Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Top End - Scottish style

Oh, my eyes hurt and I think that my brain is leaking. Sensory overload is just not enough to describe today. There has been so much to take in!!
And I have added a new phrase to the "Oh. Wow." "Oh. My. God!" I wonder at the forces of nature and whatever deity you want to believe in as today we cross the time barrier and that of physical sciences!

As we leave Doug and Angela at Ardsaile B&B they were full of great tips on what to see as we drove to the most northwesterly points and then across the north to the most northeasterly point. They were so friendly and genuinely put a lot into their B&B - it would have been nice to have spent a little more time with them. While there we also met Claire and Nicky - two wee lasses from Perth who, able to get the weekend off at the same time from their jobs in the medical industry, were off indulging their other passion - photography. They were also able to put us on to a mechanic in Perth so we can have the car serviced.

And so we set off further north. Closest to Lochinver was Clachtoll Beach that is a famous beach here in Scotland. Angela tells us that in the summer it is like the Riveria, crowded with campers and local holiday makers all enjoying the summer and beach. I am telling you, standing there in the freezing cold wind that as much as the beach is beautiful and would compete with anything back home, that the water could never get warm enough to entice me in - especially when Angela tells us that 25 degrees is a hot summer day here! The water off the Irish Sea is so cold (as today is the wind)! And then we see, standing sentinel over this beautiful place, a standing stone keeping watch, looking out to sea.

We continue around the coast line and through the Bay of Stoer. Can't get close enough in the car to see the Old Man of Stoer - a rock that is cut of from the cliff much like the twelve apostles are off Victoria - and there is not enough time with such a long drive ahead of us, to walk out - pity, it is supposed to be stunning. Now, life here works to a totally different drum and local time is known as cow time, beating along quite slowly thank you - in fact as slowly as it takes a herd of cattle to be moved uphill from one paddock to the next. And ne'er they be hurried! We are closest to a passing place and so just pull over and turn off the engine while the traffic behind the farmer and his cattle just crawl on!
The lighthouse at Stoer sits guarding the ships from the wilds of the Scottish Coast and justly so. The cliffs are one thing, but the there are rock platforms and outcrops as well as numerous small islands just off the coast in this area. Coupled with the rough seas and treacherous currents that are clearly visible from the land, it must be a hazardous thing to sail a boat in these waters. And the tide up this far north is huge - at least 8 metres! We did not see the tide turn so can only marvel at how quickly it must rise and fall. One of the funniest sights today was Michael struggling in the 30+ knot winds to keep a hold on his jacket while he put it on - I was laughing so hard I forgot to get a photo!

All around the coastal cliffs there are walking trails and here is no different - although there is one memorial - presumably to someone who just continued to walk right off the land! So I guess that explains the food van we see set up in a carpark with nothing else to be seen for god knows how many miles! She will either do a roaring trade, or nothing at all . . .

As the road turns to the east slightly we come to Drumbeg and around Eddrachillis Bay to Kylesku with its concrete span bridge that replaced an earlier ferry and then up through the towns on Badcall Bay (interesting name, huh!). The views here over the lochs and the sea just have to be seen to be believed. Then there are the glacial valleys and the amazing fault lines where old rock dating back 3000 million years lies over much newer rock. We never thought that it could be quite so stunning - don't know why, guess that we Aussies (or at least us) don't often visit the far north of Scotland. But as today progresses we will learn that beautiful places, like water, are something that Scotland has in abundance. Despite the remoteness, it is easy to see why people want to live in this area of the world - bit too remote for our liking though!

By the time we get around to Kinlochbervie we were starving and so pulled in to the local Hotel for a bite. Pretty much standard fast food - although without the batter Michael said the local haddock was great. The beefburger was quite forgetable though. One of the North Sea fishing fleets is stationed here and catching primarily haddock and monkfish with mussels grown in long lines in the relative calm of the bay.

By now we thought we had seen it all - and we are still to get to the Cape Wrath area at the tip of western Scotland. We cross more high alpine like country with so many lochs that there is no way you could keep count of them all. The water is so blue and deep that I have an itch to drink some - trouble is that they are ALL surrounded by bog and peat and to try to get to them would be to invite smelly bog mud half way to your knees! And then there are the wide open plains - see if you can see the house in this photo to get some idea of just how vast the area is. But the most stunning was yet to come. Angela and Doug had told us about Smoo Cave that is just east of Balnakeil. And no doubt, the photos of the day come definitely from this seaside cave right on the exposed north coast of Scotland.

By this time, we are still less than half way across our trip across the Top End! So you can see why I am feeling somewhat shell-shocked at all we are trying to take in. In hindsight, we should have taken the chance and not booked ahead so that we could have just stopped when it all got too much, but what with being Easter, we thought we were doing the right thing!

The rest of the trip through the Highland as this area is known brings more of the same. We travel 85 miles through the sameness (very hard to take - not!) never travelling at more than 40 miles per hour and often times down to 25 mph or so. The road (the ONLY road and an A road at that) is just wide enough for one car.
Passing places are sometimes hard to find, slopes were as much as 25% up and down the cliffs and in many places there were no safety barriers and drops on either side!! We passed crazy Englishmen biking up and down these roads - at least they spoke English with an english accent and we have the knowledge of at least one other crazy Englishman now cycling the mountainous parts of New Zealand to compare them to - hey, John! And as the going was very slow for them, the conversation went something like:
"Gee that is doing it the hard way!" (us)
pant pant, puff puff "Yep" (them)!
The other thng that has us a little bemused is the places that you find phone boxes. Here we find all the services in one place, phone, mail and rubbish! Literally in the middle of nowhere!

We then near a site that has a huge white dome and pull up near it to discover that it was nothing less than the Nuclear Decontamination Site at Dounreay. Fancy, on the edge of the most pristine coastal area, on the brink of some of the cleanest oceanic waters in the world, in a spot where there is no pollution to speak of, you can find this! Talk about the folly and the arrogance of man! No photo - it is a military site and we do not feel the need to be hauled off to any prison - British or otherwise.

This brings us to Dunnet Head near the eastern edge of and the most northern place on mainland Scotland (and the UK) and yet another lighthouse. This lighthouse also has a huge foghorn attached and I make the comment that they need it because they sadly don't have a Maria! Well, at least I can laugh at myself!

The afternoon is late now and so the light changes for photos - all good though. I love the way that the light sets in the late afternoon. Mind you, the photo here was taken well after 5 pm!
En-route to the final stop for the day at John O'Groats we pass the ruinous Castle of Mey that looks so enticing in this light. John O'Groats is the most north-easterly point and one that is well known by all. Obviously a lot of tourists find it appealing - personally, I find it all a little too touristy - but that might just be today rubbing off on me. So, the top end done, we now hightail it the last 17 miles into Wick.

We are the only ones booked in to the Breadalbane Hotel and they are not doing dinner so we head into town and find the surprisingly busy Bord de L'Eau Restaurant where they allocate us the last table. It seems that this is a popular choice with the locals and we are soon to discover why - the food was fabulous.
Smoked duck breast served on a bed of mixed leaf salad with a light roquefort dressing (Michael)
Tiger Prawns pan fried in lemon and garlic butter (Maria)
Fillet Mignon of Lamb served with a Rosemary and Honey Jus (Michael)
Sea Bass grilled with Lemon and Dill Sauce (Maria)
both were served with fresh garden vegetables, chips and scalloped potatoes
Iced Nougat Parfait and mixed fruit served witha red fruit coulis (Michael)
Crepes flambees au Grand Marnier (Maria)
Espresso coffees.

Dinner over, we return to the quiet of Breadalbane Street and the hotel with the noisiest toilet in Scotland! Some pumping sort of affair that could no doubt suck yer innards out! I am exhausted tonight and I think I can only partly attribute it to the physical nature of the driving today (all those S-bends and bog-floating roads again). Rather, it is more of an emotional and intellectual tiredness from trying to take everything in, trying to catalogue it in my brain so I don't lose any of the images. Guess I will sleep like a babe tonight!

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