Some things have to be experienced. The best descriptions, videos, or other forms of depiction can’t really do them justice. The bealach na ba is like that. I apologize in advance that this post will be inadequate to the task of conveying to you what it’s like to ride the ‘road to Applecross’. I’ll try to do my best, and hope you’ll be forgiving readers.
I set off this morning under a mostly leaden sky, with just flakes of blue here and there overhead in Inverness. It felt warmer than I was expecting, although that didn’t last. But although it was cloudy, the forecast indicated there would little if any rain today, and so it seemed like a good time to attack the famed road. (You can see how famous by looking it up on YouTube. There must be hundreds of videos posted of people riding and driving on it. As I’ve mentioned previously, I decided not to GoPro my rides, so… You’re welcome.)
I took a detour down to Dingwall to fill up the Tiger, since I wasn’t positive I’d find another petrol station before I needed it. Anyone who’s ever run out of gas on a motorbike in the middle of nowhere can tell you just how much fun it is. I’ve done it once, and waited well over an hour at the side of a desert road for my friend to return with a jerry can. I have no intention of letting that happen again, especially when, like now, I’m traveling alone.
The detour resulted in a fascinating zig-zag through Highland villages, along narrow roads canopied by tree branches. Eventually the small, all-but-empty country roads led me to a point on the A835 I would likely have reached much earlier had I not diverted. But what would have been the fun in that?
The breeze grew brisker as I headed west, becoming blustery in places, and I pulled over into the a lay by to switch into my warmer gloves and to zip closed the vents on my jacket. The clouds thickened and lowered, and soon there were small drops of mizzling rain on my visor. I could almost hear voices whispering, Go back! It’s too cold, and starting to rain. It will only get worse. Fortunately I know the sound of my own nonsense when I hear it.
Dual track gave way to single track roads for stretches, and it seemed like the traffic engineers had been trying to prepare people for the real challenge ahead. Vehicle traffic had thinned, but there were still more cars and vans than I’d expected, or at least, hoped.
I stopped briefly in Lochcarron to stretch my legs and back (I’m old, and can’t ride for as long at a time as I used to), then hopped back on the Tiger, and soon reached Tornapress, and the real beginning of the ride. If I had needed a sign from the motorcycle gods, I found it. The only thing it lacked was a statement that road was reserved only for two-wheeled vehicles.
I snapped the picture above, and then put my gloves back on and the bike in gear. I didn’t come all this way not to ascend “The Pass of the Cattle”.
To put things in their proper context, Bealach na Ba, according to Wikipedia
is a winding, single track road through the mountains of the Applecross peninsula…. The historic mountain pass was built in 1822 and is engineered similarly to roads through the great mountain passes in the Alps, with very tight hairpin bends that switch back and forth up the hillside and gradients that approach 20%. It boasts the steepest ascent of any road climb in the UK, rising from sea level at Applecross to 626 metres (2,054 ft)….”
Challenge accepted, I said.
And it is a challenge, not primarily because of the road itself, although some of the “hairpin turns” are as tight as U-turns on a side road. The main challenge, as with so much else in life, is other people. More specifically, other people driving anything bigger than a motorbike. For while motor coaches and heavy commercial trucks have the good sense to take the lower road (more on that later), apparently drivers of motorhomes do not. Nor do they understand that motorbikes don’t have a reverse gear, and really can’t move much closer to the edge of the road without beginning a rapid and involuntary, not to mention inelegant, descent. The car drivers are not much better.
It’s not a long drive over the mountain from Tornapress to Applecross, but it is a slow one. Even if you removed the other vehicles – and, oh! how I wished I could! – it is still a very technical road. By the time I reached Applecross, my adrenal glands had been working at maximum effort for more than half an hour. And, as Heraclitus would have wished, the way down was not much different from the way up. It is the kind of road motorcyclists dream about. The kind of road that is a destination in itself.
And that is a good thing, because Applecross would be utterly forgettable if not for the road. Not that the location isn’t beautiful. It is. Just like almost anyplace you can name on the Scottish coast. But it’s the road that makes it worth going to. That’s the only reason why there were so many motorbikes in the parking lot across from the Inn. You can get a beer almost anywhere, after all.
The only other thing that stood out about Applecross was that I saw two stags grazing by the roadside, tame as the ubiquitous sheep. They were still young, their antlers only partly formed, and still covered in fuzz. I’d seen signs warning of them from Strathpeffer to Lochcarron, but only saw sheep. When I saw signs warning of sheep, there were cows (thankfully, not on the road), but now when no signs to warn of any wildlife, here they were.
I had a quick and not particularly satisfying lunch while I waited for my adrenaline levels to subside. I decided there wasn’t a lot of point in going back over the way I’d just come, so I took the longer way round, through Fearnmore, Shieldaig and Torridon. I’m glad I did. That unnamed, unsung, un-YouTubed route may be less challenging than Bealach na Ba, but in some ways it is a far superior ride. So much more scenic, so many fewer cars. At times it hugs the shoreline of the lochs, at times it cuts inland, past old crofts where rams and highland cattle stand by the roadside, or in their fenced-in fields, and slowly chew their grass. This road, too, is single track. This road, too, has twists and curves (though none as tight as the hairpins on The Cattle Pass). Although it’s a longer road, you can make pretty good time on it.
I stopped at a place called Nanny’s Cafe in Shieldaig. They make a mean Americano, pretty good scones, and some ridiculous homemade jam. I didn’t stop again, except to stretch and to take the occasional picture, until I got back to Inverness.
Tomorrow it’s supposed to rain, so I’ve booked a tour of the Glenmorangie distillery. I’ll take the bus there, so I don’t have to worry about the drive back. Then Thursday I’ll be off again, although not so far this time. I’m going to camp out in Elgin for a couple of days, and try to get to a couple more distilleries in Speyside, before heading down to Edinburgh. And then… and then…. But let’s not look too far ahead. Today is in the book. Tomorrow’s chapter – and each chapter of every future tomorrow – will write itself when it’s ready.