have the coast to your left which might be easier if you want to pull up quickly to take photos etc.
So, just a few things to consider.  Basically there is no right or wrong way and you can stop off when you want and tailor the trip exactly to your taste.

We left Inverness and headed towards Evanton which was our first stop.  We weren’t going to stop for all the caches on the route but we’d just picked out a few Earthcaches and other caches that looked interesting.

From the car park we could see the Fyrish monument on top of Fyrish Hill, we looked to see if it would be possible to walk up to it but it would’ve been too far for Charlie to walk, it’ll be another few months before he’s up to longer walks.  So we put the walk onto the to-do list for a future trip.

Next stop was Invergordon to do a Church Micro.  It was quite amusing because I looked around to make sure no one was watching me retrieve the cache, after I’d signed the log book I turned round to check again and a mini-bus driver across the car park gesticulated that I should re-hide it ‘around the back’, then laughed and gave me the thumbs up.  I don’t think he was a cacher but he seemed to know all about the cache being there.

Next stop was Tain and then a detour from our route to visit Invershin Falls to see the salmon leaping upstream.  We didn’t hold out much hope of seeing any but we were really lucky and saw loads.

Then we stopped off to walk across the Invershin footbridge.

The footbridge was added to the viaduct in 2000 to prevent pedestrians trespassing on the line.  The distance between the two stations is only one mile which is the shortest distance between two stations in the UK but the way round by road is five miles.  Charlie didn't like walking on the mesh grid floor of the bridge so he had to be carried both ways.

We continued along the A9 stopping off for various caches until we reached Dornoch.  We enjoyed a walk around the town and it was nice to be entertained by someone playing bagpipes as we looked for the answers to the Earthcache.

Our first overnight stop on the route was at Loch Fleet Nature Reserve.  We watched the sun go down which wasn’t until 22:20 then we turned in for the night.  Really strange being light so late.

Day 3

We awoke very early to the sound of seals!  We went out to investigate and we could see them slipping in and out of the water on the sandbank – amazing!

The plan today was to head up towards Duncansby Head, stopping off at various points of interest along the way.  Here are a few photos from the day.  Beautiful sunshine all day.

Latheron Harbour

Whaligoe Steps
When we arrived there was a sign saying that the steps were closed but previous logs on the cache didn’t mention this at all so we continued to the steps and they were accessible but there were signs that they were in the process of being repaired.  There are over 330 steps and in 1814 they led to a harbour which supported 14 herring boats.
Couldn't resist stopping off at the world's shortest street - Ebenezer Place in Wick is just 2.06 m (6 ft 9 in) long.  Ebenezer Place originated in 1883. When No.1 Ebenezer Place was constructed the owner of the building was instructed to display a name on the shortest side of the hotel. It was officially declared a street in 1887 and was only recognized by the Guinness Book of Records in 2006, after the owner of the Mackays Hotel building made an entrance into a new bistro. It replaced the previous record of (5.2 m or 17 ft) held by Elgin Street in Bacup, Lancashire.

Castle Sinclair Girnigoe


We arrived at Duncansby Head about an hour before sunset.  There were a few other campervans there and we enjoyed watching the sun go down before turning in for the night.

Day 4

We awoke to the sound of heavy rain - boo, hiss.  I took Charlie out for a morning walk at about 05:30, it was pretty grim.  We had hoped to walk across to the Stacks of Duncansby last night but thought we’d leave it until the morning instead, big mistake.  We set off to the stacks in the pouring rain.  We can imagine they’d be an impressive sight on a clear day.
Stacks of Duncansby
From here we headed into John O Groats.  We last visited in 2014 and not a lot had changed.  It’s certainly a lot less commercialised than Lands End which is good to see.  We took the obligatory photo by the signpost (again) and got talking to a couple of cyclists that had just cycled from Lands End over the last 20 days.  That would be such an awesome bike ride!

From here we drove to Dunnet Head which is the most Northerly point of the UK mainland.  By this time it had stopped raining.   We got talking to a couple who had a black lab called Eric and he was a Medical Detection Dog, they were telling us all about how they trained MDD dogs to alert Type 1 diabetes suffers when they are about to have a hypo.

It was noticeably busier this time too.  Our last visit was at the end of July in 2014 and we were the only people visiting Dunnet Head – this time there was a constant flow of cars, campervans, motorhomes and motorbikes in and out of the car park.  We’re guessing the increase in visitor numbers is due to the rise in popularity of the NC500.

After leaving Dunnet Head the heavens opened and it rained for most of the day.  We had intended to drive all the way to Durness but we took our time on the journey instead in the hope the rain would stop.
Charlie at the Kyle of Tongue

We stopped overnight at Tongue and decided to continue to Durness the following day.

Day 5

Oh dear rain again this morning.  After taking Charlie for a walk, having porridge and coffee we set off towards Durness.  The roads started to get noticeably more winding from here and after an hour or so the clouds parted and revealed blue sky - yay!  We rounded a bend and were greeted with the most amazing view of a sandy beach and a small bay. The view of the beach with the blue sea was absolutely stunning and was too inviting to miss out.

Ceannabeinne Beach

This was Ceannabeinne Beach and from here we walked to the Durness Boudinage Earthcache.

We spent ages admiring the unusual rock formations before heading back to the van for coffee and toast  doing a #2minutebeachclean on the way – this is something we’ve been doing ever since we visited Rossall Point in Fleetwood last year where they were promoting the LovemyBeach campaign.

The idea is, you take a bag and collect litter while enjoying a walk on the beach.  So now if we see litter on the beach we rarely walk past it without picking it up.

Next stop on the itinerary was Smoo Cave.  The car park was very busy when we arrived and this was another thing we had noticed, this part of the NC500 was starting to get much busier – and it’s not even peak time yet!

We were hoping to have a boat trip into the cave but trips weren’t running today due to the heavy rain earlier in the day.

During my research for this trip I had heard about Cocoa Mountain which was situated at Balnakeil Craft Village near our campsite - their hashtag is #thebesthotchocolate.  Now this is quite a claim and I’m not normally a fan of hot chocolate as it’s never quite as chocolatey as you are hoping – but with claims like these we simply had to try one.  I popped in first to see if Charlie was allowed in with us and luckily he was.  We ordered two hot chocolates with truffle chasers – well they certainly aren’t over hyping and making exaggerated claims as they really were yummy – and are definitely the best we’ve ever tasted.  Mark said it was far nicer than his afternoon chocomilk out of the machine at work 😀


Where's mine?
There was also a cache at the craft village, it was outside one of the units called Plastic@Bay , after finding the cache we popped inside to have a chat with the owner about his recycling project .  He takes plastic waste, mostly from the fishing industry like rope and buoys that he’s found on the beaches of Durness and surrounding areas and recycles/upcycles them into things like soap dishes, clocks and jewellery.

It was then time to check in to our campsite.  We hadn’t pre-booked a pitch as we weren’t sure exactly which day we’d be arriving here and as it happens we were already a day later than first planned.  We chose a pitch overlooking the beach and wow what a view!  This has to be the best view we’ve had from our campervan and we’ve certainly had some nice ones over the last 3 years.

We were pitched next to a couple from the Saxony region in Germany, they were really friendly and we enjoyed chatting to them about their travels in the UK.

Once we were all set up we headed down onto the beach so Charlie could stretch his legs.  He instantly found another dog to play with and ran about like a mad thing for half an hour.

Day 6

Up bright and early as we’re heading to Cape Wrath this morning.  Cape Wrath is the most North Westerly point on the British mainland.  The popular method of visiting Cape Wrath lighthouse is by getting the 10 minute ferry crossing from Keoldale.  Once you reach the other side you then get on a mini bus which takes approximately an hour to travel the 11 miles along a bumpy track which is in actual fact a public road with a number - the U70.
Waiting for the ferry

We arrived at the ferry for 9.05 and had just missed the first crossing so we waited to get on the next one.  The mini bus can only take 16 passengers which is 2 ferry loads of visitors.  If you’re planning a visit, ensure you arrive early and it’s not possible to pre-book due to unpredictable weather conditions.
On the ferry
We were hoping for sunshine but unfortunately the cloud and rain had returned.
We got onto the ferry, this was Charlie’s first time on a boat – he’s been on our kayak but not on a motor boat which appeared to be home-made out of sheets of aluminium chequer plate.

We were soon back on dry land and ushered into a waiting minibus.  Another first for Charlie.  The Minibus was a 16 year old LDV whose life on the bumpy track being exposed to sea air had definitely taken its toll.  The driver was a really nice guy, not Scottish but from Kent and a real character. He was highly amusing and had us all laughing which made the hour long journey go by very quickly.

Once at Cape Wrath lighthouse we went off to explore, we were given 40 minutes before we needed to be back at the minibus.  It was raining quite heavily which added to the bleakness of such a remote place.

 After taking a few photos and finding the answers for the Virtual and Earthcache we went into the café for a brownie that had been recommended by the driver.

We chatted with our new friends from the minibus before it was time to head back.

The hour long trip back went much faster this time and Charlie slept all the way.

Then back on the ferry and back to the van.

Then it was back on the road and on towards Lake Assynt.  The A road – A838 – is basically a single track road with passing places and when driving you have to constantly look ahead to judge when to pull into a passing place or whether to carry on to the next one.

Here are a few pics from the day stopping off at varous places along the route.

Brew with a View

We arrived at our planned stop off and within minutes of parking up a small herd of deer appeared next to the van – this was amazing and such a beautiful sight to witness.  We sat quietly watching them as the sun set.

Day 7

For once we awoke and we didn’t hear the sound of rain.  I took Charlie out for an early morning stroll to a nearby cache.  It was called Craig’s cache and was very sad as it was a memorial cache to a young man who had lost his life in Loch Assynt aged 20 in 2008.

After breakfast and coffee it was time to continue on our journey.

A few pics from our day:

Rhue Lighthouse

Corrieshalloch Gorge

We’ve enjoyed a very leisurely day today stopping off at various places for short walks, dodging the showers.  Then it was onto our overnight spot along with quite a few other campervans.

Day 8

At the beginning of the blog I said that time would tell whether we had made the right decision to go anti-clockwise.  We can honestly say that we are glad we did it this way round, the views just get better and better all the time and the feeling that you're heading to more remote places adds to the excitement of the trip.

Today we are heading towards Applecross and then down the famous Bealach Na Ba road.  Once again, the pictures tell the best story:

Community owned and run petrol station in Applecross
Bealach Na Ba viewpoint

Heading down the Bealach Na Ba Road

Day 9

Really sad that this will be the last day on the NC500.  We allowed ourselves an extra 2 days for flexibility but in the end we only needed one of them, we were incredibly lucky with the weather the rest of the time.  We have thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this trip and would love to come and do the route again, so many things we didn't have time to see.... but for now we'll make the most of the last day.

Well, here we are back in Inverness.  We last stood near this sign on a family holiday back in 2010!

We headed to Inverness Castle, the (un)official end of the NC500.

We hope you've enjoyed reading this blog, if you have any questions about the NC500 then feel free to ask.