As always, we arrived at our destination with no plan, no parkup, not even a decision on whether to go East or West off the ferry.
No matter which way we go we’ll be joining the North Coast 500, a scenic loop around the highlands that attracts thousands of tourists every year, many in campers and RVs. We’re not excited about joining a procession of holiday-makers but it’s inevitable that we’ll run into some crowds.
We chose to get the most touristy thing out of the way first and turned East toward John O’Groats, the northernmost point of mainland Scotland. It’s not really — Dunnet Head claims that distinction — and it’s funny that we traveled south to get there, but it’s a significant Point of Interest on the NC 500 map with the usual souvenir and ice cream emporia separating tourists from their money.
Photo op achieved, we turned against the flow and headed westward. I was monitoring a couple of online sources and found NC 500 tourists spend as few as four days to complete the 516 mile loop, with a week or two the average, and clockwise as the preferred direction. We Escapees have of course chosen the opposite direction.
To our surprise and delight we passed very few vehicles those first couple of days. After months in Shetland and Orkney we were used to empty roads but we welcomed the trees and patches of forest.
For some inexplicable reason Google Maps navigated us off the main road and down a steep and narrow lane to the shore of a loch. I could almost be convinced that Google Maps has learned our preference for end-of-the-road destinations because this is not the first time we’ve been guided off a perfectly good route and down a challenging track, often ending in an unexpected and beautiful place.
Luckily the little lane lead us back up to the main road where we took full advantage of every scenic overlook.
A couple of short drive days brought us to this perfect parkup overlooking the beach at Durness. That night it became one of our favorite parkups ever.
A few weeks earlier we’d had a text from a friend asking if we’d seen the northern lights. Apparently there was strong aurora activity on the nights surrounding my birthday in mid-August and the lights were visible all the way south to England. We had no idea the aurora would be visible here, and I kicked myself for not knowing because we were in Orkney at the time, a place with little light pollution and clear horizons.
Since then I downloaded four apps to monitor the skies and set up alerts on my phone. As darkness fell at Durness my phone pinged and I set about searching online for tips on how to photograph the northern lights. While Jack slept I positioned our camera outside the van and attached my phone to the driver’s side window, both set for timelapse according to the online suggestions. It was freezing and I sat inside in my puffy jacket watching the sky. Ping, ping, ping!
And there it was, the Aurora Borealis, a lifelong bucket list item. We were far south, relatively speaking, so the lights only ranged 30-40° above the northern horizon, but the night was clear, there was minimal light pollution and for once Scotland didn’t obscure the sky with clouds.
I woke Jack and he took a quick look, oohed and ahhed for a minute or two then crawled back under the warm duvet. I think his bucket list runs more to the F1 race at Silverstone but I was in heaven.
It took a few tweaks but I got my first Aurora video on the iPhone. I’m hooked!